St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of the tallest structures in Canton, its five golden spires marking its spot near Patterson Park, where, at the end of every summer, the church opens and a block of South Montford Avenue closes to celebrate all things Ukraine.

A stage was erected at the north end of Montford for music and dancing. Anna Barron — her mother was a refugee, her father a prisoner of war during World War II — sang the American and Ukrainian national anthems Saturday to start the two-day 46th annual Ukrainian Festival, a rite of September for the relatively small Ukrainian community in Baltimore.

Vendors in stalls on Montford sold blintzes, jewelry, trinkets, oil paintings, embroidered dresses and blouses, and shots of a honey liqueur called medivka. Cooks served stuffed cabbage, pierogi, potato pancakes, sauerkraut and borscht in the church kitchen, cafeteria style. Guides led tours of the church sanctuary.

If the overtone was quaint and festive, the undertone was grave and serious.

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“When life gives you lemons,” read a T-shirt for sale, “you turn them into Molotov cocktails.”

Thoughts were never far from the war in Ukraine. World wars, revolutions, uprisings, purges and survival are indirectly part of the backstories of many connected to the Ukrainian community of Baltimore.

“We survive by having the power of knowledge,” said George Iwashko, whose parents were born in predominantly Catholic western Ukraine and met at a school dance on the Lower East Side in New York.

He wore the most popular outfit of the day, a military green “Baltimore Ukrainian Festival” T-shirt, an homage to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While his son Lev Iwashko, an attorney, entertained the crowd by dancing, George spent the day happily reciting Ukrainian history, discussing the war, passing out reading lists and talking about the U.S. government’s refugee program for Ukrainians displaced by the war.

George Iwashko inside St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church. (Hugo Kugiya / The Baltimore Banner)

For those wanting a deeper dive, George had reading lists at the ready — he worked decades as a high school counselor in the city school system — part of what he called the “brotherhood of sharing.”

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If heavy reading was not your idea of a fun Saturday, you could purchase a painted egg from Myroslava Semerey. She uses an actual egg, drained of its innards through a small hole, and paints it with a decorative pattern. Semerey, who was born in Lviv in western Ukraine, operates Pizza Harbor in Federal Hill and sells Ukrainian art and collectibles online as Myroslava’s Creations. Her employee Nick — “just Nick,” he said — also grew up in Lviv but visited Baltimore as an exchange student about 10 years ago, met an American girlfriend and found it easier to make a living here.

The sentiment back home for the U.S. is gratitude and impatience. Glad for the military aid but tired of receiving it as a “trickle,” he said.

Next to the musical stage, the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union set up a table and tent, hoping to sign up a new account or loan.

“You don’t have to be Ukrainian to get a mortgage,” incoming CEO Anatoli Murha said.

Many of his employees have relatives in Ukraine, from whom they receive real-time news reports. It’s easy to tell when one of them hasn’t heard from a relative in a while, the look of worry obvious on their faces.

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Their customers regularly send money to relatives and charities in Ukraine and, for them, all wire fees are waived. Murha estimated the credit union has wired about $100 million in aid since the war started.

A few former employees returned to Ukraine, retiring there before the war began. Ann Kerda has heard from some of them.

“They said, ‘We’re happy we’re here,’” Kerda said. “‘Our grandkids are here; our friends are here.’ At least we’re not worried about them.”

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.

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