Saint Vincent Benedictine Father Benoit Alloggia has been stationed at the international Benedictine university in Rome, Sant’ Anselmo, for the past several years. He recently made a trip to the city of Lviv, in Ukraine, to deliver supplies to a small monastery of Benedictine sisters, which is housing many refugee families. Here is his account, as sent to Saint Vincent Archabbot Martin Bartel, O.S.B.
Tuesday, May 3 to Sunday, May 8, 2022
On Tuesday, May 3rd, from Sant’Anselmo, at 4:00 a.m. with two friends, Alexandre Etaix, student in theology and Antonio Aurelio, Trinitarian priest, we started our journey to the city of Lviv in Ukraine.
We had a minivan loaded with food, medicine, blankets and some monetary donations.
After passing Venice and Trieste, we entered Slovenia in the late morning. There were two truck accidents on the opposite lane; at least ten kilometers of trucks in single file, blocked. After having crossed Slovenia on all its length, we entered Hungary.
We arrived at the edge of the Balaton Lake, the “sea of the Hungarians,” located in the center of the country, at the end of the afternoon, around 5 pm. As the sun started to go down, we waited for the arrival of the ferry to cross the lake. Very beautiful landscape, calm, bright.
After about ten minutes of crossing, we arrived on the peninsula of Thiany. At the top of the hill overlooking the whole lake and offering an amazing view, is the Benedictine monastery of the same name where we spent the night.
Br. Andràs welcomes us. During the meal, we meet the young prior of the community (a dozen brothers, we will see only two) who gives us the contacts with the Hungarian Caritas located at our border crossing.
The next morning, we left at about 7 a.m. During the morning, we cross the rest of Hungary, after some traffic jams on the main bypass of Budapest (always caused by truck accidents). A few kilometers before the border, the highway ends and is reduced to a country road. We refuel in one of the last small towns in Hungary, Vamosatya, before reaching Barabàs, the last village before the border.
We arrive there around noon. Vadasz Balint, an employee of the Hungarian Caritas, is waiting for us. Originally from Budapest, he has been sent here by the Hungarian Caritas since the beginning of the conflict. He is in charge of a Caritas post in this tiny village in the Hungarian countryside with a predominantly gypsy population. The office is small but very busy since the beginning of the war.
Many Ukrainians come from this side of the border to collect food. After having offered us a meal (paid by the Hungarian government, which supports this action of the Caritas since the beginning, as well as by putting the premises of the municipal school at its disposal), a Ukrainian lady helps us to fill in documents of food declarations in view of the border crossing. She herself will cross the border with us (and other colleagues). This convoy of four cars will make the crossing easier for us.
We have chosen this border crossing on purpose because of its small size. And only after two hours of waiting and paperwork, we pass to the other side. The customs officers took a lot of time but did not pose any particular problem.
The thirty kilometers after crossing the border will be the slowest of the trip. It is the end of Ukraine, a poor and remote land, flat and desolate, where the roads are literally broken in winter by the frost and not maintained. We cross a few horse-drawn carts and cross several lost villages while moving at a walking pace.
Then we join a slightly better road which leads us to Mukachevo before finding a national road which, after 200 km, will take us to Lviv, our final destination.
The road is frequented by many vehicles even if, for a week, the difficulties of gasoline supplies are felt in the whole country.
The Russians have bombed many infrastructures in Ukraine, including civilians, and they continue to do so these days. Last night, they sent four or five more missiles on the power plants of Lviv, where we are going. On the road we are taking, only one station out of six or seven is open and the lines of trucks and cars are getting longer and longer waiting to fill up.
We cross the entire Carpathian Mountains, a beautiful mountainous region of winding roads and wooden houses. This whole area we crossed borders with Slovakia and then Poland; the two countries (and thus the European Union) are about 50 km apart, more or less. In the gardens and the fields, the inhabitants improvise plots of land where they plant leeks and potatoes, in anticipation of difficult weather.
At the end of the afternoon, the descent and then the highway of the plain lead us to the suburbs of Lviv. Luckily, the monastery is located south of the city, so we don’t have to cross it.
The monastery was founded a year ago by the monastery of Lublin, the Benedictine congregation of the Annunciation.
It is a female community of four sisters.
With the beginning of the war in February 2022, sixteen sisters of the Benedictine community of the diocese of Zythomir left the western part of the country to take refuge here, including Maria Kukharyk, who was a student at St. Anselm’s until last December. They were not the only ones. Since that time, more than a hundred refugees have been living here permanently, mostly families with young children. More than 600 refugees have passed through the monastery since the beginning of the war.
The atmosphere of the monastery is then to be described. There is laundry drying everywhere. In the cloister children are playing in the cloister courtyard.
The monastery is full of families, men, women and children, including one child of seven whose father is at the moment on the front. A young father, 26 years old, was called up as a soldier at the beginning of the war. His body returned here in Lviv on April 4.
There is an aviation alert—bombing, one at 10 o’clock on the evening of our arrival; the other during the first night, at 2 o’clock in the morning. From here; we do not hear the sirens but the bells of the monastery start to ring for a long time to relay the alert. Towards 2 a.m.: the bells of the monastery announce an air alert on the area.
Around 6:30. we rise. After an interruption the evening before (caused by the too great number of occupants present in the monastery), the water returned this morning. The building as well as the rooms are hardly one year old. Everything works well. But since the arrival of the refugee families, the water consumption of the monastery has increased tenfold, from 70 to 700L of water per month! As a result, there are sometimes cuts in the water supply. The administrations or the private individuals can receive certain assistance from the state in the case of reception of families coming from the east of the country, but it is not the case for the monastery. The water is therefore paid for by the sisters. Their income has not increased tenfold in the meantime.
At 7:30 a.m. we unload the truck with the food we brought. With the help of some fathers of families who have taken refuge here, it went very quickly.
Around 10:00 am: We were about to leave for the city center with Sr. Maria but an air raid, relayed by the bells of the monastery, prevented us. The night before our arrival, the Russian army sent several missiles on the power stations of the city.
We wait in our rooms. They are sober but very comfortable, like the whole building, brand new and very well-designed. The sisters stay at least two per room, leaving the rooms free for families; even though they are cramped, they are happy not to be separated.
We take advantage of the free time to play with the children and with the language barrier we manage to spend some good time with these children, who, unfortunately, have already suffered a lot of trauma because of the horrors of the war.
The next morning, we take the road back by the same way of our arrival, with a stopover at the Benedictine monastery in Budapest for the night.
After more than 1500 miles crossing 4 countries, we return to Rome. Our hearts are full of admiration for the wonderful work that the little sisters do with these women and children who have lost everything.
Thank you so much for your moral, spiritual and financial support that has allowed us to bring some comfort to those who are suffering in these tragic moments of their lives.
God Bless you.
Father Benoit Alloggia O.S.B.