Singing to support the former USSR’s sole Catholic university

The Wilshire Ebell Theatre

Across the massive territory between Warsaw and Tokyo, in all of the former Soviet Union, there is one Catholic university: Ukrainian Catholic University in Lvov, Ukraine.

Ten time zones away from Lvov, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, four Ukrainian choirs will join their voices on Dec. 8 to raise funds for and awareness of this university, which supporters describe as a symbol of faith and freedom in a land where both were long constrained.

“It is a symbol in Ukraine of freedom in education,” says Greg Hallick, the West Coast development manager for the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation. “Those students are the future of a country that is a staunch supporter of America, and that believes in the same things that America believes in.”

The concept for the benefit concert began to grow into reality more than a year ago, recalls Luke Miller, a longtime member of the Los Angeles-based Kobzar Ukrainian National Choir. “It’s a logistical feat to pull something like this together,” says the Orange County resident, who is the choir director at St. John the Baptizer Ukrainian Catholic Church in La Mesa.

Members of Kobzar will be joined in concert by the Yevshan Ukrainian Choral Ensemble of New England and selected members of the Trembita and Koliada Ukrainian Choirs of San Francisco. They will be accompanied by the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s a concert that has never, within the Ukrainian community in America, been attempted before,” says Hallick, speaking of the collaboration of groups from four different cities (Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco). He is anticipating that about 100 voices will come together at the Dec. 8 event.

Called “Christmas Around the World,” the concert will spotlight international Christmas carols and conclude with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” There will be a heavy emphasis on Ukrainian carols, but other traditional carols — familiar to non-Ukrainian ears — will be sung in English. (Even the Ukrainian tunes may not strike non-Ukrainian listeners as unfamiliar; “The Carol of the Bells” is based on a Ukrainian folk chant.)

“We’re wanting to give the people a gift from us — to put Christ back in Christmas,” says Hallick, who has been the choir director at St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles for 40 years.

“We’ve have about 150 people on the stage giving their time, their talent, and their energy, for people that are halfway around the world, going to a school that needs their help.”

For Miller — who grew up speaking Ukrainian and English — Ukrainian music is a powerful aspect of his heritage. He leads a choir rehearsal — the group is a sort of “Kobzar South,” he quips — every Thursday in San Diego, and attends the main Kobzar rehearsal every Monday in Los Angeles. But this Christmas concert is so much more than glorying in the beauty of Ukrainian folk music.

“It serves a higher purpose than doing a concert to serve the ethnic community and cover our costs,” he explains. “There’s much more incentive because this university is very well known within the Ukrainian diaspora and a lot of the church circles.”

Originally founded as a seminary, the institution has evolved into a co-ed liberal arts college that attracts students from all over the world — and from a spectrum of faith traditions, from Catholic to Orthodox to Jewish.

“It continues to be one of the most impressive educational institutions in the lands of the former Soviet Union,” wrote columnist George Weigel in a 2010 issue of First Things. “Its students played a not-insignificant role in the 2005 Orange Revolution that reversed Viktor Yanokovych’s fraudulent victory in Ukraine’s previous presidential election.”

“It stands for freedom of religion and speech in a part of the world that hasn’t been accustomed to that for the whole 20th century,” says Miller simply.

The university does not accept government funding — a stance that, it is hoped, will allow it to continue with its mission despite the ebb and flow of Eastern European politics.

“This institution needs every drop of help that we can give from here in America,” says Hallick. “We’re building a bridge to help the Catholic church and the Catholic faith and a Catholic university.”

“Christmas Around the World” will be presented at 2 p.m. on Dec. 8 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 743 S. Lucerne Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $40-70. Information: (323) 931-1277 or (909) 860-2102.




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