Congregation rallies to clear rubble and save precious artefacts as prayers held outside
Volunteers work to clear rubble from Odesa’s Transfiguration Cathedral on Sunday morning after it was hit by a Russian missile. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.” The priest dabbed tears from his eyes as his sonorous voice emerged from loudspeakers hastily assembled outside his devastated cathedral, the incantation competing with the crash of debris being loaded into trucks and the drilling of repair works on neighbouring buildings.
This was the second time that the vast, sand-yellow Transfiguration Cathedral, which sits in the heart of Odesa’s Unesco-listed historic centre, had been attacked: in the 1930s, it was torn down during Joseph Stalin’s atheism drive. On Sunday morning, the rebuilt version was hit during a Russian airstrike on the city. A missile blew a large hole in the roof, collapsed the altar and left several walls charred by fire.
It was one of several strikes on the southern port city in the early hours. Schools, residential buildings and a revered 19th-century mansion also suffered damage. One person was killed and 14 were hospitalised, the regional governor said.
Russia has been hitting Odesa relentlessly since Moscow last week pulled out of a deal allowing Ukrainian grain to be exported from the city’s Black Sea ports. The Russian defence ministry has also threatened to treat commercial ships attempting to dock in Odesa as military targets in order to ensure that no grain can leave the city.
“Russia’s current strategy is to destroy Odesa. They would never really attack foreign-flagged ships coming to Odesa, so they are attacking Odesa to make it clear that it’s too dangerous here,” said Oleksiy Honcharenko, a Ukrainian MP from the city. He said Ukraine urgently needed more air defence systems.
Even by the standards of Russia’s ruthless war strategy, a missile strike on a historic cathedral – one that was consecrated by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, no less – was a shocking development. The priests at the scene were dumbfounded.
Archbishop Diodor of Yuzhne (in purple) celebrates mass in front of the damaged Transfiguration Cathedral on Sunday. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian
“This is barbarism, it’s terrorism. The people who did this are not people at all,” said Myroslav Vdodovych, the cathedral’s chief priest, as he walked through the ruins in a fluorescent orange helmet, taking calls on his mobile phone and directing emergency workers to spots where there was still rubble to clear.
“I was one of the first people here, because I got notified when the alarm signals went off. It was a direct hit, right in the altar area,” he said.
Trying to find positives amid the ruins, Vdodovych said the cathedral taking the hit had prevented the missile from slamming into neighbouring buildings, which had suffered some damage but saw no casualties. “In this way, we can say the cathedral saved lives.”
A congregation from a neighbouring cathedral had been directed by their priest to forgo mass and come to help with the clearing-up efforts. They were handed hard hats and scurried through the cathedral, emerging into the daylight with chunks of pew, slices of painted angels that had fallen from the ceiling, and twisted remnants of mosaics. One man came rushing out holding missile shards; another had found chunks of silver that had come from an icon frame.
Dust is blown from the gold and jewel-encrusted copy of the Kasperovskaya Mother of God icon. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian
Older women in headscarves combed nearby grass verges and flower beds, fishing out seemingly endless shards of glass. “Everything happens for a reason, but it’s hard to see the reason for this,” said one of them, 72-year-old Olha, who added that she regularly attended services at the cathedral.
The cathedral had been scheduled to host two services and five weddings on Sunday, but instead Vdodovych and Archbishop Diodor of Yuzhe led open-air prayers early in the afternoon.
They prayed alongside an icon that had been rescued from the ruins and carefully cleansed of a thick layer of dust, a gold and jewel-encrusted copy of an icon known as the Kasperovskaya Mother of God, the original of which is held in another Odesa cathedral and is believed to protect the city.
People light candles as mass is celebrated in front of the damaged cathedral. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian
“This icon has always saved Odesa; during the Crimean war, they held a prayer with it during the British bombardment of Odesa and a fog descended on the city, thwarting the attack,” claimed father Maksimilian, another of the priests. “The copy was damaged last night, but it survived by a miracle,” he said.
The Transfiguration Cathedral belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is one of two major branches of Orthodoxy in the country and was until recently associated with Moscow.
The cathedral, rebuilt after Ukraine gained independence, was consecrated in 2010 by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Kirill has offered full-throated support for Putin’s war in Ukraine, blessing troops and stating in one of his sermons that Russian soldiers who die in battle are performing “a sacrifice that cleanses away all of that person’s sins”.
Since then, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has denounced the Russian invasion and declared its independence from Moscow, but it is still seen by many Ukrainians as being riddled with Russian agents. The priests at the scene, however, were unequivocal in their condemnation of Russia.
Myroslav Vdovovych, head priest at the cathedral. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Guardian
“A church that supports a war and killing cannot be a real church. A church can never support war,” said Vdodovych. “If people don’t respect sacred things, they are not people. The things Patriarch Kirill has said are against humanity.”
In Kyiv, Ukraine’s president vowed revenge for the attacks. “There will definitely be a retaliation to Russian terrorists for Odesa. They will feel this retaliation,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter.
Russia’s defence ministry denied that its missile had hit the cathedral, claiming the damage was the result of a Ukrainian air defence missile. Moscow instead claimed it had hit targets in the area where “terrorist attacks” were being prepared. However, Russia has launched a range of hypersonic missiles against Odesa on several nights over the past week, and missiles have hit several residential areas.
The strikes, the worst on Odesa since the start of the war, have caused anguish, sleepless nights and dozens of casualties among residents. There is a sense of amazement that Moscow could launch such ruthless attacks against a storied city that plays a large role in Russian cultural and historical narratives.
Later on Sunday, Odesa’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov – who has long been regarded as pro-Russian, recorded an address to the Russian people.
“If you only knew how much Odesa hates you, not just hates you but despises you,” he said, speaking in Russian, his first language. “You are fighting against little children and Orthodox cathedrals.
“You are creatures without kith or kin, without morals and with no values … You know us Odesans very poorly. You will not break us, you will just make us more angry.”