While the 44-year-old priest protects Ukrainian soldiers from enemy bullets and shrapnel with prayers, 15 foster children pray for him at home, in Transcarpathia.
Ivan Isayevych is a well known person on the front. He is a chaplain, as well a faithful comrade, a volunteer, a psychologist, and also the father of the largest family in Ukraine. The Transcarpathian priest has been at the forefront since the very beginning of the war, has been wounded twice and awarded with medals "For Courage", "Patriot of Ukraine", "Cross Sign" and the Order of the "National Hero of Ukraine".
Last month, Father Ivan after rehabilitation returned home to his large family. But, a week later, he received a letter from the command with a request to come back to the front. And the Greek Catholic priest, without delay, went back to the ATO zone – where he is now needed the most.
– When we were holding Debaltseve, Father Ivan went there to support the morale of the fighters, and spent a few weeks with us in the trenches – a serviceman of the 15th separate battalion Mykola Klishch says. – He is an amazing and I would say an indispensable person. Our guys made for Father Ivan an incense of remnants of a "Grad" shell that did not explode and gladly attended his services. After services, they would talk heart to heart: Father Ivan can find a wise advice for everyone. He not only treated souls of the fighters with word, but in critical situations took over command of military units (I will not tell details so that Father Ivan has no trouble with his church superiors). In addition, he helped us with provision: his friends would bring food and military equipment.
– Father Ivan can easily replace a guard if he sees that a fighter falls down from exhaustion – the Land Forces Staff officer named Oleg adds. – And how he cooks! He is a great psychologist. Many times he would help fighters recover from a shock after heavy fighting! I was wondering: where did he get all those skills? But Father Ivan is very reluctant to talk about himself.
He is indeed very modest. Can you imagine, a man has been on the front for more than a year, risking his life every second, and still does not have the status of combatant. He says that in the current situation, to expect benefits and financial aid from the state is like asking for money from poor parents. On the contrary, one should give everything they have to help the country survive in an unequal struggle. But other fighters and I have undertaken to make him receive the necessary documents. Whether Father Ivan wants it or not, we will help him to obtain a certificate.
– Soldiers ask: "Don’t go! It is quiet when you’re with us. And as soon as you leave, they immediately start shelling" – Father Ivan says. – Although that’s not always true: sometimes we come under fire together. Once, four soldiers and I were riding in my car, talking about God. Suddenly, a shell exploded three meters away from us. The car was riddled with fragments, and we had no scratches.
– You have been serving the second year on the front as a volunteer.
– And I do not want to change anything. Going to the war, I left a will. If my soul goes to heaven, my children will not be left homeless and without a piece of bread. Going to war or helping the soldiers for benefits is like taking priesthood for enrichment. I am glad to see that soldiers change their minds about priests. Once I was approached by the chief of staff: "I used to have a negative opinion about the clergy. I thought they only care about filling their pockets. Chaplain, you made me change my mind."
According to friends, Ivan Isayevych could have become a millionaire – he was a very successful entrepreneur, but he chose a different path. Once, at home, they were talking about how young people were looking for an easy life, no one wanted to be a priest. "Why? I will serve God and help children from disadvantaged families – Ivan responded. – I have enough savings for that." And entered two schools: Mukachevo Theological Seminary and the Philosophy Department of the Ivano-Frankivsk State University. The capable seminarian was sent to study at the Pontifical Institute in Rome. There he spent several years and traveled almost half the world with spiritual missions. Ivan could have made ecclesiastical career, but he returned to Transcarpathia to realize his childhood dream.
– When I was a child, I promised myself that I will be helping children from poor families – Ivan Isayevych says. – In 1996, I organized at my place an informal shelter for children from disadvantaged families. I raised twenty boys. Many of them have started their own families, but I still help them morally and financially. By the way, some of my foster children also became priests and adoptive parents.
In 2004, our family-type orphanage "Zernyatko" was founded. Since I took a vow of celibacy, and by law orphans must have two guardians, nun Josaphat became their adoptive mother. I did not expect any support from the state: in the village of Korolevo I built for my own money a two-storey house with 16 rooms. And another one next to it – so that orphans have their own housing when they grow up. How can I abandon a child halfway? Recently I bought an apartment for the eldest daughter, a 22-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. If she finds a mate, she will live with her husband, and if not – we are here, we will take care of her.
Now there are 15 children two to fifteen years old in our family-type orphanage. We have a large farm – ten pigs, a cow, 150 chickens, quails, we work in the field and vineyard. We do not force children to work – they want to help. So we make our own food. Two more nuns and my mother lives with us (my father died long ago). So the kids know what a grandmother’s love and care is.
I do not hide from the children that I adopted them and that some of them have parents. If a child wants to see his or her mother, I strongly encourage that desire. Recently the mother of two of our boys got out of prison. I found her: "Children want to meet. I have only one request: do not drink at least for a few days and dress decently." A week later, I brought the boys to her, and they, once saw their mother, rushed to me, "Dad, let’s go home!"
The kids can not yet comprehend the wisdom. which the priest tries to get across to them, and stubbornly call Father Ivan "Dad." Of course, they call sister Josaphat mother. She does not mind, on the contrary, she is glad. My call caught the family swimming in the river. Hearing that we are talking about Father Ivan, the kids quickly jumped out of the water and gathered around the "mother" to take part in the conversation.
– My father is a hero Ukraine – 11-year-old Ivanka proudly said. – He can not stand aside when there is a war in the east. My brothers and sisters and I really love him and pray every day to the Lord to protect our father so that he comes home alive and unharmed.
– I am sure the children’s prayers saved my life twice – Father Ivan says. – The first time I was hit by a sniper bullet, the second time – by a fragment of a shell. And so it is: my children’s prayers protect me and I protect our soldiers with the word of God.
Father Ivan also opened a kindergarten for children from disadvantaged families. 50 children go there, nuns take care of them. Through the efforts of Father Ivan, the kids are well fed, dressed, various holidays and excursions are arranged for them. Father Ivan opened bank accounts for every child under his care. The money from the state for orphans are kept in bank, and when a child starts independent life, they have a decent amount.
– Were children upset when Father Ivan went back to the front last week?
– Of course. They miss him so much! I explained to the boys that he always tries to be where help is needed the most. In 1998, there was a terrible flood in Transcarpathia. So Father Ivan alone would get in an inflatable boat to flooded villages and take people from rooftops. Every time I help Father Ivan to pack up for war (he usually carries many food for soldiers), children get sad. I see how they worry watching the news from the front. They have just found real family and, of course, they are very afraid of losing it.