Chalice of Mercy was founded in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin by Ukrainian-born Valentyna Pavsyukova, along with an American friend, Sharon Sliwka, in 2007.
Valentyna had come to the United States from Zaporozhye, Ukraine in 2002, at the age of 18, after her name was picked in the U.S. Government Green Card Lottery. Her mother had entered her in the lottery the year before without telling her, hoping to provide her daughter with a rare opportunity. Valentyna was initially hosted by a Ukrainian couple in the little town of Medford, Wisconsin. An ocean away from family and friends, with little knowledge of English, she entered a painful period in her young life. This was made even more difficult by the fact that Valentyna had had almost no exposure to religious faith growing up in post-Soviet Ukraine. The one exception was her grandmother, who had taught her the Lord’s Prayer and urged her to pray it especially “when times are difficult.” This simple prayer began to stir in her an awareness of God as a loving Father. The first seeds of hope were planted in her heart.
Two years later, Valentyna found work as a hairdresser in Chippewa Falls. She had now begun to read the Gospels, and they came alive for her. She was also fascinated by the little she encountered of Catholicism, mostly consisting of images – often in old movies – of rosary beads, altars and candles, priests in cassocks, and people kneeling in holy silence. When the opportunity came to accompany a Catholic coworker to Mass, she welcomed it, and at the moment of Consecration she knew with simple certainty that before her on the altar was the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. With the support of a growing circle of Catholic friends, she was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2007.
On fire with her newfound faith, Valentyna wanted to give herself completely to God, but didn’t know how. She thought of joining the Peace Corp and serving the afflicted in Ethiopia. But suddenly it dawned on her that her mission territory was to be her homeland, Ukraine, where the people were hungry and thirsty for faith.
The Mission Takes Shape
As Valentyna deliberated about the precise nature of her mission, she consulted an uncle in Ukraine, telling him she wanted to spread the Word of God. He replied that she should do so with deeds more than with words.
This struck home, and two priorities began to emerge. The mission of Chalice of Mercy would have a medical focus, because so many hospitals and care facilities in Ukraine were run down and antiquated; and it would be dedicated to God the Father.
On a visit to her family in Zaporozhye in 2007, just months after becoming Catholic, Valentyna rejoiced to discover that a Polish priest, Fr. Jan Sobilo, had been assigned to a small parish there, agreeing to leave his homeland to minister to a tiny flock. Even more thrilling was the fact that he had built a church dedicated to God the Merciful Father. As she explained to him what she envisioned for Chalice of Mercy, Fr. Sobilo resonated with it and became a spiritual father to her and to the mission.
Upon returning to the United States, Valentyna worked with a friend from Chippewa Falls, Sharon Sliwka, to formally establish Chalice of Mercy as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. They then contacted the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach of Springfield, Illinois, who recover surplus medical equipment from hospitals and manufacturers and distribute it to developing nations. Partnering with the Sisters, they prepared to ship a 40-foot sea container of medical equipment in the fall of 2009. Valentyna knew how precious this equipment would be to the antiquated healthcare institutions that would receive it. But just as she was adding hospital birthing beds to the shipment, she realized they could be used not only as beds of new life, but also beds of death through abortion, which is rampant in Ukraine.
She understood in that moment that the mission of Chalice of Mercy must be clearly pro-life, promoting human dignity from conception to natural death. And so they included in the shipment hundreds of 12-week fetal models, along with pro-life videos and TV monitors to show the development of life in the womb.
Outreach to Doctors
Beginning in 2009, Chalice of Mercy began organizing pro-life medical conferences in Ukraine. They found key collaborators for this work, including Genya Samborska, president of Ukraine’s largest pro-life organization, “For Human Dignity,” and Thomas McKenna of the U.S., founder of St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, named for the Italian doctor who sacrificed her own life rather than accept medical treatment that would have ended the life of her unborn child. Over the past several years, Chalice of Mercy has organized many such conferences, addressing the sanctity of human life, natural family planning, the beauty of the doctor’s vocation, and related topics at hospitals, medical universities, clinics and churches throughout Ukraine.
Chalice of Mercy has also touched the lives of over 700 physicians, mostly OB/GYN’s, through doctors’ pilgrimages to Medjugorje, the town in Bosnia-Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia) where it is claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary began appearing to a group of six children in June of 1981, calling for conversion, prayer and fasting. A Vatican commission completed a comprehensive study of the visions and events associated with Medjugorje in January of 2014, turning over its findings to Pope Francis, who has not yet made any statements on the matter.
Valentyna was profoundly impacted by a personal pilgrimage to Medjugorje in the spring of 2008 and began taking groups of Ukrainian youth and eventually members of the Ukrainian medical community that Chalice of Mercy was already reaching through NFP seminars and other initiatives. She worked with Genya Samborska to bring forty-seven OB/GYN’s to the first doctors’ pilgrimage. Since then, thanks to a few generous benefactors, there have been more than twenty such pilgrimages.
The weeklong pilgrimages have three main components – prayer, conferences and visits to charitable enterprises in Medjugorje. Most of the doctors who participate are Orthodox by baptism, but non-practicing. Very few are Catholic. In Medjugorje they learn to pray the rosary for the first time and attend outdoor evening programs that include Mass and Eucharistic adoration, surrounded by thousands of devout pilgrims from all over the world. They are not forced to take part, but almost invariably they do, drawn by the joyful invitation of Valentyna and the rest of the pilgrimage team, which includes Genya, a family psychologist, an OB/GYN, one or two priests, and often several sisters.
The conferences address the issues of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research and the challenges facing marriage and the family today. They also introduce the doctors to Natural Family Planning. The doctors are much challenged by the truths they hear, because their training and practice have typically accustomed them to being on the wrong side of the life issues. But as the week unfolds, their faces and eyes reflect the softening of their hearts.
Over the past 50 years, Ukraine has been decimated by rampant abortion, and it is not easy for doctors who have been performing them to stop, because tragically they have come to depend on the income to supplement salaries of less than $150 a month. But the pilgrimages – along with follow-up contact and peer support – help give them the courage to take that step. When they begin to understand that to be a doctor is not just a profession, but a beautiful vocation in which they touch the living bodies of the children of God, they are inspired and gain a totally new perspective on life.
One account of conversion is especially striking. A highly respected doctor who oversees all OB/GYN’s in a large region of Ukraine came on pilgrimage in the spring of 2012. During an animated discussion about abortion, she stood and said she had to share something that had happened to her the day before as the group climbed a rocky hillside to pray the Rosary. “When we started to climb,” she said, beginning to cry, “I could no longer see stones in front of me, because I saw them all turned to bones and skulls – a mountain of bones and skulls. And I could see clearly what I had done. I had destroyed a city with my own hands. Then in my heart I felt that God could forgive me, and that I could change my life.”
Pages could be filled with stories of conversion that are less spectacular but just as deep. Valentyna has often remarked, “I would not need to see another miracle in my life – the miracle of these doctors is enough.”
Mission to Orphans and the Dying
On December 8, 2010, Fr. Jan Sobilo was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop. In regular communication with Valentyna, he drew her attention to two care facilities in his diocese that needed help. One was the Hospice of St. Michael the Archangel in Zaporozhye, which was desperately run down and unsanitary, and the other was the Orphanage of Kalinovka two hours away, which housed 125 youths, many of them bedridden or otherwise disabled, and which badly needed supplies.
Back in Chippewa Falls, Valentyna gave a presentation on Chalice of Mercy and spoke of her desire to help the hospice and orphanage. Msgr. Roger Scheckel, pastor of St. James Church in La Crosse, WI, was in attendance and resolved he wanted to help. A no-nonsense priest with a reputation for getting things done, he quickly thought of 8 parishioners with the handyman skills to tackle the project. They landed in Kiev on June 6, 2011 and made their way by bus to Zaporozhye.
Assisted by a local man, the team dug into the work at the Hospice of St. Michael the Archangel. They built a handicap entrance, refinished peeling plaster walls, replaced barred old windows with new ones allowing ventilation, and gutted bathroom, sanitation and kitchen areas in preparation for new walls, floors and appliances. They also interacted lovingly with the 31 patients at the hospice, whose gratitude shone in their eyes.
The missionary team then visited the orphanage in Kalinovka and its 125 residents. They brought with them 38 cases of diapers purchased by Chalice of Mercy at a cost of over $1000. This meant that the bedridden children would have three diapers each day instead of just one. They also brought new pillowcases and handed out fruit and candy. Most importantly, they spent time with these children who, in the words of the director, “nobody wants anymore.”
Chalice of Mercy continues its mission to the hospice and to this and other orphanages. Another 40-foot sea container of donated supplies was shipped from the U.S. and released by Ukrainian customs on March 5, 2014. It contained much precious cargo: wheelchairs, crutches, cribs, mattresses, diapers, baby bottles and more. These items, so taken for granted in the U.S., would impact deeply the lives of those who received them.
New Project – St. Maria Goretti House
The newest project of Chalice of Mercy is the construction, in a small village just outside the city of Zaporozhye, of St. Maria Goretti House, a home for women facing a challenging pregnancy. Whether they are lonely, homeless, abused, financially deprived or feeling pressure from others to abort, the home will provide them and their babies a safe place to live and grow. Through the loving hearts and hands of mentors, the mothers during their stay will learn about the love that our heavenly Father has for each of them and how they in turn must share that love with their child. They will also learn life skills, including financial management, parenting and daily living. Through a setting of prayer and family-like community living, the mothers will be helped to build a foundation for a dignified life beyond the walls of St. Maria Goretti House, a life that honors God their Merciful Father.
Chalice of Mercy Board of Directors
A mission like Chalice of Mercy requires a dedicated team open to the action of the Holy Spirit and convinced that this is a work of God, not simply a human endeavor. That team is made up of many people, truly, but there are two on the Board of Directors, along with Valentyna Pavsyukova, who must be mentioned.
The first is Deacon Daniel Thelen, who is advancing toward the priesthood for the Diocese of La Crosse and will be ordained, God-willing, in June of 2015. He is studying theology in Rome and living at the North American College. Deacon Daniel’s love for Ukraine began in 2008 when he met Valentyna and learned about the great need for spiritual and physical help in her country. This desire continued to grow over the years and in 2010 he officially joined Chalice of Mercy as its Secretary. During Easter of 2013 he was blessed to visit Ukraine and served during the Easter Liturgies in the Parish of God the Merciful Father. During his stay he was deeply touched by the wonderful kindness and generosity of the Ukrainian people and their great hospitality towards him. He considers it the greatest of honors to be part of this mission.
The other board member is Gretchen Thibault, a wife and mother of nine, four of whom are adopted. Two of those, a boy and a girl, are from Ukraine and have Down syndrome. This experience gave Gretchen a huge heart for Ukraine, and she has a strong desire to witness to the dignity of each and every human life, from the child in the womb to those with disabilities, as well as the sick, the elderly and the dying. Her work with Chalice of Mercy brings together her passion for marriage, family, adoption and orphan advocacy. She loves her Catholic Faith and desires to serve God in whatever way He chooses to use her.