Keeping Ukrainian Traditions Alive: Interview with Natalia Honcharenko

December 2, 2020

Natalia Honcharenko is director of Ukrainian History and Education Center (UHEC) and treasurer at the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the United States.

Why did the Ukrainian History and Education Center decide to launch the Nashi Predky/Our Ancestors Family History Group?

In the summer of 2012 my husband Mike Andrec and I attended the Ukrainian festival in Lehighton Pennsylvania. Mike, who is of Lemko ancestry and a UHEC archivist, was immediately attracted to a poster presentation about researching one’s Lemko family tree presented by Mike Buryk. We got to chatting, and ended up inviting him to give a short talk at the UHEC about this research. As the word got out, more and more people voiced their interest in creating a Ukrainian family history group, and we realized that this was a niche that the UHEC could fill. To our knowledge, there were no other genealogy groups or societies in the USA specifically dedicated to Ukrainian genealogy. Mike Buryk, Michelle Tucker Chubenko, Justin Houser, and UHEC archivist Mike Andrec formed the Nashi Predky/Our Ancestors group, which has been providing resources and research materials through its conferences, workshops and talks since 2012.

During the pandemic, the group began hosting a monthly webinar series called Nashi Predky@Home, which features webinars on topics in Ukrainian history and genealogy. In addition, there are “Virtual Office Hours”, where one can get help with historical puzzles or mysterious documents. A few head-scratchers are discussed online by the Nashi Predky team. Presentations included Online Advanced Cyrillic Workshop for Genealogists and Historians and An Introduction to Archives, both presented by Mike Andrec. Mike Buryk presented Ukrainians and their Communities in the United States: 1600 – 2020, which helped attendees gain a basic understanding of the history of Ukraine and the conditions there that sparked emigration to the U.S. as early as the colonial period and into the 19th , 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps appropriate to these COVID-19 times was Mike Andrec’s presentation Disease and Death in 19th Century Galicia, a presentation and paper which came out of his own genealogical research. Justin Houser was incredibly successful in condensing ten centuries of Ukrainian religious history into a riveting presentation entitled The Legacy of the Kyivan Church: An Introduction to Ukrainian Church History and Records. He followed up with Discovering Repressed Relative from Ukrainian Lands where he examined some of the major state sponsored repressions from 1917 to 1953 by the Soviet and Nazi regimes.

All of these talks can be accessed through December 2020 on by registering to view recording.

Which activities for adults and children does the UHEC organize?

The UHEC typically produces in-person workshops and events in folk arts, genealogy, and twice-yearly rotating exhibitions. Spring is typically the busiest period for UHEC programming, and has included pysanka workshops, the Nashi Predky genealogy conference, and an exhibition opening. These and subsequent events were all cancelled this year due to COVID-19. However, the UHEC successfully pivoted to exclusively online programming starting in June with four virtual series highlighting folk art, genealogy, and history.

Folk Arts @ UHEC Virtual Edition is presenting monthly online workshops or presentations about Ukrainian folk arts. The workshops/webinars included traditional bread decorating, Petrykivka painting with master artist Halyna Nazarenko was able to join us directly from Petrykivka, Ukraine, The presented The Pysanka: Not Just a Pretty Egg presented by artist, ethnographer, and Fulbright Scholar Sofika Zielyk. Other talks included  The Art of Ukrainian Embroidery with Olga Kobryn, and a talk about Ukrainian summer kitchens with London based Ukrainian chef and cookbook author Olga Hercules.  Programming for 2021 will include traditional necklace beading, traditional embroidery workshops for beginners, traditional weaving, and Ukrainian costumes and headdresses.

Crafts for Kids with the UHEC Virtual Edition is a monthly Sunday afternoon presentation by the UHEC Education Coordinator or a guest artist. Each month, school aged children participate in creating a traditional craft specifically adapted for their ages and abilities, and learn about Ukrainian history, culture and traditions. Workshops have included tree of life flowers and birds, Petrykivka painting, traditional motanka-doll making, reverse glass painting, and a Holodomor remembrance candle. Future workshops will include traditional headdresses, printmaking, paper crafts, mini-mosaics, tree of life flowers and birds, and traditional clay toys. We will also be introducing Storytime and Crafts @UHEC, where younger children will listen to a traditional story read or told by the instructor, a special guest, or a character from the story. They will also be able to make a small craft project connected to the story.

And finally, Stories from Storage is a series of blog articles and videos appearing on Mondays on and the Center’s YouTube page. Since the UHEC has very limited gallery space to which access has been limited due to the pandemic, this is a way to share the Center’s holdings. Each “story” features an artifact, document, or group of objects from the UHEC’s collections—either from the Patriarch Mstyslav Museum or the Archives—and tells about its significance, importance, and how it adds to our understanding of the many threads of Ukrainian history, culture, and immigration. The first of these was a virtual tour of the current exhibition Visual Music: The Art of Yukhym Mykhailiv. Others have included a virtual revival of the exhibition From Cultural Identity to Statehood: Ukraine 1917-1921, short videos on the “prehistory” of the Ukrainian national anthem, Ukrainian American community theater, the Ukrainian Festivals in Holmdel, NJ, the story behind a 100 year old passport, the 5,000 mile journey of Kira Arkhimovych and her tomatoes, and a conversation with Mike Buryk about a portrait of the Hollywood actress Anna Sten by the Ukrainian American artist Nicholas Bervinchak. To see these and many more stories as they are posted, visit

Two more series will be added in 2021. The first of these will be Culinary Conversations @UHEC. After all, who doesn’t want to talk about Ukrainian food? Since the UHEC has its roots going back to the 1960s when the Museum and Archives were part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, and much of the founding collection was of religious ritual objects, textiles, and art, including icons, Ukrainian Sacred Art@UHEC  will feature programs on church architecture, iconography and mosaics. As a kickoff of the new series, iconographer Michael Kapeluck of Archangel Studios in Carnegie, PA will present The Nativity Icon:  Image of Reality  on December 15, 2020.

Which heirlooms/documents did children in the workshop showcase in recent years?

As part of our outreach to K-12 students and educators, the UHEC Education Outreach has developed several workshops on Ukrainian immigration. Students learn about the different waves of immigration and explore the lives of Ukrainian immigrants to the United States through a make-believe immigrant suitcase and using reproductions of actual items from the UHEC archives.

In past years we have had many children and youth visit UEHC exhibitions. They are all given an age appropriate gallery talk, and there is always an activity sheet for all age groups. For example, for the most recent exhibition Visual Music: The Art of Yukhym Mykhailiv, younger children were given a scavenger hunt activity, where they had to look for specific items in the artworks. For older children, there were discussions of historical context, art interpretation, technique. The exhibition From Social Realism to Church Art: The Work of Ukrainian-Lemko Artist Nicholas Bervinchak explored the lives of Ukrainian American immigrants in the early 20th century, and this made a personal connection for the students who visited, many of whom were themselves immigrants from Ukraine, or were children of recent immigrants. Whenever possible, the education programs include a hands-on workshop. For example, the activities associated with the Bervinchak exhibition had students making their own “etchings” with acrylic paints and plastic plates, while during the exhibition of Petrykivka art, children created their own painting in the Petrykivka style.

The UHEC’s name includes the word Education. We strive to expose learners of all ages to the stories of Ukraine and Ukrainian Americans. No matter the topic or type of exhibition or presentation, the UHEC presents information about Ukrainian history, culture, religion, tradition, immigration and genealogy in an interesting and engaging manner.

How does the Center celebrate/promote Ukrainian Christmas traditions?

Pre-pandemic, the UHEC Christmas activities started off with a visit from St. Nicholas and a workshop. St. Nicholas would inspect the work of the children as they decorated traditional Mykolaychyky  or St. Nicholas cookies, and made traditional Ukrainian ornaments. Although these are children’s workshops, the adults probably have more fun! Participants have made traditional spiders of walnut shells and beads, 3D straw ornaments, paper stars and birds, as well as embroidered and stuffed felted birds. Children learn about St. Nicholas, take a picture with him, and in return for all their good behavior and good school work all year, the children are rewarded with sweets and treats from St. Nicholas. During the pandemic, St. Nicholas’ visit will be virtual on December 20, 2020.

The UHEC holds its annual fundraiser mid December every year. In the past we have invited our members, friends and supporters to trim the UHEC Ukrainian themed Christmas trees and sing Ukrainian Christmas carols. The trees are trimmed with straw and wheat ornaments, miniature icons with miniature rushnyky (ritual cloths), pysanky (decorated eggs). The spider tree is always a favorite, along with its legend about a poor family that had no decorations to decorate the Christmas tree. In the middle of the night on Christmas eve, a spider wove her magical silvery webs from top to bottom to make the tree sparkle in the sunlight on Christmas Day. At this year’s fundraiser on December 26, we will be trimming the UHEC trees virtually along with video greetings from our members and friends, a recounting of the traditions of Sviat Vechir (Holy Supper) on Christmas eve, guest musical performances, and a koliaky (carol) singalong.