Perogy hotline raises funds for Ukraine, nourishes the soul

A jangly ringtone breaks through the din of conversation in the basement hall. Shirley Kowalchuk, wearing a white apron and a hairnet, leaves her post at the packing table and hustles over to the landline on the opposite wall.

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A jangly ringtone breaks through the din of conversation in the basement hall. Shirley Kowalchuk, wearing a white apron and a hairnet, leaves her post at the packing table and hustles over to the landline on the opposite wall.

“Yes, how many dozen?” she asks, while jotting notes on a piece of scrap paper. A black and white framed photo of Maxim Hermaniuk, the former Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop of Winnipeg, looms over the makeshift call centre.

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The perogy hotline at Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of many Winnipeg institutions that has been satisfying cravings for handmade potato dumplings — the kind baba used to make — for decades. Today, the 104-year-old church founded by Ukrainian immigrants is using its hotline to raise money for refugees of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It’s a small gesture, but, right now, dough-pinching feels better than hand-wringing.

Fundraising through comfort food has always been a core tenet of the club. Parishioners started making and selling perogies to support church programs after moving into the new domed chapel built on the corner of Watt and Munroe in 1954. Elaine Bowman’s parents were founding members.

“It was on a very small scale,” says Bowman, who started volunteering with the hotline as a retiree more than 20 years ago. “They peeled maybe one bag of potatoes… and everything was done by hand.”

These days, the group uses hundreds of pounds of spuds and churns out 600 dozen perogies every week. It takes two days to fill the quota. Wednesdays are for peeling, boiling and mixing the cheddar cheese filling. Thursdays are for making dough, pinching thousands of perogies, or pyrohy, and doling out orders to eager customers.

Bruce Smyth is a longtime customer-turned-volunteer. At 62-years-old he’s one of the youngest in the group and unlike many of his co-workers, he’s neither Ukrainian nor a church member. He does like perogies, though. It became family tradition to pick up an order from Holy Eucharist and scarf down a dozen of the freshly-made, still-warm dumplings in the parking lot.

“I’d share it with my kids, then we’d get home and cook another dozen,” Smyth says. “That was my payday treat.”

Pyrohy (Perogies)

Ingredients for dough

4 cups flour
1/4 cup oil
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp salt

Ingredients for dough

4 cups flour
1/4 cup oil
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp salt

Ingredients for filling
5 lbs potatoes, peeled and boiled
2 cups mild cheddar cheese, grated
3 tbsp instant potato flakes, dry
1 1/2 tbsp margarine
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 1/4 tsp onion salt

Directions

Mix water and oil. Sift flour and salt. Add liquid to flour and mix well. Knead on board until dough is smooth. Cover and let stand 2 hours in a warm place.

Mash boiled potatoes and mix in cheese, potato flakes, margarine, black pepper and onion salt. Roll into balls and set filling aside.

Roll out dough and cut into 2-inch rounds. Fill each round with potato and cheese mixture. Fold into a crescent and pinch edges closed. Cover finished pyrohy to keep dough from drying out.

Fill a large deep pot with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 tbsp salt. Drop about 1 dozen pyrohy into the rapidly boiling water, gently stirring with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. Bring water to a boil again and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Pyrohy will float when cooked.

Remove with a slotted spoon to drain. Cover with butter or margarine to avoid sticking. Serve with onions fried in butter and sour cream.

He’s more than happy to lend a hand in the kitchen — even if it means coming in at 6 a.m. to get started on the dough. It needs time to rise before the cutters, ballers, pinchers and packers arrive. On this particular Thursday, there are 40 or so volunteers on the assembly line, many of whom have been helping out weekly for years. It’s a social affair as much as an act of service.

“This is where everybody gets their news,” says Lillian Deptuch, motioning to a long table of women folding dough circles into identical crescent moons. “The best gossip in the city.”

Like Bowman, Deptuch has been volunteering with the hotline for more than two decades. The pair share the role of kitchen manager: keeping people, ingredients and orders organized. Neither can remember exactly when Holy Eucharist got a phone line for the perogy club, but it certainly helped get the word out.

Lately, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Make that phones, plural — callers who can’t get through the main line have started dialing the church kitchen to place orders.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A table of pinchers steadily fill trays of perogies which will head to the kitchen to get boiled.

“They’re desperate,” Deptuch says with a laugh.

March is always busy, with patrons buying in bulk before the Easter season. It’s also the last chance to buy perogies before the group takes its annual month-long spring break in April. This year’s rush has been bolstered by the fundraising effort for Ukraine.

For the last few weeks, the church has been donating $1 from every dozen perogies sold to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a church-based international humanitarian organization.

“At least we’re doing something,” says Deptuch, whose parents immigrated from Ukraine and farmed in the Selkirk area. It’s been difficult to fathom what’s happening in her family’s homeland. “We won’t be able to say we’re Ukrainians, we won’t have a country to say that’s ours,” she says, emotion cracking through her cheerful disposition.

“It’s very sad,” says Deptuch’s daughter Carlene, who works in the parish office and is helping pack perogies today, 12 to a bag. “(Putin’s) killing innocent children and women, for what?”

Volunteers at Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church have been making cheddar and potato perogies, or pyrohy, for decades. (Photo by Eva Wasney)

Every phone call home is torture for Tetyana Cwyk. The ringing is unbearable until she hears a voice on the other end, allowing the “mountain” of anxiety to lift from her shoulders for a brief moment.

“Every day, every day I call,” says Cwyk, whose two adult children are in Chortkiv, a city in western Ukraine. A phone call with her sister-in-law, who lives near the Russian border, was once interrupted by bombing. “She called, said, ‘Hi’ and boom, nothing. I was very scared.”

Cwyk, a former school principal, moved to Winnipeg 21-years-ago after meeting a man in church, “he was a widow, I was a widow too and he invited me to Canada.”

While it’s been relatively quiet where her children live, the region is on edge. Air raid sirens go off day and night, forcing residents to shelter in basements in case of an attack. Still, her son and daughter have no intention of leaving the country.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Shirley Kowalchuk answers the perogy hotline phone in the church basement.

“They’re optimistic,” Cwyk says. She’s hopeful as well. “I believe in my heart, I feel in my heart that Ukraine (will win).”

Cwyk learned to make perogies from her mother and has been volunteering with the hotline for several years. She wears an apron patterned with traditional Ukrainian embroidery while working away at the pinching station. It’s nice to keep her hands busy and she’s glad to help with the fundraiser.

So far, the group has amassed a few thousand dollars for the cause. Some regulars have been topping up their orders with monetary donations.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tony Schoylas (left) and Les Lalchun make little balls of the filling which will go inside the perogies.

John Ferguson grew up in a house across the street from Holy Eucharist. He remembers when the new church was built and has been buying perogies from the basement operation for most of his life. Since moving out of the neighbourhood, he continues to make the weekly pilgrimage — the fundraiser is an added bonus.

“I get two dozen perogies and the change goes to the Ukraine, hopefully it makes things a little bit better,” Ferguson says. “It’s heartbreaking… I don’t understand, in today’s world, why any of this is happening.”

The perogy hotline at Holy Eucharist is currently on hiatus, with orders resuming April 28. Visit holyeucharist.ca for more information.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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