Nick Koeppel moved to Lviv, Ukraine, in July 2021 to take a job teaching English and Theology at Ukrainian Catholic University.
He couldn’t have predicted that he’d find himself in Krakow, Poland, nine months later, living and volunteering with refugees as a war raged to the east.
But that’s where he found the best opportunity to serve. And so, he went.
From St. Louis to Ukraine
Koeppel was born in St. Louis and grew up in Cape Girardeau. He attended Conception Seminary to earn a philosophy degree and discern the priesthood. After discerning out of the seminary, he moved abroad to earn a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies from the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria.
He returned to the Archdiocese of St. Louis to work in youth ministry, first at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville and then St. Alban Roe Parish in Wildwood. Although he was back in the United States, he retained friendships he had formed at the International Theological Institute with students and teachers from Ukraine.
“Some other students told me about a school in Ukraine that needed volunteers to teach English to college students for two weeks, so I decided to volunteer that summer,” Koeppel said.
Koeppel volunteered to teach online summer English sessions at Ukrainian Catholic University for the next two years, keeping in contact with the university and many of his students throughout the school years. When a full-time job opened, Koeppel decided to make the move last summer to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine close to the Polish border.
Because of changing COVID policies and case numbers, the fall 2021 semester was a mix of in-person and online classes, but Koeppel still enjoyed getting to know his students and colleagues outside of class time, eating meals together in the cafeteria and chatting during office hours. The spring 2022 semester met for a few weeks in-person — until it was disrupted by the war.
Refuge in Poland
Koeppel left Ukraine in mid-February when the U.S. State Department advised all American citizens to evacuate. It was hard to leave, Koeppel said, because “we didn’t actually think the war was going to happen.”
The university helped Koeppel find a place to stay in Krakow, with Vincentian sisters who also hosted a few Polish students. Koeppel spent a few weeks in Rome, too, but found himself drawn back to Krakow and the opportunity to serve those in a time of such great need.
“I could have stayed in Rome, but I chose to come back because here I’m able to volunteer with refugees and be more involved than if I would have stayed in Rome or gone back to the United States,” Koeppel said.
Koeppel continues to teach his university classes online from Krakow. Some of his students are spread out — one in Chicago, a few in Germany, a few more abroad with family — but the majority are still in western Ukraine with their families.
“They’re sad and they’re worried, but they’re happy to be with their families,” he said.
Intense fighting seen in other parts of Ukraine has not reached Lviv, but the air-raid sirens are a constant reminder of the ongoing war.
“Sometimes students have been in the bomb shelters all night, and then they come to class the next morning and say, ‘I was in the bomb shelter all night, so that’s why I’m tired,’” Koeppel said. “One time we were having class when the air alarm went off, so we had to stop.”
It can seem daunting to continue teaching while disrupted by war, but Koeppel has learned that continuing on is important to his students, and not just academically.
“I just pray and try to do my best. I feel like what I’m offering is some kind of normalcy for them,” he said. “When we have English class, we’re talking about some other topic besides the war, and I think it’s helpful for them to get their minds off it and have some distraction. We do talk about the war if they want to, but I try not to push it.”
“The other option is to not study and to not have any work and just be constantly worried about the war, watching the news, you know?” Koeppel said.
When he’s not teaching class, Koeppel spends as much time as possible finding ways to volunteer. Floods of women and children fleeing Ukraine have come to Krakow, and aid workers have opened many centers to provide necessities like food, clothing, hygiene items and medicine. Since he doesn’t speak Polish or Ukrainian, Koeppel mainly works behind the scenes, sorting the donations coming in and other manual labor tasks. He also uses monetary donations from his own family and friends back home to shop for the items most in-demand and delivers them where needed.
At home with the Vincentian sisters, Koeppel has the chance to get to know about 30 Ukrainian mothers and children the sisters received into their home when the war began.
“(The sisters are) furnishing rooms for the refugees,” Koeppel said. “They had to buy new cabinets, new blankets, more refrigerators, more washing machines to host more people to live here.”
Every night, they gather together to eat dinner and pray an evening Rosary. The sisters speak mainly Polish, but several of the Ukrainian women speak a little Polish and English in addition to Ukrainian; through a mix of person-to-person translation and Google Translate, everyone is able to communicate and cobble together conversations.
“When we pray the Rosary, we pray the decades in different languages,” Koeppel said. “We pray in English, we pray in Ukrainian, we pray in Polish and Latin. It’s great to see that it’s still the same prayer in all these different languages.”
While Koeppel has been living abroad, he’s always found comfort in the familiar sights of the universal Church at work.
“You see so many similarities,” Koeppel said. “You see priests hearing confessions, ministering to their people. You see faithful Catholics out in the world, praying and just doing good. It’s always an experience of the universal Church.”
It’s impossible to predict when he might be able to return to Lviv, but Koeppel hopes to. He’s just not sure what the city and university he came to love will look like by then.
“Things are probably drastically changed now. It might be a different city,” Koeppel said. “A lot of people have left; a lot of people have moved to Lviv to escape the fighting in the east. It’s probably a different place now.”