Pinch Perfect

In Praise of St. Josaphat’s Pyrohy-Makers

It’s 2:30am, and Olena Apostoluk arrives at a modest basement kitchen behind the grand St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Parma, where she’ll spend the next 10 to 12 hours. It’s the busy season, so there is no time to spare, and very little time to rest. She has to make thousands of the church’s famous pyrohy, and the first wave of volunteers is scheduled to begin work in just two hours.

Pyrohy (the Ukrainian variant of pierogi) dumplings remain a staple for many families of Eastern European heritage—for Sunday suppers, First Communion celebrations, weddings, and wakes. About 200-dozen pyrohy will be served at St. Josaphat’s popular Lenten Friday fish frys, which also feature baked cod and salmon, fried shrimp, borscht, and potato pancakes. Their pyrohy also appear, often unattributed, on the menus of local bars and restaurants and at other fish frys around town. While pyrohy popularity is highest during the Lenten season, they also have a place at the table throughout the entire winter holiday season.

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“We peel them, make them, cook them and then we bag them, and I pray I sell them,” Olena muses, as if that were a concern. The truth is, they often sell out. Her advice? Come early. Lines will form out the kitchen doors and down the hallway as early as 6:30am. St. Josaphat’s pyrohy are available for sale on Thursday and Friday mornings.

Pyrohy-making is serious business. It is an important part of the economic and spiritual well-being of the parish, which serves in the neighborhood of 350 families. The volunteers know how much they are needed.

At St. Josaphat’s, pyrohy-making is also an important ministry that relies on the Catholic tradition of service. “We call this the pierogi-built church,” says Father Bohdan Barytsky. “It’s a good source of financial support for us.”

“Without the volunteers, there is no way in the world we could do this,” Olena says. “It’s a year-round fundraiser. Our volunteers do this for their church and their community.”

Many volunteers come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Others live in adjacent communities and attend other churches, but return to the parish of their youth to serve. Father Bohdan often gives some of the older ladies a ride to the church because pyrohy-making is a vital opportunity for many of them to socialize.

A few of the volunteers come with their parents. Most are retired, although some save a few vacation days from work so they can participate. They are husbands and wives, neighbors, and friends. Occasionally, there are younger helpers, too.

Volunteer Joe Kolodka brings his mother, Stephania Terkala, who is 90. “When I retired, I told her I would come and do this with her.” Joe’s father-in-law died here, doing what he loved— making pyrohy.

A Community Effort

When you are making a thousand or more pyrohy each week, a multi-day preparation effort is required.

For now, Olena has enough help, but as times change, so do the practices around tradition and service. “The younger ones who have just retired don’t want to do it. The lifestyle is diff erent now. The same expectations are not there,” longtime volunteer Myroslawa Tesluk says.

Every Tuesday, Olena and her volunteers peel and boil roughly 500 pounds of potatoes that will eventually be made into filling. On Wednesdays, the dough is prepared and fillings are mixed in a large stationary mixer and chilled until the next day. Olena doesn’t use recipes anymore; they are all committed to memory. She has been doing this since 2005, when she took over for her mother-in-law. Many of the volunteers have been working together, side by side, for years.

The regulars arrive between 4:30am and 6:00am on Thursday, which is also the busiest day for volunteers. There is always a warm “dobryj ranok” (good morning) greeting and plenty of coffee, pastries, hard-boiled eggs, cold cuts and, of course, pyrohy. Conversations stream in English and Ukrainian.

It’s a family environment—they look after one another. “When someone does not come in, it’s concerning,” Olena says. “This year has not been kind to me with the pinchers.”

The Tasks at Hand

Pyrohy appear deceptively simple, but in reality, they require great eff ort. Men have their roles and the women have theirs. That’s just the way it is, and it works.

A small group of men stir the 6-gallon pots of boiling pyrohy, their eyeglasses steaming up as they stir 60 at a time to prevent the pyrohy from sticking.

Pete Drozd mans the electric dough sheeter, and cuts perfect dough circles with a roller mold. At another boisterous table, men tell jokes and catch up on the news of the day while preparing the perfectly portioned balls of filling that look a lot like scoops of ice cream.

The pinchers, all women, sit at long connected tables. They range in age from 60 to 94. They wear colorful aprons and a delicate lace covering over their hair.

They pinch hundreds of pyrohy at a sitting, without giving it much thought. Before Christmas and Easter, when their product is at peak demand, they will pinch for hours at a time. It is instinctual, reflexive, even meditative. “We talk and we pinch,” one of the ladies says without looking up. They make perfect half-moons and firmly seal each dumpling with their fingertips. A sloppy pinch means the pyrohy will fall apart when boiled.

Volunteers are always welcome as there’s plenty of work to be done. Olena’s careful about selecting her pinchers, so you may have to prove yourself before pinching.

The pinchers talk about learning this skill from their mothers. Now it’s their turn. Week after week the women unite, resolute in their commitment to help the church. They all know how to make traditional pyrohy from scratch, but it’s time-consuming, messy work that is more enjoyable in the company of friends.

St. Josaphat’s pyrohy are available for purchase on Thursdays and Fridays from 8am—1pm. They sell three varieties: potato cheese (blended with four cheeses), cheese (a sweetened cottage cheese), and sauerkraut. They can be purchased fresh or frozen for $7 a dozen—a fair price for 100% hand-pinched pyrohy. The church is located at 5720 State Road in Parma. Find details at StJosaphatCathedral.com.