2022 Person of the Year: The Rev. Bohdan Hedz

In February of last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, bombing cities and mobilizing towards the capital city of Kyiv, with the end goal of annexing the country.

In the rectory of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead, news of the invasion was deeply personal. The Rev. Bohdan Hedz watched the news and made daily calls to Ukraine — his native country, where many of his friends and family members live.

In many ways, the Rev. Hedz was not surprised by the viciousness of the Russian attack. As he said at a pro-Ukraine rally in Riverhead, “This is what they do. And if they are not stopped, they will keep going. Ukrainian freedom is everyone’s freedom.”

In a matter of days, the Rev. Hedz and the dedicated members of his congregation, as well as Ukrainian-born residents across the region, began to organize. First, a rally was held by the flagpole at Town Hall in Riverhead. Dozens came, many carrying signs denouncing the Russians. The Rev. Hedz spoke to the crowd, encouraging them not to waver in their support for his native land.

But the Rev. Hedz and his congregation went well beyond a single rally. They turned the basement of the church on Pond View Road into a supply hub, where everything from blankets to sleeping bags to medical supplies could be assembled, boxed and transported to Newark International Airport for flights to Poland and Ukraine.

By spring, more than 40 tons — yes, tons — of supplies was shipped to refugee centers in Poland. A visit to the basement one day showed a dozen volunteers boxing supplies; later in the day, another volunteer loaded a truck and drove it to New Jersey. It would be repeated several days later and would continue through the summer and into the fall of 2022.

For his work — and for the work of his congregation and all the volunteers — the Rev. Hedz is the Riverhead News-Review’s Person of the Year.

“I don’t deserve anything,” he said in an interview. “Everyone who helped, they deserve it.”

The Rev. Hedz arrived at the Riverhead church in 2014. Prior to that, he had been in upstate New York. He came to New York from Ukraine in 1998 to enroll as a student at St. Basil, a Ukrainian-Greek-Catholic seminary in Stamford, Conn. Becoming a priest was not something he thought about as a child; later, in high school in Ukraine, he felt a calling — and he followed it.

I have done a lot of soul searching. Where is God in all of this? But God is there — he is in the midst of it.

The Rev. Bohdan Hedz

“It was a kind of voice,” he recalled  one day, sitting behind the desk in his office at the rectory. “I was in church. St. Nicholas, in my city, Mykolaiv. It was Easter Monday. The church was open. I was by myself. I went in, and it happened.”

The message was unmistakable, he remembered. “It was ‘Your place is here,’ ” he said.

St. John the Baptist in Riverhead was his first assignment in a parish in which he was the sole priest. Almost immediately, he discovered something about his new congregation and about Riverhead: “The people are phenomenal here, so welcoming.”

Community members expressed support for Ukraine at a February 2022 rally. (File photo)

The church offers masses in both English and Ukrainian. Over the years, the congregation grew, and it has grown even more since refugees began arriving in the area from Ukraine after the start of war.

“With the new arrivals, we are often packed,” he said. “ But considering why they came — it’s sad.”

Speaking about events in his native Ukraine, the Rev. Hedz said the Russian invasion actually began in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea. He can reach deep into his native country’s history, recalling the man-made famine of 1932-33 imposed by the Soviet Union’s dictator, Josef Stalin.

“Growing up we heard all the horror stories,” he said. “People from western Ukraine tried to bring food to the eastern part of the country and they were shot. History tells us not to be surprised by what the Russians do.”

Speaking of the massive effort in the church basement with a strong group of volunteers to get supplies to Poland and Ukraine, he said, “We stopped counting after we hit the 40-ton mark in the spring. We are now shipping directly to Ukraine.”

When will the relief effort stop at the church?

“We will keep doing it,” he said. “We are in for the long haul. The war will end and there will be rebuilding. Beyond that, all of Russia is accountable for the horror of what has happened.”

He knows newer members of the congregation who came from Ukraine after war started are hurting. Hometowns have been destroyed. Friends have been killed. “It’s tough to say anything to people who have suffered so much,” he said. “I listen. And I preach the Gospel. We are there for them.”

Asked if the war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine — there are reports of widespread rapes, along with destruction of civilian buildings — has eroded his own strong faith, he said, “I have done a lot of soul searching. Where is God in all of this? But God is there — he is in the midst of it. He knows about suffering. He knows what it means to be hated.”

Previous Winners

2021: Anthony Harris
2020: Dr. Lawrence Walser
2019: Det. Brian Simonsen
2018: The Students of Mercy High School
2017: Byron Perez
2016: Tijuana Fulford
2015: Steve Beal, Kevin Burgess, Anthony Chiaramonte and J.R. Renten
2014: The Shoreham-Wading River football team
2013: Michael Hubbard
2012: Denise Lucas
2011: Laurie Nigro, Amy Davidson
2010: Linda Hobson
2009: Chris Kempner
2008: Riverhead Blue Waves
2007: Maureen’s Haven
2006: Sister Margaret Smyth
2005: Alan Shields
2004: Phil Cardinale
2003: Vince Tria
2002: Bryan Tressler
2001: Annie Jackson
2000: Judy Young
1999: Members of the First Congregational Church
1998: Eileen Miller
1997: Vinny Villella
1996: Vic Prusinowski
1995: Pat Stark
1994: Sonny Okula, Jim Kane
1993: Jack Van de Wetering
1992: Bobby Goodale
1991: Joe Janoski
1990: Robert Tooker
1989: Jim & Connie Lull
1988: Jesse Goodale