About 15 months ago, tiny Michaela Maria Kholodenko lay swaddled in her mother’s arms before the congregation of Arlington Heights United Methodist Church.
Baby Michaela was Baby Jesus in the church’s annual Christmas Eve pageant. Her mother, Sofya Tsygankova, was Mary. And her big sister, Nika Kholodenko, stood nearby, dressed as an angel.
On Tuesday evening, mourners gathered at the same church to say goodbye to the two girls, the young daughters of pianist Vadym Kholodenko, the 2013 Cliburn piano competition gold medalist.
The girls, 5 and 1, were found dead last week at their home in Benbrook. Authorities believe Tsygankova, 31, killed her daughters and stabbed herself. She faces two capital murder charges and was in the Tarrant County Jail on Tuesday night.
“In times like this, we seek answers for how something so terrible could happen,” the Rev. Mary Spradlin said. “It is profoundly unsatisfying to know there are no clear answers. There are some questions we will never be able to answer.”
The somber congregation sang together the Hymn of Promise and The Gift of Love. Two arrangements of light pink flowers in the shape of crosses stood in front of the sanctuary, and evening light streamed through stained-glass windows.
Near the end of the service, Kholodenko rose to play a stirring piece, the Andante movement from Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 with three string players from the Fort Worth Symphony.
Kholodenko, a native of Ukraine, won the Cliburn gold medal in 2013 when he was 26, and the family moved to the Fort Worth area the next year. His wife also was a professional pianist.
The family became close with many in the Fort Worth community, particularly Imelda Castro and her family, Kholodenko’s host parents when he competed in the Cliburn. Their daughter is a member of Arlington Heights United Methodist, which hosted Tuesday’s service.
Spradlin, the church’s senior pastor, recalled meeting Nika, whom she called “energetic” and “vivacious.”
“Here was a child who could make her home in a strange land. She played and laughed and loved with abandon,” she said. “Nika knew her father and her mother loved her very much.”
Her sister, Michaela, brought great joy to the entire congregation, Spradlin said.
“All babies are special, of course,” she said. “But Michaela was such a delight to so many people.”
Spradlin urged everyone to seek solace in the healing power of God and to remember the love and blessings the girls received.
“Let us not allow their stories to be cast. We will always remember that they died too young and their deaths were terrible,” she said.
“But let us also remember their blessings. Let us keep the memories of these girls alive in our hearts and on our lips.”