Working in Siberia


Mission in Siberia
Tony Branagan C.Ss.R.

    In his address to the Synod on the New Evangelization Bishop Joseph Werth SJ, of the Transfiguration Diocese in Siberia described with a native eye and heart the recent happenings in that part of the world. He said: “Russia is the vastest country of the world. Catholics make up barely one percent of the population. During the twentieth century, this country saw the most horrendous persecution of the faith. The external structure of the Church was completely destroyed. Only the small communities and the individual families managed to maintain the faith. And now we are free!”.

    That freedom came suddenly and I think amazingly without major political disruption for the countries of the former Soviet Union in 1991. My first contact with Russia was in October of 1988. As part of a peace studies course which I was attending at the Irish School of Ecumenics I took an INTOURIST trip to the USSR. It lasted a fortnight – in Moscow, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and in Kiev. My intention was to have some experience of life in the USSR and particularly of the Catholic Church. To be independent of tourist restrictions I learned some Russian with the help of a Linguaphone course. The trip was approved and supported by Fr. Raphael Gallagher, Provincial.

    On arrival at the Cosmos hotel, built for the Olympics in 1980 I phoned the one contact I had in Moscow, Mikhail, and we arranged to meet at the one Catholic church allowed to function in the city of over eight million. At a time when De Gaulle was due to visit Moscow this church was under threat to be closed and De Gaulle said he would refuse to go if that happened and so it was not closed. At six o’clock in the morning – Sunday – as I was leaving to go to the centre of the city with my Mass kit on my shoulder, the receptionist asked where I was going at that hour. I told her I was going to the Catholic church and asked if I would be arrested. She said with a smile that I might be. So anyway I went to the Metro station nearby and to the centre of Moscow. I walked through a dimly lit Red Square. The only other person there as far as I could see was the sentry at Lenin’s mausoleum. A few hundred yards from there I passed the infamous Lubiyanka, where the KGB investigated “political” prisoners and sentenced them to death or to concentration camps, many of those were priests considered “Vatican spies”. A uniformed soldier or policeman directed me to the St. Louis church in a street right behind the Lubiyanka.

    I concelebrated Mass with French priests there with a tour group from France. After Mass I met Mikhail and his wife Antoine and their three children and was invited to go to their home that evening. That Mass was a high point of my pilgrimage and the beginning of my mission to Holy Russia.

    At seven pm Mikhail collected me at the hotel but significantly called by phone for me to go to where his car was parked a few hundred yards from the hotel. Glasnost (opening up) was the Party line but the KGB was still very wary of contact with foreigners! Mikhail brought me to his apartment just off the famous Arabat Street. with its poets, singers, musicians, and other entertainers, book stalls etc. Another visitor was there. He was a young Jew who had converted to the Orthodox Church and was thinking of becoming a priest. He spoke English better that I Russian which helped the communication. We had a pleasant conversation while drinking black tea and eating biscuits, sweets, melancia and melon. The children, fourteen, thirteen and twelve were very respectful of adults but very much at ease. Afterwards Mikhail and the young man left me to a taxi which brought me to the hotel on the far side of the city at the cost of one Irish pound!

    Each day I said Mass in the St. Louis church. The only priest authorized to serve Catholics and only in the church was away in his own country, Lithuania, at the time and he was over eighty. In my “free” time I joined my tour group for scheduled meals, sight seeing and entertainment all of which I very much enjoyed during the whole trip. One evening I said Mass in Mikhail’s home. There were two young men there, Valentine, an architect and, Alexander, an artist/engraver. After Mass we had tea and cakes and then Mikhail left Valentine and myself to the Metro station. As far as I could make out the two young men entered the Jesuit novitiate in England.

    One day I made a pilgrimage to Zagorsk, a famous Orthodox monastery complex. I went there by electric train a two hour journey from Moscow. A young Muscovite facilitated my going and coming by buying my return ticket. Otherwise there might have been complications as foreigners were forbidden to travel unattended outside  the city. On the journey there and back I was among the ordinary “working class” people: doctors, university professors, teachers, carpenters, factory workers and so on. These people were travelling to their country houses or huts with a plot of land where they cultivate their vegetables, fruit and always flowers. They were silent, uncommunicative and even glum sitting on the wooden seats of the train. From Zagorsk station, more primitive than rural stations in the Northeast of Brazil, I walked to the monastery about 2km away. It was a walled in spacious complex with the monks monstery and at least three different and large Onion domed churches. There was also a shop for holy objects. It was very neat and clean and brightly painted white but did not inspire in me any deep feelings of piety. Back at the station crowds were waiting for the train with their bags and baskets of harvested vegetables, fruit and flowers. When the train arrived one babushka (grandmother) was having difficulties getting on and I gallantly helped to lift her bag. That scoutly deed sealed a friendship with herself and her companions till we reached Moscow. The lady I had helped was well educated. She knew a lot of history including a lot about Ireland and was very inquisitive to know about things in Ireland and got the others around us involved in the conversation. It was a great experience. They treated me to presents of apples and cakes and fortunately I was able to share with them some things my sister had put in my bag before I left Ireland. By the time we got to Moscow we were like a basic Christian community! That pilgrimage may well have been the major inspiration of my future mission in Russia.

    On the day before I left Moscow I visited the Irish Embassy and had tea with the Ambassador and his wife, Michael and Monica Whelan. He was very surprised that I was able to move about on my own so freely and at the friendliness and communication of the people with me. Obviously Embassies and Consulates were still closely surveyed by the KGB.

    The following morning our tour group went by plane to Kiev, a very beautiful city on the banks of the Dnieper. In the afternoon I made my way by trolleybus, metro and bus to the only Catholic church which was on the outskirts of the city with only fields beyond. It took me an hour and a half and a lot of questioning to find it. Other catholic churches in Kiev had been taken over long before and were restructured and used as factories, cinemas organ concerts, dance halls and so on. I celebrated Mass with Fr. Johannes, a Latvian, and the only priest authorized to minister to Catholics and only in the church. He told me that the priest ministering there before himself was a Redemptorist who had spent twenty years in a Siberian prison after the war and was now dead.

    Next day I went again to the Catholic church and what was my surprise to meet a Ukrainian Redemptorist, Mikail Kryppa. He came there regularly to hear confessions and help out but in secret. He lived in Lvov in the western Ukraine where there are very many Catholics of the Byzantine Rite. He gave me information about the Redemptorists there. He said there were about fifty Redemptorist in the Ukraine one of whom was a bishop and that they lived in small groups in ordinary houses and held jobs. They ministered secretly just as he was doing when I met him. He said that two of his confreres were in prison for teaching catechism to children and asked me to do something about that when I got back to the West. On Sunday when I arrived during the 9am Mass. The church was full – a few hundred people – and there was Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament with prayers and hymns all the time until the next Mass at 12 o’clock. Fr. Mikhail was hearing confessions and I was also invited to hear confessions until the Mass at which I concelebrated. I was asked to read the Gospel and preach in English. After Mass there was catechism for children. I took a photo of the group with Fr. Johann but Fr. Mikhail stepped aside as he did not want to be photographed. Perestroika (change of policy) had not yet penetrated the Ukraine in relation to Catholics! Afterwards I went with Fr. Mikail to the bus stop as he was returning to Lvov and on the way back to the church visited a cemetery. Practically all the graves had the red star Communist symbol on the headstones. A very few had the Orthodox cross.

    In Leningrad also I located the only Catholic church approved, Our Lady of Lourdes, and the only priest approved, Fr. Joseph, a man of over seventy from Latvia. Fr. Joseph told me that the authorities said that one church was sufficient for the religious needs of the Catholics of Leningrad and the region. A big number of Catholic churches and a Lutheran church had been closed. He said that formerly about 30,000 were registered as Catholics but that now only about 500 came to Mass on Sundays and couples get married in registry offices.

    In all three cities I visited a lot of Orthodox churches. Very few people were present and they were elderly women. That first visit to Russia was an absolutely great experience of the lives of people and places behind the Iron Curtain which inspired a further visit in October 1993, two year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I booked again into an INTOURIST tour from 18 till 25th of September and was granted two week extension to the visa to make my own way around the “vastest country in the world”. The places visited on the tour were Moscow and St. Petersburg after which I went for a few days to Kiev and later over to Siberia to Novosibirsk and on to Prokopyevsk where a Redemptorist confrere from the Ukraine lived and ministered for over fifteen years. Freedom, democracy and the restructuring of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in Russia were in their infancy.

    In Moscow, Bishop Kondruzavich, a Belorussian, was Apostolic Administrator of the European part of Russia. My friend, Mikhail was in charge of Dom Marii (House of Mary) where a Russian version of Caritas helped poor people with meals and clothes and for some a place to stay for some days. That was run with the voluntary help of Orthodox and Catholic Russians and people from other countries. It was there that I first met Bishop Joseph Werth. who was with an architect looking over plans for his Cathedral in Novosibirsk. He was then Apostolic Administrator of the Asian part of Russia extending from the Urals to the Pacific.

    I asked Bishop Werth about Fr. Robert Bradshaw, an Irish priest from Tipperary, who had gone to live and work in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in 1991. He told me that Fr. Bradshaw had died of cancer a few days before and that his body was being flown back to Ireland. While in Krasnoyarsk he had succeeded in getting the use of the Catholic church there for Catholic services. It had been taken over by the authorities long before and used as an organ concert hall. He also set up the Legion of Mary.

    Priests and Sisters who had been living and ministering in secret till 1991 were now in the open all over Russia. Young priests from outside especially Poland had come to serve. Religious orders such as Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Salesians, Claretians, Divine Word, Redemptorists had set up communities all over Russia. Russian Catholics of Polish, German, Baltic etc descent were coming to churches and Catholic centers.

    Bishop Werth invited me to come to live and work in Siberia. I said I was willing but that it depended on Superiors. He said he could write to the General Superior. He did that asking for more Redemptorists to be sent to Prokopyevsk in the State of Kuzbass where there Redemptorists since 1959 . Two years later, in fact, I was appointed to be a member of an international Redemptorist community in Prokopyevsk. We started in 1996, two from the Ukraine of the Eastern Rite, Fr. Yarslav, who came there as a student and was ordained in the seventies, and Fr. Andre, one from Poland, Fr. Darius and myself. There were very many Ukrainian Eastern Rite Catholics in the Region and also very many Russian Catholics of German descent of the Latin Rite. Each Sunday the Eucharist was celebrated in the Eastern Rite and in the Latin Rite and on weekdays only in the Latin Rite. Other communities in the region were also visited regularly.

    At the end of 1996 Fr. Darius and I began to attend the Catholics in and around Kemerovo, the capital of the State. Since then the community in Kemerovo became part of the Polish Province while the one in Prokopyevsk continued under Lvov. Catholics were contacted and visited and now there are fourteen Catholic communities in towns around Kemerovo which are attended regularly. Three churches have been built in three different communities and houses acquired for church activities in other places. Three Sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit, are very much involved in apostolic and social activities in all the communities. In two communities clubs for deprived children function on weekdays; holiday camps for children “holidays with God” are held each Summer; meeting with catechists and liders are held a few times a year; in Kemerovo the AA has the use of a parish hall twice a week and parents of drug addicts once a week.

    In January of 2001 there was a tragic accident. Fr. Darius and our housekeeper, Tatiana, were killed in a car crash. At midday they were on their way to a community when the car skidded into an oncoming bus. They were killed instantly. Darius body was buried in Poland. He was a very active apostle: he built a church along with parishioners in one of the communities; as Director of the youth ministry in the Diocese he arranged diocesan youth meetings and the pilgrimage to the Ukraine for the Pope’s visit there; he was in regular contact with Orthodox priests and Evangelic groups; with Tatiana, who was a member of an evangelic group but preparing to enter the Catholic Church, he regularly visited prison; once he preached a parish retreat in the Ukraine.

    Since the break-up of the Soviet Union the principal effort has been the renewal and development of the Catholic Church in Siberia. Hundreds of Catholic communities and parishes have been revived and churches restored or new churches build. In 2002 four diocese were created in Russia: two in the European part and two in Siberia. Bishop Werth is bishop of the eastern Siberian part. In his statement at the Synod he continued: “We once again have churches, communities and priests… schools, kindergartens, magazines, a radio and television studio”. He could have added there are about 50 priests and 70 sisters ministering in the Diocese; there is a large orphanage run by Sisters and a home for the elderly has just been built.

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