Kazakhstan is a vast country, covering an area of well over 1 million square miles (2.7 million km²), or more than a quarter of the size of the entire United States. Yet it has a population of just 18 million. A former Soviet republic, it has been an independent state since 1991.
The population of the country is 70% Muslim. Around 25% are Christians, most of whom belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Catholics make up only a tiny minority of some 300,000 souls. Most of these are the descendants of former Polish, German, Baltic or Ukrainian people, deported here under Stalin and others.
Ongoing costs of the priestly seminar in Karaganda during the academic year 2017/2018: Acolyte – liturgical ministry during holy mass with celebration of the Eucharist.
Kazakhstan is today an exceptional and happy example of friendly coexistence between the Catholic and Orthodox Christians and there are many positive encounters and joint initiatives between them. So it was that just recently, for the feast of the Orthodox Christmas, which falls on 7 January, Bishop Jose Luis Mumbiela Sierra of the diocese of the Most Holy Trinity in Almaty, who is also chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ conference of Kazakhstan, met together with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Alexander to congratulate him and express his best Christmas wishes on behalf of all the Catholic bishops, priests and faithful in the country. Gifts were exchanged and the two men spoke together about some of the important issues facing both Churches at the present time.
Ongoing costs of the priestly seminar in Karaganda during the academic year 2017/2018: Bible studies in Makindk (Northern Kazakhstan).
The challenges facing Christians today are also keenly felt by the 12 young men currently preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the seminary in Karaganda – the only Catholic seminary in the country. At present there are barely 100 Catholic priests for the entire country, serving in the four dioceses of Kazakhstan. Clearly, far too few in number to serve the widely scattered Catholic population in this vast land.
The seminary has asked our help in providing theological books for the seminary, so that these future priests can enjoy a solid and rounded formation. We have promised 1500 Euros.
As part of its international Easter campaign in support of the work of religious sisters, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has collected testimonies from sisters from different countries. This article is the story of a religious sister from Kazakhstan: Sister Vera Zinkovska, born in Shortandy, Kazakhstan – 43 years of age, Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Vera’s father was a devout Catholic. During Soviet times, he refused to collaborate with the KGB. For this reason, one day he and two other men – a Lutheran and a Baptist – were summoned by the KGB. They were threatened with harm to their children. Soon thereafter, the daughter of the Lutheran was found dead near Moscow, where she was attending university. Something also happened to the child of the other man. Vera’s parents had just had their first child. It was a girl. One of the baby’s legs was broken at hospital. When the child was treated for pneumonia, she was transfused with the wrong type of blood. The little girl died. The parents wanted to have more children and they were blessed with twins: Vera and her brother, who was born 15 minutes after her. The father was afraid to tell the children about God because he feared that they would suffer the same fate as the first child. In spite of this, both children found the faith and both discovered a vocation: Vera became a religious sister and her brother a priest!
Sister Vera Zinkovska, Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She explains, “A priest came to our city for the first time in 1990, after Perestroika. He invited us to Holy Mass and we heard the Polish language and helped him with Russian. We slowly found our way to God. I received Holy Communion for the first time when I was 15 years old. That was 28 years ago at Christmas.”
When religious sisters from the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary first came to Vera’s hometown for a two-week visit, she was impressed, “This was the first time I had met religious sisters and I really liked them. During Soviet times the teachers had told us that the devout were quite dense and uneducated, basically illiterates. They said that people of faith were the absolute worst. But I saw the joy of the sisters. It impressed me that they didn’t dress up and had no husbands and children and, in spite of this, seemed happy and joyful. From a purely human perspective, one would assume that anyone who doesn’t dress up and have a family would be unhappy. That was the moment when I first thought about becoming a religious sister and living as they do.” After Vera finished school, she went to Poland to learn the language and then joined the order.
Sister Wiera Zinkowska doing homework with children.
“I liked that the charisma of the congregation included taking care of poor children. That drew me. And then I knew: if I join this convent, the sisters will come to Kazakhstan to work there. This pleased me and that is exactly what happened. My brother was also very supportive of me. At the time, he was already in Poland at seminary. Our parents were also happy, but our father was at first apprehensive that the KGB would again cause problems. But deep down in their souls our parents were happy. When I suffered a crisis at the beginning and did not know whether I wanted to stay or leave the order, my mother was very supportive of me staying. I am very grateful to my parents and my brother. Friends of mine who were not devout also respected my decision, but could not understand taking such a step. But they also supported me. I can therefore say that nobody was against it.”
Vera’s greatest wish was to work with children. “Before I started going to church and was only 12 years old, I thought that I would not marry, but devote my life to abandoned children. Later, after I had found Jesus and my vocation and was given the opportunity to go to Kapshagay to work with these kinds of children, I discovered what you could almost describe as a ‘calling within a calling’.”
Sister Wiera Zinkowska in church with chlidren.
However, at first it did not seem as though the religious sisters were even going to found a second convent in Kazakhstan or that Vera would even be assigned to the new convent. For a long time it was uncertain whether the convent superiors would agree to establish a second convent. And when it surprisingly did happen, two other sisters were initially chosen to go to Kapshagay. Sister Vera was deeply disappointed, but says, “In spirit I prayed, ‘Lord, what is most important is that the children receive quality care and that sisters are caring for them. I humbly accept that I will not be the one to go there and will not go with them. That is just how it is: other sisters will be the ones to go.’”
However, it just so happened that there were problems with the visa for Kazakhstan and Sister Vera was therefore asked to go to Kapshagay for one month. And then the plans were changed. Ten years have in the meantime gone by. “For me, this was a clear sign that God wants me and that he has accepted my sacrifice. I am happy that I am able to work here with the children.”
ACN has supported the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kapshagay many times in the past with funding for the remodelling, expansion, renovation and furnishing of their house and chapel. The organisation continues to help them arrange for visas and spiritual retreats.