Novosibirsk: “Sister, come back soon.”

Very few have fallen ill, but all who live in the million-strong West Siberian city of Novosibirsk are affected by the lockdown and its economic impact – particularly those, of course, who already were living on the fringes of society prior to the crisis: the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and children from lower-income families. These are the ones on whom the religious sisters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of the Transfiguration at Novosibirsk have now focused most of their attention. They talked with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about the challenges they are facing during these times of the pandemic.

In Russia, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was registered as early as 20 January. This case was followed by just over half a million infected, 7478 deaths and what is assumed to be a much higher number of unknown cases (as at 17 June). In response, a nationwide lockdown was imposed, which is only gradually being eased now. Moscow is at the epicentre of the crisis; however, the virus continues to spread across Siberia, even though to a much lesser extent. In the metropolitan area of Novosibirsk alone, 4604 cases of Coronavirus have been registered, 62 people have died.

Even in times not marked by pandemic, the work of these religious is a Herculean task. Sister Theresa Witschling, a religious of German descent of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, describes it as follows, “Russia – Siberia; the people call this region ‘a house without a roof’. A region that, throughout its history, has accepted countless exiles and people forced to relocate. Many of them died a martyr’s death. They starved to death, died performing forced labour under inhumane conditions, were killed by the cold. The long, cold winters and the short, hot summers make it unmistakeably clear: life here is not easy.”

About one million people with Catholic roots live in the Diocese of the Transfiguration in West Siberia, most of them of Ukrainian, Polish or German descent. The diocese covers an area of 2 million square kilometres. About 40 priests serve in its 70 parishes, covering enormous distances as they go about their ministry. Without the assistance of the religious sisters, it would be impossible to provide pastoral care for the faithful living scattered across the diocese.

For this reason, Sister Theresa and two fellow religious relocated to Siberia in 2015 in spite of the inhospitable conditions. Since then, the Daughters of Charity have operated a state-run and a church-run children’s centre in Slavgorod, a town located southwest of Novosibirsk. “Most of the children here are from lower-income families and have a difficult home life with practically no parental care. No matter whether both parents are out working all day for little pay or one of the parents has found work in another country and is gone for months at a time to secure the family’s livelihood, the children are left to their own devices far too often.” The religious do homework with them, offer a range of cultural projects and make sure that one hundred children have access to a paid school lunch, often the only warm meal the children receive all day. In addition, twice a year – in the summer and in the winter – they invite the children to spend “holidays with God”.

This all changed with the pandemic. “It has made our work here more complicated. Many people have lost their jobs, or at least their wages have been cut. They knock on our door asking for help, if only for a piece of bread for the children.”

The religious have begun sewing masks; as everywhere else in the region, there are not enough face masks available, and they hand them out to those in their care. The religious are particularly beloved among the homeless of the city. “These people all have their painful memories and emotional wounds. They do not come to us solely for material assistance. They are just grateful to receive a little kindness and warmth.” However, this is not the only thing that gives the people comfort and hope. “We thank God that we are able to celebrate the Eucharist every day. We are holding daily worship services in response to the pandemic. At the end of the service, the priest goes out on the street with the monstrance and blesses the parish and city with the divine offerings.”

Religious sisters in Russia at the side of the marginalised during the Coronavirus crisis.
Religious sisters in Russia at the side of the marginalised during the Coronavirus crisis.

Overcoming distance

In Surgut, 1000 kilometres north of Novosibirsk as the crow flies, two Angelic Sisters of Saint Paul from Poland have become veritable angels for the 140 homeless people in a social rehabilitation facility. They organise clothing and food drives in the parish, which have become crucial for survival in these difficult times.

The religious community first came to Surgut in 2011, taking up permanent residence there in 2015 to support the pastoral ministry of the parish of St. Joseph. This is the only place that has a “real” church. Thanks to the initiative and generosity of a number of Catholics, additional chapels have been set up in private homes in Noyabrsk, located 320 kilometres from Surgut, and in Kogalym, located 190 kilometres away. Every two weeks, the religious sisters visit these chapels in the company of a priest – at least in normal times. “It is important to build up personal relationships with the faithful,” Sister Tereza Jakubovska explains. Her dream is to have chapels available in all places where there are Catholics. More crucial than ever, and therefore more sorely missed, is the ability to participate in divine services. Like many other religious communities, the Angelic Sisters in Surgut are broadcasting Holy Mass live every day to offer daily spiritual encouragement. “This ensures that we keep in touch.”

This is also the objective of Sister Aljona Alakschova of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, who, together with a fellow religious, has been serving in the Parish of the Divine Mercy in Ishim for 20 years. “There are few Catholics here and those who are here live scattered across the local villages. When they take the bus to attend Holy Mass on Sundays or feast days, they know that they will have to wait for long periods of time before they can travel back in the late afternoon. We shorten their wait by serving them meals and talking with them. There is no better opportunity to get to know the people in the parish,” Sister Aljona confirms. “Everything has become more difficult since the Coronavirus. Public transportation runs even more seldomly, private shared taxis arrive sporadically and rarely according to schedule. This makes it difficult for us to visit those who are sick and to bring groceries and medicines to elderly people who have no one else.” Divine services now have to be celebrated without the congregation. However, necessity has always been the mother of invention. The religious have now set up a WhatsApp group, which connects parish members and keeps everyone up to date. This service is also used to send out the links to livestream services.

The lockdown presents a challenge to all communities of religious sisters in the diocese. The Sisters of Saint Elizabeth in Novosibirsk miss visiting parish members. “Through our regular visits we became friends. They often said to us as we took our leave, ‘Please don’t leave me, Sister. Please come back!’” This is where the good old telephone comes in, it helps the religious sisters of Saint Elizabeth in Novosibirsk stay in touch with all those who are not yet part of the worldwide network, particularly older people who suffer the most under social distancing.

Like most congregations, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará in Omsk have shifted their pedagogical efforts completely into the virtual realm. They teach catechesis via video conferences, have made short videos together with adolescents to boost morale and have developed lively pedagogical activities for the province of their monastic order that are being used far beyond the borders of Omsk. “We hope that our work inspires adolescents to think about God’s word, even in these times of the Coronavirus. We pray that these, from a human perspective terrible times, will help us and all people to grow in faith, in hope and in love for God and our neighbours,” Mother Maria Glum explains.

Prayer: The most powerful remedy

The Carmelites in Novosibirsk, the only contemplative community in the diocese, are battling this pandemic with the most powerful instrument that we Christians have – prayer. Sisters Teresamaria, Christina and Agnija write, “We pray for the healing of the sick, comfort for those who are suffering, relief for medical workers and for the protection of the most vulnerable groups of people against infection. We also pray for the scientists who are working to develop medicines and a vaccine for the virus and have not forgotten those working in government, who have to solve far-reaching socio-economic problems. In gratitude for the aid that we receive from you, we also include ACN and its benefactors in the prayers we offer up to Our Lord.”

ACN International supports all 68 religious sisters who are serving at 18 locations in the Diocese of the Transformation at Novosibirsk. “It would not merely be a disappointment, but a catastrophe, for the religious sisters” if this aid were discontinued, the local bishop, Msgr. Joseph Werth, confirms. This is even more true in these times of crisis, when collections are no longer being taken in the parishes.

For many decades, ACN has also supported the communities of religious sisters in the other three Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia (Moscow, Irkutsk and Saratov) with educational and subsistence aid as well as funding for building projects, the renovation of housing and for transportation.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.