RAYTOWN, Mo. — Although Christianity can now be freely practiced in Russia, the effects of more than 70 years of communist rule have left a deep wound on the spirituality of Russians.
Forty percent of Russians are baptized, yet less than 1% attend church. Drunkenness is a common problem, as is abortion and the abandonment of children. The average Russian woman has seven to eight abortions in her lifetime.
The problems are significant, and in some places, the Church has limited resources for re-evangelization.
But in the Kansas City, Mo., area a recent development may have far-reaching effects in at least one part of Russia. A new community of sisters has been launched in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, after receiving the approval of Bishop Robert Finn for the canonical status of private association of the faithful. Members of the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, a budding five-member community, may now have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in their Raytown, Mo., convent, publicly wear a habit and use religious names.
The establishment of the community is the latest milestone in the 18-year history of the mission of Most Holy Mother of God Church in Vladivostok, Russia. The Missouri convent’s purpose is to recruit and train sisters for the mission: They have already begun visiting the mission and assisting in its apostolates, and plan one day to permanently establish a convent in Vladivostok itself.
The far-eastern Russia port city of 600,000, 30 miles from China and less than 100 miles from North Korea, is a major shipping and fishing center and is home to a large Russian naval base.
When religion was allowed to flourish again in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Fathers Myron Effing and Daniel Maurer, both Americans, were looking to establish a religious community and learned that there was a need for priests in Vladivostok. They visited the city at the invitation of the diocesan bishop — at that time in Novosibirsk, Siberia, 2,300 miles away — and founded the community of the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord.
They began their ministry at an early 20th-century Polish Gothic church, Most Holy Mother of God, one of the few houses of worship that had not been destroyed (although it had been used for secular purposes for decades).
Christianity came to Russia 1,000 years ago, but penetrated the Russian Far East only 180 years ago, said Father Maurer. However, it was virtually wiped out after three generations of Soviet communist rule. Christians — both Orthodox and Catholic — were persecuted, with an estimated 7,000 Catholics in the region martyred.
Babies in Need of Affection
Fathers Effing and Maurer have not only worked in Vladivostok; they have helped establish 14 parishes throughout the diocese, which is an area larger than the continental United States. Father Effing himself serves as pastor of three parishes which are about a five-hour drive apart.
The 69-year-old priest was born and reared in Evansville, Ind., and ordained in 1972. Coming to Vladivostok in 1992 was difficult, he recalled: “The transportation system was broken down, and the stores were empty. As Americans, we’re used to efficiency.”
Cell phones and stores that were open 24 hours a day were novelties to the Russians, although today the region is becoming more Westernized.
Russian society also suffers from problems that plague both East and West, including a pervasive anti-natalist attitude.
“Russia suffers from a lack of children,” Father Effing observed. “Many elderly must work because they have no children to support them. We’re in an end state for any country that doesn’t have kids. I always tell people, ‘Have kids; they’re your future. The government is bankrupt. It won’t be able to support you.’”
The typical Russian marriage lasts a mere four years, and most children grow up without their biological father in the home. Father Effing continued, “Children are raised by their mothers and grandmothers while the fathers skip out on their responsibilities.”
Fortunately, the local government, although burdened with bureaucracy and with widespread corruption, has a good record in respecting religious freedom. The Vladivostok economy has improved with many new construction projects, although the dearth of young people requires importation of foreign labor.
The mission regularly welcomes small groups of lay people to volunteer at its apostolates, including their orphanage and hospice ministries. Tessa Kocan of Chicago joined a sister and another laywoman volunteer on a three-month visit last year. She visited several orphanages that were housed in run-down buildings with meager supplies. The staff members, though devoted, were few in number and could offer little attention to individual children. All the children craved attention. Much of her time there was spent holding and feeding the babies.
Kocan also visited a hospital, which had similarly appalling conditions, and talked to its patients. Rooms were small and overcrowded, supplies lacking, beds broken and dirty; there were holes in the walls, poor heat and no air conditioning, and patients generally were miserable.
“It’s hard to imagine someone surviving long in that environment,” Kocan recalled.
The Church had donated hot water heaters to many of these facilities; they would otherwise go without hot water. The mission also supports programs to feed the hungry. And, since the Russian people have a traditional fondness for classical music, they offer classical music programs in the church to attract new visitors in hopes that they will consider returning and become regular parishioners.
Charity Overcomes Hatred
To fund the mission and charitable programs, such as homes for the elderly, scouting programs for fatherless boys and Catholic schools, Father Effing established a mission society based in Modesto, Calif. The society raises its funds from parishes who welcome its speakers, “sister parishes” which “adopt” the mission, grants from foundations, and other fundraising activities.
“We were worried about the recession, but we had a good fundraising year in 2009,” reported Vicky Trevillyan, the society’s director. “We raised nearly $1 million.”
It is the society’s hope, she added, that the missions will one day become self-supporting as Christianity spreads and the mindset of the Russian people changes. Charity is alien to the thinking of the last few generations of Russians, Father Effing explained: “The communists taught people to hate. Charity was discouraged. So, the establishment and support of charities remains an open possibility.”
There is also a need for vocations; the Canons currently have two seminarians, with another four expected to begin their formation.
Father Effing concluded, “We’re grateful to all who offer us their prayers and donations, especially from friends in the United States. Without them, we truly could not function.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California. For additional information about the Vladivostok mission, call (209) 408-0728 or visit www.vladmission.org.