MAGADAN, Russia — Father Michael Shields was sent to the Siberian city of Magadan seven years ago, with a mandate to reevangelize those with Catholic roots. The Brother of the Heart of Jesus priest now administers a parish the size of France, in a diocese larger than the U.S. and Alaska combined. During a recent trip to the United States in search of financial support for his planned Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Father Shields spoke with Register Staff Writer Brian McGuire about the challenges of renewing souls long-lost to communism.
McGuire: How did you start your missionary work in Magadan?
Our mission is 10 years old. We came in right after perestroika. Gorbachev had visited the Pope in 1989 and then Gorbachev opened up Russia in 1990 with the Freedom of Conscience law. We were there in 1990 and we celebrated the first Mass and the parish was registered.
We met in probably eight different places and finally settled in a small, three-room apartment. We didn't know how many Catholics we would find when we started looking.
Magadan is known as a place of gulag [the Soviet Union's concentration camps for political prisoners]. Many of the people came there, the elderly people especially, under persecution, and stayed and had families.
We started looking for the roots of Catholicism, and as that happened, people started coming to the church.
Did people start coming through word of mouth?
A lot of young people started coming. We see young people bringing their families and so now even in the last three years we have had full families.
Husband, wife and children enter the Church together, which is very unusual in Russia, to have a family unit. To see a husband with a child at Mass is exceptional.
You have written that Russian men and women lost the sense of what it meant to be a father or a mother under communism.
The system itself separated the family. The child would be taken into a collective and raised basically in institutions while the mother worked and the father worked. It was encouraged for the mother to work. It was encouraged for the children to be raised in children's homes, where they would be indoctrinated. So what you had was not intact family units.
So you're not even dealing with the conditions that would exist in a primitive, non-Christian society where some of the natural institutions like the family would be in place?
Exactly. In primitive society you have some kind of village structure. What I think we are up against — it's not just evangelizing — it's also restructuring the principles of family out of a Christian image because it has been so devastated under the communist system.
I have about 100 members of my parish. Up until three years ago most of them, except for maybe two, were single mothers raising children. Most of the problems with men are alcoholism right now. So you look at this problem of how to evangelize and the question is “How do you start putting the pieces together?”
How are you working to restore the family in Magadan?
My plan, quite frankly, is ministering to the family, helping men to be Christian men and teaching the women to be Christian women. I am also supporting probably the first family missionaries in Russia. They are doing mission work in another parish close to ours.
They have three children, and they are imaging Christian life. What happened is that this young man and this young woman came into the Church about seven years ago and I said,"Your role in Russia is to image Christian families because no one knows what that means.”
And so there in this little apartment we have young men and young women off the street watching this man who doesn't beat his wife, who is not drunk, and who prays and sings and talks about Jesus. They are astounded. They see a man and his wife praying before meals and they say, “What is that?”
Evangelization in Russia as far as I can see has to be done through image because they have had the propaganda. The communists were the best propagandists. So if you come in with just words and not a life to back that up there is not going to be conversion. The Russians are very skeptical of new ideas.
There is a spiritual residue there — the devil had his heyday. This was 70 years of hating God.
There are records of 200,000 Orthodox priests killed. There were 450 Catholic priests in Russia during the regime; half of them received the death sentence. Churches were taken down and made into bars and venereal disease clinics. They did horrible things.
When did you decide you needed to build a new church?
In 1997, I helped to get the relics of St. Theresa of Lisieux brought to Russia. I went around with the icon [containing the relics] and found this [abandoned building] foundation on the edge of town and we prayed and said, “This is it.” Everyone said, “Wait a minute. There is no way you could have this. It's the government's, or somebody else owns it.”
So we researched it and prayed and prayed, and we received this foundation. Then I looked around and said, “Wait a minute, Why did we get this? It seems to be a little outside of town.”
And so I prayed and what the Lord showed me was that just two blocks down the street is the largest gathering in Magadan everyday — a large, five-story, indoor market that's open seven days a week.
And on the land the foundation is on happens to be the best sledding hill in Magadan. One day I was leaving [the site] and as I looked back right by the foundation there must have been 40 or 50 children sledding right near the foundation. I said, “That's it. The hope of Russia is right there.” As I wrote in my Christmas letter, I can evangelize with hot chocolate!