I set out on a journey to Russia, the country with the largest
land mass of any in the world. My destination was Eastern
Siberia or Asiatica, and the city of Irkutsk, where there is a
time differential of seven hours, the same as Madrid to New
York. On a map the area I was going to can be seen near the lake
Baikal or the border with Mongolia. Having arrived at
Moscow there were still six hours flying time before I reached
my destination; the same journey takes three days on the Trans
In the heart of Siberia
This is a huge land: 14 million square kilometres, only two
people per sq.km. Its forest extends for more than 5 million
sq., kms., an area the size of India.
The forests of Siberia contain more natural reserves than the
Amazon forests in Brazil. There are 53, 000 rivers.
Petrol was discovered in 1965. Gas is piped from here to Western
Europe. This is where they filmed the award winning classic
Doctor Zivago by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960). Eastern
Siberia is less well known and is where our Carmelites are
Siberia entered into modern history with Ivan the Terrible
(1530-1584), marking the end of the empire of Ghengis Khan.
Its colonization began with the trading of skins and hides.
Military forts grew up later becoming cities; Irkutsk was born
Ivan the Terrible entered into accords with European countries.
Italy and Austria were favoured with trading rights. The
Tzarina, Katerina II gave permission to foreigners to establish
themselves freely throughout all of Russia. They were
permitted a certain independence and
could build churches and parishes, only new monasteries could
not be built.
Christianity in this land owes its origin to the deportation of
German princes in the time of Ivan the Terrible (16th
century) and then later, the immigration of Poles in the 17th
and 18th centuries. Napoleon=s
campaign in Russia, 1812, increased the Catholic faith among the
many soldiers and officers taken prisoner. After the 1930
insurrection in Poland a further wave Catholics poured into
Maxim Gorki described Siberia as a land of hills and ice.
From 1650 onwards it became the place of exile favoured by the
Tzars. Over the years many people sere sent here including
the famous Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevski, Leon Trotsky, Joseph
Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. The repressive confinements
eventually ended at the beginning of the 20th
century. However, Stalin reestablished them later sending
thousands there into exile, where they were forced into labour,
and where many died in concentration camps, or
were locked up in psychiatric
hospitals. These places became known as
It was Alexander Solzhenitsym who revealed this terrible tragedy
to the West. From a population of 30,000 in 1928 it grew to 8
million by 1938. Here they speak of 20 million people
dying in the gulags.
We should not forget the heroic faith and martyrdom of many
Catholics in this place, where the faithful lived constantly
fearing persecution. They tried to suppress the Church.
The people survived by writing prayers by hand, learning hymns
by memory, by their resolve and determination to survive.
The city is known as the Paris of Siberia! It was founded
in 1651. Today the inhabitants number 600,000. It is
the administrative centre of Easter Siberia, and the Episcopal
See for the region, which boasts of being the largest diocese,
geographically, in the world. It is important to remember
that this is Asia. The first parish church dates back to
1884, the Polish chapel is a few years earlier. In 1991,
now a post communist society, a Cathedral was erected.
I admired particularly the railway station. The Trans-Siberian
Express passes through here. The Tzar, Alexander III,
first authorized its construction in 1886. From this point
in Siberia the track splits in two both branches eventually
leading to Peking in China. From Moscow to Vladivostok is
9,946 kms. Thanks to this train Siberia has become that
much more open to the world, encouraging trade and attracting
I also admired the huge Baikal lake,
the size of Belgium, the largest lake in the world. It is
surrounded by undulating mountains which are covered in ice six
months of the year. Usole
This city, on the banks of the river Angara, is 80 kms from
Irkutsk. Its inhabitants number
100,000, whose main source of employment is in the local salt
mines. It is a town without a centre or even a main
street, rather it is made up of
groups of simple and crude soviet style buildings. There
is no infrastructure as one would expect. It is here in this
remotest of towns that Carmel has taken root.
This is not the first foundation. There was a recent short-lived
attempt to make a foundation of our Nuns in Moscow. But
the Orthodox Church objected just as they had done just a few
years previously with a more ambitious plan for the Carmelites
of Lithuania in Nigegorodcki. The local Bishop of Siberia
was helpful in making a foundation in Novosibirks,Western
Siberia, but the very first place where Carmel was planted in
Russia is Taganrog, in the northern Caucasus. Here a
Lithuanian Carmelite, Serafin Goldfeld, made a foundation in
1812. The original Carmelite Church, taken from us in
1923, still stands proud in the centre of the city now converted
into a library. Thanks to the
the more open attitude in Russia, the Polish Carmelites
attempted to take back the Church. After many letters,
including one to the then President, Boris Yeltsin, they were
told that it would be restituted to them, even without having to
pay for it. But it was another story for the local
authorities: they demanded huge sums of money. The case is
still ongoing. Meanwhile the first Polish Carmelite
established himself in the town, in October 1997, later to be
followed by two more. The first Russian Carmelite has
since made profession on June 19, 2005, in Poland.
On the 14th December 1999 the small Carmelite
Community left and moved to Usole in Siberia. Why this
move? The memory or the spiritual
calling of St. Raphael Kalinowski (1835-1907). He
was exiled here from Poland for his part in the insurrection
against the Tzar Nicholas I, in January 1863. In his book,
published by Ryszard Bender, Kalinowski recalled his years in
Irkutsk and in Usole, from 1865-1872.
Today in Usole there are Polish Friars from the Warsaw Province
and Nuns from the Carmel of Kalisz. There are just two
Friars, one 73 the other 34. The former had worked in Poland as
a worker-Priest as well as a missionary in Burundi, Africa. The
latter worked as a missionary in Byelorussia; both had lived
together and moved together from Taganrog. Their=s
is a difficult ministry, and is principally one of witness.
They live in a very small flat over a factory. Nearby they
have built a small chapel, the only place of worship in this
city of 100,000 people. The main crucifix and the painting
of St. Raphael Kalinowski are the work of a prisoner.
There is a sadness about the local
people, no doubt due to decades of life under a oppressive
communist regime. But our Friars there, though admitting they
yet understand the people, love them; this is their pastoral
It is a strange city, without even a Church tower. All
religious buildings and towers had been systematically
destroyed. I saw old photos of communist youth dynamiting
the beautiful Orthodox Church. Today a new one is under
construction. A Polish Congregation of Nuns helps out in
the Parish. There are many social problems for them to
tackle, including problems within families, young children
destroyed by abuse of one kind or another; alcoholism is another
evident problem, not to mention children abandoned in the
street, corruption and the growing number of religious sects. In
spite of all this our two Friars remain optimistic, not least
for the youth who attend their catechism classes, and for the
adults who attend meetings for alcoholics.
A third Carmelite is shortly to join the tiny community:
Fr Stanislaw Praciak, of the Cracow Province. He will be
working on a project to build a shrine dedicated to St. Raphael
Kalinowski. This will take time, a lot of time, not only
because of the long freezing winters, during which it is
impossible to build, but also due to Russia=s
painfully slow and inefficient bureaucracy. But our men are up
to the challenge.
The Carmelite Sisters arrived in 2002. It is the only
monastic house in the region. They are living in temporary
accommodation. There are plans to build a proper convent but
they still lack official
authorization for this, which will take some time. They
have already two Postulants, who have gone to Poland for their
I asked them the following questions:
- What attracted you to Siberia?
was the memory of St. Raphael Kalinowski. We wanted there to be
in Usole a special place of prayer. Everyday we try to
incarnate the ideal of Carmel in this land@.
- Do you see yourselves as missionaries in Usole?
came to Russia many centuries ago. The Orthodox Church
considers the country to be exclusively theirs. But there
is so much to be done to christianize
Russia. We hope that our simple presence will help to
attain this goal@.
- What has been your greatest difficulty so far?
a visa to remain here.
Every year we have to leave the country in order to apply anew,
which they only give for one year. This does not help the
cloister and all the travelling is expensive. Another
difficulty has been the poverty: we gets
lots of hungry, malnourished children calling at our door@.
I was privileged to be able to celebrate the Solemnity of Our
Lady of Mount Carmel in Usole. It was celebrated with our
Sisters in the morning. At the evening Eucharist there
were Priests and Religious, both male and female, from Irkutsk
and other places. In that place and atmosphere I had a
strong sense of community, of that koinonia that the
first Christian community enjoyed. I pray that just as that
community grew and spread throughout so too will ours.
The Usole mission has been blessed from on
high, it is going ahead thanks to the commitment and
sacrifice of the first Carmelites. I finished my visit
with this conviction: the seed of the Carmelite charism planted
in Russia appears to contain a resonance with St. Therese of
the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love@
(Ms B 3v).
Usole, 20th July 2005