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News   -  13  ( 10.09.2006 )



Damaso Zuazua, ocd - Secretary for the Missions


Introduction in Lithuania


On my way to Byelorussia I flew first to Vilnius, in Lithuania.  Here there used to be a flourishing Carmelite Province (1734-1884), with 11 priories and about one hundred friars. Saint Raphael Kalinowski was born in Vilnius. The present parish of St. Teresa was one of the first in Baroque style in this country. It has been restored recently, with many frescoes, paintings and statues representing the life of St. Teresa. Close to the Church is the old Carmelite Priory (1627-1948), which used to be a college. In 1948 it was shut down by the Communists and the community expelled to Siberia. It has recently been converted into a luxury hotel.


About 100 kms from Vilnius is Kaunas, where there also used to be a Carmelite priory (1708-1845).  Nearby a new convent for our nuns has been built (1994), originating from Great Britain. The construction is original, solid, with a lot of light, surrounded by extensive woodlands.


On the way to the border


In 1796 there was a Russian Carmelite province in these lands; that is when Russia dominated this territory.  Due to the volatile politics of the region and the every changing borders, it was suppressed in 1832. We crossed the border into Byelorussia, located quite close to Vilnius. Straight away it was obvious that we were entering into a communist country, just trying to get through the border took five hours.


The people of this land understand Byelorussian, Polish, Lithuanian.  I was greatly helped by Irina Zhelubowskaja who translated for me. This is white Russia, in contrast to red or black Russia.  There are 10 million inhabitants in a land the size of Great Britain, containing no less than 10,000 lakes. It is surrounded by Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. It became an independent state again in 1991, but is still very much influenced by Russia, with all that was bad in that country, including vigilance over the Church.


The Church


Today the Churches are being restored, having been used as cinemas, museums, factories, commercial centres etc. Polish priests and nuns have been allowed in.  There are 500 priests in all, between Poles and native clergy. After 75 years of communist persecution the Church has been strengthened and the faith of the people has remained remarkably strong. There are two seminaries and several Marian sanctuaries. But the Roman Catholic Church, though growing, is still very much secondary to the Russian Orthodox, which supports the present government.  Bad feelings exist between the two Churches but on an individual level there can be good relationships. I was invited by one orthodox priest to visit his recently restored church, and he  proudly showed me a Carmelite shield that had been uncovered during the restoration work. Indeed, it used to be one of our Churches (1642-1842). 




Even in the >70's, before Aperestroika@, some Polish Carmelites were penetrating into what was then Russia to make contact with the long suffering Catholics.  In 1990 they were officially allowed in, and that same year the former General, Fr. Felipe Sainz de Baranda paid them an official visit.  Today they have one native vocation, Fr. Juryj Nachodka, ten professed, one novice, one postulant and a few candidates. This is still very much missionary territory. Where there are no churches the friars celebrate mass either in someone=s house or outside in an open field.  Crowds of people come to join in the well prepared celebrations. The following are our priories:


1. Gudogaj


It is only 46 kms from Vilnius. The friars came here in 1990 and built next to what had been a former foundation (1763-1832).  It had been a parish and a Marian sanctuary with a well known icon, which managed to survive the 158 year absence of the friars and today is venerated more than ever. The wooden parish church continues to serve this rural centre comprising of 350 souls. On the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel 5,000 people come from all around to venerate the icon.


Gudogaj belongs to the Grodno diocese. When the time comes our house, apart from being a priory and a parish will become a novitiate for Byelorussia.  In 1992 the local bishop signed the contract for the parish and property to be under the Order. The present community of three is kept busy with various kinds of apostolate, including catechesis, meetings, helping out in other nearby churches.


Gudogaj with its famous icon can boast of two historians: Fr. Bronislaw Tarka (Cracow 2003) and Fr. Benignus Wanat (Cracow 2006).  Also present and very helpful to the friars in their apostolate are the sisters of the Carmel of the Infant Jesus, a Polish Congregation.


In the past there was persecution of the Church here in Gudogaj and many people suffered heroically for their faith. They defended their Church, and secretly hid the sacred vessels and the venerated icon so that they would not be stolen; they also maintained the cemetery When there was no priest they crossed the nearby border into Lithuania to receive the sacraments.


2.  Konstantynowa


It is not far from Gudogaj, but belongs to another diocese, that of Minsk-Mohilev.  It is also both a priory and a parish, and like the other place, very rural. The church has been restored with its silver covered icon of the Mother of God of Konstantynowa.  The priory is a recent construction.  During the summer months it is used as a holiday centre for young people. The many woods and lakes are ideal for relaxing.  The highlight of the summer is the feast of the Assumption when the church is decorated with flowers and garlands, and attended by many of the faithful from all around. After the mass there is a huge and splendid procession which can rival similar processions in Spain. It=s as if the years of oppression have left the people with an even deeper faith and a desire to manifest it with fervour and enthusiasm.


Not far away from here is the parish of Zeladz.  A place that is deeply ingrained in our Carmelite history, as, from 1863,  it was one of our priories in the Saint Casimir Province.  The painting of our Lady of Mt. Carmel above the main altar preserves the memory of our former presence. The devotion to Our Lady of the Scapular is still very much alive in spite of many obstacles.


  3. Naracz


This is the central house of the Carmelite Delegation.  It is situated on the banks of the largest lake in Byelorussia.  Our church, which has three naves, was restored recently.  And again here a Marian icon that existed in the old wooden church, now dominates the sanctuary of the new one.  During a mass I was privileged to celebrate two young people delivered an address in Spanish: A...Today, in thanking God, we would like to highlight the importance of the work of our Carmelite fathers in the growth and strengthening of our faith...


I always understood the Slavs to be reserved people.  But here, as in other places, they applauded my words on the faith which unites us all in spite of our different languages and countries.  At the beginning of the Eucharist they offered me flowers and at the end of the celebration I laid them at the base of the venerated icon.


Twenty kilometres away is the Miadziol parish.  In 2003 the government allowed it to be re-opened. It had been one of our priories (1754-1949).  It suffered greatly under the communist regime.  After the friars were expelled the church was converted into a rubbish dump.  One eye witness told me that he had seen more than twenty lorries extract rubbish.   Another told me how, one night, they rescued the crucifix from the church that now stood at the entrance. In the crypt I saw other signs of desecration to another crucifix.  The paintings were secretly removed and taken to Naracz, where the Church has always been open.


The Carmelites were incarcerated.  Three were deported to Siberia, where they remained for ten years. I met Jadwiga Kuckiewic, an 83 year old blind woman, considered a mystic by the people. She spends her days praying for the Pope and for Carmel. As a seventeen year old she delivered meals to the incarcerated Carmelites. When she arrived with the food the guards used to abuse her verbally but nothing prevented her offering this service. Today she is happy that she did it.  When the friars were deported to Siberia, she went by train to visit them, bringing with her food prepared by the family. She has written a record of those days. It would be a pity if it gets lost after her death.  She lives her life offering up her prayers and sufferings for Carmel.  Jadwiga Kuckiewicz is an aggregated member of the Order...and richly deserves to be so.


4. Other visits, other places


I visited the seminary where our students study in a town called Pinsk.  Even here there used to be one of our priories (1734-1832).  The young Carmelites are the only religious allowed to study in this inter-diocesan centre. This is due in great part to one of our friars, Arcadiusz Kulacha, who is the spiritual director. This is where Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek lives, now aged 92, who spent ten years in a Siberian prison camp. He told me to tell our General and the entire Order that the local Church is very pleased with the work of the Carmelites in the parishes and in the great seminary.


The friars would like to make a foundation in Minsk and this may well happen in the coming months.  We had a priory here from 1703 until its suppression in the 19th century. From Minsk I visited Brest where Saint Raphael Kalinowski once worked as an engineer on the railroad (1861-1863). 


I admired and thanked the Carmelites of Byelorussia;


- for their evangelization in rural areas

- for the hope and esteem that they offer the people

- because they have worked to restore all the churches under their care

- because they are striving to preserve our presence in these lands by encouraging   native vocations.


I could add to this list of accomplishments achieved in the last sixteen years.  I was happy to visit many places in the company of the Provincial Delegate Fr. Bernard Radzik.



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