General
7/26/2001
Witness of Faith in the Killingfields of Siberia - a Report on the Mission in Magadan
Father Michael Shield is an American priest who has given his live for Russia and the Russian people. He lives in Magadan, Northeastern Siberia, which is the gateway to the Kolyma region, the area that contained the most brutal of all communist labor camps. The Kolyma region is the Ausschwitz of Russia. Here is a report on his mission in the Region.
Overview:

Magadan was founded in 1930's after gold was discovered.
Forced labor sent to work in gold mines 1930's - 1960's.

1988 - Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage,Alaska makes first visit.
Archbishop Hurley celebrates first known public Mass (Christmas 1989).

January 3, 1991 - The Magadan Council of Deputies of the City of Magadan certified the first Catholic Church Community in the Soviet (now Russian) Far East. "By decree of the Executive Committee of the Magadan Council of People's Deputies, January 3, 1991, the religious community of the Catholic christians is granted a certificate of registration as a religious community in Magadan." I. Pavlov, Attache

January 4, 1991 - Archbishop Hurley, then on his fourth visit to Magadan, gathered the twelve people who had petitioned certification. They selected the name, Church of the Nativity of Jesus.
Arcbishop Hurley sent a notice of this action to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, and received the following reply: "The Holy Father, having learned of the formal registration of the Catholic Community of Magadan, graciously imparts his apostolic blessing upon the faithful of Magadan and upon your Excellency as a sign of paternal care." - January 11, 1991 (Archbishop Angelo Sodano,
Pro-Secretariat of State)

June 1991 - Father Austin Mohrbacher of Passaic, New Jersey was assigned as the first pastor of the Church of the Nativity of Jesus.

April 13, 1991 - Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J. was ordained Bishop of Novosibirsk. His territory extends to Magadan on the east coast of Russia.

September 1994 - Father Michael Shields of Anchorage, Alaska was assigned to serve in Magadan.

September 1996 - Fr. David Means of St. Louis, Missouri was assigned to serve in Magadan.

Christmas 1995 - The Catholic Church of the Nativity of Jesus Parish celebrates it's 5th Anniversary.
The Archbishop of Anchorage, Francis T. Hurley, in service to the Russian Bishop of Novosibirsk, oversees and financially supports the Catholic missionary work of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.

Letter:

I serve a Catholic community, many of who have Catholic roots, some who suffered for their faith and for many years waited for a Catholic priest to bring the sacraments. I recently received a list of Catholic priests who died here and are buried in the Kolyma somewhere. They are my brothers I pray with. I feel a special call to pray for the souls who died here in the camps. Many more Orthodox priests and Orthodox faithful who died witness to me of the depth of faith that could not be extinguished during the persecution of the church. This land is holy because of this witness of unknown martyrs who suffered together and died together, both Orthodox and Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.

When I have to go to America, I can’t wait to return home, here! And I pray, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that I will someday be given citizenship in Russia. My heart is already buried in this land, and someday the rest of my body will follow.

So how has the relationship between Russians and Americans changed over these 10 years? Some would say that our relationship has ‘cooled’ or simply we have grown tired of each other. I prefer another analogy given to me when as a young, idealistic seminarian; I served in a Catholic home for handicapped children. Many youth came to offer their services, highly idealistic. The founder of the community described the process of growing into acceptance of the community. The first six months, the volunteer sees everyone as an angel without faults, idealizing everyone. The next six months everyone seems to be devils. The volunteer becomes disillusioned with the faults, failures and broken promises of others. Finally after a year of relating to each other, they simply saw everyone as they are – human beings made up o gifts, talents, failures and faults. And they accepted others, and they learned to accept themselves!

Isn’t that where we are today? The idealism has passed; the disillusionments and disagreements have shown that there are faults held by all. Neither are devils or angels, just human beings. But we share the human condition so beautifully described by St. Paul in Romans 7:15 “ I do not do the good I know”. We know the difference between what we say and what we believe and what we do or don’t do.

Besides it’s refreshing for a Russian to realize not all Americans live like those on Santa Barbara, and for an American that all Russians are not hard-core communists. The myths are revealed and we are free to accept each other as we are.

The Russian heart holds the same basic desire as the American heart – to be loved and accepted and forgiven – which is the essence of the Christian gospel.

I want to stand in critique of my own culture for a moment. And say what Russians shouldn’t be – namely ‘Americanized’. Some of the worst of American culture has come. When Pope john Paul II came to the US, he warned of a culture of death, and called for a culture of life where life in the womb was respected and the handicapped cared for, married life supported, elderly and sick and dying cared for. He denounces much of what is threatening America spiritually today: materialism, consumerism secularism, relativism, and gross individualism.

I can see some of these ideas already taking hold in Russia and it grieves me. In this transition time Russia will have to sort out what will help Russia discover its soul and serve to develop its unique character. What that means, I’m not sure – because for me I admit Russia is still a great mystery, not to be fully understood, but loved.

Let me give you a list that brings joy to my heart in my life here in Magadan Russia. The children- their innocence and beauty, the dedication of teachers and their love for their students, borsch and home-make pelmeni, my dacha, planting potatoes and harvesting them, intelligence and deep questions of the young people, the celebration of birthdays and gift of flowers and chocolates, winters with harsh winds (strange, I know, but I love this weather), the willingness to forgive and the generosity to share hospitality and the love of the beautiful, the way people careful dress before they go out on the street, the music and folk songs, grandmas and planting seeds, the fresh bread that can be bought everyday, brusniki, morse and a wonderful salad known as sardines in a fur coat, fresh salmon, the beauty of the orthodox liturgy, the holy season of the ‘great fast’, strict fasting, feast days of the saints, the choirs of the orthodox liturgy, bells and organs singing God’s praises, the holiness of icons, the golden domed churches, the small chapels where one candle light a candle and quietly pray. I love to see Orthodox priests in their black robes walking the streets, nuns praying in their monasteries and so much more that delights my heart, my spiritual children, their desire to pray and seek God, the hunger for holiness and the humility of the poor, the Russian ability to suffer well and more then most other people, the tropars of the saints, the smell of incense at holy shrines, Sergey Posad and the relics of St. Seraphim Radonishki, the homilies of the holy elder Seraphim Sarovski and his holy spring where I was healed, the tombs of the Holy Fool – St. Catherine of St. Petersburg and of St. John Kronstadt – a holy priest who served the poor, musicians and composers, Rakmananof, Chaikofski, authors and poets, Dostosvski, Turgenev Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Chekov, Lermantov, the philosophy of Vladimir Solovyev, the prayers of the preacher Sulyana Afonski, the beauty and spiritual wisdom of the dobrotolubia and the Jesus Prayer, the many icons of the Bogamater- The Mother of God (my favorite – Our lady of Tender Mercy – the one St. Seraphim loved), the stories of suffering and the contrast of Valam Shalamova and Solzenitsen.

But my father’s heart grieves at the wasted lives, talents and brokenness that comes from the disease of alcoholism, the abandoned children, the young men who sit in jails with little future, the family life shattered by divorce and infidelity, people under paid and over worked, the hunger and the growing poverty and little concern by the growing wealthy. My heart grieves for the children without parents, or with parents who have abandoned them, the elderly, seemingly forgotten or used for the pensions. I see a rise in violence and lowering of moral standards. I see pornography on TV and advertisements for call girls. I have buried many; most from tragic death, many are dying too young. I see fewer births and fewer baby carriages in front of the stores. I wonder where are the Pushkins, Solovyevs and holy Elders in Russia today? I find the young wanting freedom, but not responsibility. But I have found so much here in the suffering and contradictions and struggles of Russian life that I love. I tell people that I came here to save my soul not to save Russia. I would hope for Russia, the same as I hope for myself – a deeper repentance, more faithful turning to God, a greater care for the poor and the needy, a life dedicated toward justice and peace.

I look at my life and realize how short it is and how little time I have to do good. I pray this simple truth would fill the hearts of Russian leaders and a deep renewal of faith and hope will be born here.

I am willing to lay my life down here not because I understand Russia, but because there is a faith and hope deeper then the present trials. This I believe in. May the Lord bless and keep us, shine his face upon us and give us all his peace. In Christ Jesus.

Fr. Michael
Rev. Michael Shields
©