(To learn more about Kamchatka – National Geographic – August, 2009 Issue page 29-55)
Recognizing that we are to be present to the people, we realized that it was not about us approaching them but waiting for them to have the courage to come to us. We know that making our presence available makes the difference. The reason for this is their past fears; they have learned not to trust people. However, it seemed as though every time we made a visit to the market or waited for the bus, or even went to the Post Office, there was an encounter and someone was free enough to share his or her story. One woman approached us at the bus stop and said she would like to come and pray with us. We gave her our address. One day at the Post Office, a woman asked if we were Catholic. We told her that we were from Poland and America and that we were here in Kamchatka at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church. She was thrilled that we would want to be in Kamchatka. However, there are those who are surprised that we would want to stay in Kamchatka.
During our first visit to the hospital we were given information about Valentina, a 72 year old woman who suffered a stroke four months ago and just left the hospital to return home. We were asked to visit her by the two nurses since they knew of her living situation. Valentina’s husband Vladimir has a drinking problem and they feared she would not get the proper care needed at this time. That is exactly what we found, a poor woman in need. The apartment had not been cleaned and everything was filled with flies and gnats. The smell was awful. Each floor in this building has a common bathroom and sink. A commode was by the side of Valentina’s bed that was filled and looked as though it had not been emptied for days. Her bed linens were so soiled that we had to dispose of them and the mattress. Her husband seems to always be drunk, buried under emptied bottles and cigarettes. It is a very sad situation. Sr. Michaeleen immediately began to wash her and give her a massage. We went to buy clean linens, Fr. Krzysztof went to buy a new mattress. We cleaned her room and the kitchen that was filled with rotten food. The house is filled with flies, gnats, and roaches. We do our best to clean and Most of all care for Valentina. We visit her every second day and do her laundry. This is our mission until the end of our stay here in Petropavlovsk. During this time Father is trying to have Social Services get her back into the hospital and to get the proper help and care for Vladimir. After a few days going to Valentina’s home we were approached by the man who controls the door to the entrance of the building and asked whether we were trying to convert her to our faith, Valentina is Orthodox. The man needed to hear from Valentina that she needs our help and wants us to come to her. Once again we had to assure people that we are here to be of service.
We received word from Fr. Krzysztof that there was a complaint that we were visiting and caring for Valentina and Vladimir. Irena, a parishioner of St. Theresa’s, who works for Social Services, went to visit Valentina and was stopped by the guard who told her that the priest from the Orthodox Church came and spoke with him about the Sisters coming to visit Valentina. The priest told the guard not to allow us in anymore because we were a dangerous sect trying to win Valentina over to take her money and belongings. Irena said that the guard told her that the priest went to visit Valentina and Vladimir to tell them who we were and that we were dangerous. We were not sure if the priest really did visit with them, but that does not matter. We did not want to cause any trouble. The next day we went to Valentina’s with Fr. Krzysztof, which was to be our last visit anyway and were not sure what our reception would be like. To our surprise we were welcomed. Valentina was very sad that our visits were ending and Vladimir, who was sober that day, wanted to thank us so he bought a watermelon and shared it with us. To be honest, we were a bit afraid to eat that watermelon because of the poor conditions of this home. The rest of the watermelon we brought home to finish. This gesture was a sign that what we were about softened Vladimir’s heart. Valentina and Vladimir could not believe that someone would want to bring them aid and assistance for free. This seemed to be unbelievable for them, knowing that everything, even charitable assistance such as this, has to be paid for here in Russia. Valentina always wanted to pay us. We never accepted anything from them for our service and assistance. After this visit, Fr. Krzysztof brought Valentina’s documents to the hospital to give proof of Valentina’s and Vladimir’s poor situation and the conditions in which they were living to see if she could get some medical assistance.
That afternoon Father needed to return her documents so two of us went with him for our last good-bye and blessing. As we entered the building, we met one of the guard’s who started to tell Fr. Krzysztof about us and that he knew who we were and that we were a sect who pretended to be nice people only dressed up like nuns, like imposters. He said he had met many people like this who eventually stole things from the people they were helping and were no good. Father tried to explain that we were not that kind of people. The guard was convinced that he was right and nothing would change his mind. We walked up the stairs to the apartment and when we entered we met some of Valentina’s neighbor’s visiting with her. They were surprised to meet and see us. Ola, a 15-year-old is four months pregnant. Her mother was the one who mentioned this to us with tears in her eyes, Ola wanted to have this baby but her mother kept saying how young she was. Prior to this, we just heard that 75 percent of marriages end in divorce, that many young women get married only to have a child. We could feel her pain and sorrow as we tried to be attentive to Valentina. We prayed with them, Father blessed the baby inside this young teenager’s womb. We shared a blessing with each of them as well as with Vladimir. When we walked out the door for the last time, we felt a little sad, knowing that probably the next time we would see them would be in heaven.
We invited our Catholic friends, Albert and Olga, brother and sister, who were “pillars” of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, to our home to pray the Liturgy of the Word with us. It was providential that the Word of God was from Luke 6:43-49 as we shared about building a house, digging deeply and laying a firm foundation on rock—the rock of Jesus Christ. After our sharing, as we sat around the table with good food, we listened to Albert and Olga share their personal conversion stories. It was holy ground for us all. Both were baptized in the Orthodox Church but wanted something more. They found that in the Catholic faith. They continued to search for more as they served the people of God here in Kamchatka.
Now the children in the neighborhood had become our friends; it started with sharing some candy and bubble gum. When they saw us, they would run from far to greet us and, of course, get some candy. On the first Sunday of September, there is a tradition that the children are invited to the church to have their schoolbooks blessed. We participated, too, in our little faith community by having our Russian books blessed. After Mass Father had a fire outside and cooked kielbasa, bread, cheese and fish to share with anyone from the neighborhood. Many people gathered around the fire to share a meal and community. We wished that they had come for the Mass to celebrate with us, but we realized we could not put upon the people our way of thinking and expectations. We had to meet them where they were. We ate and sang songs around the fire. Some of the children wanted to play the guitar so we gave them that opportunity while singing Polish and English songs. The evening ended very late, but that was a normal thing here because life seemed to start after Mass and adoration at 7:00 p.m.
10 Visit to hospital
We were then invited to visit the hospital in the area here. We met with two of the head nurses who were excited to meet us. They are responsible for the elderly and were happy to hear we were interested in visiting with them. They shared with us that the patients were very lonely and need someone to listen to them share their stories and memories. They needed to see the head director of the hospital and would set up a meeting for us. Not soon after we left we received a phone call that he was available to meet with us. He informed us that our services were not needed and that their programs are all in place. This was a surprise to us since the nurses seemed very welcoming and interested in having us. We learned here that people often think that we are proselytizing. They have a difficult time believing that something is offered for free and when it comes to being charitable and of service. We did not give up totally. We noticed a sign on the door before we left that there was a need for onions, garlic, lemons and honey. These are ingredients for medication for colds. We are going to buy these ingredients and deliver them personally.
We made a visit the hospital with ingredients to make a home remedy for the common cold. We bought 5 kg of garlic, lemons, onions and honey and went to deliver them ourselves. When we arrived, we were asked what organization we were from. We explained that we were Catholic nuns, knowing they were in need of these ingredients and wanting to make a donation. The nurses in charge were very grateful and decided to show us around to see the different wards of elderly people. It was a grace to visit the elderly and to share our Felician joy. At the bus stop, a gentleman approached us, asking who we were. He wanted to give us money for the Church; just another little blessing of this place.
11 Visit to homebound
Babcie Agnessa is an 80-year-old Polish woman who came from the area now known as the Ukraine. We had the opportunity to visit her in her home where Fr. Krzysztof celebrated the Eucharist with Fr. Marcin. Father would visit her once a month to celebrate the Eucharist. As we entered her home and were welcomed, she right away went into the small kitchen where Father listened to her confession. We set up a simple table to get ready for Mass. As we lit the candles and readied our hearts for the celebration of the Word and Eucharist, there was a deep sense of being ONE in the LORD JESUS CHRIST. After Mass we prayed a decade of the rosary; we gave Babcia Agnessa a rosary blessed by Pope Benedict XVI and we realized that she did not know how to use the beads. Sister Inga took her old worn hands and placed them on each bead to guide her during this prayer. Afterward we gave her a pamphlet in Russian to teach her how to pray the rosary and its mysteries; it was a true moment of catechesis. Father Krzysztof asked her to share her story with us. She then led us into her small kitchen, all seven of us gathered around the table to share her homemade blincziki (blintzes) that we filled with homemade raspberry sauce and honey.
When she was a little child, she and her family had to leave the Ukraine and go to Siberia. They traveled by train and walked for miles. They had nothing but a simple wheelbarrow to carry their belongings. Babcie Agnessa had a sister and a brother. Sometimes they had to sleep outdoors under the stars in the winter. Winters were very cold and hard. She shared how hard their life was then and how poor they were. They had to work many hours for a loaf of bread and a few potatoes. Her mother was very religious and had a deep faith. She worked very hard and prayed daily for her family. Agnesse remembered being left alone for the whole day as her mother worked, but she would come home and pray in the evening. This is where she believed she received her faith, from the pious example of her mother. When Agnesse was 15, she worked at making the rails for the trains. She remembered carrying the wheelbarrows full of cement. Babcie Agnesse’s husband was from Kamchatka and after they married they came here to live. They had a daughter; when she got older, she went to study in Chabarowsk. She was not allowed to return to Kamchatka nor visit her parents without special permission. This was because Kamchatka’s borders were closed to everyone even the people from Russia until 1991. Now fruits and vegetables are allowed to be brought into Kamchatka from other parts of Russia and other countries. Before this people had to live on only what was here, mostly fish and potatoes. Her story was very moving, even though she had hardships and lack of material goods, she was a very happy and blessed woman. Her daughter was now married and has her own daughter. She visited her but not often because plane fare is very expensive inside of Russia.
12 Natives of Kamchatka
One Sunday Father took us to visit Sasza. He is a young man, married, with a three- month-old daughter, who raises Siberian huskies for sled racing. We visited him where he raised his dogs. Sasza was very proud of his dogs and his sport of racing. This was an old tradition here in Kamchatka since it was the only means of transportation at one time in history. One of us had the opportunity to get a ride on a makeshift sled with wheels, until it got a flat tire. Another day we had the opportunity to visit Sasza and his wife, Natasza, and their daughter. Natasza worked in the International Library and American Culture Center. She spoke English fluently. It was very interesting to see how people lived and raised their children. Sasza and Natasza were both Orthodox but wanted to baptize Rosalia in the Catholic Church.
Our last full day in Kamchatka was busy with cleaning, packing, one last visit to the market, and visits from friends that we made this past month. In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to visit with a native Kariaky who made his living through wood carving. Sergio, came from a small village located in Taiga 1,000 km from Petropavlovsk. He came here to earn a living to take care of his family. When he first arrived he was attacked, beaten by robbers and left unconscious near the Orthodox cross located as you enter the city. A good Samaritan found him and brought him to the hospital. Sergio believes that he was saved and rescued and now stays here in Kamchatka to earn a living and to take care of his family. He is here with his son, building a home out of wood for the winter. The size of this home is 13 feet long and 9.5 feet wide. His wife and two other children are far away in Taiga. His wife is an alcoholic and this is a big cross for Sergio. His carvings are beautiful and tell the story of his native people. We mentioned to him how beautiful his work was and he said that everyone in his village knew how to carve this way and learned to do this in childhood. Sergio used wood from the trees and antlers from animals. Each carving told the story of his native people. His people did not use the alphabet so they wrote using pictures. He noticed our wooden crucifix and admired how they were carved in such detail. Listening to his history gave us a sense of what this area was like in its very beginnings. We bought a few of his creations to support him and his family.