With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Catholic faith was officially allowed to return to Russia after more than seven decades of life under what Pope Pius XI called “atheistic communism.” Since that time, Catholics have established missions in Russia, serving Catholics living within the country’s borders and performing charitable works. Out of deference to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Vatican does not consider Russia “mission territory,” and so these communities do not receive funding from the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or engage in overt evangelism.
In 1992, Father Myron Effing and Brother (now Father) Daniel Maurer, two Americans from the Midwest, felt called to serve the Russian people. They went to Vladivostok, a city in Far Eastern Russia with about 600,000 people, and founded the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord and the Mary Mother of God Mission Society to support their work. Although re-establishing the Faith has been challenging in a society that has been thoroughly secularized, the work of the priests has flourished in the 20 years since the Vladivostok mission was founded, and the future looks promising.
Poverty, crime, and broken families
Vladivostok is a Pacific Ocean port city, not far from the China and North Korea borders. It has a cool to mild northern climate, and is often foggy. Its industries include shipping and fishing, and it is home to a large Russian naval base.
Christianity came to Russia 1,000 years ago, and the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the Russian Far East 180 years ago. Soviet rule virtually wiped out the Church in the area; an estimated 7,000 Catholics in the region were martyred for their faith.
In 1992, Father Myron and Brother Daniel learned that there was an acute need for priests in Vladivostok (as well as all of Russia). They visited the city at the invitation of the diocesan bishop. At that time, he was located in Novosibirsk, Siberia—2,300 miles away “as the crow flies,” but more than 3,000 miles in a car or airplane because one must travel around China.
The pair founded their community and named the mission society after the 20th-century Polish gothic church in Vladivostok to which they were assigned. Most Holy Mother of God Church was one of the few houses of worship in the area that had not been destroyed by the Soviets. However, it had been used for many years for secular purposes.
Fathers Myron and Daniel have not only worked in Vladivostok, but have helped establish 14 parishes throughout their diocese, which is an area larger than the continental United States. Father Myron serves as pastor of three parishes, which are about a five-hour drive apart.
Although Christianity is now legal in Russia and 40 percent of Russians are baptized, less than 1 percent attend church. In Vladivostok, poverty and crime are widespread, Father Myron reported, as are prostitution and pornography. “The culture here reflects the breakdown of the family,” he said.
Drunkenness is a common problem, as are the abandonment of children and abortion. The average Russian woman, in fact, has seven or eight abortions in her lifetime.
“Russia suffers from a lack of children,” Father Myron observed. “Many elderly must work because they have no children to support them. We’re in an end state for any country that doesn’t have kids. I always tell people, ‘Have kids, they’re your future. The government is bankrupt. It won’t be able to support you.’”
The typical Russian marriage lasts four years, and most children grow up without a biological father in the home. “Children are raised by their mothers and grandmothers while the fathers skip out on their responsibilities,” says Father Myron.
Fortunately, the local government, although heavy with bureaucracy and widespread with corruption, has a good record on respecting religious freedom. The Vladivostok economy has improved with many new construction projects, although the dearth of young people requires importation of foreign labor.
Father Myron, age 72, was born and reared in Evansville, Indiana. He was ordained a priest in 1972. Coming to Vladivostok 20 years ago was difficult, he recalled: “The transportation system was broken down, and the stores were empty. As Americans, we’re used to efficiency.”
Cell phones and stores that were open 24 hours a day were novelties to the Russians, although today the region is becoming more westernized.
Lay volunteers provided needed assistance
In the 20 years since the mission’s founding, it has regularly welcomed groups of lay people who volunteer at its apostolates, including its orphanage and hospice ministries. American volunteers are drafted to play with orphans, visit abandoned seniors in hospice, or assist with building projects.
Tessa Kocan of Chicago joined a sister and another laywoman volunteer on a three-month visit in 2009. She visited several orphanages, which were housed in run-down buildings with meager supplies. The staff members, though devoted, were few in number and could offer little attention to individual children. Little babies quickly learned not to cry, as they would not be held. All the children craved attention. Much of Tessa’s time there was spent holding and feeding the babies.
She also visited a hospital, which also had appalling conditions. Rooms were small and overcrowded, supplies lacking, beds broken and dirty; there were holes in the walls, poor heat and no air conditioning, and miserable patients. “It’s hard to imagine someone surviving long in that environment,” Tessa recalled.
The Mary Mother of God Mission Society had donated hot water heaters to many of these facilities, otherwise they would have been without hot water. The Vladivostok mission also supports programs to feed the hungry.
And, aware of the Russian people’s fondness for classical music, the mission offers classical music programs in the church to attract new visitors, in hopes that they will consider returning and become regular parishioners. The mission’s charitable works and classical mission program serve as a form of soft evangelism, introducing local residents to the work of the Church.
The mission also supports programs for young people, including a Boy Scouts program, although it is currently in need of a scout master. They also fund a program for retirees; participants in the “Grandma program” are paid a small stipend to spend time holding attention-starved babies from the orphanages.
Father Myron noted that since he is no longer a young man, he is gratified that the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord have begun attracting religious vocations. Four men are currently in formation. One is from Indonesia, a region of the world Father believes is ripe to produce more vocations. He’s hoping to establish a house of formation there to educate priests to work in Russia.
Additionally, a women’s religious community, the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, has been founded to support the work of the Vladivostok mission. It currently has three sisters, with two more in formation. The community’s formation house is in Raytown, Missouri; the three sisters have opened a convent on an island off the coast of Vladivostok. The sisters will run a Newman Center at a new university being built on the island, operate a pro-life/pro-family center for women, and work with needy children in the area.
The Vladivostok mission’s greatest need from the Western world is for financial support to pay expenses of the priests and nuns working in the area, as well as for the charitable programs they oversee.
The Mary Mother of God Mission Society’s US headquarters is in Modesto, California. The Society raises funds from parishes who welcome its speakers and from “sister parishes” that “adopt” the mission. It also receives grants from foundations and other fundraising organizations. In 2011, the Society had its best-ever fundraising year, netting nearly $1 million. In 2012, they’re on track to raise about the same.
“In our current economy, we feel fortunate that we’ve been holding steady,” reported Vicky Trevillyan, the Society’s director.
It is the Society’s hope, she added, that the missions will one day become self-supporting, as Christianity spreads in the region and the mindset of the Russian people changes. Charity is alien to the thinking of the last few generations of Russians, Father Myron explained: “The communists taught people to hate. Charity was discouraged. So, the establishment and support of charities remains an open possibility.”
“We’re grateful to all who offer us their prayers and donations, especially from friends in the United States,” Father Myron said. “Without them, we truly could not function.”