Community Involvement - At Home and Abroad
What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? - Micah 6, 8
'He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise'. Luke 3, 11
Reader Paul of our parish has visited the convent twice. Read about his visit in July 2019 below.
The Convent of St. Elisabeth
Here is Reader Paul's account of his visit to St. Elisabeth's Convent in July 2019. Some pictures of this visit and his latest are beneath the text!
The Monastery of St Elisabeth in Minsk in Belarus is twenty years old and last year I was privileged to be invited to visit it. I actually visited the Monastery from 8th-15th July 2019 and firstly I wish to thank all of you who prayed for me on that trip, it was truly blessed of God. Secondly I want to share some of my experiences in Belarus for your interest.
Twenty years ago, the site of the monastery was scrubland. The only people who lived there were drunks and drug addicts. The area was at that time outside the city limits of Minsk and nearby was a psychiatric Hospital. Anyone familiar with the situation in Britain forty plus years ago would recognise the scenario. In those days, in the UK, psychiatric hospitals, and hospitals for people with learning difficulties were placed in the countryside - the grim reality was “out of sight, out of mind”. Thank God things have changed in Britain and these places no longer exist. The situation in Minsk has followed a similar but slightly different pattern.
Twenty years ago, a priest, Fr Andrei Lemoshonok, received a blessing to work in the psychiatric hospital. He recruited a group of sisters to work with him. The sisters were lay people, not nuns, and they worked with the patients, or service users as we call them in Britain. They had a small chapel within the hospital and were able to offer services. The people in the hospital were encouraged to come to church, make their confession and take communion.
To fund the work, Fr Andrei encouraged the manufacture and sale of crafts, church materials etc. Land next to the hospital was bought and over the years several churches were built, plus a hostel for pilgrims, shops selling items produced by the monastery and an excellent cafe.
The churches are dedicated to St. Elisabeth (the Patron of the Monastery), St John of Shanghai (the first church to be built), the Royal Martyrs, St Nicholas, the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God, the Icon of the Inexhaustible Cup and St Xenia. One chapel (the Royal Martyrs) has a font and a baptistry in it, I was told by one of the Sisters that the baptistry (for adults) is frequently used. Another chapel is used for funerals and panikhidas. During periods when there are no funerals or panikhidas in this church, there is a rota of nuns who read the psalms from beginning to end over a twenty-four hour period, seven days a week.
Some of the original sisters who worked at the Hospital were tonsured as nuns and thus the monastery began.
Today there are over one hundred and sixty nuns, about six hundred Sisters of Mercy and altogether approximately one thousand people work there.
What do they do?
As most of you know, we buy a lot of our church material from the monastery - the hangings which we have church are from there, the cassocks I wear were made in Minsk, the candle sticks which are by the icon stands all came from St Elisabeth’s. They are all made at the convent and sold to pay for the work that they do. There is an icon workshop and a mosaic workshop. Icons and mosaics are not just produced for the churches in the convent but also other churches worldwide.
The convent still holds regular services within the hospital - I attended an Akathist and a Molieben held for the patients who live there. Later on in the week, I attended what was called “The Children’s Liturgy”-a liturgy especially for children who live in the hospital who have multiple disabilities, and what a joy it was to be there.
The convent has two properties outside of Minsk; one is a women’s farmstead and the other a farm for men. The women’s farmstead produces vegetables, honey, grapes and other fruits. It has a very beautiful and inspiring wooden church. The farmstead was originally an army camp which came up for auction and was bought by the monastery. The old bomb shelter is now used to grow mushrooms.
All the women at the farmstead are self-referrals - I asked the Mother Superior in charge how people heard about the farm and she just shrugged-it seems word of mouth is the key to women hearing about the place. The women who live there are free to stay or leave as they want to. If they desire to stay at the farm.for the rest of their lives, they may. If they choose to leave they may: there are no restrictions. If the women do leave, and find the pressure of the outside world too much, they can return. Church - confession and communion - is encouraged. It goes without saying that alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden and use of them would lead to exclusion.
The men’s farmstead is set up in a similar way, but with a heavier emphasis on craftwork-they have a smithy that produces beautiful iron work, not just for churches but also for private orders. Other departments produce leather goods, wooden craft goods and smaller paper icons, alongside the normal work done on a farm. What was noticeable was the calmness and dedication that the men who worked at the farm exhibited. We were told that each of them had come to the farm voluntarily, that they were there because they wanted to turn their lives around, hence the seriousness in the way that they approached things. As with the women at the women’s farmstead, alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden with anyone who breaks this rule is excluded from the farm. The men who live at the farm are expected to attend Church, make their confession regularly and take communion. The “Three ‘C’s’” are seen as the key to restoration.
One of our party had known someone who had lived in England whose son had been responsible for building a church in the town of Baranavichy in Belarus and arrangements were made for us to visit the town and be escorted round by the Protodeacon. The Protodeacon, whose name was Andrei, took us around, not only the church in Baranavichy, but also two monasteries and another small country church.
One of the monasteries that we visited had been established on the site of a field where some shepherd boys had found an icon which nestled in a tree and emitted a light. That icon is now incorporated into a newer icon, which shows the shepherd boys finding it. We were privileged to be able to venerate that icon. The other was a smaller monastery with just twelve nuns. They have an icon of St Julianna and have found that St Julianna has drawn people with mental health issues to the monastery, where they have found peace and healing in God.
The country church that we visited was in a village called Polonka. The church is a beautiful wooden one overlooking the forest and a lake. The priest, Fr Michael, showed us round and after we had prayed in the church, treated us to a wonderful Belarussian meal. He and Protodeacon Andrei entertained us by singing Belarussian folk songs.
The whole visit was a breathtaking experience; I was overawed by the ministry that the monastery exercised amongst the poor and needy of the country. The scrubland of twenty years ago has now been transformed into a hospital for the souls and minds of the despised and rejected of Belarussian society. I commend them to your holy prayers.
*See pictures below, including some of Christmas at the convent, January 2020! (Click on the arrow to move along the gallery).*