The Children's Choir of St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk was founded in October 2015 with the blessing of the Convent's confessor, Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok. The founder and artistic director of the choir Matushka Maria Bakhvalova, a graduate of the Minsk Music Academy, has been devoting herself entirely to choral art for over 30 years.
Although the children chose St. Sergius of Radonezh as their patron saint seven years ago, it took a long time before they were able to visit his relics. Last Christmas, the choir gave an online concert to raise funds for the trip. However, due to various reasons, it was postponed indefinitely until finally in October 2022 “the stars aligned”.
“Indeed,” Matushka Maria says, “the Lord arranged everything in the best way.”
During their journey, the choir took part in two Pontifical Liturgies, first in Optina Hermitage, and then in the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. The guys gave several concerts together with their leader and took part in a master class at the St. Tikhon's Orthodox University of the Humanities. Read these travel notes of Matushka Maria Bakhvalova and the young singers to find out what it was like.
October 1, Saturday
“Optina was the first to greet us. Bishop Joseph (rector of the Optina Hermitage - ed.) sent a new comfortable coach which travelled almost 200 miles to pick us up in Vyazma. We reached the monastery late at night. In the morning we hurried to venerate the Optina relics.
The warm and sunny Saturday passed quickly. We spent it familiarising ourselves with the monastery (most of our choristers were visiting it for the first time), rehearsing and attending the vigil service.”
October 2, Sunday
“After venerating the relics of St. Ambrose, we served the first Pontifical Liturgy in our choral career. The service took place at the Presentation Cathedral of the Optina Hermitage.
After a delicious lunch in the monastic refectory we gave a concert and arranged an exhibition of our Convent. The atmosphere was magnificent. Our girls enhanced the concert programme with wonderful poems, which they read in front of the hall packed with listeners. Vladyka Joseph said very kind words which were supported by numerous testimonials from our grateful listeners. Thanks be to God!
After the concert we visited the monastic farm with cows, horses, calves etc. In the middle of our excursion we were caught in a storm and enjoyed singing in the pouring rain together with Fr. Gideon and Fr. Innocent. An unexpected meal with tea, cottage cheese casserole and watermelon in the back room refectory was followed… by some more singing.”
Anna Panko, 14:
– Optina impressed me right away with its beauty and atmosphere, but I started feeling at home only in the last two days of our visit. Some of the strongest impressions were from visiting the tomb of the three Optina monks (Vasily, Trophim and Ferapont) murdered on Easter. We venerated the crosses, and then I suggested that we anoint ourselves with oil on the grave of Father Vasily. After that I had a very special feeling of calmness which I really enjoyed. I did not experience anything similar to that anywhere else. This feeling will stay with me for a long time.
Singing in church, as well as performing at the concerts purifies the soul. The fact that we work with a person as wonderful as Matushka Maria is also important. When I sing, I feel free.
October 3, Monday
“It is raining again, while we still have a tour of the Monastery ahead of us, including a visit to the skete and the hut of St. Ambrose of Optina. Interestingly, in eight years of frequent pilgrimages to the Optina Hermitage, I am about to visit it for the first time. Pilgrims do not often have the opportunity to visit this place.
Special thanks go out to Hierodeacon Innocent, our guardian and our guide in Optina, who treated us with great attention, trepidation and care, thinking through every step. Glory to God!”
Karina Kokhno, 19
- In Optina, I felt like a different person, as if I had fallen into another Universe. I wish I could visit it with our choir once again. I could feel the support of all the Optina saints. The life of our choir is not without some difficult moments. I am the oldest in the choir and I feel responsibility for the younger members. I think it was the saints who helped all of us, especially our adults, in difficult moments, and thankfully - everything worked out.
During my five years in the choir my fellow singers have become more than friends to me. We are a family, and I perceive them as my brothers and sisters. The choir occupies a corner of my heart, which I do not want to lose.
October 4, Tuesday
“Today is Anya Mager's birthday. She is one of our singers. We get on the bus and go to Shamordino Convent (Stavropegial Convent of St. Ambrose and Our Lady of Kazan in the village of Shamordino, founded by St. Ambrose of Optina in 1884. The entire cycle of spiritual life and daily routine here was established by the Elder. - ed.) Then we visited the Monastery of the Savior Not Made by Hands in Klykovo, also stopping by the house and the grave of the schema-nun Sepphora. Our next stop is Gubino, an Orthodox settlement and the beautiful Holy Dormition and St. Thekla hermitage with its kind and home-like atmosphere. We sing in all these places, reaching out to the hearts of our listeners and trying to embrace their tears, and words of gratitude with our own hearts. One of the places that has found itself a special place in my heart was the retirement home run by the St. Thekla Hermitage where sand for the elderly and sick nuns. It is amazing how much gratitude we received from the sisters of this monastery. We thank God for meeting them.
Arriving at Optina in the evening, we hurry to have tea with Bishop Joseph. We sing, talk and receive gifts that Vladyka has prepared for us with love and care.”
Varya Bakhvalova, 15:
— My family and I often go to Optina Hermitage. This time, visiting it with our choir, we met a kind monk, Father Innocent. He accompanied us everywhere and helped us in everything. Bishop Joseph made a strong impression on me. He asked us many questions during a tea party that he gave for us. I have also remembered the St. Thekla Hermitage. That monastery is located far from the city, and there is hardly any cell coverage there. Such a quiet and very cosy place. The sisters there welcomed us very warmly and sincerely. We also visited the elderly nuns and sang for them. They cried and complimented us on our singing. Somehow it touched my heart in a special way...
Juliana Zakharova, 15:
- The concert in Optina was the hardest. Many people came, quickly filling the rather modest hall, and soon we started feeling that there was not enough air. Yet, we tried not to show it, and the concert went great. The concert at St. Thekla's Hermitage for elderly nuns also turned out to be special. It was such a pleasure to look at the sisters’ joyful faces. In a good way, I was proud of our choir for being able to give people such emotions.
October 5, Wednesday
“The time has come to say goodbye to Optina. We are on our way to Moscow. After checking in the cosy hotel run by St. Maron church, the choristers rushed for an evening walk. It is so nice to be out on Red Square in the evening, walking along the banks of the Moskva River and wandering around in the Alexander Garden!
Vasily Bakhvalov, 13:
- It was great to walk around Moscow in the evening. We were on Red Square, visited the Muzeon Park of Arts, and saw the building where the legendary “Hotel Eleon” TV series was filmed. I also liked the Pontifical Service at the Donskoy Monastery and the tour of the monastery cemetery, where many famous people are buried, for example Alexander Pushkin's grandmother.
October 6, Thursday
“After a tour of the city centre, we walked through Zamoskvorechye to a master class at St Tikhon's University of the Humanities. We were welcomed by a wonderful and inquisitive audience of students. They are only a little older than our choristers, but they have already chosen their future profession of a choir director and listen to us with great interest and burning eyes, asking many questions. Despite the fatigue and lack of sleep, we try to share our experiences with them to the best of our ability. For the second time in the history of our choir we would like to thank Ekaterina Sadikova, for her assistance in organising our trips to Russia.”
Anna Panko, 14:
- At services and concerts, I fully focus on Matushka Maria, carefully following her every move. A master-class is different. This is a live audience. Personally, I learned a lot of things that I had wanted to ask for a long time. As a future choir conductor (I hope) I found it very interesting and useful. Now I have a rough idea of what I could do with our choir if Matushka entrusted me to do a warm-up or prepare a song with them. It turned out to be a lively conversation: the students asked us dozens of questions, and we shared our opinions with them. It was nice to show our skills as a choir, although we are twice as young as some of the students. This, of course, is a credit to the professionalism of Matushka Maria.
October 7, Friday
“After breakfast, we hurry to the Yaroslavsky railway station and head towards the St. Sergius Lavra. There is no need for many words here. Our visit to this holy place was on the eve of the Saint's remembrance day celebrations. The reliquary with the relics was opened for us. Once again the mighty hand of the good Lord is with us. Glory and thanks!”
October 8, Saturday
“In the morning we go to the Kremlin. We have a great tour guide. We sing in the Assumption Cathedral, Russia's main church, where Russian Tsars were crowned. Unexpectedly, we become witnesses of a magnificent sight - the changing of the guard of the Kremlin Regiment. After that we go to the Armoury and then to the Tretyakov Gallery, immersing ourselves in the world of fine arts. Finally, we attend vigil service at the Donskoy Monastery, where we learn that on the following day we are supposed to sing another Pontifical Liturgy. What a busy day! We are tired, but we endure everything, because we are together!”
Karina Kokhno, 19
- It would be fair to say that first we visited Optina, where we were spiritually nourished, and then we arrived in Moscow, where we were "charged" emotionally: Moscow in the evening, beautiful architecture, fun walks, and excursions ... In Minsk, we returned to our usual everyday life, but all of it remains inside - both spiritual and emotional.
I was very impressed and pleased when we started singing in the Assumption Cathedral, and the people there immediately took out their phones and started filming. It is great when you manage to convey your inner state to others. Seeing something like that makes you even more convinced that you are on the right track. This is very energising and makes you move forward with even greater zeal.
October 9, Sunday. Memorial Day of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow
“We venerate the relics of the saint and then serve the liturgy with Vladyka Theognostus and the male choir of the Donskoy Monastery. There are many grateful parishioners, and even people coming all the way from Optina Hermitage to listen to us once again.
Then there is lunch with an exchange of gifts, and a tour of the monastery. Time to go to the Belarusian railway station. We are returning home.
With all our hearts we bow and thank all those who helped us financially and organizationally. Through your work and your support, our old dream has come true. Heartfelt gratitude and respect to all!
We also thank all those involved who sent us help after watching our Christmas concert. May the Lord help and bless all!
We would like to wish peace, patience and God's blessing upon all your works.
Photos from the choir's personal archive and social networks of the
Donskoy Monastery and St. Tikhon's University of the Humanities
The Children's choir is one of the areas of our work with children and youth. Other areas include our Orthodox gymnasium, the Sunday school, and our Children's summer camp. All these facilities require continual updates and improvements with the educational equipment and inventory. On behalf of the Children’s Choir, we ask that you support these talented and beautiful children by donating. Your donation helps us continue teaching them to become strong and confident disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To make a donation please follow the link
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