The Lord plants His crop. Seeds as tiny as a mustard seed fall into the ground and give sprouts. It happens at the right time and date when the soil is ready. This neighbourhood had waited for many years until that moment 22 years ago when we laid the first stone in the foundation of Saint Elisabeth Convent, with the blessing of His Holiness Metropolitan Philaret, prior of the Belarusian Church. It has seen many troubles, upheavals, tragedies and hardships. It has suffered under a succession of wars and invaders and has belonged to different states.
In 1999, the Convent's first monastics dedicated themselves to prayer. They pray for all who lived here in the past and are living in the present, who suffered and died here in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, who survived personal tragedies in the 1990s and who are grieving and looking for God today. "The splendour of this area succeeds the enormous tragedies of the past," remarked Patriarch Alexis II during his visit to Saint Elisabeth Convent.
At the dawn of the 19th century, the area of Saint Elisabeth Convent was a part of the Semkovo-Gorodetsky parish of Minsk District.
According to an old area map, a forest lodge and the hamlet of Noviny were in its place in 1885. By 1908, the hamlet had increased in size and had a population of 59 people.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the land in this area belonged to Fedor Mikhailovich Vernikovsky, whose ancestors were members of the clergy. Fedor Vernikovsky grew up among the local peasants. At ten years of age, his father sent him to a religious school in Minsk. After completing the four-year programme of the school, he continued his studies at Minsk's religious seminary. Then he became a non-enrolled student at Saint Petersburg Institute of Technology. There, he passed a qualification examination to serve as a senior irrigation technologist. He served at the Peasant Land Bank, Western Expedition for Irrigation and Watering for the Polessye Region and Southern of Russia. He travelled to different parts of Russia - Siberia, Manchuria, the Baltics, the Caucasus, coastal areas of the Black, and Caspian Seas and Crimea. He also worked abroad, in Western Europe, Asia, Egypt, Persia and America. Altogether, he spent 34 years in civil service.
At the beginning of World War I, he had to sell his properties in Minsk District to the local government that claimed the land to locate a military hospital. During World War II, the German army used chemical weapons against the Russian troops. The main toxic agent was Chlorum, which caused many deaths, injuries and mental disorders. The hospital outside Novinki Hamlet treated the soldiers wounded in the German chemical attacks. Tsar Nicholas II signed the order to create it.
Eventually, Minsk became a frontline city and was the seat of the Stavka of the Western front. The situation on the front precluded further progress in the hospital's construction. After 1917 and the Armistice of Brest, the Soviet government moved 40 war invalids from the Loshitsa hospital, who could no longer stay there because the landowner of the estate where it was located had returned to the city and claimed his property. In December 1918, a colony for mental patients was established, which later grew into the national mental health clinic.
Novinki Campus of the Second Governorship Hospital
The head doctor, Semion Volochkovich, practised occupational therapy for his patients. They worked in the fields and the woodworking and shoe repair workshops. They were given no medicines because there were not any, but everyone was given fresh milk. By the time World War 2 came to this area, the colony had expanded to 300 regular beds and occupied 200 hectares of land. It was had several greenhouses, a garden, a car depot and a cattle stock. The Nazis came on 25 June 1941. At that moment, there were 250 hospitalised mental patients. In August 1941, SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler arrived in the occupied Minsk on an inspection visit.
Novinki, 15 August 1941 Heinrich Gimmler visiting the psychiatric clinic
Soon after the inspection, all the patients not claimed by their relatives were killed in a gas chamber. The Nazis had parked a gas van, drove the patients into the hospital steam house and let the gas in. Around 200 people were gassed. Among the patients who died were also their doctors. Although the Nazis had let them leave, they refused to abandon their patients.
After liberation on 3 July 1944, the mental hospital was rebuilt and continued to treat patients. By the mid-1990s it had become a large national practice centre in the field of mental health, caring for up to ten thousand patients on a given day. Two residential care facilities for long-term mental patients were established adjacent to the hospital - one for children, the other for adult patients. When the Convent rose in this neighbourhood, it opened farmsteads for men and women with nobody else to run to in this world but to God.
Amid the rough seas and storms of our history and our lives, God's seeds are still giving new sprouts. We pray that they all grow into a blossoming garden where birds of heaven will weave their nests.
Photo credit: internet archives and sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent
In the third part of her first-person review of the Convent’s lived history, sister Yulia Kostukevich explores the foundations of our strength and of our ability to sustain and expand our works.