Lubov Kovalenko has been our sister of mercy since the 1990s. She has touched the lives of many, bringing them to discover God. We asked her to talk about her journey to God, her service to others.
You grew up in Soviet times. You went to a Soviet school, where God and the Bible were never mentioned. Did you still have the sense of God’s presence, and if so, in what way?
In my family, I grew up in peace and love. My parents lived happily in marriage for sixty years. We often spent our summers with my grandmother, who lived in a village. As a small child of four or five, I remember going to church for Communion with her. Otherwise, my childhood and school years went by without much thought of God or the Church. But from an early age, I enjoyed looking at the stars at night. That made me think that there must be another life for all people, some continuation of their earthly existence.
My youthful years were a time of exploration. By the providence of God, I came to Minsk to study. After graduation, I went to work at an electronics factory, where I joined a group of amateur mountain climbers. - The idea of climbing to dizzying heights and looking at the world from above was fascinating. I also noticed that the stars in the mountains were much closer and brighter than in the city. And they were more exhilarating, too.
We were preparing to climb Mount Elbrus, a twin-peaked mountain 5642 metres above sea level. It was a long and difficult climb. We put up a camp on a glacier. At night, a fierce thunderstorm broke out, loud bolts of ball lightning were everywhere. Deep crevices of the glacier were visible in the lightning flares. I trembled with fear. I realised how fragile and vulnerable our lives were, and how abruptly it could end. I squirmed at the thought of sudden death, but eventually, I brought my fear under control.
That climb was a life-changing experience. It made me realise that the laws that govern our lives extend far beyond our everyday routines. During the climb, physically strong people showed weakness, while those with less stamina showed strength. I realised that the power of our spirit, our drive and motivation can trump physical strength. What an amazing discovery!
How did your discovery of God’s presence help you in your churching and influence your coming to the Convent?
In the mid-1980s, the large club of railway workers near my home became a gathering place for different religious congregations. They came and worshipped at its premises. I attended many of these meetings, but I did not feel comfortable at any of them. One day, I happened to walk by the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Peter and Paul. Out of sheer curiosity, I went through its gate and saw its prior serving a Moleben outside the closed doors. That moment was providential. I walked into the cathedral by the will of God because I was ready to embrace Him.
I began to attend the worship services there, and stay for Father Andrey Lemeshonok’s talks with the laity. One night, as I approached father Andrey after the talk to take his blessing, he asked me if I was interested in a job with the sisterhood.
By that time, many employers had begun to cut their workforce. My husband was working and earned a sufficient income to support the family, but many of my colleagues were single or divorced, with no one to rely on. So when my manager came before our team and asked if anyone was willing to resign, I raised my hand, and so did one of my friends. I was now free to accept Father Andrey’s offer, and so my service with the sisterhood began.
How did you know that your work was making a difference in people’s lives?
My first point of duty was at a large food market in central Minsk, where I worked for nearly twelve years. In my meetings and interactions with the people there, I realised their hunger for the Christian faith and their strong interest in it. They needed my work - I understood it almost immediately. On my first day, a trader came up to me and said, “Sales are not looking good today. Perhaps a Moleben to Saint John of Solntseva might help.” Another man comes a day later and says, “I am travelling for merchandise shortly. Can we pray to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker together?" Another man came and said, “A member of my family is ill. Can you join me for a prayer to Saint Panteleimon?”
My coming to the sisterhood coincided with the period of a religious revival of the later 1980s and early 1990s. On the days preceding Palm Sunday, we went together as a family to cut willows, bind the branches into bundles and sell at the market. The flower sellers adorned and wrapped the bunches, and people were buying them willingly. For trinity day, we delivered a large barrel with calamus. That revived in many the pleasant memories of celebrating that feast in their childhood years. My work helped me appreciate how much the Christian faith mattered in their everyday lives.
I became friends with most of the traders in the market. One of them, a Muslim, always left a donation for the church. He also brought from me a candle or two and a bunch of willows. I met him years later at the cathedral standing before the icon of the Mother of God of Minsk. Some of them joined me on religious visits to the holy sites. We went together to Zhirovichi Monastery, the grave of Saint Valentina of Minsk, and Saint Elisabeth Convent. Some of them have become regular visitors to our Convent.
Describe your best moments and encounters in your obediences at the Convent
After many years at the central market and at the church stand in a Western suburb of Minsk, I received a surprise offer of a new appointment. My task was to travel to exhibitions in Russia and arrange food and accommodations for my team while there.
In the beginning, I was hesitant. But I found every exhibition an exciting experience; moreover, I was deeply moved by the warm and generous welcome from the local people. As soon as we arrived, the people would bring us food and offer us meals never asking for any money. One September, we went to an exhibition in Belgorod. Soon after our arrival, a spell of cold weather began. We had brought no warm clothes and were staying in tents. A church priest allowed us to put up tents in a green area around a church and to come to its refectory for meals. The parish sisters brought us some warm clothes, many of them brand new. The people gave away their best, and it was deeply moving.
Another time, we travelled to Karachev, a small town in Russia’s Bryansk region, Where to participated in an exhibition dedicated to Saint Elisabeth Romanov. The hospitality and generosity of its people were amazing. They make delicious pancakes, and the parishioners of the local parish treated us to pancakes with cottage cheese at breakfast and pancakes with jam and sour cream at lunch/ But our biggest challenge was finding affordable accommodation. The local priest sent us to a comfortable hotel. Our whole team of fifteen people stayed for two weeks. But in the back of my mind, there was always the fear Of not being able to pay the bill.
On the last day of our visit, I met the hotel owner Valentina. I told her about the convent and its farmsteads where disadvantaged people find a roof over their heads. She let me finish and then said, “My husband Nikolay built this hotel. He was gentle and kind, but he had a passion for alcohol. Last year, he had a heart attack and departed to God. I will not charge you for the rooms, that will be my donation for your Convent. Valentina did not take any money. Last December, she, too, fell asleep in the Lord. We pray that God will have accepted her sacrifice.
I thank God for all my happy encounters during my obedience.
As the Holy Fathers write, the Lord lets us experience His love through the love of our neighbours, and your examples confirm that beyond a doubt. How do you feel the presence of God’s love in your life?
I have sensed God’s love for me ever since my first communion. I have not lost that feeling to this day. God shows me His patience, mercy and compassion for my infirmities. I sense His closeness at all times, but especially at some of my most tragic moments of loss and grief. He was with me at the departure of my husband and my mother. I come from rural Ukraine, where it is the custom to wail over the body of the deceased. My mother asked me to wail over her when she died. On my way to her funeral, I read the psalter. When I entered the room, she was lying in the coffin with a smile on her face. So I said, ‘Mother, you are so beautiful. How can I wail over you.” God showed me another life, and I did not cry.
When my husband was leaving, he said, “Do not worry, You have been telling me all along that there is no death. Our separation is not forever." I know that we will reunite. In God, all are alive.
Unity and togetherness in God is a foundation of church life. What is your idea of togetherness, and how have you experienced it in your life?
I spent my childhood in rural Ukraine, where people from the same village treated each other as kin, - Sharing every joy and every sorrow. Most of us are over seventy now, but despite the age, our relationships have not changed. Every time I come to my village and visit my family home, the neighbours will come to me with gifts - A jar of tomato juice, pickles or eggplants. People still care.
I keep in touch with my peers from university and the mountain climbing club. We are still good friends. I would not hesitate to call any of them if I needed help, and I will always come to their help if they ask. I would never say no.
As students, we lived in the halls of residence eight people to a room. Parents sent us food parcels - fish from Kaliningrad, applies, tomatoes and lard from Ukraine, and kielbasa from Belarus. Anyone was free to help themselves to food from any of the parcels, but be careful to leave some for others. After university, we went to each others' weddings and the baptisms and weddings of our children. In the late 1980s, some of us went into business, others were less successful. But we still held together and came to each others’ help. These are lasting relationships in which we are the servants of one another.
It has changed a lot in recent years as people have become better off and begun to live more comfortably. It has become more problematic to do something for another without expecting anything in return. Altruistic giving has become suspect behaviour. It has become less normal to visit a close friend uninvited. But thankfully, my relationships with my friends from childhood and youthful years have not changed. The sense of community among us is still strong.
How have you experienced the sense of togetherness in the life of Saint Elisabeth Convent and its sisterhood?
That sense of community is alive among our sisters, and that is good news. We go carol-singing together, we assemble for an Akathist or simply to share each others’ joy.
If I have a problem with someone, and I cannot handle it myself, I know I can ask a monastic sister for prayer or advice. “Mother, I am having difficulty with so-and-so. I do not know what to do. Please pray.” She prays, and the situation resolves itself. Such intercessory prayer is also a beautiful aspect of the spirit of community among us. The closeness of spirits overcomes physical distances and every adversity. Our unity in Christ is my visible proof that death has no power over us.
The sisterhood and convent are my family and my life. We say the same prayers and come to the same Cup. We discover talent and versatility in others and leave a trace in each others’ hearts. I thank God for the unity among us. Our togetherness matters a lot to me.