It has been almost a quarter-century since you joined the sisterhood. What brought you here? What were your main motives?
I doubt if I would have ever joined the sisterhood if God had not touched me with His grace at seventeen and had not opened my eyes to the beauty of the Orthodox faith. It would not have happened if I had not been going to church every week for worship and communion, or if I had not met there my kindred spirits - my brothers and sisters in Christ.
I came to Christ in the early days of the sisterhood. Father Andrey Lemeshonok offered me to sing in the choir. But I was a poor singer. Instead, I joined a group of volunteers who cleaned and decorated the cathedral after its return to the Church. Eventually, I joined the catechist school, where I met sister Olga, a woman of exceptional modesty, humility and wisdom. She became my role model in my spiritual and personal growth.
In 1996, Father Andrey and the sisters visited Elder Nikolay Guryanov, Father Andrey's spiritual father, on Zalit Island in Russia. That visit left a deep imprint on my life. The elder came outside and talked to every sister. He advised some to consider taking tonsure, others to pray for a husband. I still remember what he said to me, “If you decide to marry, have a church wedding.” I was twenty-one then, a long seventeen years before I met my husband.
I was then working at the ticket offices, and also as a train guard. As a train guard, I travelled to Moscow, Kiev and Saint Petersburg. I was in good standing at work, but I had set myself a goal - to leave my worldly job and work at a church. Father Andrey gave me his blessing, and I received my first obedience. I went out into the streets with a donation box. Soon, the Convent began to open church stalls in different locations throughout the city, but eventually, many closed down. I was dismayed and began to doubt the wisdom of leaving my secular job. Again, I travelled to Elder Nikolay Guryanov. He blessed me to work in the Convent’s sewing workshop that had just opened.
What did the years of your service in the sisterhood teach you?
First, I learned how to sew. I learned from scratch at the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Domoshany and the Monastery of the Saviour and Saint Euphrosyne in Polotsk. I worked at the workshop for eleven years, including three years as a senior sister. We sewed Mitres and Klobuks for the Metropolitan, the clergy and monks.
We operated from the residential care facility for disabled children and adults. Its patients often came in for a chat. Once I was working on an order that I knew we would not complete on time. Exhausted and upset, I went to church for the Akathist to the Blessed Xenia of Saint Petersburg. I was kneeling on the church floor when Yury, a patient, came up and lifted me from my knees. He knew about my sadness and exhaustion - both moral and physical - and came to comfort me.
Father Andrey spoke to us a lot about the ministry among the care home patients. But it was only at that moment that I understood what it meant to give more and take less. So I began to visit the patients. There, I met the medical attendants, the people who spent the most time with the patients. They worked hard, sparing no effort to ease their lives and look after the bedridden patients. They, too, needed spiritual guidance. We talked to them, and our conversations found a response in their hearts. Those meetings were an enlightening experience for all of us, as well.
You chose to marry and live in the world. Many people choose the same, but cannot find a kindred spirit. What might you tell them?
I waited for my other half for many years. There were moments when I thought that I would never have a family. But faith, prayer and submission to the will of God and trust in Him helped me find happiness in my life. Now, I am happily married. We married eight years ago, and have been carrying each other’s burdens ever since. The years I spent waiting for him to come taught me how to seek out the will of God, avoid hasty decisions and sad mistakes.
It all began soon after I graduated from railway college when I met my first young man in my first job at the military ticket offices. He was the assistant commander, a lieutenant soon promoted to captain and major. His name was Alexander. He treated me as his girlfriend and was planning to marry me - but said he needed to buy a flat first.
After seven years, he finally bought the flat and made me a formal offer of marriage. He even accepted my change of heart and did not argue with my decision to quit my secular job and work at the Convent. But there was another facet to his personality - his commanding tone and indifference to the faith. One day, he said to me, “I wish to see you smile more. You are not the same person I knew before. -
I feared that I might be making the wrong life choice, and I travelled to elder Nikolay to ask for his blessing and clear my doubts. But he did not give me his blessing "If I give you the blessing to marry now, you will hold a grudge against me all your life," he said. Perhaps he realised that we were not heading for a happy marriage... On my return to Minsk, I told Alexander that Father Nikolay refused to bless our marriage. We parted, and I began the long wait for the right man.
I waited, with hope and prayer, for many years - Until a patient named Nikolay came up to me sometime in May and announced: “You will marry before the end of this year.” For some reason, I believed him. His words gave me peace and calm at heart.
My husband to be was also doing ministry at the care facility. Together, we decorated the church for the Paschal holidays. We met for the first time during an Akathist to St. Xenia of Saint Petersburg. All these seventeen years, I had been reading this Akathist asking God to spare me from an unbefitting marriage and send me a husband.
He proposed to me four months later during the great procession of the Cross, and on 4 October Father Andrey Malakhovsky conducted our church wedding at the Convent of Saint Elisabeth. After the wedding, we went to see the patients. We shared our joy and thanked them for their love, sympathy and prayers. Everyone rejoiced. “We have so many funerals, and now we welcome a wedding at last.” Everyone came with a gift - an icon or a rhyme. It was an unforgettable time.
After the church wedding, Nikolay came up to me again and said, “You will have a baby soon.” He was right again. Now we have two daughters - Anya and Melanya.
How did your service in the sisterhood help you advance in the spirit and faith?
I was fortunate to come to work at the Convent. It made a remarkable difference in my life. God puts us in places that He finds conducive to our advancement and growth.
Greeting people behind the stalls taught me humility and self-control. Having to unpick a defective product in the sewing workshop was a sobering experience. All the twenty people there were different, and we had to do a lot of adjusting, but it all made us more mature. We had our sad and funny moments.
I was tense and uptight much of the time when I was at my job with the railway. But, as the workshop manager, I worked extensively on my constraints and limitations. Eventually, my self-confidence grew. I felt needed, and that was giving me wings.
Working at the Convent is different from secular employment. At the Convent, we feel connected to God and we advance spiritually. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. A sister of mercy is someone who projects God's love and joy onto others. She is accepting and non-judgemental. God trusts in our ability to become different, and so must a sister have trust in someone who comes to her. She should shed light on the life paths of others and become a beacon for them.
How does she see the impact of her ministry on the lives of others and her own life? How did her coming to God influence her perception? We interviewed Sister Leonilla Utekhina to find out.
December 7, 1996, is a special date in the history of our Convent. It was on that day that the Sisterhood in honour of the Holy Martyr Grand Princess Elisabeth was established.
Xenia Verbitskaya, a sister of mercy, together with Father Andrey Lemeshonok saw patients of the cancer ward at Minsk's city clinic No. 2. We interviewed her about the experience of her ministry and its purpose and meaning.
We look back at the history of the lay sisterhood in Honour of The Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth, which gave rise to our Convent.
At Saint Elisabeth Convent, Olga Shipilo has served as a sister of mercy for seventeen years. She explains how her service taught her courage, love and forgiveness
Lay and monastic sisters have worked hand in hand in St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk for over two decades in the places where love and care are especially needed.
It was a genuine feeling of victory in the middle of pandemic restrictions, depriving people of the simple joy of being together... And yet, there is always victory in Christ, even in the most difficult circumstances.