Lay sister Yulia Kostukevich
As we marked our twentieth birthday last summer, we invited some of our sisters of charity who have been with us from the very beginning to share first-hand their memories of our first years and of some of the most important moments in our life. Our sisters have responded with great enthusiasm. Their accounts have been included in a series of narrations titled “Reliving the history of St. Elisabeth Convent”. Today, we hear the story of the first narrator, Yulia Kostukevich, which she told a group of visitors while giving a guided tour of the Convent on its 20th anniversary.
The meetings of the sisterhood used to take place at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. We were sitting at our desks in a small room, listening to the inspirational speech of the young Father Andrey Lemeshonok. “Yes, my dear sisters. We are going to build churches and a convent,” he exclaimed, his eyes gleaming with the light of Heaven.
Father Andrew Lemeshonok
As I was hearing this, I was sad with disbelief. I was thinking about my job, and about my obediences in two wards. How am I ever going to build a convent? I looked at Mother Anfisa (she was then going by the name Anna) and imagined the two of us pushing forward a wheelbarrow loaded with cement. I thought to myself: “What a wonderful idea; and Father Andrey is so great. He has got so many good things going. How can he be so deluded?
My mind rejected every word I heard, but at heart, I was calm and confident that things would be exactly as he said. This contrast between what the mind can accept and the heart saying “Amen” has been present throughout our Convent’s history.
Soon after we returned from our visit to Starets Nikolay Guryanov, we were approached independently by several more people named Nikolay who offered their help. We felt that the starets was helping us.
One of the Nikolay's was passing the site of our Convent on a bus and thought that it would be a good idea to build a church there. He became our first foreman. The Architect also had the name Nikolay, and so did the gilder. Our first builders were the former patients from one of my wards. One of them was named Nikolai. He brought with him several other people who volunteered to help. Indeed, it was God’s will that the churches be built by the same people who had accepted Him.
The construction of Saint Elisabeth Church
All of their names are written in a special commemorative book, which is now a rare edition. This book is very dear to me. Its cover is made of the first drawings of our churches. One day, while construction was still in progress, we were having a conversation with Father Valery (whom we then called Valera), and he said to me: “We do not need the drawings any more, but they have been made on very good paper. Use the paper, so it is not wasted”. I took it, and after some time made a commemorative book from it. Only recently did I realise the meaning of it. The prayer for successful completion of our construction projects which we have been reading for over 20 years, says that the church is not just the walls, but also the people who form a part of the Body of Christ.
I treasure the book and mend it regularly in order to keep the memory of our progress.
After three of our priests (Father Andrey Lemeshonok and two more) finished hearing the confessions of the patients, many of the nurses at the hospital observed that the environment in the hospital changed, and became a lot more relaxed - even though the attitude to us varied a lot among the hospital staff, just as it does now. The change was so drastic that we almost saw Heaven open. This was a meeting of the people with God, without any exaggeration.
Back then, the chief doctor of the hospital was a man named Alexander Zorko. He gave us permission to visit the hospital wards and took responsibility for it. The churches were just beginning to open, and this decision was a personal decision and an act of courage. God will remember such acts of courage and support them. Alexander Zorko’s progress towards faith coincided with the transformation of the Convent’s site. The Convent’s growth also changed him as a person, leading him to confess and take communion regularly. May the Lord Save Him. God rest his soul. We all remember the servant of God Alexander in our prayers.
This is a historical place. The wooden blockhouse that used to stand here was where the ascetic exploits of our monastic sisters began. In the beginning, they were not monastics, but lay sisters. Some were studying, others were working. We all performed our ministry in the wards of the mental health clinic or the Minsk City Hospital #2. Eventually, we extended it to the residential care facilities for adults and children at Novinki. These were a major addition to our ongoing obediences, but it has been blessed by the Lord. We continue to travel this path to our salvation. We are helping a very special kind of people. They are people with open hearts, and the way they welcome and respond to us is truly healing for many of us.
The blockhouse was a one-storied compound. It was unheated and divided into two parts by a wall. The monastic sisters were sleeping in mats and mattresses, and this initial feat of asceticism became a test to their endurance and determination in many respects. The people had come from comfortable urban dwellings and had only just begun to live independently from their parents. Even running water was a problem. We were lucky to have many of our laity living nearby, who would let them use their showers and bathrooms.
This was also the gathering place for the sisters for prayers and worship. Everyone stood firm, and nobody left. Not only did these sisters endure, but new ones joined in. The arrangement of the mats, so there was enough space for everyone, was beginning to resemble a large quilt covering the whole floor.
Many were coming here to contemplate, listen and pray. It became a sort of spiritual magnet around which a close-knit community of would-be churchgoers was developing.
If we remain true to our Lord and not turn away from him; if we persist with our learning to trust Him fully, the Lord will bestow on us His generous blessing beyond what we might ever have expected. I fully believe this. This is the truth.
The men who were coming to our worship services were wearing hospital pyjamas. They were struggling to overcome their addictions to alcohol and drugs, coming to church for them was a big challenge which they were taking on themselves despite their infirmity.
Liturgy at the boarding home
As Father Andrey has said, churches are built for the people, and there are a lot of living here - more than 2000, the population of a small town. And God is certainly reaching out to them. One important idea that we often hear in our meetings, and which Father Andrey repeats time and again, is that we should take great care not to imagine ourselves as the saviours of these people. Wearing a vestment is an honour, but also a great responsibility; through our being here, the Lord is providing healing for our souls. I never cease to be amazed by the depth of many of the hospital patients, their willingness to embrace God and acceptance of each other.
Their tearful confessions revealed the great tenderness and gentleness of their souls, although at other times many would appear tough and impervious. Some come with criminal records, but even the toughest hearts will melt when God touches them. Some have asked me: “Why am I crying?” “Perhaps this is because God has been missing you so much,” I would reply. He has been waiting for a long time. When people have not seen each other for very long, and finally meet, don’t they cry from joy? You are fearful because God has been waiting to embrace you, and this has happened at last”.
Before we began to build the church we celebrated a Moleben at the construction site. We put an embroidered icon of St. Elisabeth made by one of the sisters on a chair and prayed in front of it - Father Andrey in the company of a handful of sisters. The icon can now be seen at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. I looked around in the middle of the Moleben and saw a row of cars on the road. People must have been finding the scene so unusual that they were stopping to look at us.
Lay sisterhood meeting
Two of the men who attended the Moleben were patients from the ward which I was visiting. They were both named Nikolay. One had a more sceptical attitude, and the other a more open and optimistic one. This same kind of struggle was going on within me. One part of me was on the opposing side, and the other was rejoicing. I am approached by each of the two parties one after another. One says: “Why are you standing here? What do you think you are doing? Use your brain; with a university diploma, you should know how to do it!” The second tries to convince me of the opposite and assures me that all of the projects will succeed. This kind of struggle was going on for many years, especially when they began to build the churches.
The churches and compounds were built very quickly, against all odds and expectations. This was acknowledged even by professional builders. But the actual construction was not done by high-class specialists; the bulk of the workforce were members of my little army of former patients; to make things even more difficult, many would go on drinking sprees from time to time. We were short of money, and there was absolutely no equipment in the beginning. But we were full of will and determination, and we had the support of many. Eventually, news about the construction reached the local enterprises, some of which began to contribute.
It was not rare for the machinery and cranes to break down. There was also some theft. Father Andrey would always say: “Sisters, let us read the Akathist to Saint Nicholas”. This way, daily reading of the Akathist to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker became yet another daily obedience for us. The prayers sped up our progress greatly.
Given the skill level of the builders, and their inconsistent performance, the pace of the construction was incredibly fast. Why? Simply because of the overwhelming feeling that time was short, and that they may yet fall through to the very bottom. And also because the Lord was giving us very little time to build these churches for the sake of the hospital patients, and the actual pace of the construction defied all logic and imagination.
The people were asking for a church to be built at the North Cemetery. Here, we were building for the living, there, for the dead, as it was obvious that prayer needed to sound there also. The construction was launched back in 2002. We sang worship hymns right at the construction site. Two years later, as we were on our way to celebrate a worship service for Radunitsa, the Day of the Dead, the domes of the church were already visible from afar. Can you imagine - it took less than two years to build! Father Andrey turned around and said, dreamingly: “We have built this church for the sake of the people, and it took us only a year to complete”. I intervened to correct him tactfully: “Father, it took almost two years,” - “Really? That was very long indeed,” said Father Andrey.
The church at the North Cemetery
Two years was indeed very long because the hospital patients needed one, we needed one; the city of the dead at the North Cemetery also could not wait for a church to be built. So all of the construction was taking very little time, and encountered some epic difficulties. Why such speed? Perhaps because it helped prevent the misappropriations. This can happen very easily. In the course of the construction, numerous challenges were encountered, and one had to turn to God all the time to address them. Prayer not only facilitates solutions but acts as a clear reminder that the churches were not being built by human effort alone.
To be continued...
On August 22, we will celebrate the birthday of our Convent. Twenty three years ago on this day, Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk and Slutsk, the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, tonsured three of our sisters to Rassophore and blessed seven…
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. It has seen many troubles, upheavals, tragedies and hardships.
As time passes, we tend to forget the way things were in the beginning. To preserve the unique memories of the Sisters who were the first to join the Convent, we asked them how it felt 20 years ago.
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.
The parishioners, the labourers and the many friends in many countries have been united as one helping the Sisters build St Elisabeth Convent. It is no surprise that many different people view the Convent in a certain sense as a public domain.
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.
On 22 August, we celebrated the birthday of our Convent. For many, the time spent at the Convent has become a treasure and a valuable experience and a source of inspiration. We asked nun Olga to talk about the highlights of her monastic life.