Just imagine how fast it happened. The lay sisterhood came together in 1996; in 1997, we went to see Starets Nikolay and got his blessing, and our first worship service here was celebrated in 1998.
This was our first Easter. I remember it very well. It was damp. The site was still full of gravel, and we were standing within the walls of St. Nicholas Church under an open sky. That worship service was our first. Like all good things that happened for the first time, it was a blessing, a divine inspiration.
The first liturgy was celebrated on Palm Sunday, the feast of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem. I sometimes wished that it had happened a day earlier, on Lazarus Saturday. I just thought it would have been a good day, as the Grand Duchess Saint Elisabeth converted to Orthodoxy on a Lazarus Sunday. “We missed it just by one day,” I was saying to myself. It was not until years later that I realised why.
During one of my confessions, when I shared with Father Andrey that I would have liked to go to Jerusalem, but had no means to do so, Father Andrey responded: “Our Jerusalem is here”. He was right. Here, we find fulfilment in our communion with God, and we live complete lives; just as if the Lord let a man leave to “a distant country”, and that man was already longing to come back after having barely had a few of the pods that the pigs were eating; it is as if that man, before even setting out for his homeward journey, but looking in that direction, sees the Lord ready to embrace the lost wanderer. All of this was happening to me, and to many others like me. It was God’s will, not ours, for this place to serve as a spiritual core and magnet. All things that are worth looking for are found here. This is because the Convent has put at the centre of its life Communion, the Undrinkable Chalice and all the sacred things we live by. When the Metropolitan was giving us his blessing, he told us that our ministry would revolve around the Eucharist, and advised us to take communion as often as possible to energise our spirits and to replenish their power, however, limited, to shoulder the mission bestowed on us, which we can only do with God’s help.
I also remember the feast day of our church and the liturgy on 18 July 1998. I remember vividly the sight that I observed from the choir: the walls with holes in them, no ceiling slabs, rain pouring, and Father Alexander Pashkovsky (still one of the laity back then) holding an umbrella over the lampstand in the middle. Nearly all of our dedicated clergy come from the ranks of our laity.
It became a lot warmer inside the church when boilers were put up. Standing inside the church began to feel like being in a cosy room of a wooden village home. There was no longer the need for an umbrella, as all the slabs were put into place and all the holes were carefully mended. The people began to flock in, and soon there was not enough room for everyone inside, especially on a feast day. The patients from the ward would take up half the space, and our laity was growing in number, too.
Father Andrey has been saying all the time, that just building churches was not enough; it was important to give people the opportunity to engage in creative work. They can do so at our workshops, of which there are already more than forty. Through spiritual guidance and occupational activity, we are helping people to rebuild their lives. So it is no accident that the Convent is located so close to the mental clinic. Had we build our Convent for its own sake, we might as well have chosen a location outside of Minsk; we might have built it in some remote place in the middle of nowhere, but it would have been a different story. Over time, the Convent has developed strong linkages with the hospital; our compound shares a common boundary with the residential care facility and the mental clinic.
Why are we building new churches? The obvious reason is that the existing churches have become too small for the flock; we are responding to the need, and following the providential intent of our Lord.
The history of our sisterhood, churches and the Convent itself teaches one important lesson: the Lord has the power to create good things out of nothing; it illuminates the incomprehensible broadness of God, and His ability to defy our understanding of our possibilities and capabilities in our lives. To Him, the impossible is possible, and the creation of this Convent is yet another proof of this truth.
Over more than two decades of our history, there have been many examples of remarkable changes and transformations in the lives of individual people, some of which I have witnessed in person. Back when this place was still an unbuilt area, some of the patients in my care were going to worship services at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. For them, this was incredible progress from having once been completely indifferent to faith and the Church.
It was during the Great Lent. I was praying to God so that they could be healed from their maladies, but I was not fully confident that this would happen. An inner battle was going on inside me. A year or two later, as I was sitting at my desk at work, a handsome man opened the door. As I was about to tell him that he must have opened the wrong door, he greeted me by my first name: “Good morning, Yulia, how are you?” I remembered him. He was that same frail man who everybody thought had had very little time left to live, and who was spending hours praying at the church.
I was deeply moved by this transformation; it was as if he had risen from the dead. He told me his story. He said that he had lost everything - his home, job and family. But God gave him a new family and a new home. He had with him a certificate that carried a seal from a church. He was serving as a fiduciary of an archimandrite. God has the power to change people in miraculous ways. As we say in our prayers, the Church is not just the walls but the people who constitute the Body of Christ. Likewise, the Lord is working hard to build His Temple in the soul of each individual person like you and me. To me, that example is more than a source of joy, but also a reminder about the essence of our mission and our ministry.
The Convent’s farmsteads also took some time to get established. In the beginning, we acquired a large run-down house in Sukhorukie Village, close to one of Minsk’s new residential areas. The people who are now approaching us for permission to stay at our farmsteads used to be accommodated there. Together with one of the patients in my care who was previously addicted to narcotics, we were visiting its residents regularly to talk to them about faith and read the Akathists. Admittedly, our obedience had its exciting moments. One day, as I was preparing to enter a house to talk about life and faith, its residents were having a dispute and bracing themselves to fight it out. We were just in time. My prayer to the Lord and the sight of the cross on my vestments finally cooled them down.
The history of our present farmstead began when we acquired a land parcel and an abandoned cattle farm. At first, it was seen as a new headache. Nobody knew what to do with this acquisition. One thing was clear: the dwellers at Sukhorukiye should be given a new chance at the new location. It was also very clear that the farmstead was a special project and a novel challenge.
Schema-monk Peter of blessed memory was living among us then. He was a former military officer and had a lot of life experience. He was the only one at the time to whom the brothers at the farmstead would listen. He was the first person who succeeded in bringing some order to the place. He blazed the trail for the monastic sisters, and they launched a new construction at that site.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ! Our resurrected Lord has been ever-present in our lives and in our spirits. This place is the evidence of God’s everlasting presence which is as clear and tangible as it is mysterious and elusive to our hearts and minds; it manifests God’s limitless goodness and generosity, His capability to deliver things that no-one would ever dare to contemplate or even imagine. Through the grace and blessing of our Lord and our own effort and dedication, our lay sisterhood, which used to be as small and barely visible as a mustard seed, has grown into a large tree with strong roots and branches that can offer shelter, solace and reinforcement to any soul and add a new chapter in our service to Christ. This is a tree that has a solid trunk and well-established roots, which I have explored in my historical review.
Let us all pray for these roots to remain strong; let us pray for the hospital and its patients, and ask the Lord to shed his goodness and mercy on them, so grace would increase all the more.
It’s been almost twenty years since the sisters and brothers of Saint Elisabeth Convent started to visit the Boarding Home for children with special needs, which is located near the Convent grounds in Minsk.
Galina Goncharova is a sister of charity at our Convent. She is also an inspired teacher of music and the leader of a musical group. In our interview, we discuss how her coming to God changed her life and gave it a new meaning.