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. The Most Reverend Philaret, Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, put white robes on the first sisters of mercy during a service held in Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral in Minsk on St Catherine’s Day. The Psychiatric Hospital in Novinki was the first healthcare facility where our sisters came. A year later, the construction of the first church began here. Three years later, His Eminence Philaret blessed the foundation of St Elisabeth Convent. Our Convent is not limited to its walls even now: the hospital is its inseparable part…
Those who stood at the beginning of the Sisterhood share their memories of that day and tell us about their ministry.
by Nun Anfisa (Ostapchuk)
Twenty years ago… It’s been a long time. It has passed quickly like two years or two months… It has passed very fast, I could hardly notice it. It has been filled with good deeds, though - praise the Lord. It all started very simple. Father Andrew gathered all the ‘sheep’ and told them they should stop being sad and start helping others. These words were his blessing for our ministry. That was how our Sisterhood came about.
Metropolitan Philaret told us when giving us the white robes that it was Great Martyr Catherine who blessed us to do this apostolic work. He wished us strength in this ministry. We did not realise anything; we just knew that that was what God wanted us to do. We put on the white robes and went on to serve people. After the blessing, the first sisters of mercy went to Novinki, to the wards of the Psychiatric Hospital.
And then everything was going on thanks to God’s Providence, perhaps. It was natural and hardly noticeable. The Lord acts in a very subtle and simple manner, day by day, invisibly. Three years later the first sisters came to Novinki to stay and to dedicate their lives to God as monastics.
Ministry consists of simple everyday labour. There are no revolutionary slogans here. It’s that simple: you have to notice another person. You know, altruism ends quickly, it only lasts for so long, and then you have to get down to everyday work. It is very difficult. That is why God sends you that person so that you could help them just a little bit, like giving them a meal, but you see that you are so busy and you have to get going somewhere. At that point, you should stop and revisit your priorities again. Helping that person is more important than anything else. Ministry implies learning something daily. It means learning to notice other people and learning to look into their eyes. Even this can be crucial.
By Yulia Kostyukevich
Everything that has happened in my life during these twenty years was made possible out of the impossible. When I am worried about some circumstances of my obedience or whatever else, I recall how the Sisterhood and the Convent started. They started with the words of Father Andrew who was talking about building and growing, all the while I honestly didn’t buy it at all. This twenty-years-long road has proven to me that all things are possible unto God! Things that were completely impossible became evidently and obviously possible. I mean both the construction of the Convent buildings - the external factor - and the ministry and the people whom the sisters came to visit in hospitals. We started with the Sisterhood, and it was only later that we began thinking about establishing a Convent and about the intentions of some sisters to become nuns.
In the very beginning, I believe, everything was tied together with the courage of Father Andrew and God’s grace. It was absolutely evident. Even today, Father Andrew says sometimes, “When I look back, I wonder how I ever thought about all that?” It seems he doesn’t believe in himself now. At that time, it was me who did not believe in what I heard, in the plans that we were supposed to get done.
Notwithstanding my attitude and my thoughts, I realised - and it was God who gave me that feeling - that there was going to be a Convent eventually.
Novinki is a dreadful word for people. It is very frightening. It signifies impossibility to create or change anything for the better, inability for transformation - however, you call it. It was a territory where nothing was possible until 1996. They were simply afraid of this word. I was also afraid when Father Andrew suggested that I go there. Now I understand that God always acts on the verge of the impossible. There have been so many people who came to the church in this way!
I visit units for drug and alcohol addicts. Each time I go there is like my first. I can never get accustomed to it because I come and see the disaster: people looking awful, unconscious people, bound up to people, people who are literally perishing. It seems, well, is there anything anyone could do?
If there is a divine blessing, the seeds will grow on the soil that we don’t expect to bring any fruit at all. I am perfectly aware that this is a concrete bed. I have been sowing in this concrete for twenty years. But I also see that I go there with God! Now I know that trees can grow even on stones. These people are grown trees. They constantly go to confession and take communion. This experience of going from the impossible to the possible is what Novinki mean to me. Of course, this is the direction of my life: even as you find yourself in tricky situations, they don’t seem intractable to you. This is what I learned from my 20 years of experience.
Father Andrew keeps saying that we would not have done anything without God’s blessing. Our Convent and everything we can see, everything where we are now, appears as if things have always been this way but it couldn’t be possible without the blessing of the Metropolitan and Elder Nicholas Gurianov - and Father Andrew’s courage, of course.
I come to the Convent and see these walls, see this beauty, and it’s only in my memory that I keep that waste ground, which used to be here. It’s only in my memory. Today it seems to me that things have always been this way. This is why, of course, the Sisterhood and the Convent are really my life.
I used to think back in 1996 that it was a temporary stage in my life. I thought I would visit the hospital unit for some time and then quit but now I realise that my entire life depends on it. My entire life! During my day job in an art college, I tell my students about it. When I tell them about the faith, about God, my words are probably filled with this real experience.
I remember the 7th of December, 1996, very well. There were few sisters - just about twenty. The Metropolitan sprinkled us with holy water, lay his hand on our heads, and read some prayers. That is, it was a profession, and it felt precisely as such - as a divine blessing, as something like a tonsure even. And of course, it was so exalted; it felt like tapping into a life that lay beyond this world, so to say. I even had a personal miracle, so to say, because inspired by the Holy Spirit for lack of another plausible explanation, my parents came to visit me on that very day. I hadn’t told them about the ceremony. They live across the country. Imagine them driving 200 miles on that very day and dropping in Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral at that very time! My mum was crying. That was how important that event was.
By Zinaida Lobosova, the Senior Sister
The Sisterhood is a life you don’t get to choose. It was immensely hard to understand from the human point of view and impossible. I had a family, a job, and children - a regular life with all its worries. I recall how I declined an invitation to go to the boarding home but then asked, “Did Father Andrew bless it?” When I heard that he had, I realised it was God’s will. Later, Father Andrew also asked me about it privately. I had nothing else to say, and when it was time to go, I simply said to myself, “Go my feet!” It was thanks to this unabashed trust that God took the lead.
We didn’t understand a lot of things probably but when we crossed the threshold of a hospital unit, we prayed, and God gave us wisdom. I fell ill after my first visit to the hospital because I was struck by the awe of God. And then everything started to take shape. I come, read prayers, and then I feel what I have to say. We were simply talking about a current event in the life of the Church, about feasts, and about the events in our own lives. All things aside, we are one. Our community includes the Convent and the Sisterhood and the hospitals and the boarding homes - inseparable from each other. I wanted those who stay in the healthcare facilities to feel united in the Name of God. These people are those who pray for us. Please don’t think that you will be saved by virtue of visiting the sick. It is them who will rescue all of us. We feel somewhat subconsciously that they are ill and we are not. However, God knows better whose soul is healthier and stronger. The jury is still open about whose prayer is more powerful. I remember how I told Father Andrew, “See how they mumble Lord have mercy, how clumsily they make the sign of the cross,” but he replied that their sign of the cross is more powerful in the eyes of God than ours.
Is a real prayer possible without the liturgy? Father Andrew himself used to say that it is impossible not to celebrate liturgies. It is impossible not to partake of the Chalice. Otherwise, this undertaking would be an entirely human one, and as such, it would not last. Our first Liturgy was celebrated on the day of Exaltation of the Holy Cross in a hypnotarium. This is a place where they treat patients using hypnosis. I recall how on Easter if I remember correctly, we celebrated a Liturgy on a cloakroom stand. Father Andrew laid an antimension on the stand and started celebrating the Liturgy.
The staff were coming to work, and the patients who were allowed to get out of their units were standing in the foyer and we were standing with them, too. That was God’s will! It’s just incredible!
And then Father Andrew went to the units to see those who could not leave. On the previous day, he had heard the confessions of everyone in those twelve units! I remember it clearly. At a certain point, he said, “Enough. Let’s stop here.” It was physically impossible. We stood aside and started praying for God to give strength to Father Andrew to keep going because there had to be the Liturgy on the following day. Father Andrew emerged from the unit and said, “Let’s go.” Today, as we look back, we can see how God acted, and it becomes clear to us how vital it was for God - and that’s the reason why it came to be.
Today the boarding home is a social care facility from a secular standpoint but a monastery from God’s standpoint. It really is a monastery, judging by how the residents pray and what kind of life they have: filled with akathists, liturgies, all feasts - Pascha, the Nativity of Christ, St Xenia Day… We are currently in the process of rehearsing for a Christmas show, and everyone takes part in it - doctors, patients, brothers, and sisters. This is a feast for everyone! Everything is in common, and you can’t draw a line between the Convent and the hospital. They are one community of charity.
By Nun Juliania (Denisova)
It may be surprising but the birthday of the Sisterhood – December 7, 1996 – coincided with the first appearance of our choir, which consisted of just six members at that time, in Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral. Father George Latushko blessed the creation of the new choir. I gathered those who were willing to sing. We began rehearsals, and finally, the time came to show the results to the rector. He wanted to hear us sing and see if he hadn’t made a mistake when he blessed us. We were to sing several after-communion chants. I was very anxious and it took me some time to notice that there was something unusual going on down in the nave: His Eminence Philaret was standing on the soleas, and there were sisters in strange white kerchiefs and aprons (I didn’t know that it was their vestment), and several spiritual children of Father Andrew (and would-be nuns), whom I knew personally – Lena, Masha – were among them… Only later did I realise that it was the birthday of the Sisterhood and the Convent that grew out of it. Ten years later, our choir was transformed into the Festive Choir of St Elisabeth Convent. It was on that day that the seeds of all these undertakings, which were sowed by the Lord when our spiritual father, the Rev Andrew Lemeshonok, came to Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1992, sprouted out with humble white offshoots. Twenty years later, an enormous Christian community, which is often referred to as the Elisabethans by those who like us, grew out of these seeds as a surprise for the entire Orthodox world.
December 8, 2016