‘My Convent this’... ‘Our Convent that’… I hear people using a possessive case with the word all the time. Indeed, the past 20 years have made St Elisabeth Convent close to many hearts. The parishioners, the labourers and the many friends in many countries have been united as one helping the Sisters build it. It is no surprise that many different people view the Convent in a certain sense as a public domain. At the same time, it is amazing how many of us, no matter how different from one another, find peace and consolation here, whether in service, prayer or work. Thinking about it makes you realize that everyone here has his or her very own, personal Convent. And that is just the way it should be because love in Christ knows no boundaries.
Today it seems that the beautiful church ensemble, the school and all the other parts of the Convent have always just been there. Everything was different 20 years ago when the very idea of building a convent in the city of Minsk was nothing short of a utopia or a fairytale. This one, however, was meant to come true “For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them,” said the Lord (Matthew 18:20).
I was still a schoolgirl in distant 1996. I enjoyed reading the hagiographies. I often borrowed them from the parish library at St Peter and Paul’s church that I often visited. Father Andrey Lemeshonok, currently the spiritual father of the Convent, was parish priest there back in the day. I knew nothing about the newly-formed Sisterhood until one day a girl at the library told my mom about it when she came to pick up a book for me. I took it as an informal invitation.
When I first came to the Sisterhood meeting there were no more than 10 of us there. We were playing records with talks of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). The Lord gathered us in the spirit of edification. He was slowly turning our hearts in unison so that we could sense His voice and know His will before setting out on a long journey together. At the same time, the Sisters were serving in hospitals. Soon came a burst of boldness that brought us an idea of building a church or, better yet, a convent with a church of the Reigning Icon, big enough to fit everyone. An imprint of that breakthrough will remain in my heart forever.
The scale of the endeavour made even most faithful people sceptical. That made perfect sense because by human standards the idea was all but insane. We felt that we needed to put our decision on a trial and make sure that it was really God’s will. We went to the island of Zalit (Talabsk) to see elder Nikolay Guryanov and ask for his blessing.
That visit holds a special place in each Sister’s life. I remember everyone being very anxious when we arrived. As usual, we began reading the Akathist to St Nicholas as we reached the place. The elder did not come at once and let us finish our prayer alone. We were under so much strain and our hearts were addressing God in prayer with so much eagerness and sincerity! When we were through with the Akathist, elder Nikolay came to greet us. The birds were not afraid of him and sat on his hands as he stretched them. It looked as if they were greeting their beloved friend. We were watching the elder and realizing that there is no better witness to God than unconditional love to every living creature. It was inconceivable to us how the fullness of love was neighbouring in his personality with utmost simplicity. In his own words, “Where there is simplicity, there are a hundred Angels, but where there is cleverness, there are none.”
Father Andrey Lemeshonok
Elder Nikolay gave his blessing to start building the Convent and a small contribution. ‘People will provide the rest,’ he added warmly. And so it happened.
Our return from that journey marked the beginning of a three-year construction project that all the Sisters participated in. The obediences were very diverse, but all the ‘white’ sisters were united by one. They all went out in the streets. Some were carrying donation boxes, others had church items that they were offering to people.
That period was special in many ways because God Himself was the moving force. Inspired by His grace, the Sisters forgot about themselves. They were giving all their time to the formation of the Convent. It would not be true if I said that it was easy, but God covered our infirmities by His love. Those were the days when it was clear to us that every small breath, every step was taken for God’s sake is generously rewarded by His abundant mercy and benevolence. I am not saying, however, that this time is over now. But I do see (and I am not the only one) that we as a community are now entering a stage of new, more serious and mature changes. If such a word as ‘maturity’ can be applied to the Convent’s age...
It is important to mention that fervent prayer (private and conciliar) that all the Sisters were entrusted with by elder Nikolay is starting to take its place next to outward obedience.
It is natural, that family and friends were not always enthusiastic about such dramatic changes in the lives of their near and dear. I was no exception. Many people looked the other way when they saw me dressed as a religious sister. Some thought that I had gone insane. My relatives would speak in categorical terms. Indeed, it is not easy for the worldly rationality to give any good reason why a girl who is unharmed and successful on the outside applies for an academic leave to help build a convent and gather donations or spend days at the counter with church items. Today I myself find it hard to believe, but if I had to repeat this path, I would not hesitate a bit. In fact, there is nothing unique about my little story, possibly the smallest of hundreds of others, that are hidden from the eye and that God only knows about.
This is how a miracle was becoming reality, day by day. Before long St Nicholas church was built and then came the first Liturgy, and it just went on and on… It is noteworthy that at first, the ‘white’ Sisters were the ones reaching out to people and introducing people the life in Church. Through their efforts many started coming to services, growing in faith and finding hope and consolation in God. Indeed, talking to a Sister in the street is much easier than finding the time to go to church and discussing something with a priest. But soon the tables turned. People started coming to the ‘white’ sisters with grateful hearts, telling them about the miracles that happened in their lives after their encounter with God. The people in hospitals and boarding homes are the ones that stand at the very origins of the Convent story. The services there were also filled with God’s blessings.
I would especially like to stress that the construction of the monastic buildings has never been viewed as a primary goal here. Just on the contrary, everything that has been done in the Convent from day one until this moment has one sole purpose of serving the neighbour. The Convent, the Sisterhood and everything else that God has created here are by the people and for the people. In my view, only the sincere devotion to this ministry makes it possible for the Convent to complete tasks that look unthinkable.
But God continues to act, leading us forward…
In our Spiritual Father’s words, surrendering to God’s will ‘we are not looking back, we are only facing the future’. Indeed, there is no time to get stuck in the past, when God is calling us to new accomplishments for the sake of our neighbour and our holy land. Some might call us dreamers, but a fairytale may come true if you believe in it. We can make it real for the glory and through the love of God.
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.