Sister Leonilla Utekhina found God when she was forty-five years of age, and joined the parish of the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul that had just reopened in the 1990s. Eventually, she became a part of the Convent’s lay sisterhood in honour of Saint Elisabeth Romanov. 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 to find out.
Many people discover God during their moments of hardship, as they battle with a disease or great sorrow. How did you find God? And what brought you to discover Him?
Finding genuine faith in God is extremely difficult for most people. These days, one may have to go through a lot of pain before they even begin to think about living in the spirit. Yet I would not say that I came to believe because of some sorrow, tragedy or illness. Finding God also depends on whether we encounter in our lives someone with genuine faith who would show us the way of truth.
Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul
For me, it was my grandmother Agafya. She had eight children, of whom six survived. Most went to university and became atheists and Communists. Those were the times. Speaking about myself... When I was born, my parents named me Eleanor in honour of Eleanor Roosevelt. But my grandmother was telling me, "You are not Eleanor” Your baptismal name is Leonilla! I have gone by this name for the last three decades, ever since my baptism.
At university, I was a staunch non-believer. I was a young communist and presided over the young communist chapter of my course. I was the only student who received the top grade in my exam in scientific atheism. I was very proud. At some point, I turned forty-five. My father in law was an Archpriest in Samara, Russia, and we chose to baptise our youngest daughter at his church. She was born in 1979, and we did not get to go there until 1990. When we arrived, our relatives in Samara asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I answered confidently, “Sure!” “Do you go to church?” “Not yet, but I am going to,” I replied.
In Minsk, I used to work for the urban planning authority, responsible for area zoning in the capital and its compliance with environmental regulations. We included in the city’s master plan the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God, where we later served as a sisterhood. When I finally retired, I concentrated on my ministry with the sisterhood. I discovered God when I was ready for it. In my first year at university, I was looking for meaning to my life, and my peers were teasing me about it. I was asking myself, “How could it be possible for someone to live a life, to struggle and work for some cause, and then die and be buried in the pit?” I simply could not get myself to imagine that. When I met with my peers again fifty years later, they asked me again, “Have you found meaning to your life at last?” I said, “Actually, yes.” “We know!” they replied. “It reads on your face!”
How did your family discover God? Did they encounter any sorrows on their journey?
My whole family - my daughters, my two sons-in-law and my granddaughters are believers. I am so happy! While still a little girl, my granddaughter would say the whole morning prayer rule on her way to kindergarten. She stopped going to church at fifteen, but our priests tell us not to lose heart. They say we should give her some time.
My younger daughter married a graduate from Moscow’s Bauman Technical University, and they now live in Moscow Region. My son-in-law works in the space industry. The first time he crossed himself and stood before an icon was at his church wedding at Saint Elisabeth Convent. He is now a believer, and he helped build a church in Korolev, where they now live.
Do you know how he met my daughter? She was a new graduate from the linguistic university in Minsk. He was not a party goer. So she began to worry that she might stay single all her life and never find anyone she could marry. But I told her not to worry, for she was a nice person and her mister Right would find her eventually. And so he did. A friend was visiting Minsk with her nephew from the Moscow Region. She dropped in at my place for a few minutes. Her nephew took an interest in my daughter. He took her phone number and stayed in touch. After some time, my would-be son in law came to Minsk, invited my daughter for a visit and introduced us to his parents. After a year, they were happily married and had a church wedding. They now have three children.
My oldest daughter is a violinist and professional singer. Her husband secretly visited a small church in the northeast of Minsk and had a church wedding with my daughter many years after their marriage.
Speaking of sorrows, discovering God does not make our life easier. The Lord taught us to take our sorrows calmly. I have already been learning to do so for thirty years. Sorrows belong to our present, and not having any is reason to wonder. There is one thing I have come to understand over many years of my service with the sisterhood. We are not standing at the stalls to have enough goods to sell, or even obey our chief sister. We must do both, but our foremost task is to empathise with the pain and sorrows of every person who comes to see us.
It used to be a deliberate policy to convince people that religion and faith were for the weak and the retrograde. Nowadays, this stereotype is by and large gone.
How did your ministry at the sisterhood contribute to this change?
When Metropolitan Philaret gave us his blessing, he said: “Your foremost task is to love each person who comes before you and to take his troubles as your own.” In turn, Father Andrey remarked: “People feel in their hearts how you perceive them. They should see the truth in our eyes; if they see hypocrisy, they will walk by. People feel the energies that flow from you.” People are looking to be heard; they are reaching for warmth and sympathy. We pursued our ministry at Gvardeyskaya Street in Minsk for almost 15 years. We were collecting donations. A large proportion of the residents in this area are intellectuals. We spent long hours in discussions with the deans of university faculties about educating the young generations. I also saw tremendous changes happen in people. In the beginning, many were upset by our presence, but then people’s hearts softened, they began to greet us warmly, and leave prayer notes with us. I see an enormous transformation happening in people's hearts and their perception of the world. It’s God’s work above all.
Next to the location of our ministry are two prominent hotels. They are favourites among the actors and film directors who come for film festivals and other events to Minsk. I have had a chance to talk to many of them. They have ordered books, asked questions and changed their thinking about the Church.
How has the sisterhood changed your life, and what would you advise to the next generation of the sisters?
The Convent and the sisterhood are my life; they are my breath of fresh air and comfort to my soul. I am not as fit as I used to be, so I no longer come to every vigil service. I find it too hard to remain standing for six hours, but I cannot remain seated, either, I just cannot remain seated when I hear “In the name of the Father”.
Our fathers, the priests, have become like family to us. Father Andrey Malakhovsky Baptised all four of my granddaughters wedded my younger daughter and son in law, led the funeral service for my husband, and is the spiritual father of my other son in law. Fathers Alexander and Valery are also a part of our old guard. I remember Father Oleg Kovalenko as a small child - he grew up in our midst. Now he is a respected priest. Father Rodion Alkhovik also grew with the sisterhood. Many children of our sisters have studied at the seminary and become priests or monks.
The new generation of the sisters has a slightly different substrate. They are well educated, hard-working and knowledgeable. But I think that the key ingredient to a successful ministry is still a big heart. People always look for empathy and depth and they still want to see both in our eyes. They want to see and experience warmth, care and kindness.