For every Orthodox Christian, each day is a day of Eastertide, reminding us about Christ’s ultimate victory. Indeed, our lives are filled with opportunities for victories of our own. Each and every day. As our spiritual father says, Christian Orthodox believers have many joys in their lives. We rejoice as we celebrate the feast days of our saints one after another, and address our prayers to them; we also rejoice when we see the many victories ahead of us that we can have. Let me present to you this account of the highlights from the history of our Convent, and share with you the memories that I hold dear to my heart.
This God-blessed location where we are all standing through God’s mercy used to be a piece of barren land with nothing but sand on it. But there was also us, full of hopes and aspirations. Looking back at those times, none of us could have imagined what we have here today in our wildest dreams.
The history of the Convent does not begin from its campus; it starts from the hospital. The hospital walls and the life behind these walls are still at the core of what is going on and taking root at the Convent.
Let me ask all of you to remember the hospital in your prayers, a place that is still filled with great pain, and continues to be at the centre of our most bitter battles. These are the battles for people’s hearts, lives and souls. Like any other battle, they are never easy and demand immense effort and concentration from all of us. This is not an exaggeration.
In the words of our spiritual father Andrey Lemeshonok, the starting point was the sorrowful hearts of the people and their pleas for God’s help.
To get us going, Father Andrey made a bold and ambitious suggestion. He invited the lay sisters of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul who were attending prayer services and confessing to him to visit the wards of the mental health clinic and tell the patients about God, the Holy Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, and about life with God.
This was a place of great sorrow. At that time, hospitalisation in the mental hospital was seen as a life sentence. So when Father Andrey invited me to come along, my knees trembled, and I doubted if I would ever be able to convince myself to go there. The area where the clinic was located was not just a suburb of Minsk, but one of its dark corners.
Just imagine: in the middle of a prayer service in one of the central churches of Minsk, I receive an invitation to enter the very furnace of affliction, and to step into the realm of the impossible.
I could not say no to my confessor. I just asked: “Who are we visiting?” He answered: “People on mandatory treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, or people who have killed and or robbed, and were committed to a mental clinic.” “Who is coming with me?” I asked. “I will join you for the first visit and hold your hand,” said Father Andrey. At that time, I thought that my first visit there would also be my last one.
That happened in November 1996. I can still remember that special day. A task force of priests was leaving for the Clinic. It was comprised of Father Andrey Lemeshonok, Father Vladimir Yerkovich, and Father Anatoly Soldatov. They brought me along.
We were on our way to hear a first confession. They opened the gates of the hospital for us. This launched a sequence of incredible miracles. They were so inconceivable that most people would find it difficult to accept them as truth. For most people truth is logical, but these miracles defy all logic. All was illogical in our case, and everyone was beyond logic. There was no logical reason to even look this way, or to respond to requests from strangers who were asking us to visit their relatives, to hear their confessions and to give them communion.
We visited every ward of the hospital. My knees were shaking, and my hands were trembling. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say to all these patients who were complete strangers and who were suffering. Not only did I not understand the extent of their pain, I could not even imagine it. What hope could I have then to be able to relieve at least a small portion of it? I was just beginning to grow in my faith then. At least I had not refused the request from my confessor.
The real miracle was our ability, despite the trembling knees and shaking hands, to take that same route over and over again, to come to the hospital, to ring that bell at the gate, to step in and to forget ourselves once we are there. Stepping through that gate was like entering another world. Many of the patients had very serious conditions. I was telling them about God and crossing them with a trembling hand. One important thing that I realised was that it was not just me who was speaking; the right words where coming to my mind as if out of nowhere, they were having a lot of power; they seemed to break through the misery of the patients’ surroundings. I felt that I was not alone. Christ was among us; He was leading the way. He was the one who entered the ward first, and I was following in His footsteps.
All the miracles were coming from Him, through His workings. He opened the doors of the wards with some of the most difficult patients. In those times, this was almost unthinkable, as mental clinics were usually closed to the public.
As it happens, the day-to-day logic by which I used to live before coming to the clinic, was no longer valid at all, and had to be left at its door; it was giving way to some greater power that transgressed the boundaries of one’s mind, experience or imagination. This was how we saw the situation from our young people’s perspectives. It was as if we had entered a new stage in our lives, and it continues to bear fruit to this day. It was the time of our first discovery that nothing was impossible to God. To us, this was not some set of high-sounding words, but nothing less than a lived truth.
We were at the door of a new phase, the phase of transformation and transfiguration that continues to challenge our view of what is possible; it also opens our minds to a new reality, one that we are all happy to embrace and rejoice in. On the day of our Convent’s anniversary, we go back to its beginnings, and its beginnings are here at the mental hospital. It is an area of special meaning to all of us.
Starets Nikolay Guryanov said: “You will be saved through the prayers of these people?” What did he have in mind? I have been asking myself this question for more than a decade. When I enter a ward, I see tormented patients struggling with their conditions. My heart bleeds when I see them living through the most acute episodes of their illnesses. It comes as a real miracle that a patient who is agitated most of the time suddenly desires to hear about prayer, consents to making a confession and repents for the first time in his life. Then he crosses himself and repeats the words of the prayer “Lord have mercy on me”, which he has never done before. This comes as a real breakthrough.
Perhaps this was exactly what Starets Nikolay had in mind. “You will be saved through their prayers!” This must have meant someone turning to God, abandoning their old habits, and saying their first prayer. It is for this moment of enlightenment, of challenging the boundaries of the possible that we continue to build and strengthen our Convent. All of this work has been done within a very limited time frame.
The first floor of this hospital compound used to house an occupational therapy ward with a small room for hypnosis sessions. We were allowed to put in this room a box which was used as the altar of an improvised church, where we took communion and invited the patients from the ward to join us in a liturgy which was celebrated every Thursday. This occupational therapy centre became the first place where a church was opened inside the hospital. At present, it is no longer active.
However, it still means a lot to me as the place of our sorrow, love and our rebirth in Christ.
Our first nurses of charity, the senior sisters of our lay sisterhood, were hospital employees. Nun Evpraxia was one of them, and she was the focal point for all the work to enable the hospital patients to take part in the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. Sister Kseniya Verbitskaya is a former doctor of the City Hospital No. 2, which used to be located near Nemiga Metro Station and was another location for our ministry.
Father Andrey was fully supportive of the initiatives that came from these sisters. He told us about several oaths to God that he made when he was ordained as a priest. His first was to say a sermon at all times and the second was never to turn down a single request for spiritual guidance. From what we know of Father Andrey, and we know him well, he has never defaulted on these promises. On one occasion, when the sisters invited him to give communion to the patients, he said: “I was standing in front of a vast sea of people whose souls were yearning for God”. He recognised how important it was to tell all these people about God, and to go one step further by letting them partake of the Holy Sacraments.
The basement floor of the compound - the one with the small windows - used to be the first site of our icon-painting workshop. Most icons that are now at the Church of Saint Nicholas were painted here. Back then, Father Sergius Nezhbort was still a student at the Academy of Arts. He and his friends were trying their hand as icon painters. They were spending their days and their nights here. These two locations, the church and the icon-painting workshops, were shedding a divine light on the entire area where we are now standing.
That was back in 1996. That time was filled with precious moments that have become some endearing memories. We were pioneers. Filled with lofty thoughts and ideals, we were full of ambitions, and felt the grace and protection of God.
I remember one cold evening when we were walking together with Father Andrey along a narrow lane laid with rocks to catch our bus. It was the middle of November, and it was about as cold as minus 20. Father Andrey was wearing a thin cloak, but was still quite comfortable. Sometimes, he could even walk around without a coat on. The feeling of God’s blessing was giving us wings. The moments of repentance are very special indeed. We all know that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one person who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. At the ward, there were days when as many as 20 - 30 patients at a time confessed their sins. Father Andrey’s beard was all frozen over that evening in the bitter cold, but the joy of the prayer was still keeping him warm.
On 7 December 1996, the feast day of the Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth, we were ordained at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul as sisters of charity by Metropolitan Filaret of Slutsk and Minsk. It was a special ceremony. Each of the sisters ascended to the pulpit one by one. The Metropolitan sprinkled each sister with water, laid his hand on her head, read a prayer and said a word of blessing to each. Twenty sisters were ordained on that day. We still keep a photo of us with the Metropolitan.
It was a great responsibility and a challenge; but most importantly, this became my calling for the rest of my life. As the Metropolitan laid his hand on my head, I had the feeling that it was a blessing coming from God himself.
In the spring, we travelled to Zalit Island to see Starets Nikolay Guryanov. There were forty of us, all dressed in white vestments. He welcomed us saying: “Where are you coming from, birds of heaven, white monastic sisters, my holy people?” He rewarded us generously with his praise. Indeed, we all appeared like white doves in our white vestments. He was already old and infirm, and was having difficulty walking; still, he welcomed every one of us. Standing at the gate, he talked to every sister, and I remember that conversation very well. He gave his blessing to all the sisters and said his memorable words: “You will be saved through their prayers”. Still holding on to the gate, he continued: “You will build the churches, and the convent, and I will help you with this”.
He gave us five Russian roubles saying: “This is my first contribution towards building the church”. At that time, it was the only Russian banknote which had the water mark with a depiction of a church. We all saw it as a good beginning, and a great first step.
Lay and monastic sisters have worked hand in hand in St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk for over two decades in the places where love and care are especially needed.
The Convent’s compound and churches were built in a remarkably short time. How did this miracle happen? Sister Yulia Kostukevich shares her insights in the second part of her first-person account of our history.