ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

The church is free to operate in the former communist bloc. In this article we learn how some Americans are helping the church to flourish there.

The small village of Panik, Armenia, is desperately poor. The 750 families who live there must struggle daily for the food and other essentials they need to survive. Hunger is no stranger.

As strong as their hunger for food, however, is their hunger for spiritual nourishment. An Armenian Catholic village in the former Soviet Union, Panik was cut off from the church for over 50 years, until Father Gomidas Manoukian came to serve as their priest in 1991. The last priest had been deported and killed in 1937.

Although badly in need of repairs, the small 14th-century church was still standing when Father Manoukian arrived, and the people of Panik have managed to make it functional. Further repairs are needed, however, as are a parish hall and all the accoutrements of a functioning parish.

For the people of Panik, these would be but a dream, were it not for a new program initiated by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. We have paired their parish with the parish of St. Bernard in Alpena, Mich. The pastor of St. Bernard, Father Joseph P. Graff, has pledged the entire Lenten collection – a significant part of his parish income – for the parish in Panik. The people of St. Bernard are encouraged to increase their donations as a Lenten penance, and their response has been “enthusiastic,” Father Graff reports.

According to Mr. Sarkis Boghjalian, our Program Administrator for Eastern Europe, Panik was the first Catholic parish in Armenia to be recognized after the fall of the communist regime – and the first, but not the last, to be matched with a parish in the United States.

Far from Panik, in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, two American priests, Father Myron Effing and Father Dan Maurer, serve the parishioners of Most Holy Mother of God Church. They receive no salaries, for this parish too is very poor. Indeed the average Sunday collection does not even pay for the rent of the hall where Mass is currently being celebrated.

Parishioners were scattered during the Stalinist era and many were martyred together with their priests. For 60 years they were not allowed to practice their faith, nor hand it down to their children. So militant was the oppression that Christian words were even deleted from Russian dictionaries!

Before the revolution there were Catholic parishes in a number of cities in the Russian Far East. All were shut down. In 1992, Father Effing and Father Maurer were invited to eastern Russia by Bishop Joseph Werth, Apostolic Administrator of Novosibirsk, to reestablish the parish of Most Holy Mother of God. Today, it is the only Catholic parish covering a territory larger than Japan, Korea and the Philippines together.

Most Holy Mother of God Church has been matched with the Church of St. Mary in Little Falls, Minn., thanks to the perseverance of its pastor, Father John Miller.

Early last year, Father Miller sent a very substantial gift from his parishioners with a brief note: “…There is a Father Myron Effing, OSC, working in Russia. He is from our area. If you know of his whereabouts we would like to help him and his people.…” Mr. Boghjalian was asked to locate the priest. After a long search involving the assistance of the Apostolic Administrator for Catholics in European Russia, Archbishop Thaddaeus Kondrusiewicz, Father Effing was found and Father Miller was notified. The funds he had sent were deposited in the Vladivostok mission account and a new set of “twins” was born.

A third pairing occurred as a result of an inquiry from a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Edward in Princeton, Minn. We offered to twin St. Edward’s with a parish in Romania, Albania, Russia or, possibly, another country in Eastern Europe.

Father Mark Willenbring, Pastor of St. Edward’s, was quick to reply. “Knowing that Albania has just emerged as an atheistic country and that it is also the native country of Mother Teresa, we have decided to adopt a parish in that country,” he wrote. He asked us to select a parish in Albania and enclosed the first gift from the people of St. Edward’s.

Archbishop Rrok Mirdita of Durres-Tirana, Albania, was consulted. He suggested St. Lucy’s Church in Durres, which he called “the oldest and first cathedral in Albania.” It is now a parish of more than 7,000 people and badly in need of support. Father Willenbring was enthusiastic, and the match was made.

These three pairs of churches formed the nucleus of our parish sponsorship program, which is expected to grow enormously in the next few years. New matches are still being made, as generous American Catholics respond to the needs of their sisters and brothers in Eastern Europe. The sacrifices of these extraordinary Americans are bringing new life to the church in Eastern Europe as that church rises like a phoenix from the ashes of communism.

Peg Maron is Production Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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