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Catholic Church in Siberia

May 16, 2008

by Jennifer Brinker, St. Louis Review Staff Writer

Life is not easy for Valentina who lives in a crumbling apartment building in the small village of Ola in far- eastern Siberia.

A constant sight for the single mother of two boys, including one newborn, is a large hole that prominently sits in the buildingís first flight of stairs.  From her apartment one can look down the main hallway and see outside of the building because the surrounding walls have fallen apart. Trash and cold air blow in exposing residents to the harsh Siberian winter even before they leave the building.

But life for Valentina and her boys is about to change for the better thanks to the efforts of a Catholic parish in Magadan, Russia.

The Church of the Nativity of Jesus in Magadan launched Nativity Inn last summer, an initiative to help women who face crisis pregnancies.  Behind the effort is Father David Means, the parishís associate pastor and a St. Louis native.  The priest is on a temporary assignment at Sakhalin Island off the coast of mainland Russia.

Magadan is about a 10-hour flight from Moscow. It also is the closest major city to Ola where Valentina lives ó about 45 minutes away. The Church of the Nativity has a membership of about 200, a far cry from Magadanís 100,000 residents.  Russian Orthodox is the major religion there.

Last month the parish secured an apartment in Ola which will be used to house expectant and new mothers according to Connie Hood, a St. Louis attorney who is spearheading local efforts to support the program in Magadan.  Valentina and her sons will be the apartmentís first residents.

"The apartment in Ola will be available for two women and their babies ó maybe a third," said Hood, a member of Ascension Parish in Chesterfield. "The apartment has one bedroom and a large room. Then there is a small kitchen and bathroom."

While several families will be living there, Hood said it "is in better shape than some of the places people live in." It will cost about $4,000 to renovate the apartment, and the work is expected to be completed some time this month.

The apartment also sits next door to another residence that the church uses to offer Mass and other services to the people of Ola. It is one of two missionary outreach efforts the church has outside of Magadan. The other is in Sokol about an hour away.

"Ola was close enough that [the priests] could get to a couple of times a week," said Hood. "Itís very rare for these people to make a trip to Magadan."

Since its inception last year, Nativity Inn has served dozens of women and their children with resources such as food, clothing, baby supplies, medicine, help with utility bills, job placement, schooling and other financial support. The parish also has a full-time employee, Luda, dedicated to helping with the intake.

The majority of women who attend the Church of the Nativity are widows or single parents.  Cases of alcoholism and unemployment are significant in Russia.

"Thereís a huge percent of babies born alive that die before their first birthday," noted Hood. "Iím convinced they donít have the medical expertise or equipment to save them.  In Magadan we know of babies who are born and didnít survive.  Itís just tragic."

The church is currently helping four women in Magadan ó two of whom have given birth and two who are still expecting.

Father Michael Shields, pastor of the Church of the Nativity, said they are part of a minority tribe of Indians called Eveni. The church also is providing assistance to two mothers in Ola; Valentina and another young woman who lost a set of twins because of her poor health and prenatal care.

Hood traveled to Magadan last November where she spent 18 days learning more about the program and way of life there. She met several people helped by the church and visited a womenís clinic, hospital, and orphanage.  It was her first visit to Russia.

"They have a very hard existence there," she said. "Itís a beautiful country with the seas and forest ó itís absolutely stunning."

Many of the people living in smaller towns such as Ola are survivors and their descendants of the former Soviet concentration camps.  Hood said the area was "like a deserted town ó depressing, gray, and not good employment," said Hood. "I didnít see much industry there."

Efforts are needed to promote Nativity Inn to the people in Magadan and surrounding areas said Hood. The church has advertised with fliers and brochures in places such as doctorsí offices and clinics.

The church also hopes to open a counseling center to educate women and provide ultrasounds.

Father Shields also would like to offer classes on issues such as sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy and chastity.

While the program has been well received so far said Hood, the church also has been using caution to make sure it isnít seen as a proselytizing effort.

"Anything not Russian Orthodox is considered sectlike," explained Hood. "Russia is not very hospitable to non-orthodox groups.  We canít be seen actively campaigning to convert ó and thatís not what weíre about."

Hood expressed her gratitude for the support of the Catholic community in St. Louis.

"We started sending out newsletters every other month, and we get some money in from those ó itís so nice.  Even a $5 check is nice. The people are engaged, and sometimes we even get $1,000 checks."

While prayers are the most significant need Hood said, the program continues to seek material needs as well. Items currently being sought include childrenís vitamins, heavy coats and snowsuits for infants and toddlers, maternity clothing, hats, gloves, socks and non-prescription eyeglasses.

For more information on Nativity Inn, please call Connie Hood at (314) 863-0500 or visit

Reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Review diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis

Want to perform a Good Work?

Please send a package valued at under $100 from the following Wish List. Values over $100 require Father Means to pay customs duty.

Father David Means
Church of the Nativity
Galvpochtant, Box 171
685000 Magadan

Babies:  Snowsuits, socks, baby blankets, vitamins.  

Mothers: Maternity clothes and feminine products.  

Children:  Socks, coats, hats, gloves, vitamins, children's tylenol, children's aspirin, school and art supplies.  

Teens:  Backpacks.  

Adults:  Pain relievers, arthritis pain relievers, winter boots, gloves, hats, socks.

Toys and reading eyeglasses

What's Allowed, What's Not in Russia

Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope - You may include a letter - insured up to $100 - maximum 4 pounds - customs form - $12.95

Priorty Mail Small Flat Rate Box - You may include a letter - insured up to $100 - maximum 4 pounds - customs form - $12.95

Priority Mail Regular Flat Rate Box - You may not include a letter - insured up to $100 - maximum 20 pounds - customs form - $41.95

Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box - You may not include a letter - insured up to $100 - maximum 20 pounds - $53.95

Tip:  Priority Flat Rate envelope, Priority Flat Rate small box, Priority Flat Rate regular  box, Priority Flat Rate large box may save on postage from the U. S.  Ask the post office to weigh Priority non-flat-rate envelope/box to see which costs less.  Priority envelopes and boxes are free at the post office. The same Priority Mail boxes and envelopes are used for both domestic and international mail.

Tip:  Above rates are reduced a couple of dollars if you print stamps online.



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