BLOG: Sisters in Siberia supporting the people during the COVID-19 crisis

The Sisters of St Elizabeth have been working in Russia for more than 25 years and continue to do so during the pandemic.
The Sisters of St Elizabeth have been working in Russia for more than 25 years and continue to do so during the pandemic.

Very few have fallen ill, but all who live in the million-strong west Siberian city of Novosibirsk are affected by the lockdown and its economic impact – particularly those, who already were living on the fringes of society prior to the crisis: the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and children from lower-income families.

These are the ones on whom the religious Ssters of the Roman Catholic Diocese of the Transfiguration at Novosibirsk have now focused most of their attention. They talked to Aid to the Church in Need about the challenges they are facing during these times of the pandemic.

COVID-19 crisis

In Russia, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was registered as early as 20th January. This case was followed by just over half a million infected, 7,478 deaths and what is assumed to be a much higher number of unknown cases (as at 17th June).

In the metropolitan area of Novosibirsk alone, 4,604 cases of Coronavirus have been registered, 62 people have died.

Sister Theresa Witschling and two other Sisters relocated to Siberia in 2015 in spite of the inhospitable conditions.

The religious are particularly beloved among the homeless of the city. “These people all have their painful memories and emotional wounds. They do not come to us solely for material assistance. They are just grateful to receive a little kindness and warmth.”

A blessing for the city

But, this is not the only thing that gives the people comfort and hope. “We thank God that we are able to celebrate the Eucharist every day. We are holding daily worship services in response to the pandemic.

“At the end of the service, the priest goes out on the street with the monstrance and blesses the parish and city with the divine offerings.”

Helping the homeless

In Surgut, 620 miles north of Novosibirsk as the crow flies, two Angelic Sisters of Saint Paul from Poland are also helping the homeless.

They have become veritable angels for the 140 homeless people in a homelessness centre. They organise clothing and food drives, which have become crucial for survival in these difficult times.

Sister, come back soon

The lockdown presents a challenge to all communities of religious Sisters in the diocese. The Sisters of Saint Elizabeth in Novosibirsk miss visiting parish members. “Through our regular visits we became friends. They often said to us as we took our leave, ‘Please don’t leave me, Sister. Please come back!’”

This is where the telephone comes in, it helps the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth in Novosibirsk stay in touch with all those who are not yet part of the worldwide network, particularly older people who suffer the most under social distancing.

Teaching goes online

Like most congregations, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará in Omsk have shifted their pedagogical efforts completely into the virtual realm.

They teach catechesis via video conferences, have made short videos together with teenagers to boost morale and have developed lively educational activities for the province of their monastic order that are being used far beyond the borders of Omsk.

“We hope that our work inspires adolescents to think about God’s word, even in these times of the Coronavirus. We pray that these, from a human perspective terrible times, will help us and all people to grow in faith, in hope and in love for God and our neighbours,” Mother Maria Glum explains.

Prayer: A powerful remedy

The Carmelites in Novosibirsk, the only contemplative community in the diocese, are battling this pandemic with the most powerful instrument that we Christians have – prayer.

Sisters Teresamaria, Christina and Agnija told us: “We pray for the healing of the sick, comfort for those who are suffering, relief for medical workers and for the protection of the most vulnerable groups of people against infection.

“We also pray for the scientists who are working to develop medicines and a vaccine for the virus and have not forgotten those working in government, who have to solve far-reaching socio-economic problems.

“In gratitude for the aid that we receive from you, we also include ACN and its benefactors in the prayers we offer up to Our Lord.”

Ongoing support from ACN

ACN International supports all 68 Sisters who are serving at 18 locations in the Diocese of the Transfiguration at Novosibirsk.

“It would not merely be a disappointment, but a catastrophe, for the religious Sisters” if this aid were discontinued Bishop Joseph Werth confirms. This is even more true in these times of crisis, when collections are no longer being taken in the parishes.