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In the Land of the Exiled, Martyrs and Pioneers

Im Land der Verbannten, der Martyrer und der Pioniere

Reinelt, Kurt. "In the Land Exhiled, Martyrs and Pioneers." Volk auf dem Weg, December 2004, 20-21.

Translation from German to American English by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


Bishop Josef Werth during his speech during a festive hour at the 28th Bundestreffen of the Landsmannsschaft in June, 2004.
Our flight ended without complications, and after about six hours in the air we arrived in Novosibirsk, where we were picked up by Father Lucian and by Viktor, father of the bishop.

Father Lucian Gerhrmann is the chancellor of the diocese and of the bishop, which means he is his administrative expert as well as personal advisor for correspondence with Germany. He was born in Munich and lived in Jena for a long time.

Our drive in the seven-seater van from the airport proceeded over wide, good, and relatively empty thoroughfares to the children's orphanage of the diocese. This showpiece orphanage is managed excellently by the Sisters of Elizabeth (Sr. Barbara) and is, for Russian conditions, somewhat elegant. The author -- a guest whose arrival announcement was received relatively late -- was allowed to stay in the new, modern-practical yet relatively modest bishop's residence.

Those who live in the residence, in addition to the bishop himself, are the chancellor, Vicar Borden, and his Deacon Serge (Gregory) of the Neo-Catecumenist movement, an intern (Slava Yatczeslav) and, of course, the bishop's guests and, occasionally, the Nuncio. The pastor of the cathedral parish is Bishop Werth himself. Adjacent to the bishop's residence there is a sisters' home with several Eucharistic acolytes like Sr. Maria and the severely ailing Sr. Eugenia.

Bishop Werth, S.J., First Catholic Bishop of the Diocese "Transfiguration of the Lord" of West Siberia

Bishop "Josef Werth was born as the second of eleven children on October 4, 1952 in Karaganda/Kazakhstan. He grew up in a good Catholic family. In 1975 he joined the then underground Society of Jesus. Four years later he was accepted into the seminary Kaunas in Lithuania, and in 1984 he was ordained to the priesthood, after which he worked for one year as chaplain in Svencionys/Lithuania and then served for two years as pastor in Aktyubisnk/Kazakhstan, before spending the years between 1987 and 1991 as pastor in Marx on the Volga. In April 13, 1991 he was appointed by the Holy Father to be the Apostolic Administrator of Siberia." ([Quoted from] "Kathedrale {Cathedral}," 1997, p. 9.)

Karaganda, Bishop Werth's home, in the face of long-term, severe restrictions, constituted the only intact Catholic center in the former USSR. His own Catholic family, other Catholic German-Russians, several Jesuits, and the underground bishop Alexander Chira, a Uniate bishop from the Ukraine, all enriched his spiritual life and helped to form his personality. His special personal motto is "Pro Deo, Ecclesia et Animis {For God, the Church and Souls]." His coat of arms shows St. Michael, who was a warrior like St. George.

Bishop Werth had just returned the day before from a pastoral visit to Magadan on the Eastern edge of Siberia, which from 1991 to 1997 had been part of his diocese. In addition to Vorkuta and the Solovki Islands, on which many Catholic priests were killed, Magadan stands as the symbol of the GUlag. With its million-plus murdered souls, it must rank as the largest and most brutal of all GUlag prisons.

Tuesday, July 6: In the Curia in Novosibirsk

On the first day, Father Lucian explained to the author, by way of an interview, the workings of the diocese, which was founded in 1991; the administration of the cathedral and Curia; as well as how the cathedral was built. Due to his long travels, there is a beehive of business from visitors when the bishop is around. This made it possible for me to get to know the Deacon of the Deaconate, the Franciscan Corado Crabucci, Father Otto Messmer (Superior from Moscow), Sister Maria (financial administrator), Father Ubaldo (financial advisor and former director of Caritas), a nun from Alma-Ata, and other guests.

Construction of the cathedral took place between 1992 and 1997. Dedication of the cornerstone took place on March 19, 1993 (replete with a stone from the grave of St. Peter), and the dedication was held on August 10, 1997. The cathedral is dedicated to the "Transfiguration of the Lord" (Mark 9:5) and, as expressed by its roof structure, conceived as "three tents": one for entry and exit for all people, one for the baptized people of God, and one for the section containing altar, ambo, and tabernacle.

Wednesday, July 7: Visits in Novosibirsk

At breakfast, Bishop Werth talked of meetings with German politicians, priests and bishops. At 9 o'clock the author assisted the Bishop at Mass in a small apartment for sisters that had been designed for meditation. During Mass, the folks from Ingolstadt bid farewell to the children of the orphanage going to their vacation camp.

In Novosibsirk, and even more so during cross-country trips. we were impressed with the numerous old Russian wooden homes, some made of massive tree trunks in log-home style, others clad with boards and pretty ornamentation and ancient double window. More than anything else, large tenement buildings tend to dominate, along with wide, clean streets and a bit of flair as experienced in Poland, the Czech Republic or the former East German Democratic Republic. A new aspect is the many new stores in which once can buy anything, ranging from the ever popular cell phone to an egg boiler. Due to relative low wages, stores can afford to employ many sales people, and the more expensive stores might even be able to afford employing guards. The banks, with their postmodern design, are hardly distinguishable from banks in Western countries.

During the morning we visited the Jesuit novitiate for Russia and Kazakhstan. There we met the American theologian, Father Michael, and his assistant, Father Clemens Werth, a brother of the Bishop and, during a break, three of the young novices.

After another trip by car, we visited the Scientific Collegium of the Jesuits along with its large library and two lecture halls, where theological and cultural/scientific courses are offered to academics from all religious faiths and occupations. An elder Jesuit father served as our guide. The collegium is known as INIGO, Center for Spiritual Formation. It was officially commended by the Russian ministry of justice in 1994. As its original courses are experiencing a decline in demand, the plan is to offer more courses in a series of scientific Bible and Bible classes by correspondence that already been given nationwide since 1995, and to offer theological courses by correspondence.

The building also houses the diocesan Catholic TV studio Kana. It was established on February 2, 1996 and dedicated and christened by Bishop Werth. From the inner city of Novosibirsk the station broadcasts a weekly hour of reports and interviews concerning church topics. These reports are available from a video archive now numbering over 300 cassettes, with a new one being added about roughly week. Movies are produced and international movies are rented for loan to parishes in the Asiatic CIS. The current director of the studio is a Baptist.

In the afternoon we first visited the Catholic elementary school of the Franciscans. It is the only Catholic private school in all of Siberia. About 55 children attend the four grades inside the colorfully painted school. The blue-and-white gymnastics room is about 40 feet by 20 feet by 10 feet and is well suited for ball games. The classrooms, each with about 13 or 14 students, are very bright, airy and friendly, and they are well equipped -- a dream relative to normal Siberian conditions. All the teachers are idealists. The director of the school is Deacon Corado.

Across from the school is a shelter for the homeless, which is directed by six Sisters of Mother Teresa, four of whom are from India, one from Rwanda, and the other from Riga [Latvia]. Most Mother Teresa sisters are trained in taking care of the sick and similar jobs, some are even doctors. In Novosibirsk the sisters are allowed to house maximally fifty homeless in their building. Any overflow must be handed on to other emergency housing or be given temporary documentation qualifying them for government assistance. The deprivation of people "without papers" is especially grave, and they are often refused even emergency medical or other minimal government aid.

The house is financed by the sisters' congregation, since one of the basic principles of the Mother Teresa sisters is to remain independent of government programs -- if nothing else but to avoid outside control and chicanery. And the sisters pass on to other assistance organizations whatever meals the government provides twice annually. Given the great demand, the sisters could easily have built an additional building, but the city and the state wish to solve the homeless problem in other ways.

A further point of interest for us was the Franciscan cloister, where four Franciscans and usually one or two postulates reside. Until the cathedral was built, the Franciscan and Marian Church also was the bishop's church for the newly organized, huge diocese of Novosibirsk, and before that it was one of the very first officially registered Catholic churches in the USSR. In the evening we were visited by Father Dietmar Seifert of Kuybishev. We conversed with the bishop on saints of Siberia as well as about the ordination of priests and bishops during politically difficult times.

(To be continued in the next issue)

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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