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Siberian Bishop Seeks Help From N.D. German-Russians  

Wood, Carter. "Siberian Bishop Seeks Help From N.D. German-Russians." Grand Forks Herald, 9 August 1993, sec. B.


Strasburg, N.D. - Speaking in his native German, Siberian Bishop Joseph Werth described the reputation Germans from Russia enjoy once they emigrate, that of hard-working people willing to sacrifice.

Even before the translation, a chuckle of recognition went through the crowd of some 50, mostly older parishioners gathered in the basement of St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.

"I know that the majority of the older people understood everything the bishop said," said Marcella Volk, president of the local chapter of the Germans from Russia Society. "We speak German very fluently around here, but it's all in our dialect."

So Volk regarded it as fitting that the bishop of the Diocese of Novosibirsk take his plea for support to Strasburg, the heart of Germans-from-Russia settlement in North Dakota. With their heritage, the local people might show "more of a heart to help," she said.

Werth's visit Sunday included celebrating the Mass in German and strolling through the church cemetery, where traditional iron crosses and marble gravestones bear names such as Fischer, Zacher, Baumgartner and Burgad. And yes, Werth stopped by the homestead of the famed German-Russian bandleader, Lawrence Welk.

The bishop has traveled the state seeking both contributions and clerics willing to help revive the church in the largest diocese in the world. It's about the same size as the United States, he says, and some 100,000 baptized Catholics are served by 35 priests, 30 of them non-Russian.

"How successful I will have been, only time can tell," he said of the recruiting trip. "It's not easy to come to Siberia from America, with its standard of living and all the sacrifices it would mean."

His traveling companion, Vicar General Johannes Boersch of Kazakhstan, would not let Werth escape so modestly. The only reason the bishop and other Germans from Russia priests and nuns stayed in Russia was to plant the seeds of their faith, said Boersch, a native of Cologne, Germany.

"Their witness to their faith, their survival of persecution, their belief in God, was so convincing for the people there that there is now a tremendous interest in the Catholic church and beliefs," Boersch said.

Interest is high

Interest ran high in the basement, as well, as parishioners asked about the status of the church and Germans from Russia. The questions came as they drank coffee and ate kuchen and sausage. Afterward, some attempted conversations with Werth, an effort sometimes complicated by dialects.

Local residents speak a sort of proto-Swabian their ancestors brought to the United States from the Black Sea region of Russia. Werth's parents were Volga Germans, relocated to Kazakhstan during Stalin's regime; he learned his modern "high German" as a seminarian in Lithuania.

The session ended with a plea from Father Al Bitz of St. Mary's Cathedral in Fargo on behalf of Werth's efforts; $100 could support a priest for a year, and Siberia is a prime area for missionary work, Bitz said.

"He's coming to the church here, he's coming to the German-Russian community saying, "Would you help our people experience the light,'" Bitz said.

Addresses were exchanged for that very purpose.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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