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Church thrives on city's fervency, ethnic diversity.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Father Januarius Izzo has shed 45 pounds since arriving here 10 months ago. He has not been dieting. Living on the local economy provides a good opportunity for downsizing, he noted.

With his long, grizzled beard and simple alb, he could have been mistaken for an Orthodox priest or a rabbi. But after saying Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes church here, he unvests and is visibly a Franciscan.

His accent dispels any lingering mystery. It is pure Brooklyn-on-the-Baltic. The former religion teacher at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn introduces two converts: Alexei Tchukhlov, 17, a Jewish student of political science at the University of St. Petersburg, and Viacheslav Poletaikin, 32, an architect. Tchukhlov joined the church last autumn and Poletaikin at Easter.

Izzo didn't encourage either of them at first. Like the rabbi who makes every effort to dissuade the convert, Izzo tries to send potential converts to the Orthodox church. In fact, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, apostolic administrator of Moscow, has urged all Catholic clergy in Russia to steer would-be Catholics toward the Orthodox.

Officially, the Catholic church exists in Russia because up to a half-million Catholics lived there before the communist revolution, most of them of German, Polish and Lithuanian origin. But today many Russians find Catholicism attractive. Last year some 500 were baptized at Moscow's St. Louis Parish, 80 percent of them students.

Tchukhlov joined because "Jews in Russia are not very religious and they're very Russianized. I've never felt very Jewish or Russian," he said. A graduate at 16 of the prestigious Academy of Pedagogical Science high school in Moscow, Tchukhlov said the spiritual and intellectual tradition of Catholicism drew him to the church.

Poletaikin, whose wife, Alla, is Orthodox, feels "at home" in the Catholic church. "I came to the church through my mind," he said. What he likes about it is "its social ministry and its openness to the world. It does not offer simple explanations to complex problems" but rather "gives us great spiritual and philosophical depths."

Both men were baptized at St. Petersburg's only working parish, Our Lady of Lourdes. It is often called Notre Dame de Lourdes because it is still owned by the French government, although Izzo said no one seems to know who holds its papers. This city of about 4.5 million has an estimated 10,000 Catholics.

Lourdes offers daily Mass in Russian and Polish, German Mass on Saturday evening, English Mass on Sunday and on major feasts, and occasionally Mass in French and Italian. Sunday's Latin High Mass with readings in Russian draws a standing-room-only crowd.

Such is the fervor of Catholic life in Russia's second-largest city, which once boasted dozens of Catholic churches. A second church, St. Catherine's on the city's main boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt, opened in October, but it is in such terrible condition after two fires that Izzo said it will take 10 years to renovate.

Lourdes' English folk choir sings "Save Us Oh Lord, Rouse Your Power and Come" at the Mass just ended. Its eight singers reflect the diversity of the Catholic church here: three Russians, two Americans, an Indian, an Italian and a Swiss. Students and workers, they rehearse on Saturday night.

Adam Trambley, a former Pax Christi worker from Erie, Pa., plays guitar. Bill Curran of Saratoga, N.Y., reads the epistle. Two African women dressed in native costume join the 50 or so communicants.

Later, when asked what is the church's greatest need here, Izzo answers: "I could use some good red wine. ... We have to buy our wine off the street. We don't know what's in it -- apple juice, cow's blood, resin."

Izzo has good relations with several Orthodox clergy, he said, despite constant criticism from others about "Catholic proselytization." He has been accused of "buying souls with American dollars."

Izzo said he is annoyed that "the Orthodox put us all in the same basket." They lump Catholic presence in Russia with the Jehovah Witnesses, who leafleted 70,000 residences here recently; with well-dressed, Russian-speaking Mormon missionaries, who are easy to spot in the subway and on street corners; with Moonies; with the Hari "Krishanaits," as they call themselves here; with campus crusaders, televangelists and even a Korean sect that prophesied the end of the world last October, but could not pull it off.

"We are not them," Izzo said, pounding his fist into his brown robe. "We're an apostolic church -- like the Armenians."

It is Sunday in Russia. Across the 4 million square kilometers and 10 time zones that span the Moscow diocese, which includes St. Petersburg, there are 33 priests saying Mass, instructing and forgiving sins in 14 languages.
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Title Annotation:St. Petersburg, Russia
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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