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U.S. sisters go on mission to erstwhile 'Evil Empire.' (Russia)

WASHINGTON -- As she watched from afar the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Sr. Alice Ann Pfeiffer said she came to one conclusion: "We should be there."

She and two other members of the St. Agnes Sisters not only went there, they are now committed to going back.

For the Wisconsin St. Agnes congregation the recent three-week trip to Siberia had a special meaning. A German community in the 1700s, the sisters were invited to minister in Russia by Catherine the Great, the German-born empress. The sisters lived along the Volga River. Now the congregation plans to establish a 3- to 5-year presence in the Novosibirsk, Siberia, diocese to teach religion, provide youth ministry and work with the poor, especially women.

Pfeiffer, together with Srs. Donna Innes and Christine Fellerhoff, shared their story last month at a Washington, D.C., gathering of 16 U.S. volunteers, who returned from Eastern Europe recently.

Most of the volunteers were women religious who had traveled to Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Siberia this summer to determine where and how they might help rebuild the Catholic church in the former Soviet bloc.

In most cases, the religious were drawn to this task by Msgr. R. George Sarauskas, director of the National Council of Catholic Bishops Office to Aid the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Last year, he asked religious women and men to visit these countries to help train church leaders and provide catechetical expertise to a people "who lack religious education and are largely unfamiliar with Vatican II."

At the time, Sarauskas said, "Communism is not dead. Former party members are in many bureaucratic positions and continue to create obstacles for the church."

Some of the volunteers who journeyed there shed more light on this perception, during their recent meeting in Washington.

In Hungary, for example, Mercy Sr. Charlene Ross of Omaha and St. Joseph Sr. Maxyne Schneider of Springfield, Mass., said women religious were struggling to reclaim communal living and reenter ministries. The Americans visited 15 congregations in Budapest as consultants on Second Vatican Council renewal in religious life.

In Hungary and Poland, some religious communities were allowed a semblance of existence but the total Soviet suppression in Lithuania forced all religious to go underground, said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Igne Marijosius of Connecticut. Now, Marijosius added, young vocations are flourishing but much of this is a "faith exuberance," which has leveled off during her frequent visits to Lithuania from 1989 to 1993. She is working with women religious to create a conference similar to the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Layman Bruce Fech, chairman of the Lansing, Mich., diocesan department of education, visited 20 schools in 20 cities during an eight-day visit to Slovakia where he spoke with administrators, teachers and students. "A hundred Catholic schools have reopened or started since 1989," said Fech, noting that two problem areas are government structures and qualifications of educators. He plans to return as consultant for a longer commitment after he retires in 1994.

For many of the volunteers, the trip was also a teaching mission. Teaching English as a second language, for many of them, was a priority. Glenmary Fr. Don Levernier of Oklahoma, and Franciscan Reginald Krakovsky of Chicago taught in seminaries in Lithuania and Slovakia. St. Joseph Srs. Margaret Nacke and Mary Savoie, both of Kansas, instructed nurses at the first Catholic hospital founded in Bucharest, Romania, after the revolutio. Adorers of the Blood of Christ Srs. JoAnn Mark and Bernadette Hotze, also of Kansas, taught the Romanian Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters.

The St. Agnes contingent saw that older people in Siberia had kept the faith alive by teaching the children prayers and the rosary. "But there are no Bibles, no religious books, and the faith is rudimentary," Innes recalled.

She said that a total of 30 priests, at least as many sisters, and 10 lay missionaries are trying to evangelize in a diocese that spans eight time zones and has 2 million Catholics.

"This is the time to be with the people as they rebuild the church," said Innes. "St. Agnes sisters have made a commitment. Four sisters plan to arrive in Siberia in January 1994."
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Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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