When the Priests Returned to Russia

When the Priests Returned to Russia June 27, 2012

Today’s post comes from The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

“One day, the priests will return…”

They were among the most haunting words I have ever read, the key phrase in a mission story quite unlike any other. I admit to a special fondness for mission stories, especially when they involve Maryknoll–the long-time home of the founder of The Christophers, Father James Keller. This one fits the bill on all counts, so let me share it with you.

It comes from Maryknoll Father Joseph V. McCabe, who heads the Mission Office for the New York Diocese of Rockville Centre, and who writes a column for The Long Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. He called this one “The Treasured Box,” and quite a treasure it turned out to be.

A missionary priest before coming to Long Island, Father McCabe found himself some 10 years ago heading a Maryknoll mission in Russia–in the town of Khabarovsk, in Russia’s remote Far East. He was the second pastor in the “post-Communist” era, the parish having been shut tight when Communist forces swept through Khabarovsk back in 1932. All the local clergy–the Orthodox priests, the lone Catholic pastor, the local Jewish rabbi–were rounded up at the time, some destined for labor camps and some, including the Catholic priest, to be executed.

The parish was a desolate one, particularly in the long winter months. Father McCabe often braved 40 inches of ice and snow to bring Communion to the sick and elderly, in sub-zero weather likely to last from October to April. He meant to include one of his oldest parishioners in his visits, but Stanislava Gusha kept putting him off. Others needed him more, she said.

Stanislava clearly made an impression. Born in 1920, she was the daughter of a young officer in the tsar’s Imperial Army. She had received all her childhood sacraments in the parish church, built in 1907 by Polish conscripts. Her grandmother acted as a sacristan, cleaning the church and taking care of the laundry–and, as it turned out, keeping an eye on the future.

It wasn’t until Lent of 2003 that Stanislava consented to a visit by Father McCabe, and I’ll let him take up the story from there. “After I had given her communion,” he wrote, “she asked me to help her in the small bedroom off the sitting room. There, following her directions, I pulled the heavy iron bed away from the wall, lifted a rug underneath, and knocked the floorboards to find one loose floorboard near the wall. I slowly pulled it up, and was amazed to see a wooden box buried just under a small layer of dirt.

“I lifted it out and after covering the hole in the floor again, we went back to the sitting room where she carefully pried open the dusty lid of this rectangular wooden box. Gently she lifted out and placed on the table cloth a corporal, three purificators, a priest’s confessional stole, a small 19th-century missal in Latin/Polish, a candle extinguisher, some prayer cards and a small wall crucifix–all items smuggled out by her grandmother from the original parish in 1932.”

Then came the story’s clincher. “One day,” her grandmother had told her, “the priests will return, and when they do, give them back these articles. They belong to the church.”

It had taken 70 years, but the priests had returned. And, in a lonely part of Russia’s Far East, a mission was fulfilled.

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