“Do you think there is a Catholic Church in this city?” asked Mary. It was Sunday morning.
“Definitely not,” I answered. “This is Astrakhan.” Even Moscow with a population of over 10 million only had two Catholic churches in 1993. Astrakhan is a small city near the mouth of the Volga River, a day-and-a-half train ride south of Moscow.
“Too bad,” she said.
We arrived a week ago to adopt one-year old Lena and two-year old Galina, both suffering from spina bifida, for a family in Erie, Pennsylvania. After seven 12-hour days slogging through endless, mind-numbing bureaucracy, we needed some spiritual sustenance. But with no available source, we decided to go downtown to the Astrakhan Kremlin Palace and take pictures.
“Smile!” I said to Mary, who stood in front of the palace gate. Just as I clicked the shutter, a young woman in white with long blond hair tied up in a white scarf and a black rosary round her neck, walked in front of the camera.
Rosary? Not many people wore rosaries around their neck in Yeltsin’s Russia.
“Excuse me,” I said, catching up to her. “I noticed your rosary. Are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” she replied with a smile.
“Is there a Catholic church around here?”
“Yes, there is,” she said, her smile broadening. “Come with me, if you like, I’m going to Mass. You can meet Fr. Christopher.”
Mary was thrilled. Soon we reached a beautiful white stone church with two bell towers. The interior was cool and mostly empty. Towards the front there were 20 people sitting quietly on benches, facing the “altar,” a writing desk covered in a white cloth. The walls were bare. Only a perfectly-preserved fresco of the Trinity crowning Mary Queen of Heaven remained visible in the dimly lit dome over the sanctuary.
Someone rang a bell. A priest and an altar boy appeared and processed to the front of the church. The priest was in his early 30s, tall, with short dark hair and a wide, friendly face. He began to speak Russian with a strong Polish accent. In fact, it seemed that every other word he said was Polish. The Mass was short and reverent.
Afterwards we met him and his altar boy. “This is Misha,” said Fr. Christopher. “He is entering the new seminary in Moscow when it officially opens next month.” We explained who we were and why we were in Astrakhan. Over the next couple of weeks, while waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, we became friends with him, Misha, and the small parish community. Fr. Christopher was a joyful, dedicated, tireless priest, a true spiritual father to his people. As a young man, he gave up a lucrative legal career in Poland to serve as a priest in Russia. When he arrived, he did not speak a word of Russian. It did not take long for him and the people he served to find a common language.
Back in Moscow, Mary and I attended the opening Mass for Mary, Queen of Apostles Seminary. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz of Moscow told those gathered that with the opening of this seminary the heart of the Church had begun to beat again for the first time in over 70 years. During the liturgy we caught sight of Misha and waved. He was one of twelve young men from the first class. Afterwards he came up to us and said, “We have a banquet now for the seminarians and their parents with the archbishop and nuncio. My parents didn’t want to come because they are not believers. Why don’t you come instead?”
Mary immediately agreed and soon we found ourselves in a private room in a nearby restaurant. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz of Moscow, as well as the papal nuncio and an Orthodox representative, sat at the head of the long table. The seminarians and their parents sat on either side. We sat beside Misha. After dinner the toasts began. The mothers and fathers took their turn. The bishop and nuncio spoke. Then Mary whispered to me, “Translate!” and stood up. I protested, but she began to speak anyway and the archbishop directed me up with a wave of his hand.
“We bring you greetings from the Church in America!” she began. They looked at us and wondered who we were and why we were there, and smiled politely. Mary then expressed our gratitude for Misha, Fr. Christopher, and the church in Astrakhan. She pledged that America Catholics would always pray for and support them as brothers and sisters in Christ. She said we would never forget them.
Several years later Fr. Christopher hired a poor woman he met on a train to clean the church. One day she poisoned his tea and he died. He was 39 years old. When they finally caught her she was planning to poison a Protestant missionary pastor. They declared her criminally insane and sent her to prison.
We were there in the early days of Fr. Christopher’s life in Russia. We knew, as did all those who saw him in action, that Fr. Christopher’s love and joyful service were not in vain. May we never forget him and his sacrifice, nor the Church in Russia, and always remain faithful to the promise Mary gave to that first class of seminarians on behalf of the Church in America.