“Magadan.” Hopeless, starved faces staring through barbed wire, windswept tundra, and frozen mass graves fill the imagination of Russians when they hear this city’s name. Magadan is Russia’s Auschwitz. It was the administrative center of Stalin’s Kolyma arctic death camps where some two million people perished from exposure, starvation, and execution between 1932 and 1954. Many were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or ethnicity. Arrested and deported from places like western Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia, the few Catholics who survived and live today in Magadan bear witness to a profound and heroic faith. For decades they prayed for the chance to live their faith openly. In 1990 their prayers were answered.
The Berlin Wall had fallen the year before. Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska and one of his priests, Father Michael Shields, flew to Magadan, rented a theater, and celebrated the city’s first ever public Mass. Two hundred and seventy people attended. This event planted the seeds of what is now a fourteen-year old parish, “The Nativity of Jesus,” where Fr. Michael has served as pastor since 1994. Until recently, Fr. Michael and his associate pastor, Fr. David Means, lived and celebrated Mass in a renovated apartment. The parish soon outgrew the small space. Since 2001, with the help of Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe and other benefactors, they are building a new church, a Mercy Center to serve the poor, and a chapel to commemorate the millions who died. They held their first Mass in the new church on Christmas, 2002.
“We are building a new church in the hope of helping people find God and find happiness in God’s love,” said Father Shields.
Bratislava, a Lithuanian Catholic woman, is one of the camp survivors who come to the new church every day. Arrested for her faith, she persevered in cruel labor camp conditions by praying a daily rosary—a rosary she made in secret from sawdust and bread she set aside from her meager daily ration. Today she is able to attend Mass openly and pray the rosary and has become a living symbol of hope and faithfulness for the entire community.
Construction of the Mercy Center, which will include a soup kitchen and clothing room, is still underway, but Fr. Michael has served the poor in Magadan from the beginning. He is well-known for his spontaneous and generous spirit. The parish center constantly bustles with activity as workers and volunteers distribute food and clothing. One day, the cleaning woman of the parish came out of the ladies’ room just in time to see Fr. Michael giving away her shawl to a poor woman at the door. “Fr. Michael,” she yelled, “That’s my shawl!” He shrugged, gave it back, and found another in the donations pile. “You see,” she remarked with a wink, “You have to keep your eye on him. That is why I have all the office supplies labeled: ‘Fr. Michael, don’t touch!’”
But serving the Catholics and poor in Magadan is not a one-man show. Fr. David, Luba the parish director, the local Caritas staff, dedicated laymen and women, and generous benefactors all make it possible. With God’s help they are building a community of hope, a church for those who have never known the light and love of God.