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
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 Yeltsins Russia.
Excuse me, I said, catching up
to her. I noticed your rosary. Are you
Yes, she replied with a smile.
Is there a Catholic church around
Yes, there is, she said, her
smile broadening. Come with me, if you like,
Im going to Mass. You can meet Fr.
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
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 didnt want to come because
they are not believers. Why dont you come
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
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.
Christophers life in Russia. We knew, as did
all those who saw him in action, that Fr.
Christophers 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.