By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
RAYTOWN, Mo. —Sitting in the convent of the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, listening to Mother Julia Kubista, CJD and Father Steve Hansen, pastor of Coronation Parish in Grandview, talk about the Sisters’ mission in Vladivostok, Russia, it was easy to picture the children, the elderly, the poverty and love and joy. Father Hansen had joined a group of 12 Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries and several others to Vladivostok for a 24-day visit July 16 through Aug. 8.
Mother Julia, a former Maryknoll missionary and foundress of the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, had opened the mission in Vladivostok, caring for orphans and the elderly, and now operating a Montessori school, in 2008. The Mary Mother of God mission of their brother order, the Canons in Jesus the Lord, has been operated by the Canon fathers in Vladivostok for a number of years.
Earlier this year, the Sisters were able to purchase a century-old apartment building on Russky Island (Russian Island). Russky Bridge, a two-year old 4-lane bridge, the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the world, connects the island with the mainland.
Father Hansen had been invited to visit Vladivostok by Sister in Jesus the Lord Maria Stella two years in a row. This summer, the third year he was invited, he was finally able to visit. The missions have been visited by FOCUS missionary groups for four years now. The FOCUS missionary group was led by Teresa Nuar, University of South Dakota.
“We met in Los Angeles the day before our flight, and spent the day getting to know each other,” he said. The FOCUS missionaries hailed from colleges in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Colorado. “We had pizza and conversations, I celebrated Mass and we prayed a Holy Hour, then we packed and left on the midnight flight for Vladivostok.”
Each traveler lugged one 50 lb. suitcase with his or her clothing, and one case stuffed with items for the Most Holy Mother of God Parish, the orphanage, the elderly or the Montessori school.
The first week, Father Hansen and the missionaries, joined by two Pontifical North American College seminarians who had spent the summer in Vladivostok and Victor, a translator, made the 6-hour trip north to Lesozavodsk. About 7 kids, ages 3 through high school, attended a camp of sorts run by Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the mission of Most Holy Mother of God parish. Most of the kids were not baptized, Father Hansen said. The three Sisters in Jesus the Lord currently living in Vladivostok, Sisters Maria Stella, Catherine Marie and Faustina Marie, travel to the mission once a month with Canon in Jesus the Lord Father Myron Effing for Mass and to visit the children, Mother Julia added.
The FOCUS missionaries had to sleep on bare floors in an abandoned school the first night, then the girls elected to sleep in the mission church. However, bedbugs didn’t respect the sanctity of the church.
Teresa Nuar reflected on the mission trip in a telephone conversation Sept. 5.
“Despite the conditions, it was fascinating. We understood that mission trips can be like that. We were motivated by love of God to witness to the love of Christ and show that love to the kids. By being with them we could show Christ to the kids.”
“The adults and older people still remember communism,” she said. “You could see the effects still. They seldom smiled. We made people stop and stare because we were full of so much life and joy!”
Father Hansen said he and the FOCUS missionaries visited the orphanage three times for several hours each. Thanks to Mother Julia’s Fruit and Milk program and help from sister parishes, especially Coronation of Our Lady in Grandview, Father Hansen’s parish, there is plenty of food, now. Malnourishment is less, he said. He added that he learned that Coronation of Our Lady was the first parish in the Kansas City area to become a sister parish to Most Holy Mother of God Parish in Vladivostok. Coronation Parish has been steadfast in its support for 20 years now, he said.
“The power of the missionaries spending time with the kids was twofold,” Father Hansen said. “Have fun and let them know they’re loved. It brings the kids joy and the missionaries a sense of fulfillment.”
Whether it was playing soccer with the kids, holding the babies or witnessing to other young adults in the ways of love and life in Jesus, all despite not being fluent in the language, the three weeks in Russia were three weeks the FOCUS missionaries will never forget, Nuar said. They knew some key phrases, but the Sisters often translated for the missionaries and for Father Hansen. Nuar recalled one visit with the kids. The kids knew one phrase in English, and repeated it a lot. “Sit down please. When we sat down, they would run over and climb on our backs for a piggy-back ride.”
Father Hansen said during the second week, the guys stayed in the parish in Vladivostok. He said that, despite the bedbugs, lice and the poor living conditions, he slowly realized the dignity of the people. God’s presence in the people of that parish will change the city. People are beginning to smile. God is present in Vladivostok. He puts a smile on their faces.”
He said the adults and older people understand work. Those who have come back to Catholicism feel comfortable “working” for God, sweeping, digging, whatever they do.
The townspeople, silent for so long, are starting to acknowledge what happened to Christianity under Josef Stalin, Father Hansen said, Catholics murdered, martyred for their faith. There was a mass grave outside the city where 14,000 martyred Catholics were buried, the last 5 shot while praying the Rosary.
The mass grave was discovered when a road was being built. There is now a memorial marker at the site. The remains have been reinterred in the parish cemetery.
The third week was spent visiting the orphanage and the hospice nursing center.
Father Hansen said “the resilience of the faith in the people is amazing. They never completely lost their faith under communism.”
Mother Julia explained that many of the people in the parish and surrounding area were relocated to Vladivostok from the Ukraine and Poland, and “they kept a spark of their Catholic faith alive during their years under communism.”
Both Father Hansen and Mother Julia have observed that “there’s a sadness, a stark spiritual poverty in Vladivostok. But the children are beginning to feel joy, brought by the witnesses of God’s love —the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, the FOCUS missionaries and the assistance of sister parishes like Coronation — and their joy brings life and light to the townspeople.
Nuar said the trip to Vladivostok “was definitely challenging; we were taken out of our comfort zones. But each of us had the support of the rest of the mission group and the strength of Holy Hour and Mass every day. We bonded like a family and we’ll stay in touch. We have a group text app and we’re planning a reunion during the National FOCUS Retreat in Nashville this coming January. And yes, I’m going back to Vladivostok. I’m leading the FOCUS trip next year. The trip this year was that great!”
Father Hansen agreed. “I will be back,” he said, “sometime within the next 30 years!”