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The Roman Catholic Church was present in the Chelyabinsk (chi-LYAH-byinsk) area before the Russian revolution. The first Catholic church was built primarily by Polish Catholics who had migrated there in the early 1900s. At first they had a small meeting place, but by 1917 they had built a stone church on land received from the czarist government at what is now the intersection of Lenin and Peace (Sevodnya) streets.
The communist government reclaimed the land in 1937 and had a youth work army destroy the church. They used the stones from this church to build a factory. Today high-rise office buildings stand on the site of the first church.
In its present resurrection in Chelyabinsk, the Catholic Church was implanted unwittingly by Joseph Stalin and his minions, who dragged people of various ethnic backgrounds, especially Germans, to the Chelyabinsk area from all over the Soviet Union as part of the trudarmiya, an enslaved labor force. They were brought to Chelyabinsk to build iron and steel factories which were being relocated from St. Peterburg so as to put them beyond Hitler's reach.
These people were first brought there by trains and dumped off in the snow in February, 1942, when temperatures were at 40 below. At first they lived in tents, then they dug into the earth, and only later did they build barracks to live in. Thousands of them became sick and died, and their bodies were stripped, stacked like logs on huge sleds in numerous crisscross layers, and thus pulled off to an open excavation, which was continually being enlarged by the survivors. The bodies were covered over with snow till spring and then with dirt. Meanwhile crows, wolves, and other wild animal often preyed on the bodies. Today this "Cemetery of the Trudarmiya," quite a distance from the parish, is a five-acre field marked only with a plain memorial tombstone.
The barbed wire and gunpoint existence ended in 1945, along with World War II itself, but most of the men had to stay and continue functioning as slave laborers. Many had their wives join them, and others invited women they had known previously to come and become their wives. All were registered and had to present themselves every month. They were given measured amounts of bread for subsistence, but no salary.
The families lived mostly in barracks that extended partially below ground with 12 tiny rooms on either side of a long narrow corridor, with a stove at one end of the barrack. Parents slept on wall shelf beds and sat on them during the day. The babies also slept in tiny shelf cradles.
Even though it was strictly forbidden and if discovered severely punished, a number of small groups of Catholics regularly prayed together in secret throughout the days of persecution. Many of them recited rosaries, chanted litanies, and sang hymns mostly without the benefit of printed books, relying entirely on their memories.
Other groups, however, such as one at Korkina learned the entire prayers of the Mass from a German missal secretly smuggled into the area and prayed them by heart. During the days of barbed wire confinement, very small groups of personal acquaintances met in their barrack in total secrecy and great fear. Various groups were often unaware of one another's existence.
Alexander Matz was one of the prayer-song leaders. In his youth he had served as a song-leader in his church and had planned to study for the priesthood. This was not to be, but as a trudarmiya worker he led prayers and songs for the small ethnic Germans community in the Pershino neighborhood of Chelyabinsk, which later became the nucleus for Immaculate Conception parish. Another German Russian betrayed Alexander in 1949 and he was
imprisoned for seven years.
After Krushchev released the ethnic minorities from slave labor in 1954 and allowed them to move about, several priests who had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union visited the Catholic community at irregular intervals, though always at night. Karl Siebert, Leo Schmidt or one of the other men would go to the homes of the Catholics, rap at the window, and a small group would gather at great risk to themselves and their children for confession, Mass, baptism and marriage at the Siebert house at 25 - 2 Druzhby Street (where Fathers Palesch and Danish now live). It was risky to do so, but the Sieberts kept a Herrgottsecke (a Lord God's corner) in their home consisting of a corner altar with a statue and flowers.
There were other groups that met elsewhere, and more likely than not, they knew nothing of one another. Unlike the group that met at Sieberts, one group kept moving its meeting place to different areas. Another group met in the home of a Mr. Meier in the central region of the city, and still another in the backyard of Jacob and Maria Fisher.
The first priests whose names were known in the Pershino district were Fathers Jonas, O.F.M.Cap., and Albinus. Jonas was a Capuchin-Franciscan friar from Poland, and Albinus came to Chelyabinsk as a truck driver from Gorky who ministered to Catholic communities all along his delivery route. Albinus was discovered and lost his job, but he continued to find ways to come to Chelyabinsk.
After that a priest known to the Chelyabinsk community only as "Father Alexander" began to visit the Catholic community in Chelyabinsk once or twice each year. By this time priests could get permission to come to faith communities, but stay only a very little time - hours or a few days. They had to be registered, however, and did so at a personal and financial risk.
Since this priest is also remembered by the local people as having built a church in Karaganda, Kazakstan, it is rather certain this was the celebrated Bishop Alexander Chira (1897-1983), who was the pastor of the Karaganda parish from its recognition as a parish in 1977 until his 85th birthday in 1982. Chira built the church there in 1978 and encouraged Joseph Werth and others to become priests. Even in Karaganda the people did not know until the time of his death that their pastor was the Byzantine-rite Catholic auxiliary bishop of Mukacevo in the Ruthenian part of the Ukraine. Today the Byzantine church is praying for his canonization.
Father Joseph Swidnicki, born in 1937 in Vinnica oblast in the Ukraine, began ministering to Catholics in Chelyabinsk in 1981. A former missionary in Tadzhikistan, Swidnicki heard about the Chelyabinsk Catholic community from Jacob and Marie Fisher's daughter Kathy, who was visiting her aunt in another part of the Soviet Union. Very soon thereafter Swidnicki made his first appearance in Chelyabinsk. Also active in Omsk, Novasibirsk, and elsewhere, Swidnicki has been known widely as the Iron Monk for his indefatigible spirit. It was he who suggested to the lay leaders of the community that they become formally registered as a parish and set up a prayerhouse where they could meet.
In the late days of communist rule, the government began allowing churches to exist and function publicly, if they first registered with the government. Being a registered church guaranteed the people a certain amount of freedom, but it also gave the government access to all church records. This in turn made it possible for communist officials to practice employment and education discrimination against a church's baptized members.
Despite such a risk, the lay leaders of the church in Chelyabinsk, led by Father Swidnicki, registered as a church with the proper officials in Moscow in 1983, and with seed money that the priest had provided they purchased from a Russian woman the house at 26 Domennaya Street and began converting it into a prayerhouse. The Meier brothers became the lay leaders of the congregation.
After the building had been acquired, Father Swidnicki was betrayed and spent 1984-87 in prison. In the interim, the community was cared for by Father Alexander Odorica Wen, O. F. M. Cap., another Capuchin friar from Poland, who came regularly to Chelyabinsk from his parish at Kustenai in Kazakstan. This second Father Alexander, who had visited the congregation at the Meier house in the Lenin district of the city as early as 1957, guided the remodelling of the Domenniya street house.
This labor of love took six years altogether, including the time needed for a talented parishioner, Alexander Roppel, to paint pictures of the Last Supper, the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Walls needed to be torn down, a new roof put on, and so on.
Every able-bodied parishioner helped in whatever way he or she could. Both men and women carried stone from a dismantled trudarmiya barracks to help enlarge the prayerhouse. Josefina Herrspiegel worked at the site every day from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. and was jokingly called "the overseer," but she was only one of several babushkas who put many hours of work into the new church.
Father Alexander died in Poland in 1991, and Father Swidnicki began covering the parish again from his base in Omsk and obtained both the land and permission to build a new church. The land he was first offered was a plot by the city dump, but he eventually acquired a plot just across Domennaya street.
Meanwhile Father Wilhelm Palesch from the Erfurt-Meiningen diocese in what was once East Germany made the first of a number of visits to Chelyabinsk to discern his vocation as a missionary. He had served as a pastor for over 30 years in East Germany but had wanted for a long time to be a missionary to Russia. He had been told this would probably not be possible in his lifetime, but with the coming of Glasnost, he visited Chelyabinsk at Christmas of 1990. The grandmothers begged him to return the following Christmas time, but he told them he was a pastor and surely could not come at Christmas. Just the same they said they would pray for him.
Prayer prevailed and Palesch's second visit to the community was on Dec. 21, 1991, his 34rd anniversary of ordination. He remained with the community that Christmas, and the babushkas never stopped praying for a permanent resident pastor. Father Swidnicki also urged him to come and built a new church. He did not want to do that, but persuasion, need, and prayer prevailed. In the fall of 1992, Father Palesch became Chelyabinsk's first resident pastor (at least the first since then revolution).
He was joined the following year by three more priests from Germany, all members of the Focolare movement, and in 1994 by a group of Sisters of St. Agnes from the United States.
When Father Palesch saw their building site on a small side street, he urged the parishioners to negotiate with city officials for a more prominent site on a main throughfare of the city. Thus on October 27, 1993, the parish broke ground for its new church and parish center on Konsomol street (which has cumbersome name is rally 50-Let-BLKCM street, which means "50-Years-of-the-Communist-Youth-Union" street). The new church is on the very site where parishioners dismantled trudarmiya barracks for building materials for the little prayerhouse on Domennaya street. Three years to the day, the roof was finished.
During the construction, the parish continued to use the house church on Domennaya St. On April 3, 1996, however (Wednesday of Holy Week), two young men set fire to the house church, and the parish was forced to celebrate the Sacred Triduum and the Sunday Masses of the Easter season in Vostok Palace Cultural Center. On May 16, the feast of the Ascension, they celebrated the first Mass in their new church, in the tower area which will later be used as a chapel for daily Mass. Finally on Pentecost, May 26, they were able to return to the house church, which had been fully restored in a Russian-record 53 days.