April 13, 2001 marked the tenth anniversary of the reestablishment of the structures of the Catholic Church in Russia. On that date in 1991, Pope John Paul II erected both the Apostolic Administration of Novosibirsk, appointing Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J. as bishop for Asiatic Russia, namely, Siberia; and the Apostolic Administration of Moscow, appointing Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusievich as bishop for European Russia. The Church rejoiced in this event, but nowhere more than in Russia itself, where seventy years of persecution had effectively abolished any visible signs of Catholicism. Join in our celebration by taking a historical and present-day tour of the Church in Siberia!1600, with the official opening of the exploration and colonization of Asiatic Russia, the history of the Catholic Church in Siberia began. Among the explorers, trappers, engineers, and government workers were Catholics of Lithuanian, Polish, and German nationality or ancestry. However, it was unlawful for them to organize Church structures or to erect church buildings at that time.In 1763, groups of Germans, fleeing starvation in Central Europe, settled around the lower Volga and the Black Sea. While creating as if “from nothing” a flourishing new region, they likewise organized their Catholic life. Whereas formerly, all Catholics in Russia had come under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Mogilev (who resided there, and later in St. Petersburg), by 1848 they had their own bishop in Saratov on the Volga. By 1917 their diocese included 179 priests and a seminary.
The situation changed drastically after the October Revolution of that year. The Volga-Germans were forced into slave-labor armies and exiled to Siberia and Kazakstan, where more than half perished from starvation and exposure to cold. In 1937 their last church was destroyed and the last priest executed.
Meanwhile, in the mid-nineteenth century, great numbers of Polish and Lithuanians arrived in Siberia as political exiles, while others came as workers and engineers for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Their strenuous efforts to obtain permission to build churches and organize parishes succeeded, and they were placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop in faraway Mogilev, Belarus. In 1921, a diocese was created for Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, with the bishop’s residence in Vladivostok, and for about twelve years it served the scattered Catholic communities of those areas.
During the seventy years of Soviet repression, when all Churches suffered persecution, the extinction of the Catholic faith was an admitted goal of the regime. Nevertheless, groups of believers met for prayer secretly, at night, in cemeteries and family homes. Often such meetings ended in all present being arrested. The survivors continued to meet, to instruct their children, and in the 1960’s, underground priests began making short visits to small communities of believers. Persecution and arrests continued, but even rare opportunities to receive the Sacraments strengthened the faithful and renewed their hope. Divine Providence and exceptional courage and perseverance enabled the Catholics of both Eastern and Roman rites to register a parish in Novokuznetsk, and the (Roman) Catholics in Novosibirsk to build a small church, though the priest serving them, Father Joseph Svidnitsky, “paid for” the church with his arrest, imprisonment, and sentence to a penal labor camp, where he served two-and-a-half years of a three-year sentence.
When Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J. was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Novosibirsk in 1991, only three priests were present in all Siberia – at 12.8 million sq. km., the largest diocese in the world. His cathedral was first located at the small Immaculate Conception church, then moved to the center of the city, where parishioners built a log church. The new Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Lord was dedicated in 1997, and by that time, 65 priests, 69 Sisters, as well as members of various secular movements were actively serving the Church throughout all Siberia, with 18 church buildings, about 30 “prayer houses,” and nearly 200 places of pastoral ministry.
In 1998, Bishop Jezhy Mazur was ordained auxiliary bishop, with residence in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia. In 1999 the enormous territory was divided into the two Apostolic Administrations of Western and Eastern Siberia, with Novosibirsk remaining the residence of Bishop Werth and Irkutsk that of Bishop Mazur. Western Siberia, though considerably smaller in area, has ten times greater general and Catholic population, while Eastern Siberia spans a vast territory.
Today, as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the restoration of the structures of the Church, we rejoice that the Catholic population of Western Siberia–500,000 Catholics–is served by 42 priests, of whom 5 are Eastern Rite, 52 Sisters, 3 Brothers, 1 permanent deacon, and members of Secular Institutes and Lay Movements. In our Apostolic Administration we have 25 parishes; 155 missions, including churches, chapels, and prayer houses (houses renovated for worship); 3 Catholic schools; and 22 places of charitable work. Numbers cannot tell the entire story, but they indicate the amount of sowing and planting that has been done in the Lord’s vineyard here, and also show some of the first fruits of the potential harvest.