After 25 years, Alaska priest still loves his Russian Far East mission

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — It has been 25 years and counting, but Father Michael Shields doesn’t have any plans to leave the mission of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, in Magadan, Russia, at least any time soon.

Father Shields, 69, loves his ministry in the Russian Far East city of 100,000. Magadan and Anchorage are sister cities. The mission came into being in 1989 at the initiative of then-Anchorage Bishop Francis Hurley as the former Soviet Union was in its “glasnost” and “perestroika” era under Mikhail Gorbachev.

There are only about 250 registered members of the mission — Russia is still a predominantly Orthodox country — and perhaps 50 to 80 of them come to Mass on a given Sunday. But “there’s not a heart or a soul that I don’t know deeply” among his congregants, Father Shields told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 14 interview in Washington.

Father Shields has been in the United States since late fall for knee replacement surgery and to visit donors and benefactors before his return Jan. 17. The Anchorage Archdiocese receives a grant to help fund the Magadan mission from the U.S. bishops’ annual collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

The mission is about as far east as Russia can get. Russia, Father Shields added, is “not West and not East. It’s both.” In Magadan, he added, one can go to a drugstore on one side of the street, and pick up acupuncture needles in a shop on the other side.

With the closest Roman Catholic priest 800 miles away, it’s a different kind of loneliness that sets in. But the members of the mission, Father Shields said, “are my family. That’s just how I look at it.”

When he’s away, as he has been, Polish and Slovak priests ministering in Russia will travel to Magadan to substitute for him. Magadan was created by the former Soviet Union to be a prison-camp town, Father Shields noted, and those priests often have a relative who lived — or died — in the camps.

Post-Soviet Magadan’s economy is based mostly in gold and coal mining. He said it also attracts professors and artists — the same people once herded into the bygone camps. Now, though, “they get paid some sort of bonus” for working in such a remote location “and they can retire early.”

When asked, Father Shields said his ability to speak Russian is “a daily humiliation for me.” He celebrates Mass and preaches in Russian, “but I didn’t learn until I was 42,” he told CNS. Yet after a generation in Russia, some English words don’t come that easily, either.

His most telling dark night of the soul, which made him question his ministry, came in 2003, when workers attached a new roof for the church “upside-down,” he said. “It would rain inside the church” on cold days, of which there are plenty in Siberia, when — and he was searching for the word “frost” — had formed and then melt, the water running down the sides of the church walls.

“I needed to be alone,” Father Shields recalled about the fiasco. “So I went to Poland for a retreat. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. There were 150 blind children there. The nuns at the retreat said, ‘You have to meet these children.’ Being touched by 150 children later, I was healed. I went back to Magadan, and I put the roof back on myself. Forget the Russian construction company!”

Father Shields has been aided in his ministry for the past six years by a small group of students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The first group had sent inquiries about mission work to places in western Russia without a response. Then they emailed him, and he was grateful for the help. The group, which usually numbers in single digits, spends the summer — the temperature doesn’t break 80 in Magadan — helping out at the mission. The Magadan kids “love to practice their English” with the Steubenville students, a couple of whom tend to stay year-round to study Russian.

Russian millennials “are like millennials everywhere. They want to make a good life for themselves,” and have their doubts about faith’s place in their life, Father Shields said, and he counsels them on the joys of belief in God.

What he said is “hurtful,” though, is the differing observances of Christmas and Easter on the Catholic and Orthodox calendars. The Orthodox Christmas, often called the Feast of Theophany — when Jesus in human form was made known to others — is celebrated Jan. 6, the Catholic feast of the Epiphany. And the Orthodox Easter is almost always later than the Catholic Easter.

“If I can get Pope Francis to listen to me,” Father Shields said, he would split the difference. Christmas would be celebrated by all on Dec. 25, thus lessening the influence of Russia’s New Year celebrations, while “we would surrender our Easter” and observe the Orthodox date.


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