Maciek Kopczynski SCJ describes a Catholic ministry
to one of Eastern Europe’s most despised minorities
As a seminarian I was sent to assist in a Catholic parish in Transdniester, in what was formerly the eastern part of Moldova.
Transdniester is a breakaway region of Eastern Europe that remains unrecognised since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was separated from Moldova after a brief and bloody civil war. The people there are mainly Russian. There are no natural minerals or riches in the area and they live in extreme poverty. With this poverty there is alcoholism, prostitution, family breakdown and homelessness. Suicide is common among Transdneister’s young people who have no jobs to go to.
Their poverty seemed to me, as an outsider, to be inextricably linked to the region’s separation from Moldova and I asked: why did they want to be alone?
A parishioner replied: “We are a displaced people. Some years ago, in the Soviet Union, the government decided to uproot people and send them from one republic to another. It was easier for politicians to manipulate people with no roots.” She continued: “When we were sent to Moldova we were not accepted by the Moldavian people. They associated us with the Communist regime.
“They would not serve us in the shops and offices. Our children were ignored in schools. None of our people could get good jobs, even those with qualifications. Now we feel at home even though we cannot make a living.
“We are Russian, so Moldavian people do not want us in their country. Russia does not want to know us, or help us, because we have nothing to offer them. The mafia are the only people here who have a good life. Everyone else is hungry.
“Ultimately we are the byproduct of a Communist regime and we pay a very high price for this.” My memories of Transdniester are shaped by other people I met.
One evening I helped to organise games for the local children and I bought them some chocolate. They were starving and I will never forget the look on their faces as they ate.
I went with the parish priest to see a man who a few weeks before had lost his leg working on the railway line. The hospital was poor and dirty and I can still recall the smell. But there were signs of hope too. An old, blind woman cried with hap piness because the priest came and brought her to the church for the Easter service. And it is the Church which is today offering the only real support to the region.
There are five Catholic parishes in Transdniester, which is about the size of Wales. Seven Sacred Heart Fathers, two brothers and a group of nuns work there among the people. There are no other Catholic centres in the area.
Each day last year, over 500 hot meals were given to children. The Sacred Heart Fathers also organised a medical centre in some parishes where sick people could come to see the doctor. In 2004, over 4000 people came to these centres.
Activities for children and young people continue to be a priority. In one parish a kindergarten was set up to care for babies and young children. All-day care is provided for children with disabilities and work is also being done with the region’s street children who have no homes to go to.
The Fathers also help to fund older students so that they can go to university. Training courses in sewing and embroidery have been set up in preparation for work. The priests, nuns and brothers who are working in Transdniester would like to do more, but money is short. Food is needed all the time. Kitchens, canteens, social centres and medical centres will need to be built.
The people are in need, but they are grateful. My time in Transdniester makes me think of these words from the Book of Ecclesiasticus: “Proof of gratitude is an offering of fine flour, almsgiving a sacrifice of praise.” Fr Maciek Kopczynski is a priest of the Sacred Heart Fathers. Donations to the work in Transdniester may be sent to: The Sacred Heart Fathers, c/o St Joseph’s, Pilston Road, Malpas, Cheshire SY1 7DD