Monday, May 3, 2010

Pilgrimage to Karaganda - Part 1: Cathedrals and Gulags

Sometime in March our church organized a pilgrimage to Karaganda, which is a medium-sized city about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Astana, a bit to the south-east. Karaganda is a factory town and does pretty well economically, and was on the list to become the new capital when the president was looking for a new capital 10 years ago. I think he chose Astana because Astana was smaller and less-defined.

Around 1954, a Polish priest, Vladislav Bukovinsky, was sent to Kazakhstan (I think forcibly, by the Soviet Union) and later on he chose to stay in the area. I believe he spent quite a bit of time in a gulag as well. He died in 1974 in Karaganda, and is in the process of becoming a saint.

Kazakhstan currently has 4 Catholic dioceses, I think, with Astana being the seat of one of them, of course; Almaty the seat of another; Karaganda, another; and somewhere in the west, the fourth. The Soviets shipped a ton of Germans (who happened to also be Catholic) to Karaganda and the surrounding area, and while many Germans have since returned to Germany, this is where, I believe, the "strong" Catholic presence comes from. I say "strong" because there appear to be more Catholics in Karaganda than in Astana, but this still doesn't meant there are a lot!

So, we were going to Karaganda to visit the tomb of this priest, as well as to see the new cathedral that they are building. We arrived at the church at about 7:45 in the morning, worried that we were late because the Number 2 bus didn't start running until after 7:30. However, we weren't late. It's hard to be late in Kazakhstan.

There was one bus and two vans. The Russian Catholics boarded the bus and the foreign Catholics split up between the two vans. I was in a van with Father Pavel, our priest; a young Russian, Natasha, who speaks English and frequently attends the English Mass (I think that's so she can sleep in on Sundays); a Sri Lankan woman; the two male Filipino teachers from our school; a Polish nun; my brother; and Sophia. The Filipino women chose to ride in the other van because the Russian priest driving that van was young and good-looking.

I have never been on a pilgrimage before, and this trip consisted of rosaries, prayers, and singing. I think Father and the nun were a bit disappointed in how un-energetic we were; however, the van was loud and I was sitting in the back, so I really couldn't hear to participate well.

The 2 1/2 hour drive was interesting in that, the priests driving the vans were in a competition with each other--who can drive faster, who will be first? After arriving in Karaganda, we went to a lot of different places, and it always was a race. When we passed the other van, we cheered and waved at the others; when they passed us, they did likewise. Our van was in a bit better condition than the other, so we frequently were ahead. However, the priest driving the other van works for the Vatican Embassy and thus has "diplomatic papers" and doesn't have to worry about being stopped by the police. Both vans had radar detectors, and when ours beeped, we had to slow down, while the other van whizzed past us.

Halfway there, we stopped at a blue hotel to use the restroom and buy food and drinks. A lot of buildings are painted blue.

We first arrived at a seminary in Karaganda, where we took a quick restroom break before getting back inside the van (time to race!) and headed to the cathedral-under-construction. It really was under construction, and the steps to get into it were a bit unstable. The inside was gorgeous, and the stone used to carve the pillars looked a lot like wood (but wasn't, I think.... This is what happens when you wait so long to write about something! You forget!)

We went to the basement, and the floor was covered in pipes. These would be under the final floor and would be filled with hot water, as a means of heating the church.

A talk about the construction of the church was given in Russian and Natasha did her best to translate for us non-Russian speakers.

We then headed back the seminary where we ate lunch and drank tea.

After lunch we took a quick tour of the seminary--the room where they study, a library with books in many different languages, the chapel with a painting that was a gift from Pope John Paul II--and then we hurried on to the current cathedral for Mass.

This cathedral was much smaller than the one under construction, but still amazing. The inside was very elaborate, full of beautiful paintings, even on the ceiling.

The Mass was in Russian, with one reading in English, thanks to me. I had brought along my Sunday Missal, and that was used so we could have one reading in English. The homily was given by the bishop, I think, with Father Pavel doing his best to translate. The bishop paused every sentence for the translation, and it was very broken up; towards the end, he asked permission to finish his thoughts, and the final translation we got was simply a quick summary, rather than a word-by-word translation.

Father Vladislav's tomb is inside the church, and after church we were given a talk in Russian about his life (translated by Natasha). I didn't hear much because Sophia had had too much being still by then.

Then we went to the gulag, some ways outside of Karaganda, near a tiny village. The building we went to just looked like a country mansion, inside it wasn't impressive or depressing. Later I learned that the soldiers lived on the ground and 2nd floors. It was the basement where the prisoners were kept.

The basement was definitely different than the upstairs, a narrow passageway and rooms that were more like cells. One room held a well, where prisoners used to be put and tortured. I learned that the locals used to be terrified of this place (and who wouldn't be?) The labor camp encompassed an area the size of France. Even if you wanted to escape, you physically couldn't. The Kazakh steppe is a great place to keep prisoners...

Once again, Natasha did her best to translate, but we weren't always standing next to her. Sophia began to feel sick (she gets carsick and we'd been in a car for too long that day) and we stepped outside for a bit. We stayed in the van when everyone else hiked to see a nearby former hospital (just a small building). A hospital were everyone knew, that if you went there, you wouldn't come out alive.

After that, we had to leave the tiny village and get back to the main road. It was still winter, of course, but a bit "warmer" than previous months, and the village roads were bumpy and full of slush and potholes. The van got stuck in snow and slush and who knows what else, and so everyone had to climb out of van and push. Sophia was still feeling sick, so we stayed inside. It was an interesting sight, to see a Franciscan priest and a frail Mother-Teresa nun pushing a van out of the snow.

We got to the main road and Father Pavel rolled down the window to ask directions from a pedestrian. The man corrected Father's Russian, and as we drove off Natasha teased him about his Polish accent.

It was getting late, but we still had two more stops--two convents.

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