THE MARTYRS OF MAGADAN

Magadan is part of Siberia, in far East Russia, and the capital of Kolyma, one of the most brutal sites in the Gulag.

The Gulag (1929-1953) were a series of forced labor camps established first under Lenin, then Stalin, as a way to implement the rapid industrialization of such resources as coal and timber. As well they became a place to warehouse political dissenters—anyone who believed in God was suspect—common criminals, the educated, and finally common people who were driven to exhaustion, starved, beaten and thrown on the trash heap. Many died of disease; others froze; still others were executed.

Fr. Michael Shields, born and bred in the Anchorage Archdiocese of Alaska, has been Pastor of the Nativity of Jesus in Magadan since 1994.

Having come back to the U.S. a few years—briefly, he thought—for a knee replacement, the Russian government suddenly informed him that he couldn’t return until December, 2022.  So he’s been serving his old parish in Palmer, Alaska, a rural farming community, and overseeing the Mission from afar.

“I follow the God of the Impossible,” says Fr. Michael. “He’s done so many amazing things in my life that I’m not even concerned.”

Fr. Michael first journeyed to Magadan in 1989 with Archbishop Hurley. He returned twice, and found it dark, depressing, and harsh. Then, ten years ordained, he went on a 40-day Jesuit retreat and heard a strange message: “Go pray in the camps.”

“It frightened me deeply. First, I worried that the words might not be from God. Secondly, I didn’t want to go.”

But at the end of the retreat “God filled my heart with joy and took the fear away.” Two years passed before he was able to secure the Archbishop’s blessing.   

But in 1994 he went. “It was an adventure: I didn’t know the language or culture. We had no materials. No sacramentary, no lectionary, an old-fashioned Slovenic Bible…rock-bottom. Every day brought suffering but at the same time joy because I knew this was where the Lord wanted me.”

He and his supporters rented an apartment and started a small church. The faith had been almost entirely repressed under Communism. The people were afraid and broken. Still, the parish started to grow. Fr. Michael began to develop fund-raising skills.

The idea came to do a radio announcement for a meeting at the local library for anyone who had been in the prison camps. Father expected two or three. Eighty people showed up that first time.

“It was beautiful because they recognized each other. Some had been in the same camps. They started telling their stories. And I saw this was a whole ministry that needed to be done. They’d been lost in their apartments. Nobody knew who they were. They’d been labeled “enemies of the Fatherland,” that’s why they were in the camps, and a huge stigma still attached. Many hadn’t told the details of their story even to their own family members.”

Meetings were held the last Saturday of every month. Gradually folk musicians were invited, even politicians. And gradually the survivors became a cultural attraction.

“People began lifting them up and seeing who they were; that they were heroic for their suffering. I taped some of their oral histories and had them translated into a couple of books in Russian.”

One, available online for free, is called Strength Amid Suffering: The Martyrs of Magadan.

What do those martyrs have to teach us today?

They reported, almost to a person, that two things were critical to their survival. One was prayer.

“They couldn’t pray openly, obviously, but laying in bed at night everyone in the barracks would be praying, even though it was absolutely silent. They prayed contemplatively, in solidarity and communion, because that’s the only way they would survive till the next day.”

The second thing was forgiveness.

They were taken often at 17, 18, 19 years of age—their whole life was destroyed.. Even after release, they were legally forbidden to enter such professions as nursing and teaching. Many missed out on marriage.

“But the greatest number said that if their hearts had been bitter they would not have survived. Forgiveness was a major event and a spiritual truth. For them forgiveness was a day-to-day event: forgiving the guards, forgiving the prisoners who were violent.

A window opened until 2000 or so. By that time the survivors had mostly died off. All many of them wanted was a Christian burial. “We were able to give that to them, with prayers.”

“My life has been incredibly enriched by rubbing elbows with these people. They carried their cross with great dignity. I’ve had the tremendous privilege of giving Communion to someone who had been persecuted for the faith.”

The Mission continues to work with the poor, distributing clothing and food, offering AA meetings, working with women who have had abortions. “Confirmations, baptisms, marriages: just a normal parish except in a city that was designed to be a prison camp.”

“Christ told St. Francis, ‘Rebuild my church,’ but in Magadan, there was no church to begin with. The camp survivors suffered and prayed the church into being. Their presence was the foundation.”

8 Replies to “THE MARTYRS OF MAGADAN”

  1. Teresa Kleber says: Reply

    Thank you for the great article about Magadan. That kind of forgiveness would be impossible without Jesus. I want to read the book.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh it is simply unbelievable what they endured, Teresa. One of them, not mentioned in the book, is Servant of God Adele Dirsyte who is especially dear to my heart. Literally martyred, for having been caught taking the Eucharist in the camp…I think of the petty resentments I hold in my own heart–and I’m ashamed…

  2. Sidney Blanchet says: Reply

    What a beautiful face Father has! A remarkable story. Thank you, Heather.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes, Sidney, we really do get the face we “deserve,” it seems. We had a wonderful phone conversation and my only regret was that the word max for the column meant I had to leave so much out…

  3. Hello Heather
    Father Michael is a good friend. We had him for supper during his last visit to Madonna House before his return to Magadan. On his way back he had been notify that he could renew his visa. I remember when he was entrusted to take the relic of St-Therese across Russia when she was doing her world tour.
    Madonna House was instrumental and played a key role in the events that unfolded in the building of the first RC church. They also were close friends to all of the women (especially) who survive the gulag, their appartement was the gathering place for many years to come. I cherish our memories of his many visits to our home. I am eternally grateful to have journey with the lady’s who landed in Magadan.
    I remember many years ago when food was scare in the city,Mariam went to the grocery store to buy some carrots but there was no veggies to be bought, so she bought a light bulb instead. Their all way light bulb would disappeared on a regular basis. Every one was poor and everyone was in need. So much more to tell but one story worth looking into was the dedication of the shrine to all of the Martyrs it was erected on the hill side just outside the city.
    The event took place with both Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic presence.
    Alma always said that the city was build on top of the bones of all who was send to-the gulag but he millions.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Just beautiful, Monique–thank you so much for these memories and insights–

  4. Teresa Chen says: Reply

    The Catholic parish in Magadan predated Fr. Shields. Franya had approached Bishop Hurley on a business trip to Magadan, begging him to send a priest. He promised her if she could find 11 more people who wished it, he would send a priest. She did, and he sent Fr. Austin Mohrbacher, a Catholic Byzantine priest, ~1991. Fr. Austin switched to the Latin rite so as not to antagonize the Orthodox.

    While Fr. Austin was back in the states for dental care, I arrived in ’92 fresh out of college just in time to hold a funeral (the first I’d ever attended) for a gulag survivor, a famous singer who had refused to sing for Stalin. It would be my first of many Stalin tales. So many camp prisoners had been sent from Poland and Ukraine to Magadan. Lilia was one who still remembered what it was to be Catholic despite decades without a priest or mass. She had befriended a young man in the camp who would become a mafia boss. The path to boss left him with only six fingers between his two hands, more vicious than Yakuza. Their friendship meant she was safe to walk the streets in her gold rings … until some robbers who didn’t know her protected status came upon her. Her mafia friend paid to hold a reception after her funeral in the nicest hotel. I imagine he also took care of the robbers.

    Before he decided to become a priest, Fr. Sever (who took the photo above) came to Magadan around 1993. He was sent to distribute humanitarian aid.

    In 1993, Bishop Werth came from Novosibirsk to bless the gulag. We took a military helicopter to the mass graves, bodies upon bodies hidden beneath a lush alpine hill. It was as stunning as Auschwitz. The low-bush cranberry shows up in Magadan’s art, because when the prisoners were let loose to starve or freeze in winter, those that survived were saved by cranberries buried under snow and ice.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Thank you so much, Teresa, for this eyewitness account, the fascinating stories, and for amplyfying the glimpse I was able to give of Fr. Shields’ time thus far in Magadan. Volumes could be written, I’m sure…to survive on cranberries, so bitter, reminds me of the gall/sponge soaked in vinegar, that Christ was handed on the Cross. May the souls of the victims and of the survivors rest in peace, and wishing you a Blessed Holy Week.

Leave a Reply to Monique Cancel reply