Magadan, Russia: Where
abortion means 'birth control'
By Effie Caldarola
July 28, 2006
Five women, 47 abortions.
The numbers are almost too much
When Father Mike Shields spoke at
our parish about his work in Magadan, Russia, you could almost see the people in
the pews doing the ghastly math.
I've written about Father Shields
before. He is our Anchorage native son who felt God's call to "pray in the
camps." Since 1990 he has followed that call to Magadan, a city created by
Stalin's government in far-eastern Russia as a gateway to the hard labor camps
where millions of Russians died.
"Say 'Magadan' in Russia and you
hear 'Auschwitz,'" said Father Shields.
Abortion rates are astronomical
in Russia; for many, abortion serves as a form of birth control. In Magadan
Father Shields ministers to the many women who've experienced this common but
deadly procedure. In retreats called "Rachel's
Vineyard," he and others help women walk toward the healing that God's grace
can provide after abortion.
"At the end of the retreat, we
have a naming ceremony," said Father Shields. Each woman lights a candle and
names her aborted child.
During the last ceremony there
were five women. And they had 47 children to name.
"We said the Litany of the Saints
instead for all those children now with God," said the priest.
Magadan still lives enshrouded
under the burden of its past. It was a place where the political dissident, the
hardened criminal or the plain unlucky rotted together. Everyone left is a
descendant or survivor of that brutality. Every building project, the priest
said, turns up more bones.
When Father Shields, still
handsome and athletic in his mid-50s, was ordained for the Archdiocese of
Anchorage, parishioners weren't surprised to see him gliding through the
neighborhood on his roller blades. He was an accomplished skier who once climbed
Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak.
Today he wears the gray habit,
emblazoned with a red heart and cross, which he has adopted for his work in
Russia. With a spirituality based on that of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Father
Shields lives together with two other men as the Brothers of the Heart of Jesus.
Incredibly, Father Shields'
parish hosts the only Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Magadan, a city of 130,000
in a country drowning in alcoholism. An Anchorage Catholic quickly offered to
buy the AA books.
"We didn't need books," explained
the priest. "What we needed were pamphlets we could hand out everywhere inviting
people to come to AA." So the donor arranged for pamphlets to be printed in New
York and shipped directly to Moscow, then on to Magadan. In a country still
recovering from the inefficient Soviet system, all mail coming into the country
still passes through Moscow.
The Anchorage Archdiocese, in
service to the Russian bishop of Irkutsk, overseas and financially supports
Father Shields' parish, the Church of the Nativity, in Magadan. The church, in a
city mired in depressing Stalin-era architecture, is an attractive new building
with offices and a food kitchen.
The night my husband and I took
Father Shields to the airport for his long return flight to Magadan --- through
Atlanta and Moscow --- we had dinner in a restaurant that happened to have some
foreign staff. It wasn't long before the garrulous priest had struck up a
conversation --- in Russian --- with a young Polish busboy. Although we had no
clue what the words were, it was apparent when the boy asked the priest where he
came from in Russia.
"Magadan?" the boy repeated with
surprise and obvious revulsion.
"See?" Father Shields flashed us
a knowing smile. "Everyone knows about Magadan."
Effie Caldarola is a columnist
with Catholic News Service.