Five women, 47 abortions.
The numbers are almost too much to absorb.
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