Russian priest shares rebirth story with diocesan students

COLUMBIA — “I have a wonderful story to tell,” said Father Daniel L. Maurer to Holly Pobis’ attentive sixth-grade class at St. Joseph School. “It is a story about the rebirth of the Church in Russia.”

Never seeming to tire, Father Maurer from Mary Mother of God Mission Society told of his 11 years in Vadivostok, Russia, to anyone who would listen. During a three-day stay in South Carolina, he visited Bishop England High School in Charleston and gave six 45-minute talks to more than 800 students and faculty.

“The most common reaction from the students was shock,” said Mary Durst, theology teacher at the high school. “They were startled by the fact that 50 million people were murdered by the Communist government and that the Catholic Church in Russia was literally wiped out.”

Durst said that the priest was asked if he planned to stay in Russia after he described the difficult living conditions, and his response impressed the students.

“I pray that I will be able to spend the rest of my life in Russia because I have found God’s will for me and that is the greatest joy,” he replied.

The next day the priest traveled to Columbia to speak at Cardinal Newman High School, St. Joseph School, and Catholic homeschoolers. He also gave two more talks in the area.

With one day left in South Carolina, he went back to the coast to Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island to speak at each of the Masses. Although the travel would appear grueling, the priest is accustomed to it since he is the pastor of several missions with one requiring two days travel by train.

“He [Maurer] opened my eyes on how fortunate we are in this country to have the freedom to practice our faith,” said Suzanne Schiavoni, administrative assistant at Stella Maris.

How this priest came to the state is a story in itself. Cardinal Newman eighth-grader Mary Clare Egan, then a student at St. Joseph School, was working on a report about Russia. She came upon Vladivostok, a major Russian port in the southeastern part of Russia bordering China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. She decided to do a replica of a church there called Most Holy Mother of God Church, which had been closed by the Russian government in 1930 and reopened for worship in 1994. She learned of the struggles and triumphs of this faith community that suffered religious persecution for two generations and the efforts made by two American missionary priests to restore the once flourishing church.

Their story so moved the Egan family that they helped bring one of the priests, Father Maurer to the area to share it with South Carolina Catholics.

In his presentations, the missionary spoke of the church’s amazing growth from the first six people in 1994 to 460 parishioners today. He explained how God wove together the initiatives of the clergy and lay people. First Andre Popok, a young Soviet Naval officer who converted to Catholicism after reading restricted religious literature as part of his political indoctrinating course, moved to Vladivostok. Later he went to the newly appointed Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J. with a handful of other Catholics, begging for a priest. The visit came just days after Father Myron Effing (who works with Father Maurer) contacted Bishop Werth offering help in eastern Russia.

One of Father Maurer’s accomplishments has been in the spread of sacred music in Russia. Because of a grant established by his 90-year-old grandmother, a retired music teacher, the mission has been able to distribute thousands of Russian hymnals throughout the country, taking hymns from all over the world and translating the words into Russian. The musical talents of the Russian people and their instinctive love for beautiful liturgy inspired the priest to start a choir and orchestra that performs monthly for an overcapacity crowd, some people traveling thousands of miles to hear the group.

“It is a way to evangelize in a nonthreatening way,” he said. In addition to music, the parish is also involved in social ministries. They have a soup kitchen, crisis pregnancy centers, elderly care, and many other outreach services where they depend heavily on contributions from churches in America.

But if asked what the greatest need in Russia was, Father Maurer would not say it was financial despite the tremendous poverty. With only one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, practicing their faith, with 80 percent of Russian marriages ending within the first four years, with Russian women averaging eight abortions in their lifetime, the greatest crisis is a spiritual one.

“‘What does Russia need?’ people ask me, and I say, ‘the light of Christ,'” Maurer said.

Being only one of seven American priests in all of Asian Russia, an area twice the size of the 48 contiguous United States and trying to preach the Gospel in a country where it was illegal to sing “Oh Holy Night” 11 years ago, he has huge task ahead of him.