A Short History of the Catholic Church in the Territory of the Present-day Diocese of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk Comprising Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries
The appearance of Catholics in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East is, above all, connected with Russian policy of political and penal banishment of the 17th-19th centuries.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the first Catholic missionary priests arrived. From 1806 to 1812 a mission of the Dominican Fathers was realized in Irkutsk. In 1812 priests of the Jesuit order began to work there, and in 1820 the Bernardine Franciscans replaced them. Under the direction of these Bernardine Fathers, the first Catholic church in the entire territory is built in Irkutsk in 1825, called the Church of the Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God.
The official, organizational structure of the Church began in the territory that would later become the present day diocese of Saint Joseph in Irkutsk with the establishment in 1820 of the Irkutsk parish. At the time it was created, this parish was the largest in the world in terms of geographic extension, taking in the immense territory of the province of Irkutsk and the entire region of Yakutia in the northeastern central part of the Eurasian landmass.
Up to the middle of the 19th century, the territory of eastern Siberia included only three parishes: Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk (formed in 1836), and Nerchinsk (formed in 1842). There were no known formally established parishes in the Russian Far East. At that time, there were about 4,000 Catholics: about 1,350 in the Irkutsk parish, nearly 1,500 in the Krasnoyarsk parish, and around 1,000 in the Nerchinsk parish. In 1866 another parish was begun in Nikolaevsk-na-Amure, a military headquarters, which was transferred to Vladivostok in 1890. All these parishes belonged to the Archdiocese of Mogilev.
During the course of the entire 19th century, the main reason for the appearance of Catholics in Siberia and the Russian Far East continued to be prison labor and banishment, as in the 17th and 18th centuries. After thousands of participants in the Polish Uprising of 1830 were sentenced to hard labor and banished to Siberia, Poles became the most numerous ethnic group among Catholics in the Asian part of Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad caused a large influx of Catholics, creating many workplaces. Another major cause of Catholic immigration was the resettlement of peasant farmers from the western regions of the Russian empire during the Stolipin agrarian reform. (Stolipin was a Russian Minister of Agriculture.) For example, from 1894 to 1911 the number of Catholics in the province of Irkutsk increased almost five times and reached 30,000 people, while in the province of the Yenisey (the territory of the present-day Krasnoyarsk deanery), the number rose from 5,000 in 1898 to 15,000 in 1912.
At this same time there appeared many new Catholic churches and chapels: in Irkutsk, Alexandrovsk on Sakhalin Island, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and other population centers.
At the beginning of the 1920s, a change took place in the administrative structure of the Catholic Church in the territory under consideration. The deaneries of Irkutsk and Vladivostok, together with those of Omsk (Western Siberia), Tomsk (Western Siberia), and Tashkent (Central Asia), were separated from the Archdiocese of Mogilev in 1922 and became an independent Apostolic Vicariate. Then on February 2, 1923, the diocese of Vladivostok was established by papal bull. To this new diocese were transferred the Primorye and Amursky provinces and also the northern part of Sakhalin Island. (Sakhalin Island's southern part passed at this same time to the Japanese diocese centered in the city of Sapporo.)
At this time in the Soviet Union, however, a massive attack on religion began. Priests were murdered, and church buildings were closed and destroyed. At the end of the 1920s, the church in Krasnoyarsk was closed; at the beginning of the 1930s, those in Chita, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky were closed; and in 1938 the churches in Irkutsk were also closed. By the end of the 1930s, practically the entire structure of the Catholic Church in Russia had been liquidated.
As a result of the Stalinist repression, thousands of exiles from western Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries found themselves in Siberia and the Russian Far East in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of them were Catholics. However, because of the conditions of repression, they were required to hide this fact and no parishes could be revived or established.
The Rebirth of the Catholic Church in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East
The reestablishment of Catholic Church structures came about only at the beginning of the 1990s.
On April 13, 1991, two apostolic administrations were organized on Russian soil: one for the European part of Russia and one for the Asian part. Bishop Joseph Werth was named the Apostolic Administrator of the Asian Part of Russia. Under his jurisdiction were put all of the Catholic communities in this immense territory, from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
The parish of the Nativity of the Lord in the city of Magadan became the first parish officially registered by the Russian government in what was then called the Apostolic Administration of Eastern Siberia. It received its legal registration on January 3, 1991. In large part this was due to the activity of Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, D.D., of Anchorage, Alaska.
Following directly behind this parish, parishes in other large cities of the region were established: Krasnoyarsk (May 15, 1991); Irkutsk (September 14, 1991); Vladivostok (January 4, 1992); South-Sakhalin City (February 25, 1993); Aldan (July 1992); and Khabarovsk (October 1, 1993). These were the main centers from which priests traveled to organize parish life in other, smaller Catholic communities in both cities and villages.
When pastoral activity grew in both scale and speed, the bishops of Russia together with the papal nuncio to Russia decided to appeal to the Holy See to appoint auxiliary bishops for both apostolic administrations. Because of this, during the summer of 1998, the Church in Russia received for the city of Saratov in European Russia Bishop Klemens Pickel and for the city of Irkutsk in Asian Russia (Eastern Siberia) Bishop Jerzy Mazur, S.V.D.
After one year, Bishop Jerzy Mazur became the head of the new Apostolic Administration for the Latin rite Catholics of Eastern Siberia, established on May 18, 1999, and centered in the city of Irkutsk. Here construction of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was begun in June of 1999, and in little more than one year, on September 8, 2000, its solemn consecration took place.
As can be seen, the Apostolic Administration of Eastern Siberia has existed. [Note: This article was written in 2001. In 2002, Pope John Paul II established the diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk, which serves eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. —Ed.] Only since 1998. In this short time the life of the Church in this territory has already begun to strengthen and to develop. New parishes have been formed in Trans-Baikal (Chita, Ulan Ude, Angarsk, Bratsk, Usole-Siberskoe, Achinsk, Eniseysk, Kansk, Lesosibirsk, Norilsk, Abakan, Yakutsk, and several others); and in the Far East (Blagoveshensk, Arsenyev, Ussurisk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Nikolaevsk-na-Amure, Lesozavodsk, Petropavlosk Kamchatsky, Ola, Mnogovershiny and several others). The number of priests had grown, and local vocations have risen.
By a decree of His Holiness Pope John Paul II dated November 10, 2000, the head of the Apostolic Administration of Eastern Siberia, Bishop Jerzy Mazur, was also named the Apostolic Administrator of the former Prefecture of Karafuto. In this area are located the territories of South Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. Until this decree, the former prefecture, established in 1938, belonged to the jurisdiction of the bishop of Sapporo (Japan).
Religious Life in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East
Members of various religious congregations and orders of men and women labor in the diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk. In 1991 after preliminary talks with Bishop Joseph Werth, the congregation of Claretian Missionaries decided to send two of its members from Poland for permanent work in Krasnoyarsk. In September 1992 a monastery of Claretian missionaries was founded there, and in 1997 another community of Claretians was established in the city of Achinsk.
Since the founding of the Irkutsk parish in September 1991 with the appointment of a member of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians) as pastor, the Polish Salvatorians have worked in Irkutsk. The Polish provincial superior sends young volunteers there for pastoral work.
In 1992, sisters of the Congregation of Adoratrices of the Blood of Christ arrived in Krasnoyarsk, as did sisters of the Order of Sisters of Charity of St. Charles Borromeo. Because of the growth in number of local vocations, the General Council of the Order of Sisters of Charity of St. Charles Borromeo decided to open a Russian House of Formation. In 1999, with the blessing of Bishop Jerzy Mazur, such a house was opened in Irkutsk.
In January 1992, members of the Congregation of Salesians of St. John Bosco arrived in Aldan. They went there to decide whether or not to have a permanent presence of priests of their order in that region. In July 1992 three men of the Salesian religious arrived there for permanent service.
In November 1997 two priests of the Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll) (U.S.A.) arrived in Khabarovsk. One of them went to work on Sakhalin Island. The other stayed in Khabarovsky Krai. Not long afterward, three more members of their society joined them. In addition, the religious sisters of the Japanese order of Sisters of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary are also working in the parish communities of Khabarovsk and Khabarovsky Krai.
From 1999, at the initiative of Bishop Jerzy Mazur, SVD, and the Apostolic Nuncio in Moscow, Archbishop John Bukovsky, SVD, members of the Society of the Divine Word have been present in the Apostolic Administration. Divine Word priests work in Irkutsk and in Blagoveshchensk. Fr. Józef Węcławik, SVD, has served from 1998 as the bishop's secretary. The Divine Word community was established in Blagoveschensk in 1999. During the same year, Fr. Aleksander Pietrzyk, SAC, a Polish Pallotine priest, started to work in Irkutsk.
In August 1998 a community of the Sisters of Charity of St. Ann was founded in Vladivostok, with the arrival of four sisters from Spain. The Sisters of the Congregation of St. Paul of Chartres (Paulist Sisters) from Korea are also working in Vladivostok.
Since the year 2000 there have arrived in the Apostolic Administration diocese the following groups of religious: the Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit from Poland; sisters of the Order of St. Dominic; Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; members of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity from the United States of America; a Franciscan friar from South Korea, Belorus and the U.S.; Maryknoll fathers from the U.S.: Carmelite friars and nuns from Poland:, and diocesan priests from Poland and Slovakia, India and Korea.
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