«THERE WAS A MOMENT WHEN I SAW A DIFFERENT SENSE IN LIFE»

(Nun Anfisa about the beginnings of the Convent, about icon painting and the workshops…)

Mother Anfisa, can you tell us how the workshops came into existence in the Convent?
The Convent was founded in 1999, and it was then that our sisters started to make vestments. At first, the sewing, icon painting and ceramic workshops started their work. Later, the mural painting, mosaic, joinery, icon setting and stone workshop were established. Each of the workshop was tiny at first and grew on with time. Today we have more than twenty long-established workshops, each with its own microclimate. Generally, we did not plan that there would be workshops in the Convent. It was God who decided in a different way.
The first workshops were established within the premises of the National Psychiatric Clinic. We asked the head doctor for permission to use one of the basements in an old shabby building within the walls of the Clinic. They granted us that permission; we put everything in order there. This was our first workshop. The room was also packed with humanitarian aid, which we handed out to the patients. In those times, the ill people had to stay in the hospital for half a year or even more, so they needed those clothes. Our first iconostasis was also painted in that basement. This iconostasis now stands in the church in honour of St Nicholas the Wonderworker. It was started by Alexander Cress who made the templates for the icons. Father Sergius, who is now the head of the icon painting studio, and novice Demetrius, who is the head of the mural painting workshop, were students of the Academy of Arts at that time. They were rubbing the paints for that iconostasis with great reverence. They also visited Father Igor Latushko in the Holy Spirit Cathedral to learn the art of icon painting from him. They learned how to paint icons, how to gesso the surfaces and prepare paints, they were his apprentices, in fact. 
Then it turned out that Alexander could not finish his work, and it was time to consecrate the church, so Father Andrew blessed the brothers to finish the iconostasis on their own. These were their first icons. Nun Liudmila, Nun Martha and Matushka Larissa helped Father Sergius and Brother Demetrius.
How did the icon painting studio develop after that?
New people were coming. Father Igor Latushko helped us a lot: he told us about icon painting and painted icons himself. We started travelling a lot, seeing and seeking advice from other iconographers… We were gathering information about the art of icon painting, about various cultural layers related to church art: Byzantine Greek style and Russian art of icon painting, of course.
Did you develop a unified style?
Everything that Father Sergius, Matushka Larissa, nuns Liudmila and Maria, had to work hard to achieve and learn, now goes to the young artists, the would-be icon painters. The young artists can learn from their experience straight away. When we look at our first icons, they are so very different from what we are able to paint now. It is surprising to see the school develop…
The style develops after years of scrupulous work. Generally, there are many churches in our Convent, and if you take a look at them, neither frescoes, nor iconostases ever repeat one another. It is amazing that the icons are painted according to the canons and at the same time they show creativity. This is what constitutes the school, a specific direction and style in icon painting.

Can you tell us about the Convent? How did it start?
There were sisters who wanted to devote themselves to monastic life. There was God’s blessing through the spiritual father of the Sisterhood and through some circumstances of their lives. The first sisters started to live together in the spring of 1998. At first, they had to sleep right in the workshops. They had to stay in the workshops all night because Liturgies normally started early in the morning, at half past six, and the sisters were to take the patients to communion, so it was difficult for most of them to come to the hospital from downtown by that time. The sisters often stayed in the hospital wards until very late so it was meaningless to come back home.
There used to be waste land on the place where the convent now stands. Later we laid the foundation of the church in honour of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, bought a small cabin and installed central heating in it.
How many sisters were there at that time?
At first, there were four sisters. Later there were twelve of us. The first monastic tonsure was held in August of 1999, and three sisters were tonsured into Rassaphore at that time. That is how we lived. Later they built the second floor and that was the accountant’s office. There also was a small house close to it, where the ceramic workshop with just one oven was located. The ground floor turned into the joinery workshop. It was interesting to see that it was the office during the day and the bedroom at night. The sisters took turns cooking meals.
Weren’t you afraid?
No, I was not. It was just that once I realized that the meaning of life lies much deeper. Is it worth living when you feed your vain pride and build your life according to stereotypes? Ought a person to struggle for the sake of this? What must a person struggle for? The Lord showed me the beauty of monastic life. Monastic life is deep. Everything apart from that ceased to mean anything for me. This is my way, perhaps. Each person has his own way to God. This is a mystery that one keeps inside.

What was next?
We started building St Nicholas Church. When the basement floor had already been finished, we immediately decided to have it consecrated. We started celebrating Liturgies there. I remember when the first Liturgy was celebrated in that church, water dropped onto our heads, everything was gray, and we were standing on sand mixed with small stones but everybody was incredibly happy because this was the first Divine Liturgy in the new church.
Actually, first we started divine services in the National Psychiatrical Clinic, in their rehabilitation centre. The room where the Liturgies were celebrated on Thursdays normally served as a room for hypnosis. Services there continue up to the present day. We dreamed about building a church for the people who stay in the wards for them to feel a completely different life. We made gates in a hospital wall to take the patients to church but unfortunately, we forgot about several problems. The patients who stayed in the department for drug and alcohol addicts were only too happy to use this gate to run away from the hospital… We had to close this gate. Only the patients who are allowed to go out from their departments can do so. There is a confession on Wednesday evening, and the Liturgy is served on Thursdays. What we are to do is prepare the patients and take them to the service. Most departments are isolation type, and the patients who stay there are not always emotionally stable, so it is their doctor who approves or disapproves of their going to church. Those who are allowed to go out the hospital, come to the convent, and it is a great joy for them.
Then Father Andrew blessed the construction of the monastic dormitory. Later, a church in honor of St Elisabeth was built. There are photos, and when I look at them I just cannot believe that it was real. Then we received our first true cells, two or three cells, I do not remember exactly how many. The dormitory was consecrated in 2002.
Were the icons for St Elisabeth Church painted in the workshops of the Convent?
All icons located in the churches of our Convent are painted in our workshops. The Lord has provided it that everything has been made with our own hands. It is surprising, of course.


CONVERSATION

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