Lots of Pain and Lots of Love: The Patron Saint's Day in the Boarding Home for Children

Happiness lies within us. Blessed is he who realised it.
(Saint Nectarius of Aegina)

November 22 will be the day of Saint Nectarius, Metropolitan of Pentapolis and the Wonderworker of Aegina (1920). It is also the patron saint's day of the church located at the territory of the Boarding Home for Children with Special Needs. It was on this day seven years ago when the first Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the new wooden church. The sisters have been praying to this wonderworker and ascetic, who was canonised by the Church of Greece in 1961, since the very first days of their ministry in the boarding home for children. November 22 soon became a special day for the children, the sisters of mercy, volunteers, personnel, and the administration of the boarding home.

In anticipation of the feast, we would like to recall the amazing saint, St Nectarius of Aegina, and tell you about the incredible efforts of every member of staff, every sister of mercy, every volunteer. We would like to share everything we can possibly fit into one short post.

The first person I had an interview with was Nun Martha (Matveeva), who had responded to pain and suffering of others almost two decades ago.

Nun Martha, could you please tell us how your ministry in the Boarding Home for children with special needs began?

It all began when Father Andrew (Lemeshonok) invited me to the Sisterhood. It was in 1998. I studied in the Academy of Fine Arts, majoring in painting, and I was writing my diploma thesis. I approached Father Andrew, believing that the Lord Himself wanted me to serve other people. Father Andrew took my hand and introduced me to another sister, saying, "This is Olechka. She will go to the boarding home for children." It must be noted that I had always dreamed of helping children but I had never told Father Andrew about it. Naturally, it was visibly divine action.

What was next? How did other people come?

Little by little, the Lord would send us new helpers. Currently, there are over 50 sisters, about thirty volunteers, and a youth group of twenty young boys and girls from the Sunday School, who visit the boarding home on a regular basis. I have listed only those who visit the children at least twice a week. There are also volunteers from other places, like the Pedagogical University.

Has anything changed in the course of your ministry?

A lot has changed with regard to the cooperation of the administration of the boarding home with St Elisabeth Convent. Valery Sivtsov, the Headmaster of the Boarding Home, responds well to suggestions and projects, comes up with many new ideas of his own, is always open to dialogue, and is actively doing his best to improve the life of the boarding home and the children who live there. See how cosy our yard is! We have our own church and a small belfry, which is accessible for the children. I recall a very telling situation: when we were negotiating a trip, he said, "Would I allow my own children to go? Yes, I would. These kids are mine, too." You see, he considers these children to be his own.

What joint projects of St Elisabeth Convent and the Boarding Home have already been implemented?

I'll start with the trivial ones. Apart from material aid such as supplying the boarding home with essential medicines and personal hygiene kits, which, as you might expect, are in constant demand, we do a lot of other things with the children. The sisters of mercy and volunteers organise trips for the children every weekend. We have started a small zoo with beautiful birds and a couple of rabbits. There is a project of a sensory garden, which is a territory that will give the children an opportunity to get to know the environment by touch, smell, and taste. The idea belongs to Aliona Ovlashevich. The headmaster supported this initiative, too. And I could go on and on…

What would you do better? What else would you like to do for the children?

I have a dream, which has started to become true already, and it is to build a house, a dacha, for our children not far from the Rehabilitation Centre of St Elisabeth Convent. We have received a big plot of land lately, and we will start the design stage soon. It is going to be a cosy family-type house — a house for meetings of one big and friendly family.

Mother Martha, how did the church in honour of St Nectarius of Aegina appear on the territory of the boarding home? Why St Nectarius and not any other saint?

That's an astonishing story. Long ago, I was invited to take part in a sightseeing tour to Greece. I did not go to church at that time, and I knew very little about the Church. We visited Aegina Island during our voyage, and saw the tomb of Saint Nectarius. I was a student at that time, and I used to go to a bookshop every time I received my monthly student allowance. So I came across a book about St Nectarius of Aegina. The story of the saint's life and works impressed and inspired me. It turns out that Agni Parthene prayer was written by this holy hierarch. He heard Angels sing the tune, and then wrote the lyrics.

I started visiting the boarding home just around the time when I got to know Saint Nectarius. I asked Father Andrew if I could pray to this saint for our kids. Naturally, we were dreaming of having our own church all the time. There are many children who cannot go outside. The church turned out to be even more necessary than I used to think. It is the place that unites us. The children feel it and respond to it. The church is their home…


Nun Martha can go on and on talking about the boarding home and its little dwellers. Now allow me to introduce our new interviewee. You could have spotted him during all meetings, events, and concerts where the children with special needs participated. Now I know that his name is Oleg. He is 36. He works as a senior lecturer at the Belarusian State University. Oleg has been a faithful friend of the Boarding Home since 2000. Just imagine: he's been doing it for seventeen years!

Oleg, what can a volunteer really do, especially if we take the bedridden children?

Caring for severely ill young patients of the boarding home is a multifarious process, which cannot be reduced to physiology, physical health, feeding, and weight gain. The importance of close contact between the staff and the children, between the children and those who visit them, cannot be underestimated. How do we tackle this issue? Volunteers come to offer additional support, to take (or carry) the children outdoors. Even if you carry the little humans on your lap for a little time, you will feel how grateful they are. Our children receive constant care and attention from the staff, the sisters of mercy and the volunteers around the clock. Their living conditions have improved significantly in the recent years. The units, rooms, and classrooms have become more comfortable and relaxing. Look at our yard: it is full of joy and bristling with colours. It has everything the children need. Playgrounds were renovated not long ago. It was made possible thanks to hard work of the administration and the staff of the Boarding Home. Quality of health services has also improved but this is a question you'd better ask the nurses who have worked in the Boarding Home for a long time, such as Nadezhda Vladimirovna from the Unit No.4 for bedridden children.

Oleg, let's recall the happy events in the children's lives. Where do they go? How does the Convent and the volunteers participate in their lives?

We can keep talking non-stop about the events, trips, workshop sessions, birthday celebrations, that we brothers and sisters of the Sisterhood, with the assistance of the administration of the Boarding Home, have organised for the children. We go downtown with the children every week: we visit the Botanical Gardens, parks, theatres, museums, and other interesting places. We have been to the Minsk Planetarium, the National Library, a Fun Science Museum, to name just a few. Of course, we must mention the fact that our children participate in performances and attend drama and animation film classes.

Alexander Zhdanovich is an actor of the Maksim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre and a faithful friend of the children from the Boarding Home. It was thanks to his efforts that our city saw The Little Prince, an inclusive theatrical play staged by the children who will never grow up for the grown-ups who used to be children, in Concert Hall Minsk on October 2, 2016.

Alexander, how did the idea of this play appear?

People of various occupations visit the children in the boarding home. I was always interested in seeing how each person finds common ground with the children even using his profession. Given that I'm an actor, we decided to stage The Little Prince and we continue to perform it even now. This play is for adults, and the audience is very receptive.

How do you rehearse?

Everything changes and develops all the time. We used to rehearse in the assembly hall of the Boarding Home. Gradually, with God's help, a Spiritual Education Centre appeared at St Elisabeth Convent. It's a wonderful building with a small but well-equipped stage. As far as rehearsals are concerned, it's always fun to work with these kids. And you can never tell what happens next, there's always some place for live and impromptu improvisation. Rehearsals and performances give these people a chance to feel that someone needs and appreciates them.

Alexander, could you please say a couple of words to our children and the readers on this patron saint's day of St Nectarius of Aegina?

I would like to quote the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which are very close to the Orthodox Christian spirit, "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." The Lord put these children on our way so that we could be able to develop our best, God-given qualities.

Finally, I met Maria Ivanova, the head of an animation studio who comes to the boarding home every week to make animation films with the children.

Maria, can you please say what brought you to the boarding home at such a young age?

It was the Lord who brought us here. I came to the boarding home in 2010, first as a volunteer. I wanted to teach these children how to make animated films. At first, we had classes in the boarding home, and later our studio received financial support and we managed to find a nice well-equipped room in the building of the Sunday School of St Elisabeth Convent.

Could you please tell us about the most memorable moments you have had with the special kids?

Naturally, first of all I must mention presentations of our animation films. Our team has had three shows in the TUT.BY Gallery, the Moscow House, and SPACE Venue. The children go out quite often but here they presented their own works, too. The fact that these children did something big and significant was striking to many viewers. Generally speaking, conversations between people from the broader world and people with special needs go easier when there is a common creative space like that.

What are the new projects that we can expect to hear about?

No doubt, the volunteer movement in the boarding home is going very strong. Of course, it is possible thanks to open dialogue between Valery Sivtsov, the Principal of the Boarding Home, and us volunteers, among other factors. People from various Russian cities visited our boarding home and were surprised at seeing how welcoming the boarding home is to volunteers and their ideas. Last year, our volunteers were trained for future work in children animation studios with the support of the U.S. Embassy and UniHelp. We met Mikhail Safronov, a remarkable director of YES Animation Studio from Saint Petersburg. He became our inspiration for The Resurrection of Lazarus animation film. We hope that we will start making a new animation film in January.

You can spend hours talking about the ministry of St Elisabeth Convent. There are plenty of wonderful stories. I believe that every person who has ever visited the boarding home, could tell an interesting and unusual story or two. The most important aspect of this motley diversity is joint prayer, participation in the Sacrament of Eucharist, and our shared life in the Church. So many people and so many fates have met in one place in order to really become one family, or better still — one Body. We are thankful to God that we are all together!

I would like to finish my article with the words of Novice Veronika who came to the boarding home eight years ago as a lay sister and has since become a novice: “The thing that the children from the Boarding Home miss most of all is motherly care and love. This is why, when I asked the staff how I could help these children and how to benefit their development, they replied unanimously, ‘Just hug them so that they could feel your warmth. This is crucial.’ Each one of us has the opportunity to share their warmth with the children with special needs. If you do so, you will know for sure that ‘happiness lies within us, and blessed is he who has realised it.’” Saint Nectarius, pray to God for us!

St. Elisabeth Convent

November, 2017