by Natalia Galetkina and Nellya Fedishina.
When our house in Magadan first opened in 1993, at the first Sunday Mass in the parish, the person whom Alma Coffman especially noticed was Veronica Petronite. “That woman has suffered incredibly,” she thought.
After Mass, the MH team was introduced to Veronica and her daughter, Nellya. It was the beginning of a precious friendship.
The basic facts of the life of Veronica, who was one of the oldest members of the parish, are easily told. She was born in Lithuania in 1921, and when she was 25, though she had done nothing wrong, she was arrested as an “enemy of the people” and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a Soviet prison camp.
Then after she had served her sentence, having been given no permission to return home, she was forced to remain nearby. So in Magadan, far from her homeland and knowing little Russian, she lived under the stigma of being an ex-convict. There, for the rest of her long life, she eked out a simple existence and lived her Catholic faith. In a interview by a journalist after Veronica died, her daughter, Nellya Fedishina, fleshed out the story:
When my brother and I were growing up, said Nellya, there was no church or priest in Magadan. My mother never remarried, and she raised us alone. It is only because of her that we have the Faith.
She never forced us. If it was time for prayer and we continued our games, she used to say, “That’s all right. You will mature some day.”
About others, she told us, “It’s all right if they don’t believe. Never insist on your beliefs with them. Some day they will understand. If they don’t want to understand in good times, trouble will teach them.”
Before I went to school, my mother never talked about God. It just went without saying that he existed. But at school, of course, we were taught atheism.
One day I came home and asked my mother, “Are we baptized?” “Certainly you are,” she answered, “and you must always remember it. But never tell anyone. I was in prison for this, and they can arrest us again.”
She told us how we had been baptized “with water” and what words were used. It’s the same way that my children were baptized. Since there were no priests then, people did it themselves.”
Mother often said, “Always remember that you are Roman Catholic.” Lord, deliver us! Under Communism, even the Orthodox were looked upon with suspicion. Catholics were considered either as members of sects or crazy. But we tried to bear the name “Catholic” with dignity.
In our childhood there were many things that we did not understand. My mother spoke Russian very poorly and with a heavy accent, and my brother and I did not know Lithuanian. So she could not explain things to us well.
She said, “When I bless myself with the Sign of the Cross, you do the same with the words, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” So I did not know long prayers.
When she made the Sign of the Cross, when she stood up, when she fell on her knees, I did the same. I remember so well her gestures at the words, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
We never saw Christmas celebrated, and my mother could not give us presents. But a card used to come from Lithuania with small hosts for us to celebrate a Lithuanian Christmas custom. My mother would say, “Children, the Lord sent us a pie!” We were so happy to have a pie from God!
We also had the 33 meatless dishes according to the Lithuanian Christmas custom. My mother always made them from what little we had.
The first time I ever went into a Catholic church was in 1978 when I was twenty and we visited Lithuania. My mother hadn’t been to a church since 1946 when she was exiled and sent to Siberia.
I can’t help crying when I remember how she fell on her knees before the priest and begged him to have a wake for all those who had died in the prison camps. At the wake she called out all the names.
My mother had often said, “I wish I could take you to Lithuania for you to see what real faith in God is.”
She was right. While we stayed there, I did see and understand a lot. I saw a student coming to church before class, and I saw people coming before doing their errands, even when there was no service. People could come to church whenever they wanted!
When we finally got a church in Magadan, it wasn’t really a church. It was just a room in an apartment. I had expected something like I had seen in Lithuania, something festive and solemn, a beautiful old church. I was very disappointed. My faith was too small then.
My mother told me,” “You must go there. God is there. Our priest is there. You must go in spite of your likes and dislikes. ” So I began going to church, and I brought my children, too.
When my mother talked about her time in the slave labor camp, she told us many terrible stories, and we wondered how she had survived. “We only survived because of God’s will and our prayer,” she would tell us.
The prosecutors tortured the prisoners during interrogations by putting needles under their finger nails. Sometimes people just fell on the road because they were too weak and hungry to go on.
And when the women worked in the sewing shop, they had no strength to pull their hands from the machine. So sometimes their hands got caught in the machine with the fabric. Since it took time to turn the power off, the victim had usually lost her hand. The authorities didn’t care whether or not the person survived such a trauma.
My mother had a very strong and stubborn character. Because of that, she spent more time than the others in the cold punishment cell. She had to stay there naked. She was allowed to feed the stove, but in order to do so, she would have had had to go to the forest for wood. And who would go there naked? People were humiliated not only physically, but morally as well.
My mother had bronchitis for the rest of her life as a result of her time in the punishment cells.
When she was in the camp, my mother kept begging God to take her to him to stop her suffering. Five years before she died, she told me that she once saw the Lord in a dream. He told her, “Stop praying to die. You will live until you are very old.”
My mother thought we needed to know all about her life and her experiences in the prison camps, but she told us not to tell anyone about it. She was afraid of going to prison again.
But the time came when she began to speak more openly. When someone advised her to keep silent so that no one would know that she had been in prison, she said, “You took away my motherland and my youth, and you crushed my life. And now you want me to keep silent!”
As for forgiveness, I am sure that the former prisoners forgave their torturers, but their pain remained. The feeling is difficult to explain, but they carried this burden all their lives. They carried the pain, but they were not angry and did not think about revenge.
Everything is tested by time, including faith. Towards the end of her life, though my mother was very old and weak, though she had breathing problems, and though she could not walk two steps without help, she always wanted to be in church.
During Lent, we were told at church that the elderly and children did not have to fast, and my mother agreed. But as soon as we sat down at table, she would say, “I’m not hungry.” Once she fainted on the bus, but she continued fasting just the same.
My mother had heart problems, and she had had a few strokes and a very hard surgery. Walking was very hard for her. But as soon as she reached the church, her face would glow.
In 1997, the last full year of her life, every Sunday that she was able to go to Mass, she would go to Father for the Last Sacraments. And often she would say, “I am ready for death,” or “I am not afraid of death.”
Then one Sunday in February 1998 the Madonna House team was again at Mass in the parish. Alma was sitting next to the place which Veronica always occupied and was wondering where she was. No matter how she felt, no matter how inclement the weather, 78-year old Veronica was almost always at Mass.
But that day, surrounded by her son and daughter, Veronica was dying. She died very fittingly, we found out later, at just about the time all of us in her beloved parish church were kneeling for the Consecration.
On the wall of the chapel of that church there is a photo of Veronica, a photo in which you can see in her elderly face, her amazingly clear young eyes. “This is our saint,” said Fr. Michael Shields, the pastor. “I think that all people who suffered for their faith are saints, though not all are canonized.”
Adapted from an article in Light of the Gospel, the Catholic newspaper in Russia, an article written by Natalia Galetkina from her interview of Nellya Fedishina. Alvina Voropayeva, a friend of MH Magadan, translated it, and the editor added the opening and closing paragraphs.
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