"At first I thought there would be no one. I saw 12 boys arrive ... And the miracle was renewed every year. ... It was still clandestine, communications were complicated, and we were being watched by the KGB."
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The Soviet regime tried hard to eliminate the Catholic presence in Kazakhstan, the nation Pope Francis will be visiting September 13-15, 2022.
Fr. Pierre Dumoulin, a French priest born in 1961, was one of the first missionaries to return to Kazakhstan in the early 1990s.
As Pope Francis prepares to visit, the man who co-founded the country’s only seminary tells I.MEDIA with emotion about the return of the missions and the thirst of a people where hidden islands of Christianity had survived.
In 1991, Fr. Dumoulin was a priest of the Diocese of Monaco and a teacher at the Faculty of Theology in Lugano, Switzerland. When John Paul II secretly asked the institute in Lugano to train the bishops of the Soviet Union, Fr. Dumoulin came forward because he was a Russian speaker.
Fr. Dumoulin then gave courses to various bishops, including the bishop of Kazakhstan who, at the end of his stay, invited him to teach back in Kazakhstan. Unprecedentedly, behind the Iron Curtain that was gradually opening, Fr. Dumoulin gave courses to Kazakh teachers of the history of religions. The information was even announced by the country’s official radio station.
He noticed “a great thirst.” Out of around 50 students, about 20 asked to be baptized. “That deeply moved me,” he says. “There was an incredible sense of expectation in those years.”
In the camps, grandmothers used to make rosaries with bread balls held together by a thread.
I thought there would be no one …
He then suggested to the bishop of the region that he train priests. This proposal was received with skepticism after the years of Communism that had left these lands bereft of vocations. The Church there was poor at the time, with 15 priests serving a territory larger than Europe (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan).
The vicar general asked Fr. Dumoulin to draw up the project for the seminary and then to launch it. At first disconcerted by this unexpected proposal, he ended up accepting his new mission.
On Palm Sunday, 1992, the missionary opened a three-month pre-seminary: “At first I thought there would be no one. I saw 12 boys arrive … And the miracle was renewed every year. We continued for four years with me going back and forth between Lugano and Karaganda. It was still clandestine, communications were complicated, and we were being watched by the KGB.”
The pre-seminary was located in Karaganda, in the heart of one of the largest gulags of the Communist period, the Karlag. This is where Catholics were most numerous at the time, half of the population being descendants of Russian, German, Polish and Ukrainian deportees.
Karaganda was the only place in the Soviet Union where a Catholic church had been built, on an unusual architectural model: The miners of this coal town used materials found on the spot such as mine tubes or railway rails.
Meeting with the “babushka”
With the young people of the pre-seminary, Fr. Dumoulin organized trips through Kazakhstan to talk about vocations. In these arid lands, in ethnic villages still marked by the harsh imprint of the camps, they discovered Christian communities that had never seen priests.
“The people would gather to celebrate, they would set up a table, decorate it, and read prayers; it was their only service. They went before a cross to confess their sins. If they managed to get holy water, they made it last by adding water for years. They still celebrated in Latin, as in the past; they had never heard of Vatican II.”
“What kept them going, the strength of the Church, was the Rosary,” says Fr. Dumoulin.
Nuns who had consecrated their lives in a hidden way also survived in small monasteries that remained secret. “What kept them going, the strength of the Church, was the Rosary,” says Fr. Dumoulin. “It’s such a simple prayer that it’s easily passed on and allows you to keep the faith. In the camps, grandmothers used to make rosaries with bread balls held together by a thread.”
It’s thanks to all these faithful, who wrote down prayers from memory in notebooks, that the faith was transmitted.
When they saw priests and young candidates for the priesthood arriving, some were wary, fearing that they were dealing with spies.
“Simeon” in the temple
But one day, Fr. Dumoulin was deeply moved by an encounter.
“We arrived in a village where people were building a church,” he says. “Grandmothers were carrying buckets of cement, children were breaking small stones to make the pavement, and grandfathers were perched on scaffolding to build the walls.”
And he continues:
“The elderly woman who was taking the place fo the priest asked us who we were. We explained to her.
‘You, when will you start being a priest?’ she asked Youroslav. ‘I have to study for six years and then when I come back I will be a priest,’ he answered. ‘Ah, six years. When you come back, I will be dead. But it doesn’t matter, because I have seen you.’
In these words, he recalls with emotion, “I heard the old man Simeon, I saw the faith of this woman who said: I held on, I saw the day when Christians will be able to live here again.”
The hand of God in Kazakhstan
Afterwards, the pre-seminary of Karaganda was transformed into a seminary for the whole of Central Asia.
Now back in Marseille after long missions in Russia and Georgia, Fr. Dumoulin continues to give courses (by video) for Kazakh, Georgian, and Russian candidates studying at the seminary. The institution welcomes an average of 10 seminarians per year.
The ecclesiastical geography of the country has also evolved: Kazakhstan currently has three dioceses – south, center, north – and an apostolic administration. The largest Christian population is located in the diocese of Astana. There are about 100 priests in the country, of whom about 15 are from Kazakhstan.
In 2021, for the first time, a priest of the new generation from Kazakhstan, Fr. Yevgeniy Zinkovskiy, was appointed auxiliary bishop in Karaganda. “It is a joy, a source of pride to know that one of our young people is a bishop,” the missionary emphasizes.
I have never felt the hand of God as much as in Kazakhstan.
In the same way, Kazakhs – who live a moderate Islam – are beginning to convert to Christianity, which until now has been seen as the religion of the West.
A Gothic-style cathedral has been built in Karaganda. “This is a visible emblematic monument, which attracts, which shows what Christianity is.”
In addition to two Carmelite communities, there are two places of perpetual adoration, in Nour-Soultan – formerly called Astana – and at the Marian shrine in Oziornoe.
“We didn’t do it, God did,” Fr. Dumoulin says. He remembers being rescued many times “in desperate situations, lost at the bottom of the steppe in broken down cars, with the fear of freezing on the spot. And the solution came. I have never felt the hand of God as much as in Kazakhstan.”