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Remote Siberian town kept faith for 62 years without a priest

Polska wieś na Syberii – Wierszyna

KamperManiak | YouTube

O. Karol Lipiński wraz z mieszkańcami Wierszyny

Aleteia - published on 03/14/24

Vershina, populated by descendants of Polish migrants, spent six decades without a priest under Communist rule, but the people kept the faith alive.

The village of Vershina is located in Siberia and is inhabited almost exclusively by people of Polish descent. It lies in a small valley surrounded by mountains, and the soil is fertile.

There’s actually only one road leading to Vershina, and a very bumpy one at that. Winters are very cold — temperatures as low as -48°F occur. In the entire village, there’s only one place with cell phone coverage: the cemetery. There is no internet access. The conditions are quite extreme, but you can get used to them.

All holidays except … Easter

Vershyna was founded in 1910 by Polish settlers who emigrated there. The village, located about 87 miles from Irkutsk, is a phenomenon: In remote Siberia, its residents have preserved the language of their ancestors for generations.

There’s also a Polish parish in Vershina. St. Stanislaus Church was built by Polish immigrants as early as 1915. It functioned until 1928 or 1929, when the Communist authorities decided to demolish it. However, this intention was abandoned as a result of protests by residents. Nevertheless, eventually the Bolsheviks closed the church and devastated its interior.

The faith survived, cultivated secretly within families. No Eucharist was celebrated there for 62 years. During that time, one of the residents, Magdalena Mycka, baptized the town’s children, and the residents prayed on their own, thus saving the Polish language and native piety.

They also tried to keep Catholic holidays, with the exception of … Easter. “They had no contact with Poland, so they didn’t have calendars and they didn’t know when Resurrection Sunday fell,” says Fr. Karol Lipinski, OMI, the current pastor of the Polish parish in Vershina.

Revival of the liturgy

The parish was reborn after the fall of Communism in Russia. The first priest to revisit the village was the then pastor of Poles in the USSR, Fr. Tadeusz Pikus (later bishop). He celebrated Mass in the Vershin school building in 1990. He also negotiated with the local authorities to give the church building back to the faithful and restore its sacred character, instead of the government proposal of creating a Polish-Buryat museum at the site.

“A lot of people came to that first Mass. Many adults saw a priest for the first time in their lives. Those who were born after the church closed may have been in their 60s and had never been to Mass,” Fr. Lipinski explains.

Two years later, on December 19, 1992, the first Mass was celebrated in the restored church. It was presided over by the current Ordinary of the Transfiguration Diocese of Novosibirsk, Bishop Joseph Werth.

This is how the liturgy was reborn in Vershin. The reality of the resurrection and the presence of Christ in bread and wine is there again after many years of hiatus. Although the town’s residents don’t always appreciate this gift, the daily Mass certainly contributes to the sanctification of the local church.

“Can I manage alone?”

Fr. Karol Lipinski OMI went to Vershina when he retired; he was already in his 70s.

“There was only one thing I was afraid of when I went here: whether I would manage alone. Since the novitiate, I had never been in a community of fewer than 12 people. When I was the treasurer in the seminary, there were 180 of us, and at Holy Cross novitiate there were more than 40. And now I’m alone, like a hermit. But the Lord God always gives us as much strength as we need,” says the missionary. “The nearest priest is almost 100 miles away,” he points out.

At present, there are more than 500 people living in Vershina. The youngest of them are the sixth generation of descendants of Polish emigrants.

“During Christmas, I visited 111 families. Nine families were not at home. So there are 120 families in the village. I went with an altar server who is 70 years old. Mass attendance is low. The residents of Vershina are not taught to go to church, although they emphasize their devotion to God,” says Fr. Lipinski. 

Vershina is located in the world’s largest diocese, 32 times the size of Poland. In the Irkutsk decanate to which it belongs, parishes are up to 1,200 miles apart.

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