At the end of May, St James Church will be filled with the uplifting and moving sound of sacred and folk music from Belarus.
A choir of nuns from St Elizabeth Convent in Minsk is returning to Shaftesbury for a concert, five years after their last visit. “It’s four-part harmony. There are no musical instruments. Gregorian chant is absolutely beautiful. This is what the sisters will be singing when they come on the 31st of May,” said Reverend Mary Ridgewell.
One of the nuns was thirstily drinking a glass of fizzy water in Mary’s living room when I called around to chat. Sister Nadzeya was shattered, having just arrived at Gillingham railway station for her first UK visit and first experience of British public transport.
Her English was fairly good, but she appeared self-conscious about her choice of words. So after exchanging pleasantries and smiles, she pulled out her smartphone and spoke into the handset in Belarusian. We waited for Google’s computer-generated voice to speak back Nadzeya’s translated words.
Nadzeya, a young woman, has only been a nun for three months – or at least that’s how her phone interpreted her response to my question. The phone translation was slow, so while Nadzeya relaxed, Mary filled me in on the nun’s incredible story to date.
The Soviet state had attempted to suppress religious belief. St Elizabeth Convent was only established in the 1990s, as part of the democratic reforms following Belarus gaining independence. The major economic and political changes that followed the end of communism brought social issues that the new state was not geared-up to address, so the nuns rose to the challenge.
“I would say that the sisters and brothers are the social systems, or the social services, in Minsk, because of the amount of work that they do, which just grows all the time,” Mary enthused.
Sister Nadzeya explained that she enjoys the challenge offered by the range of support services that the sisters provide for the community. “We have a lot of different activities. We care for children with Downs Syndrome and homeless people and people who have alcohol and drug addiction,” said Nadzeya.
The concert at St James Church is a fundraiser to help the nuns continue their charitable endeavours. Mary has seen their work in action. She has maintained a local connection with the convent following her visit to Minsk.
“I used to be the Chaplain in Guys Marsh prison,” Mary explained. “Every three months or so, a group of singers would come from the Orthodox Church in Bath. I became close friends with Mother Sarah, who is an orthodox nun there. She said that we should go and visit the sisters in Minsk because they were doing the most wonderful work with ex-prisoners and addicts, and the work is absolutely indescribable.”
The convent story begins with a man, Father Andre. He worked as an undercover priest during the Soviet era. When the USSR fell and it was safe for Andre to be open about his role, six young women approached him and asked him how they could devote their lives to God.
“He suggested that they start to work in the mental institution around the corner,” said Mary. The authorities eventually offered the nuns some land on which they erected containers for their own accommodation. They also used the containers to house the people with dependency issues, that they were trying to rehabilitate.
“So, they could start looking after people who had a problem with alcohol or drugs or had just come out of prison. Everybody was living in these containers. Then the council began to realise what was going on. They had a derelict farm, so they gave the small farm and all the land to the sisters and brothers,” said Mary.
One of the former prisoners found it difficult interacting with people but loved dogs and they responded well to him. The nuns applied the man’s skills and passion to create another new funding stream. “They started a business breeding guard dogs for rich people. Then this financed a dog hotel. I went to visit and they have little icons of the saints, as you go in,” said Mary.
Those icons are another cash-generator. The Soviet authorities stripped many church buildings of ornate decoration, so the nun’s next business venture was to encourage artists to Minsk to help restore the religious icons in places of worship. “In the Orthodox Church in Russia, things have to be beautiful. Icons are pictures of people who’ve lived their lives close to God. This skill had fallen by the wayside.”
Mary said the nuns prayed for art students to come forward – and they did. “Suddenly, they were able to restock the churches throughout Russia.” As Mary shared a brief overview of the convent’s expansion, she stressed the nun’s good fortune. It seems that their prayers had been answered at every turn.
Outside of Minsk, the St Elizabeth Convent is best known for the nuns’ choral performances. Their musical reputation was formed when a successful choirmaster received her calling and joined the nuns. “When she was 50, she had this clear impression that God was saying to her, ‘go and join the sisters’. So she did,” said Mary. “She was given the name Mother Juliania. She ran the top choir in Minsk at the time and her choir said, ‘you’re not leaving us, we’re coming with you!’ The music that they produce makes your hair stand on end. It is exquisitely beautiful.”
Shaftesbury will hear that music soon. Sister Nadzeya told me that she had been looking forward to visiting Britain because she had heard other nuns talk about their warm reception during previous UK tours. “It’s my first time in England. Here our concerts enjoy great success,” she said.
We are the smallest town on the nun’s nine-concert tour around London, the south coast and South Wales. The nuns’ Shaftesbury concert will be formed of two parts: worship chants and spiritual songs.
The concert in St James Church at 7pm on May 31st is free, but the sisters hope that Shaftesbury will be generous in its support of their rehabilitation centre and TB clinic back home in Belarus. And Mary, along with many other Shaftesbury residents, can’t wait for the evening of enchanting music from the nuns who work miracles in Minsk.