How Women with Troubled Fates Receive Shelter in St. Elisabeth Convent

Sveta couldn’t imagine living without alcohol. She would pour vodka in her throat without eating anything with it. Veronica was almost homeless. Her parents refused to let their daughter who had become a drug addict back into their house. Their stories could have ended at that if not for the rehabilitation center of St. Elisabeth Convent. It provides shelter for women who are in trouble. The Convent supplies them with accommodation, food, and jobs. It gives them the second, third, or fourth chance. Apparently, everyone starts believing in God here. Who else can they turn to?
Breeding Goats and Growing Oyster Mushrooms
Women’s Rehabilitation Center of St. Elisabeth Convent was established in 2011 on the territory of a former military base near v. Nialidavičy (Minsk Region). The Convent bought several buildings and received some other buildings later for free. There had been a church here, too, but it burned down several days prior to land registration. The circumstances suggest that it was arson: some local resident must have set the church on fire because they didn’t want women who had been on the wrong side of the law to live near their villages. They thought that if they burned down the church, there would be no rehab, either. Time has proven them wrong. Today, a new church is being built here. 
“Believe it or not, until we started building the church, we couldn’t finish the repairs of the dormitory. Problems were popping up all the time,” Nun Barbara (Atrasevich) says.
The new church under construction
She is in charge of this rehabilitation center. A former accountant, the nun easily deals with her administrative duties, of which there are plenty. There is a farm at the rehabilitation center, with hens, rabbits, and goats. There is a winter greenhouse on the foundation of a former soldiers’ bathhouse. The women plant tomatoes, bell peppers, and greens. They use former bomb shelters to grow oyster mushrooms from October till April. This year, however, they didn’t grow mushrooms in the bomb shelters: instead, they chose to store willow branches there. The sisters prepare ca. 50 thousand of willow branches for Palm Sunday every year.
Nun Barbara talks with the sisters
There were four “residents” in the rehabilitation center first. Today, there are twenty-eight of them. They are former prisoners, women with alcohol or drug abuse issues, mental health problems, and orphans who were evicted from their free state-provided accommodation. “Of course, they are not led here by the desire to serve God. They come here because they have nowhere else to go,” Nun Barbara is realistic. “Some of them are not accustomed to working at all. They would work only if I promised them a pack of cigarettes, you know.”
The nun recalls how the police tried to talk her out of allowing former prisoners in the rehabilitation center.
“They exclaimed, ‘Do you know what she was in prison for?’ That woman, Marina, spent twenty-five years in a prison camp for murder out of jealousy. She spent four months in our rehab and then went back home. They arrested her and sent her back to prison. She comes to us every time she is released from the prison camp. Currently, she’s behind bars for robbery.
A woman is cooking the dinner for everyone
The sisters, as the patients are called here, live in a dormitory or in a house, three persons in one room. They have meals in a refectory. Some of them stay here with their children. Child protection services don’t mind it: they’ve already seen that the mothers don’t drink while they stay here, and that their children are taken care of. While the women are at work, their underage children go to a kindergarten in v. Višnieŭka.
Every sister chooses for herself how long she is going to stay in the center. Initially, she is allowed to stay here for three or six months. When the three-month-long term ends, she has a conversation with nuns and the spiritual father of St. Elisabeth Convent who are trying to check whether her attitude has changed and whether it’s sensible to let her stay in the rehabilitation center any longer. One can stay in the rehab for as long as she wants but she has to be proactive and help the nuns.
Do the women really change? “The problem is that others can’t believe it. They think that it’s fake. Instead, they should support that person and let her see that her efforts aren’t in vain,” Nun Barbara points out.
The Rules: Don’t Drink, Wear a Long Skirt
While we’re anxiously looking at the soaring prices in the mall, the life of the rehab is different in that it’s much calmer. The women get together for prayer in the mornings and evenings. They recite an akathist —a special prayer to a certain saint. They spend the remaining time working. They sweep the floor and work in the Ceramic and Sewing Workshops. The Sewing Workshop makes priest vestments and modest clothes for female parishioners.
“These women will work only as long as they stay in the Convent. We’ve learned the hard way that they are unable to work anywhere else. Either they don’t get along with their
employers or have a breakdown,” Nun Barbara maintains. 
As soon as the sisters gather the harvest in the fall, they start to get ready for Christmas caroling. They rehearse the carols that they will sing during the Christmastide to congratulate the locals on this glorious holiday. They have been to the nearby villages Kosyń, Nialidavičy, Luskava, Višnieŭka, Papierno this year. “The old ladies who live in those villages were so excited! People invite us to visit their homes the next year, too,” Nun Barbara recalls.
Father Andrew comes to the rehabilitation center every Tuesday and celebrates the Liturgy here. No one is forced to pray but… They recall a story that you wouldn’t call anything other than “unbelievable”. During the Great Lent, the sisters decided to read the Psalter round the clock, an hour each. Only three women refused. Later, their mental disorders exacerbated… There are few rules in the rehabilitation center. Work honestly, don’t drink, don’t smoke inside the center, and wear modest clothes, i.e., a long skirt and a headscarf. Even the guard dog wears pants here.
Not everyone is ready to obey these rules, though. For example, when some volunteers brought a homeless woman who had slept in the railway station to the rehab, she spent
only one night here, and then grabbed her belongings and left. Those who don’t want to stick to the rules are asked to leave the rehab. The nuns don’t just kick them out: they do everything they can to find accommodation and employment for them outside of the rehab. The nuns find farming jobs for the women and ask local authorities to provide accommodation for them.
“My Daughter Was Adopted While I Was in Prison”
We are having tea in the nuns’ house. There are icons on the shelves in the dining room and a carpet with an image of Christ hanging on the wall in the corridor. Even fridge magnets come from various holy places.
Alla is sitting in front of me. The woman came here six years ago. She had issues with alcohol abuse. She was trying to fight that dependency on her own but soon she figured out that it’s impossible without God. When she came to the rehab, she had a black eye and no papers. When I look at that smiling woman, I can’t believe that she is the same person who had gone through so much trouble in the past.
Alla has three children. Her youngest son is 15 and her oldest daughter is 24. She visits them from time to time but she doesn’t want to bother them too often. “It’s useless now: they have their own lives. My in-laws took care of them while they were kids. I’m not sure that I really need to be involved in their upbringing now. They are glad that I’m okay.”
Alla is the only woman who has never left the rehab. She wanted to get married several times but the sisters warned her against a hasty marriage. “I love the rehab: it’s my home,” the woman says. “I’d like to become a nun but I don’t want to leave this wonderful place.”
“Look, Gena is coming!” The sisters notice a male figure in the window. “It’s your guest, Sveta, for sure!”
Sveta runs outdoors. She returns a couple of minutes later with a smile on her face and a wristwatch in her hands. “We’ve worked things out. Look what he’s given me.”
Sveta found herself in the rehab because she had no other choice. If she had, she chose alcohol.
“I was a lawyer. Then my mom had a stroke and died. It was at that time that something went terribly wrong… My father is an alcoholic. He has been an alcoholic for as long as I remember him. I started drinking heavily, too—to the point of neglecting my appearance.
When child protection services took Sveta’s daughter away, she came to her senses. She found a job at a health resort and the social workers allowed her to take her daughter back home. Sadly, it wasn’t long until she started drinking again. “I would always say to myself: just one last shot to relax. After you drink, you forget all your promises. I didn’t even need anyone else to drink with.” 
Child protection services had to intervene again. They took her daughter away again and sent Sveta to Novinki (a psychiatric hospital in Minsk) for a three-week treatment course. It was there that she met Gena, who worked in the Convent. When the woman was discharged from hospital, she didn’t stop drinking. One day she didn’t have enough liquor. Sveta knew that her neighbor stored a gallon of pure alcohol at home. She broke into the neighbor’s house and stole it. Three days later, the police raided her house. She was sentenced to house arrest. Sadly, the woman didn’t want to obey the terms of her house arrest. Three violations of the terms were enough to get her behind bars but she committed forty violations so it was natural that she was sent to a prison camp located in Homiel for fourteen months.
Sveta came to the rehabilitation center for the first time in December 2016. However, she was unable to stay here long. She returned in July 2017: Gena talked her into it. She resisted, though. She drank vodka to make sure that they wouldn’t let her in while she was drunk. The “diehard atheist”, as she had proudly called herself, finally gave in and asked the nuns to let her come in for rehabilitation the following day.
“There’s little free time here, and that’s great. When I was bored, I was looking for something to occupy myself with and would invariably start thinking of alcohol,” Sveta recalls.
There is only one detail that is missing in the happy end of Sveta’s story. While she was in prison, her daughter was adopted. She doesn’t even know who her new parents are. “What do I do now?” she keeps asking. 
“You have to pray,” Nun Barbara suggests.
“I Said: If You Refuse to Help Me, I’ll Die”
Veronica is a young mother who stays in the rehab together with her 5-year-old daughter Milana. Nowadays, she is happy to earn a small amount of money in the ceramic workshop, even though she used to be super-rich because she worked as a croupier in a casino. Drugs spoiled everything.
“Even when I gave birth to the baby, I didn’t stop,” she recalls. “My husband used drugs, too. I was thinking of leaving him but where could I go? I have poor relationships with my parents: we just can’t get along. They were ready to accept their granddaughter but not me. I came to the Convent because I had attended services here for a while. I said: If you refuse to help me, I’ll die.”
Veronica carrying vases and cups made in the Ceramic Workshop of St. Elisabeth Convent
Veronica had a hard time getting accustomed to the new lifestyle.
“I could no longer afford expensive smartphones and designer clothes. I had thought, ‘I’m never going to wash a public restroom in my life!’ I had to force myself into doing the work that I have to do here.”
Veronica’s former husband visits their daughter sometimes. “He keeps talking about love all the time but in reality…” Veronica sighs. She has spent four years in the rehabilitation center. She plans to leave it next spring. “Everybody says it’s too early but it seems to me it’s time. I’m going to rent an apartment in the city. I’m planning to continue working in the workshop for now, and then who knows… I dream of living in the mountains.”
…Nun Barbara knows for sure: If one acknowledges her problem, she’s made her first step to freedom. It is easier to work with openhearted and sincere women. Unfortunately, nuns can’t always be near. What happens to those who eventually decide to leave the rehab? Nun Barbara doesn’t hide the fact that it depends. There is only one piece of advice that she offers to those who leave the rehab, “If you keep going to church, everything will be fine.”
Photos by Sergei Nikonovich
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds
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