St Elisabeth Convent is a place not only of prayer, but also of service to people that modern society tends to forget. For many years, our convent has been rendering help to vulnerable men and women staying at its two farmsteads, as well as children and adults undergoing treatment at the Minsk National Mental Health Centre and the affiliated boarding homes. The Convent’s lay sisters also run a home care service.
Blessed Heaven is the name of an art studio, run by the Convent since 2019. This relatively new project led by nun Anfisa (Ostapchuk) helps current and former patients of the Mental Health Centre find themselves and their place in society through creative work and, most importantly, through meeting God. This article introduces the reader to the Studio’s activities, achievements, creative projects and development plans.
Facing unemployment is one of the main fears of a person finding himself in a psychiatric hospital. Our sisters serving in the Hospital have learned this from doctors, teachers, accountants, students and other professionals, whose activities, associated with constant stress, contributed to their mental illnesses. Visiting such patients, our sisters have realised their need for social and professional post-hospital adaptation. The Blessed Heaven Studio, organised in 2019, became the first project of this kind in Belarus.
The studio was named in honour of the icon of the Mother of God, bearing the same unusual name. Such a choice of name was determined by the first meeting of the studio staff taking place on the Icon’s feast day. This is how the Mother of God became the studio’s Heavenly Patroness, to Whom an akathist prayer is read there every day. The studio’s location on the ground floor of St John of Shanghai church can hardly be called a coincidence. St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a trustee of various charitable societies, was known for helping suffering souls during his entire life, taking care of the mentally and physically ill, as well as orphans and prisoners. It is by his prayers that works of mercy continue to be performed today, filling the church in his name with those in need of his help.
The project currently has 15 participants, they are officially employed, but also some people are still familiarising themselves with the Studio.
The Studio’s main goal is to provide former patients of the Psychiatric Hospital with employment. Due to complications of their diseases, as well as drugs’ side effects and lost self-confidence, such people cannot stand up to the competition in the labour market. At the same time, their disabilities are not officially recognized as such. Through creativity, love and full acceptance, the Studio helps them regain confidence in their potential, to feel needed and to find a new way of life with Christ. This is facilitated by a favourable spiritual atmosphere, as well as the daily prayer and conversations about God.
Social and labour adaptation is time-consuming. It often takes two or more years for a person to be able to fully return to society. And yet, the Studio’s experience shows the fruitfulness of such spiritual and creative activity. With God’s help, we often see cases when souls are healed from their illnesses. After learning new creative skills in the Studio, people find work outside the scope of its projects. Most of them come to visit and continue to keep in touch with Sr Anfisa and other members of their group.
The Lord brings people to the Studio with a variety of talents. These talents however need to be discovered and developed. Sister Anfisa practises an individual approach, trying to select the activities that would please and inspire each member of the team, and correspond to his/her abilities. This type of approach resulted in a variety of activity areas, gradually developing in the Studio. The project currently creates:
- wadded retro-style toys
- floral compositions for interiors
- stone panels and sculptures
- felted wool products
- handmade greeting cards
- knitted brooches
- textile eco-toys
- gift wrapping for products made in Convent’s workshops
Wool and plaster toys made in the workshop have been displayed at the Convent’s exhibitions in Germany, England and France. They are also popular on web platforms (Pinterest).
Last year, thanks to the efforts of the Convent’s parishioners, the Studio participated in an interesting project, creating compositions of dried flowers and wicker lamps for the interior design for one of the city’s restaurants.
Creating Wadded Toys Together
Wadded retro toys are among the Studio’s first and most popular projects. Coming up with the idea still during the first year of the project, the guys were worried that no one would buy them. The Lord then arranged it so that one philanthropist bought all the toys for Christmas gifts, giving the Studio team not only the earnings, but also a desire to continue developing this project. Over the past time, our wadded dolls have greatly changed, becoming more complex in artistic terms and also in the amount of details.
These toys are the result of the hard work, done by a whole team of craftsmen. The scope of this work goes from making a wire frame to wrapping it with cotton wool, using threads and glue, painting facial details, and sewing (or felting) clothes from cotton or wool. The details are selected individually, so that each doll is unique. The final touch of such a unique gift is its beautiful individual packaging.
The Studio is constantly developing, improving the quality of its products and working on new ideas. Each member of the team introduces his own talent into the joint work, often becoming the originator of a new activity sphere. The main desire of the Studio’s team is to create beauty and bring joy to people, working for God and neighbour. Acquiring a workshop product means giving these people joy in return, inspiring them and showing that their work is important. Perhaps you have already chosen some of their items for yourself?