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Friday, 13 July 2012

The Church of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, Ozjornoje, with presbytery and pilgrim accommodation.
  The Great Game (known as the Tournament of Shadows in Russia) was the phrase used to describe the protracted jostling, between the Russian and British Empires, for geopolitical hegemony in Central Asia in the 19th century. From 1917 however, this rivalry was superseded by an even more dramatic, life-or-death ideological war between soviet communism and Christianity. Ozjornoje, utterly hidden from the outside world, was the scene of one of the most important battles in this war. In 1936 the entire population of a Polish-speaking village, formerly in Ukraine, was forcibly removed here by the soviets, and effectively kept under guard by the Interior Ministry until 1954. In the winter of 1940-41, faced with starvation, the ever-faithful inhabitants had recourse to nothing other than the Rosary for deliverance. A spring thaw came more quickly than usual, leaving a great lake next to the village ('Ozjornoje' means "of the lake") - filled with enough fish to save their lives. Since 24th June 1997 there has been a statue of Our Lady, dressed in fisherman’s attire, on rocks in the centre of this lake; a statue which was blessed by Pope John Paul II. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early '90s, villagers and their descendants set to work building a very beautiful church, dedicated to Our Lady Queen of Peace, who has officially been Patroness of Kazakhstan since 1995. There is also now a Carmelite Convent and Benedictine monastery, with plans to build a much larger Carmel. Thousands of pilgrims visit, from Europe as well as Kazakhstan and Russia, each year.
   After a great sleep, on the next day, Saturday the 25th of June[1], i went to Mass at the Convent, celebrated by a very young priest who had just that month been ordained. In fact he is the first ever ordained priest from the village of Ozjornoje itself – there is also one religious sister of a similar age from the same stock. After Mass i had a pleasant conversation with members of the Carmelite community, and noted that one of them had taken the name Sr Dominica of the Mother of Unity; i explained that Christian unity was the spiritual goal of my pilgrimage. Back at the presbytery for a delicious breakfast, it also seemed preposterously providential that i was able to make a "Thank You" card, using a postcard which my Dad had given me when i set off. It features a scene from the extraordinary stained glass window at St. Mary the Virgin Church, in Fairford, Gloucestershire; "The miraculous catch of fish".

   A lift in the parish van was available, to take me to Petropavlovsk[2], from where my train was due to leave for Irkutsk, Siberia, next day. The native Ozjornojan priest, the driver’s nephew, accompanied us as far as Kellerovka. Having given an icon of Our Lady to his classmate when i was at the seminary in Astana, i presented him with the other, an icon of SS Peter and Paul.[3] I was then given a very nice welcome and lunch at the handsome Church of the Holy Trinity in Petropavlovsk. Having fallen into disrepair in soviet times, much of the restoration work was done by a Polish priest with very good English, Fr Zbigniew Kotlinski, now quite elderly and one of two assistant priests in the parish, who was especially attentive to all my needs. In the afternoon i was able to send an email to a friend in Kobe, Japan, who i’d met on my last evening in Israel, as it now looked as if i could be heading her way. With my train due to leave at 8am next morning, i attended the Saturday evening (Vigil) Mass, in honour of Our Lady Queen of Peace, after which i enjoyed a super supper. My last night in Kazakhstan was spent in another very comfortable room, for which i tried but failed to make a financial contribution, having been driven to the train station in the morning. A card with a picture of St Andrew (the Christian name of the parish priest), and a promise to write and thank them all, would have to suffice.



[1] Usually the Feast of Our Lady Queen of Peace, but this year transferred to the Sunday. Our Lady’s message on this day, as given to the visionaries in Medjugorje, was as follows:
“Dear children! Give thanks with me to the Most High for my presence with you. My heart is joyful watching the love and joy in the living of my messages. Many of you have responded, but I wait for, and seek, all the hearts that have fallen asleep to awaken from the sleep of unbelief. Little children, draw even closer to my Immaculate Heart so that I can lead all of you toward eternity. Thank you for having responded to my call.”
[2] Named after ‘Petr’ and ‘Pavel’; Peter and Paul. The relationship between these two apostles is sometimes seen as a metaphor for the relationship between the western and eastern Christian traditions.
[3] These were the two icons which i bought at the repository in the Petropavlovski cathedral in Kazan.

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