FATHER PASTOR MICHAEL SHIELDS
I was born and raised in a Catholic family in Talkeetna, Alaska. After my Ordination to the Priesthood, I served throughout the Archdiocese of Anchorage for 15 years until I received my call to serve in the mission field of Far East Russia, where I have been laboring for the past 25 years (you can read my story below). It is my joy, now, to serve the parish family of St. Michael Catholic Church and to help us grow as a family of disciples—following the LORD, wherever He will take us, even if it be Far East Russia.
My Missionary Journey…
The call part 1
“Go and Pray in the Camps”….I heard these words in the deepest part of my soul while on a 40 day retreat in 1992 seeking God's will for me and for how He wanted me to spend the rest of my years as a priest. I had fasted and prayed before the retreat because I knew the Lord wanted to speak to me. I knew what these words meant. I was to go to Magadan Russia, a place of the former prison camps in Far East Siberia, to offer my life freely for those who sent as prisoners and many because they were believers in God.
I was sure this call was not from the Lord for I had been to Magadan twice, for a week each time at the invitation of my Archbishop of Anchorage Alaska. I was a priest already 15 years. I had quickly lost any romantic view of Russia as even in that small amount of time I saw harshness and felt a spiritual evil present that I did not want to be involved in. On my retreat I in fact asked my spiritual director to do an exorcism so as to free my from these thoughts that kept coming over and over. “Go pray in the camps.” The call was given and eventually I received it with a deep faith. I received as well a great gift healing my fears which prepared me for a new form of the priesthood. It was a” call within a call” that Br Charles often wrote about.
Following Blessed Charles part 2
I asked to take a vow of poverty as a diocesan priest and also put on the outside that which I felt for many years on the inside. I was a responsible for a Jesus Caritas priest’s fraternity based on the spirituality of Br Charles De Foucould. I wanted to live like him and pray like him in Far East Siberia. As he said that he wanted, ‘To shout the Gospel from the roof top on his life’. I had a simply gray habit made and placed a red Heart of Jesus on the front. Who was I? I felt the call was to be a Brother of the Heart of Jesus. My Archbishop allowed me to do all this with no promise to go to Russia as the priest shortage in Alaska was acute. I was also at that time the only native born clergy in the diocese. After two years of testing the call and praying with the Archbishop, saying I will not go without the full blessing of himself and the people I loved. I came to Magadan for the rest of my life on the feast day of Our lady of Sorrows September 15 1994. This feast day echoed a prayer that rose up within me during the retreat. “Oh Lord you have filled with such joy. How can I ever repay you? Forgive me my many sins and give me but one home and there at the foot of the cross with Mary my Queen and Mother teach me but one thing that is to love”.
Coming home part 3
When I arrived in Magadan I knelt down and kissed the ground where some day I will be buried. It was a surprise to all who were on the flight to see priest in a monks robe on his knees with tears in his eyes but I knew I had come home. Here in the former prison camps of Stalin I had found my life and turned it over as best I could and try everyday to be His and only His. I had heard the gospel anew. In the time of preparing for the call my father had died and I had accomplished one dream I had sense childhood to climb the tallest mountain in North America, Mt McKinley (7,000 meters). I had been born in a small village at the foot of this mountain. But now I realized the mountain of the Lord is the highest mountain and the climb He was giving me would take more strength than I could find in myself. He had called be to pray in the camps and give my life for the renewal of faith in Russia and to be a victim for the many victims. I could do nothing more than says yes for His will because it had such a sweet attraction.
The parish of the Nativity of Jesus was founded in 1989 when Archbishop Francis Hurley and I preached the first public mass in Magadan on the feast of Christmas. The name of the parish came from that first Mass. The parish was officially registered as a catholic parish in December of 1991. The first priest to serve the parish at its early infancy was a kind elderly priest Fr Austin Moorebacher who was asked by Archbishop Hurley to begin the work of founding a parish in the former prison camp city of Magadan. Fr Austin was the ideal founder of the parish. He was a gentle grandfather who welcomed everyone believer or non believer to hear simple stories of the gospel. Fr Austin was able to rent time on the local TV channel at that time and simply speak about the faith and the Catholic Church. So much propaganda was given during the repression that most people thought of the Catholic Church as a sect and dangerous to the spiritual health of anyone who would attend a church service. His gentleness and kindness won hearts and eventually we were able to even register as a catholic parish. Fr, Austin left after three years of service in the Far East. He suffered from terrible arthritis and suffered greatly. By the time he left, he had created a small foundation of a few faithful Catholics. It is on that small foundation I was given the gift to pastor now for over 18 years.
My brothers part 4
My first years in Magadan were shared with one other priest from America, Fr David Means. Some years later another priest joined us from Slovakia Fr Milosh Krokofski, who served in Norelsk another place of the camps in far north central Siberia. I cannot describe the grace Fr David Means was for me personally and for the people of Magadan and in our mission in Ola. Fr. David spent 13 years giving himself to the people. He is priest of deep prayer and talented musically. His homilies were clear and his gentle presence showed what it meant to be a brother of Jesus. He heard my confession weekly and his advice was always well thought out. He really formed so many of our youth who are now young adults. His ministry here has born much fruit. He felt called back to serve his diocese but especially sensed a call to be near his family. We miss him still and is still in our daily prayers. Fr Milosh came with a desire to join the small community and seek the gift of prayer and healing that is known to be here in Magadan. He served with enthusiasm and many of the youth climbed, went on pilgrimages and found his humor to open a way to finding the joy of our faith. Fr Milosh is a talented priest as an artist, musician and homilist. He kept a humble presence for the 6 years he was with us and eventually felt the need to do priestly ministry, under the Bishops guidance in parishes in need of priestly assistance. He also is in our prayers.
The struggles part 5
I came to Magadan with the idea of living in community like Br Charles. It happened for some very rich and exciting years. Then like Br. Charles, the Lord saw fit to give me now years where I am alone in prayer and seek priestly help when I need to leave Magadan for a month at time to preach for the Mission. In the last 18 years I have been lead to despair and have seen these moments turn into great faith leaps. I have lived through trails that almost broke me. I have wept at the possibility of not receiving one more time a visa so as to stay We have built a faith community, thanks of the ministry of sisters and priests who have served. We have built a new church here in the former prison camps and see Christ victory with every soul that comes to Him. What has not changed in these 18 years is the call in the depths of my heart. Pray here. I try and pray in a hermitage not far from the city of Magadan one day every week. I take the Blessed Sacrament with me and maintain a simple fast during this time praying and reading the scriptures seeking the Lord in what is called “poustinia” (Russian for desert). Blessed Charles of Jesus was called an apostolic hermit. He spent half his life in prayer and half of his life in service. I try to be faithful to this deep prayer and apostolic life as well. Every day for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening I come before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament to speak to him, love him and receive His grace and strength.
The sisters part 6
For the first 10 years of the mission in Magadan we had the Madonna House a community of celibate men and women who was founded by a Russian emigrant based in Canada. Their presence in Magadan was a loving presence of Our Lady. They served with Our Ladies simple faith and deep sacrificial love. Their rosary times and mass in the apartment always had joy and love as the main ingredient given to the poor and the little ones gathered. They were for Fr David and me our faith family of sisters. They healed us with good food and good prayer. They showed us how to prayer in poustina. This life of deep prayer also has affected parishioners who spend time in prayer as well now in a small poustinic rooms in the church. The time in poustinia is a time where the Lord speaks or consoles or challenges. It is His time that belongs to Him. We receive life there so as to continue the spiritual battle and to preach the good news of Jesus in season or out of season. Madonna house will always be a memory of for many parishioners of a group of women who came to serve and not be served. Who loved people into life with the simple love of Our Lady. The parish like a family though has to let go at times of its family members. Madonna house left to begin a new house of formation in Krasnoyarsk and city in central Siberia.
Even before Madonna House left the Lord showed us we would not be abandoned because he gave us a new faithful community of sisters. The Daughters of Charity sponsored by a California province came and settled with three sisters, one from the US and two from Poland. They brought a deep prayer formation and teaching which was exactly what the parish was in need of. Their monastic life and deep catholic roots have become for the parish a deep well that many drink from. Through teaching, retreats, music and prayerful liturgy these sisters have given themselves to the parish and to individuals selflessly and with a Christ love that has healed so many. They also witness to the works of mercy by caring especially for the poor in the face of the elderly, who have often been abandoned by state and family. They have walked with these elderly through the last stages of their life and death. The Daughters of Charity have become a spiritual strength for so many men and women. They counsel, pray with and give spiritual retreats. It is now impossible to imagine the parish without this community. They bring such a solid foundation to the life of the parish and to individual’s lives. We know that sisters have taken vows of obedience and so someday sisters will be called back to their province and each time one of our sisters go we will grieve and pray long and hard to the Lord to send into this vineyard another worker from the Daughters. We love them and pray for them and thank God for each sister who has ever been with us and look to the Lord for more to come.
To serve part 7
The Lord has given us also so many good lay men and women in the parish who are active in this faith filled Russian Catholic parish of the Nativity of Jesus. We have Russians teaching the faith to adults and children. We have RCIA, retreats, alpha evangelization, home visitation, prayer groups; healing mass’s and for the healing of alcoholism there is twice week a meeting of AA. We have a strong parish I believe because of pray and the prayers of those who were martyred for their faith.
We have for over 10 years ministered and encouraged a pro life work here in Far East Siberia to save babies from abortion. We have a moms group of young mothers who rejected abortion and now struggle to raise their child. This group of moms receives material and spiritual help from our parish workers and volunteers at monthly meetings. We have healing retreats now as well that are for those women who have had abortions. In Russia it is estimated for every 10 births there are 13 abortions. Many women have had multiple abortions. This ministry is so precious to us as we see the children year after year grow and realize they are the fruit of the pro life work. One child saved at a time.
The blessings part 8
In July 4, 2004 we blessed the newly built church with 4 bishops with many priests and religious from Russia attending. We as well blessed our Martyrs Chapel where we remember the martyrs of the camps. I had special Icons painted that record the actual faces of priests and sisters and laity who died in the Kolyma region. We also have a special ministry for those who suffered in the camps. We gather them once a month for a cultural event and so they can share the story of suffering and faith. Two books have been published that witness to the suffering and faith in the prison camps. We had found in Magadan in 1995 over 500 camps survivors who we are continuing to help spiritually and materially. We continue in these years to give them dignity and care and celebrate their death in Christian burial. Our many of our beloved repressed have already gone home to the Lord. We realize though they are praying for us and because of these prayers we know the Lord will continue His amazing work here in Far East Siberia. Magadan was and is a place of deep suffering and now a place of great hope.
The future part 9
What is a head for me? What is ahead for the Parish of the Nativity of Jesus? I spent 2011 in a sabbatical year asking this very question of the Lord. Brother Charles’ favorite passage in scripture was from St. John’s gospel 12; 24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I believe in some way this passage answers the question. I see so many ways the Lord has blessed our work in Magadan. I see so many ways the Lord has confirmed He is the one that called me here and He is the one who will continue the work here. What do I need to do? I need to die. Someone asked recently why did I come to Magadan? I answered I came to save my soul and to learn how to die well. The Lord has given me the richest priesthood I could ever have imaged with lots of crosses and failures and many deep times of repentance. He has lead and is leading me and the parish of the Nativity of Jesus. Our call is too simple follow Him. I am in my 60s now. I am at peace with the next stage of life here because I know I am not in control, which is the one real lesson Russia continues to teach us. He is in control and if I continue to die to myself He will bring life. In sense I have only one thing I need to be faithfully every day. The call I received 20 years ago on a retreat that changed my life. I am to respond every day to the one request that Lord has asked of me and placed in my soul there where He has called me to be a priest 32 years ago. What am I called to do? Yes Lord. “To Pray in the Camps…….”
Fr Michael Shields of the Heart of Jesus
Magadan Russia, Far East Siberia
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 302-8781