I am shouldering my way through the Christmas Market at the tony Columbus Circle in Manhattan where the well-to-do, if not the rich and famous shop. The crowds are thick, and the shoulders are fierce. I am in my nearsighted Mr. Magoo MO, bumbling, stumbling, uncertain. Until I am brought up short by what has to be one of the more disorienting sights in New York tonight.
A nun in a wilted white veil is gallantly manning a stall run by the Convent of St. Elizabeth. A plain winter coat covers her full-length habit. A Russian Orthodox cross is embroidered on her veil. She looks young, tired, and completely out of place in that commercial temple.
I blink. I circle the booth.
The tiny stall is filled with Russian-looking items–icons, ornaments, nesting matryoshka dolls. The crowd mills around her; a surprising number of people try to jam into the stall.
“Are you Orthodox?” I ask.
She is. From Belarus. “We have 90 professed nuns and also sisters who do not take vows,” she says. Her English is surprisingly good. “Our order works with handicapped children…” And she began a long list of maladies–Down’s syndrome, epilepsy, and on and on. Then I realize that we are blocking the narrow entrance to her stall.
Unlike the lynx-eyed vendors elsewhere who catch the movement of every passerby, this nun would have talked to me for as long as I cared to ask questions. Many shoppers browse; a few seem protective of her. “I’ll be back,” one nicely attired woman assures our nun. “I’m just going to wing around the market, then I want to buy some stuff.” Her companion, a burly guy who could have ridden up on a Harley, is engrossed in a serious perusal of icons and Orthodox rosaries.
In Belarus, the Convent of St. Elizabeth is a sprawling complex located just outside Minsk, its capital, and just beside the Republican Clinical Psychiatric Hospital, a public institution with 37 wards that contain every imaginable form of human misery.
Ward #2 is the children’s ward. They are placed there for everything from congenital defects to schizophrenia. I can only imagine what a public boardinghouse for damaged children in Belarus looks like. The nuns operate a learning center they call the “Country of Childhood.”
“Children come to the hospital, mostly, from broken families, shelters, boarding homes, and children’s homes. Some of them do not know how to read and write, to take care of themselves, do not remember the date of their birth or the names of their parents.”*The nuns also work in a tuberculosis clinic for children and with adult psychiatric patients, drug addicts, alcoholics, and the “socially fragile.” Some of these homeless and fragile people come to live and work at the convent farm, located several miles away.
The farm has all the farmville accoutrements you might imagine: orchards and gardens, livestock of all sorts, poultry, an apiary, and kennels for the powerful Central Asian sheepdogs they raise to sell. In workshops, the nuns and the residents make an incredible array of handiwork: icons, the ornate Orthodox vestments, candles, furniture, stone and ironwork, ceramics. They work with metal, stone, fabric, thread, paint, and wood.
Then, the nuns load all the handmade goods into vans or onto planes and go to markets and churches in Europe and North America. Christmas markets seem to be a favorite. In New York, and probably elsewhere, local people put them up. If you read Russian, you can order a large assortment of handmade icons, candles, and vestments from their website. You could also donate.
And if you decide to visit Belarus, the nuns have a soft spot for pilgrims. They’ll put you up and show you around to other holy sites in their country as well. It could be an eye-opener.
*From the convent’s website.