A calling from Bhopal to Blagoveshchensk

A young Indian Catholic priest has been living in the Russian Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk for the last 11 years, where he attends to the needs of a small community of parishioners.

Harold Menezes. Source: Andrei Ogleznev

When a small community of Catholic parishioners goes to church on Sunday in the Amur River border town of Blagoveshchensk, they hear the sermon from a priest whose roots and family are thousands of miles away in the warmth of Bhopal. Harold Menezes is the rector of the Catholic Parish of the Transfiguration in the city from where the Chinese boomtown of Heihe is visible from across the river.

The Amur region is one of the largest and most sparsely populated in the giant Russian landmass. It is also known for its severe winters when the top layers of the Amur freeze over. Father Menezes, who has been running the Annunciation Catholic Parish of the Transfiguration for the last six years, came to the Amur Region in 2002.

The 40-year old priest recalled his journey from Madhya Pradesh to the farthest reaches of Russia in an interview with a Blagoveshchensk newspaper.  He wanted to become a priest right from the time he was in 7th standard in school, but received his “calling” after attending a Catholic camp at the age of 18. After taking his perpetual vows of vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, he listed his preferred countries as India, Jamaica and Russia. As God would have it, Father Harry would be sent to Russia.

He knew little about Russia before moving to the country and had to acclimatise to the cold by spending time in a large room in a seminary, which was used as a refrigerator. The cultural shock hit him as soon as he landed in Moscow and found out that he needed to take another 8-flight to get to his final destination. Father Harry spent his first two years in the country learning Russian at the Amur State University. “Once, when the parish celebrated my birthday – I had been in the country for five years by then - the congregation said, ‘Father Harry, we can now more or less understand you,’” he told Amurskaya Pravda. “I asked them, ‘So in all those years you didn’t understand me?’”

The good-humoured priest finds nothing in common between Madhya Pradesh and the Amur Region besides the bad roads. He also enjoys the interaction in public transport with curious locals who are keen to know where he’s from and whether he doesn’t find it too cold in the Russian Far East.

Living in Russia for over a decade has made him adjust and appreciate Russian cuisine. Not bound by religious beliefs that prohibit the consumption of any kind of meat, Father Harry enjoys the usual Russian fare of borscht, cabbage rolls, pelmeni (dumplings) and pancakes. Sometimes parishioners treat hom to gherkins, marinated tomatoes and caviar. “It’s when I go back to India that I start having problems,” the priest told Amurskaya Pravda. “I end up eating more antacid tablets than homemade food. My stomach can’t cope anymore with the oils, spices and chilli.”

Life can be difficult in an area that is economically not in the best of shape and parishioners are few and far between. The Bishop of the Transfiguration is the largest in the world by area. It includes regions from Krasnoyarsk Territory in Siberia to Sakhalin, but the number of parishioners is probably under 3000. The parish receives some funding from parishioners and from Catholic countries, but it’s often tough to pay for heating. “Father Harry, we’re getting requests from Ghana, where there are no toilets and drinking water, and from places in Africa with no food, clothing and medicine. And you have no heat,” the priest told Amurskaya Pravda recounting a church response for more funding.  

Yet despite these problems, humour and unflinching faith in God that keeps Father Harry in the best of spirits. 

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