St. Joseph’s in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

St. Joseph’s Church

While studying Persian in Central Asia years ago, I found myself missing me some Christ-talk. Jesus is revered in Islam as a prophet, but not the Son of God, so Tajikistan being a Muslim country, I had to look hard for some Easter action. Thus I found the Roman Catholic church in Dushanbe, St. Joseph’s. I did not happen upon it, I Googled “church in Dushanbe.” The first time I visited, I took a taxi and the driver found the place by asking people on the street. It was the first he’d heard of it too!  Although it did not look much like a church initially, when I looked up and saw crosses, I was in the clear. I looked around a bit, then went into the chapel and sat down towards the back, my usual spot where I attempt to be inconspicuous. First, several Mother Theresa nuns in their white uniforms with blue trim (Missionaries of Charity turns out, interesting infos on their work in Tajikistan here) came and introduced themselves (mostly they were from India) and immediately asked if I would do the reading. I had no idea what this reading was, what that entailed, or even what I would be reading! I demurred. Not being Catholic, or particularly familiar with the mass at that point, I felt like I was trespassing. I had that feeling I’ve had at other religious events where my only desire was to melt into the background and observe – the last thing I would want was to participate in an unknown ritual. The priest introduced himself, an Argentinian, he said all three priests assigned to Tajikistan are from Argentina—seems an odd place to send them—but what do I know about the inner workings of the Vatican and its priestly assignments. Father Lopez was charming and welcoming, and I was immediately reassured. I felt the strange urge to confess my lack of Catholicism, which I blurted out as soon as possible. He invited me to come up for a blessing instead of communion. The second time I went back to mass (for those still living in Dushanbe and interested, it’s in English on Saturdays at 6 pm, at least it was in 2011 when I lived there!) I was asked by the same nuns to carry up the wine and bread. Again I demurred, how was I to know when that appointed time is? Would I mess it up? Maybe I’m not supposed to because I’m not Catholic… I felt the same horror, being asked to participate in a ritual on my first visit to as an outsider to this group. Or was I denying the calling of service to the Lord? I decided it was probably ok, but I wasn’t ready yet to play an active role. I recognized half the hymns we sang, and as the words rang out to the accompanying organ, I felt shivers. Perhaps others were there also mostly for the music. The small community consists of a wide variety of expats, who come depending on their schedules and varies constantly. The service is in Russian on Sundays, so perhaps the crowd is bigger then. The second time I attended mass, it was held by a more junior priest whose eerie similarity in speech, tone, and posture to Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite distracted me from his message about the raising of Lazarus. It took me at least 15 minutes to stop my mind from making this hilarious connection, which was about as long as his sermon. I felt some serious sympathy for the 5-year-old who kept shifting in his chair, looking around the chapel and generally struggling to focus, though in my case the pollution of the sacred by pop culture was to blame.

There’s something fitting about the church being named after St. Joseph. It simply wouldn’t fly in the misogynistic and patriarchal culture of Tajikistan that I experienced, to name a church there after a woman, despite the many options of females played important roles in the Bible. Christians in Central Asia have it hard enough as it is, and I would imagine they don’t want to cause any extra trouble. Of course, Joseph was also muy importante, after all the father (legal, biological, or otherwise—it’s complicated) of Jesus, and husband to Mary, the last patriarch you might say. He surely played a big role in the most important story of human history, but his role is not as clear cut as I had expected. I thought it was settled that he was the father of Jesus, and thus also the father of several of the disciples, who were also Jesus’s brothers. But again, it’s complicated. The Catholics and Orthodox don’t agree on any of the details (what did ‘betrothed’ actually mean, who fathered whom when, ya know, the Virgin Birth issue) and when examined closely, the two synoptic Gospels which do relate anything about Joseph, Matthew and Luke, relay two different genealogies from David on down! The Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus was descended from David’s son Solomon. Luke relates that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan. There are many other important Joseph’s in the history of religion. The second most important I’d say, is the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Oops, I mean, Joseph from the book of Genesis who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt, only to get the best revenge ever by becoming viceroy, the most important man second only to Pharaoh himself. The third most important Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus Christ. More perhaps in a later post on the many Joseph’s and their interconnectivity.

For a short article from 2003 with a brief history of the church in Tajikistan see here. For the fascinating history of the Soviet deportations which made this church in Dushanbe possible, see here. For the Spanish-speakers, here’s an update about the first Tajik priest, ordained June 2016.

(this is an adaptation of a post to my now-offline travel blog in Tajikistan 2010-2011)

St. Joseph’s Dushanbe
Moonrise over Orthodox graveyard in northern Tajikistan

St. Elisabeth’s Church in Vienna – Wieden

The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named  Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.

Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.

From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?

The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.

The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.

Left side altar of Maria, by Josef Kessler
Main High Altar image of Elisabeth of Thuringia
Right side altar, Christ, by Josef Kessler
St. Elisabeth’s Wieden