Interview: Hubert Liebherr, Initiator of the “Peace March”
Other languages: English, Hrvatski
Date: July 27, 2005 , Originally published August 2, 2002
Content of the article
Churches for Russia
Lidija Paris: Tell us about the construction of churches for Russia!
Hubert Liebherr: This is a wonderful apostolate! For a long time, I was asking myself for what could God need an engineer in construction… Everything started with the war in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In September 1991, the Parish Office of Medjugorje called us and asked us if we could bring medicaments. We did what we could and in November 1991, we brought a bus full of medicaments to Medjugorje. That was the beginning of the humanitarian help. We were collecting money, buying what was needed and bringing it over here. Axel Weidinger was our nearest collaborator. He is a forester and he brought over 10,000 m3 of wood, which served to repair many roofs! Axel regretted all the abandoned villages and thought how to build prefabricated wooden houses, where people could temporarily live, until real houses were build. He brought to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina over one hundred little wooden houses, dimensions 6x4. Some of them were used as chapels.
In the spring of 1993, we sent a humanitarian convoy to Russia, to Saratov on the Volga River. The parish priest there, who is now the Bishop of Siberia, spoke with the bishops and told them about the houses that we were sending to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They asked us if we could do the same for them: to send chapels to Russia! At the initial moment, we thought hat this was impossible, but we found a man who was ready to build them in his free time, if we give him the material. We have built them according to the model of the chapel in Marienfried. Bishop Konduszewicz wanted them in Rostov on the Don River. This is how, in October 1993, we went for the first time with a big truck to Rostov on the Don. We were all volunteers, friends of Medjugorje and others. The parish priest there was named Fr. Jaroslav, he was Polish, his parish had about 40 or 60 parishioners who were going all over the city, from one hall to another, from place to place. He asked for the construction permit and – against all expectations – he got it! He had the ground in the heart of the city of Rostov, but under condition, to begin with the construction in 1993 itself, otherwise the permit would become invalid. Everybody knew that they were extremely poor and that they would not be able to begin with construction, but it would seem that the authorities had shown a good will… From the day he got the permit, Father Jaroslav was going every afternoon at 5 pm into the city; he was putting a table on his car and he celebrated Holy Mass. In the park, in the open. There were three of them or more, depending on the day and on their possibilities. They were praying to have their church. One day, there was a phone call from Moscow: a church was coming from Germany! They could not believe their ears. Three days later, here we were with our trucks at the entrance of the city: the church has arrived! You cannot imagine that joy! We took ten days to put up that first church in Rostov. We had many problems. Twice, the ground was given to someone else... we had to prove that it was our ground! The parish priest ended by resolving the problem. I remember the first Holy Mass with the parishioners, and I remember their joy… They were no more nomads, they had their church!!!
We worked on that church every day from 7 am to 10 pm… we were completely exhausted… On our way back, we had a car accident… when we came back to Germany, we said: “That’s it, never more to Russia!” For me, the question was closed. We have built a church, that it is OK now and everything is finished.
Three months later, we got a thanksgiving letter from bishop Konduszewicz from Moscow telling us that he had the biggest diocese in the world, about 40 parishes and almost no churches, and that we should not stop doing what we were doing! I thought: “That’s how it goes! You give a small finger and they want the whole hand!!!” I did not want to know anything about that letter. I had put it aside.
A few days later, I read it again and thought that it may be the will of God to build churches for Russia! Once, during Holy Mass, I told God that I was ready, that I would gladly do it, but I gave my conditions: “I need a man who will take it in his hand, because I have no time for it, I need someone to finance it and I need a workshop where we will build churches. If there three things come, it will be the sign that it is your will, O Lord!” After that, I was completely peaceful, because I was convinced that it would not work out. A couple of weeks passed, and then Bernard Thomas came to us in Beuren. He is a carpenter who built the first church for Rostov. We had to do the final account. Most of the material for that church was paid by the Association “Medjugorje Deutschland”, and his company gave some other things. We paid him. At that time, he knew nothing about the letter from Moscow. Before leaving, he told me that he would like to only build churches for Russia! Under the condition to create an Association for this purpose, he was ready to abandon his job and consecrate his time only to this. So, my first condition was fulfilled: I had a man that was ready to take in his hands the technical management of the project.
My second condition was the financing. In Germany, after the World War II, the German Bishops Conference had founded two organisations called “Misereor” and “Adveniat”, to help Africa and Latin America. In 1993, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German Bishops Conference founded a third organisation called “Renovabis” in Berlin. I told myself: “They do finance these kind of things, let’s go there!”
I took the video tape that I filmed in Rostov, I showed it to them and I said: “If you want to finance these kind of things, we will create an Association, we will build churches and we will transport them to Russia!” They told me that this is not the way of doing it, that this project has to be supported by a bishop from the East, because anybody could come with some “bright” idea and ask for money. At that moment, I thought that there would be nothing out of it. However: after a short time, they phoned me and told me that Bishop Kondruszewicz was with them and that he wanted to see my video! He was so enthusiastic about these little churches that he ordered there and then four of them! There was a question of quite large amounts of money, and “Renovabis” wanted to examine this project on one of their meetings, which take place three times a year. We had to wait several months for their answer. Except the financing of the churches, I needed about 200,000 DM to buy different material and machines. They told me that this was out of question, because – according to their rule – all donations have to go to the East and should not be spent in Germany…
I came back home, again thinking that there would be nothing out of it. About a month later, I received a letter – a big envelope, which I did not touch for many days, because I thought that it was a magazine. When I opened it, I found securities – in the value of about 250,000 DM and a little paper, where it was written by hand: “Help for Russia and Croatia”. Without signature, without address… It came by regular post, neither express nor recommended, but by ordinary post… and you know what securities are!? Anybody can convert them into cash in the bank… I thought: “The person who sent this has an immense trust in God!” After this, we had other donations from South America for the churches in Russia… After that, “Renovabis” called us and gave us the news: “The first four churches are authorized, you can start!”We said “A”, now we could say “B”. We created the association “Churches for the
East”. Now, we needed a workshop. Dear Lord! Where and how? I gave an announcement in a craftsmen’s newspaper and we had 38 offers. My God, which one was the good one? We asked for the will of God, because of we do not go according to His will, things usually go wrong… We had to be reasonable. We chose 4 offers and intended to visit the places. The first and the second one did not correspond to our needs. On the third address, there was a chapel in the courtyard… The owner himself had built it in his own courtyard! Above the door of the workshop, there was a statue of St. Anthony… It reminded me of our pilgrimages to Medjugorje and Rome, to our passage through Padua and the tomb of St. Anthony, where we prayed for the success of this apostolate… For me, this was a sign, a confirmation.
In the meantime, we had built 25 wooden churches in this workshop financed by “Renovabis”, put up all over the former Soviet Union, from Kaliningrad, through Caucasus, Ural, Kazakhstan, Siberia, to the Baikal Sea. We used to travel with 4 trucks carrying two prefabricated churches and all the necessary equipment: tools, generators, food, beer… The longest journey lasted two months. I crossed about 100,000 kilometres on Russian roads… we have experienced so many things! Every time, we experienced a joy and shared sorrows, especially of the inhabitants of German origin, who always had to suffer for being Germans, although they had nothing to do with Adolf Hitler! All religious signs were taken away from them, they had nothing…. I remember old women who received us in tears, saying: “We did not expect in our lifetime to have our church in our place!” The prefabricated little churches were put up in three or four days, their dimensions were 7x12 m, they were painted in blue with arched windows; a door, a bell, an altar, a sacristy, benches, electricity, light, a wooden stove… a Way of the Cross, statues of saints… all that you can find in a big church, but small. After the first Mass with the Parish Priest and the parishioners, we would feel such a joy and such gratitude, that we forgot all of the difficulties – because this included many efforts. To drive day after day from 5 am to 8 pm… The longest journey took 17 days: 17 days of driving to the Baikal Sea, on the border of Russian Siberia and the Far East. I had hoped that I could still use my profession of engineer in my life, but I had not expected such an apostolate!
Since the year 2000, “Renovabis” does not finance the construction of the churches in the East, because they think that their attention should now be accorded to the pastoral activity, and not any more to constructions. Since the last autumn, there are new perspectives for us in the Ukraine. Until now, neither “Renovabis” nor “Kirche in Not” have built any church there, out of church-political reasons. We are not bound to this, we feel free, we have excellent contacts that are important even on political level. We have support. We have received the money from a Medjugorje pilgrim who received in inheritance and who wants to build churches in the East. In the Ukraine, we now build for the Russian Orthodox Church, for the Patriarchate of Kiev, in the town called Piski, 80 km southeast of Kiev. There, on December 12, 1942, the SS encircled the township and killed all of the inhabitants. About 360 people found refuge in a wooden church, in the hope to survive, but the SS locked the door and burned the church. All of them died in the fire. Until today, they have no church. They are so poor. They celebrated the Divine Liturgy in a depot, without heating. In winter, they were freezing. Terrible. Instead of the Iconostas, they had a curtain and an old and worn representation of an Iconostas from another church. That was all. We paid them a visit and we understood that they were the first ones to have the church. We will build it on the spot. We have money and we have plans. We went to the Patriarch of Kiev, and we got the permission. The blessing of the church will be, we hope so, an act of reconciliation and forgiveness for that terrible crime that was committed.
This is how the construction of churches gets another dimension. We have enlarged the reason of existence of our Association: not only the construction of churches, but also construction of buildings for charity and social purposes. The church is the centre, but near the church, we will build a kindergarten, a First Aid Station, etc. We also care for the training of youth: political leaders asked us to kelp a school and a boarding school. They have a school for 500 pupils, and no pedagogical materials. We promised, for the beginning, to train twelve young people, and this can continue to develop. It started with churches, and now it develops in other directions…