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To Russia With Love, National Catholic Register

Written by Joseph Pronechen

Wednesday, 10 September 2008 22:26

It was in 1992 that Father Myron Effing and Father Daniel Maurer arrived in the port city of Vladivostok, Russia, on the Sea of Japan near the Chinese border. Just a few years prior, the city's name was synonymous with Soviet military might: It was the main naval base of the Soviet Union's Pacific fleet.

The two had volunteered to revive the Catholic Church in the Far East. Starting to rebuild Most Holy Mother of God Catholic Church and the small parish after years of communist rule, they faced monumental problems caused by abortion — which has been legal here since 1919. Even today, the average Russian woman has had eight abortions. Many women have more.

This year in October, thanks to these two American priests of the Canons Regular of Jesus the Lord and help from a few dedicated American lay Catholics and support from American sister parishes, the seven Women's Support Centers in the diocese of Vladivostok will celebrate their 10th anniversary.

Amazingly, they were the first crisis-pregnancy centers in the country.

So far the centers have helped more than 10,000 pregnant women. Thousands more people, including students and doctors, have attended talks on everything from pre-natal development to natural family planning.

"Most looking for help are single girls or women with alcoholic husbands considering abortions," says Father Effing, who was on a brief visit to America in July. "They didn't see the possibility of supporting a child or having a home. We encourage them to have their children and give any help we can."

In one of many such cases, a young girl pregnant with twins, who had been abandoned by her boyfriend and pressured by her family to have an abortion, came for advice. She ended up having the twins, and the center gave her a stroller and food for the babies.

"Since then," says Father Effing, "she's become a member of the parish and is going to have the children baptized soon. And the family has begun to accept it."

Hundreds Saved

Mindset and economics are major stumbling blocks. The government gives women free abortions. By contrast, to have a baby, women must pay birthing costs plus anesthesia, if needed. The $20 birthing fee seems a drop in the bucket for Americans, but for most Russian women, it's a significant financial outlay.

Once George and Joan Riess of Dayton, Ohio, learned of this problem, they convinced their pastor at Emmanuel Catholic Church in Dayton to have parishioners sponsor an "Adopt-a-Birth" for Advent by giving $20 for a woman in crisis to have her child. In a few years, they saved hundreds of babies; their names were sent to parishioners by Father Effing.

Longtime active pro-lifers, the Riesses learned of the Russian situation when they helped set up that first Women's Support Center in Vladivostok in 1998. Their priest friend knew Father Effing needed help and prompted them to go to Russia with Rose Bucher, who was at the time founding director along with the Riesses of Women's Support Center (the source of the Russian name) in Kettering, Ohio. The center was purposely located across the street from the abortionist who "invented" partial-birth abortion.

On their first Vladivostok trip, they trained counselors and opened a small office in the only city birthing hospital that did not perform abortions. They also spoke on pro-life and pro-family matters at a youth conference organized by Father Effing. The Russians decided to name their center Women's Support Center after the Ohio model. Now, all three in Vladivostok and four in other cities carry the name.

"It's those little miracles that help you realize you're where you're supposed to be," says Bucher of countless success stories. Among them is Tatiana, a street girl who lost her parents, married, was forced into two abortions, then abandoned. After getting help from the center, she became a volunteer counselor. So did a Russian woman obstetrician-gynecologist who took Bucher's classes. By the end, the doctor admitted to Bucher, "Everything I've done is terrible."

Then, their Russian translator told Bucher he and his wife had never been blessed with a child. Shortly after, the first woman Bucher counseled decided to have her baby, but then abandoned the newborn in the hospital. The translator and his wife adopted little Veronica, then a boy. They now have their own natural child too.

Sister Parishes

Because of the unique Russian situation, the Women's Support Centers are set up in state hospitals. Father Effing explains there's not a problem with separation between church and state as in the United States.

"In Russia it's illegal to demonstrate on the street to oppose abortion," says the priest, "but it's not illegal to come into the hospital to counsel women not to have an abortion." Often, the doctors now send the women to the center first.

"People can come from all over the city and get a free ultrasound from us," Father Effing adds. "It's proven the ultrasound saves lives." Once the Russian women see it, they realize they were lied to for decades.

Father Effing hopes for new machines because the ones they have are out of date. He relies greatly on donations from five American sister parishes through the Vladivostok parishes' right arm: Mary Mother of God Mission Society.

When American volunteers from the society and sister parishes travel to Vladivostok, they fill their suitcases for the centers. On a July mission trip from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Modesto, Calif., parishioner Nickie Miranda listed vitamins, children's and baby clothes and educational toys among the items specifically needed at the centers.

The Women's Support Centers are reaching further: Rachel's Vineyard retreats started this year to help the many women suffering post-abortion syndrome.

The concept of these centers is slowly spreading. Catholics have opened centers modeled on the ones in Ukraine and Belorussia. Father Effing wants to start one in a military-industrial city in a neighboring state where there are two Catholic pro-life doctors but no resident priest.

One story says it's all worth it: Father Effing asked Alexander, a parishioner, why he was always eager to help around church. Alexander explained how his father was a political prisoner, and friends convinced his mother she must abort. That morning, March 25, she remembered it was the feast of the Annunciation.

"If it's a sin to have an abortion, it must be worse to have it today," his mother thought. She cancelled her appointment, and Alexander was born. "So Father," he told the American priest, "I owe my life to my mother's Catholic faith."

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Joseph Pronechen writes from Connecticut for the National Catholic Register. This article is used with permission.