Use and Throw Away: What is Hiding Behind the Facade of Social Activities of the St Elisabeth Convent?

This article attempts to understand what the ‘social ministry’ of the St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk is. This ministry prominently features on the convent’s website. Allegedly, it is the cause for which the convent actively fundraises abroad.

We approached former employees of the monastery, including the Sisters of Mercy — the ‘white sisters’ — to share their experiences, reflections and observations. For safety reasons, their names have been withheld. We also interviewed people who have been engaged in the social ministry of the Belarusian Orthodox Church; sisters from other sisterhoods of mercy in Belarus who in their activities came across St Elisabeth convent. They also spoke to us on condition of anonymity. All the names and personal details of the people interviewed here are known to our editorial team. The investigation took us several weeks. We found that even those people who left the convent, often are unable to talk about the abuses occurring there: many of them fear being bullied and harassed.

Note: ‘white sisters’ is an expression for laywomen working in the convent in various roles (carrying obediences). They wear a uniform consisting of a white apron and a white headpiece with a cross on the forehead. They are not nuns or novices of the monastery; the latter live in the convent and wear black habits and head covers.

Ministry at the Republican Scientific and Practical Center for Mental Health: Sister Sviatlana’s story

One of the sisters –  let’s call her Sviatlana – was a Sister of Mercy for several years. Initially, she joined a sisterhood and later moved to work in the monastery. Her friend visited patients in one of the departments of the Republican Scientific and Practical Center for Mental Health (Minsk) and persuaded her to do the same. She had spare time and wanted to help people, so she agreed. Sviatlana was given a white uniform, and time and a department were assigned. Once a week she came to her ministry: she went to the wards, talked with patients, and prepared them for confession and Communion. Sviatlana remembers that there was no prior training on how to communicate with people suffering from mental illness. She undertook self-study and read specialised literature. According to her observations, most of the sisters who ministered in the same roles did not engage in self-education; they simply followed the advice of Archpriest Andrei Lemiashonak, the confessor of the convent: simply go, and God will speak through you. Sviatlana considers this approach to be wrong: here, we are talking about working with sick people with serious mental diagnoses; religiosity and talking about spiritual matters can not only be of no help to them but aggravate their condition.

According to Sviatlana, the priest visited the wards about once a month. In the evening he confessed, the next morning he gave communion to those who wanted and were prepared. Several years ago, the Center for Mental Health management prohibited distributing communion in the wards. The sisters talked to those who wanted to. They invited the patients to come to church for confession and Communion after being discharged from the hospital. According to Sviatlana, very few former patients came to the church. In her opinion, such a small percentage was the result of the low quality of the sisters’ training. Since 2020, the sisters of the convent were not allowed into the wards for almost two years. By that time, she had already left the convent and sisterhood. She was disillusioned with the convent’s work, as there was more talking than working.

The convent neither financially supports the Republican Scientific and Practical Center for Mental Health nor provides financial support for the work of the sisters. The sisterhood operates voluntarily; the white sisters do not receive any monetary compensation for their work. For celebrations, they purchased gifts for their wards at their own expense. Sviatlana had a good income before starting to work at the convent; she brought gifts not only to her wards but also to other sisters since not everyone had such an opportunity. The convent gave away only unsold Easter cakes, which the sisters cut and divided among the patients. Medics and managers were given calendars from the convent’s publishing house. Sviatlana does not recall the convent somehow significantly helping the hospital and the patients during the several years of her ministry; only unsold Easter cakes and calendars.

A relative of a patient at the Republican Scientific and Practical Center for Mental Health, an active Orthodox believer, endorses Sviatlana’s story:

“My mother has been undergoing treatment annually at the Republican Scientific and Practical Center for Mental Health for more than 10 years. A few years ago, sisters from the convent came to the wards, held conversations with those who wanted them, and prepared them for Communion. The priest came to the ward and gave communion. During Covid in 2020, patients struggled to get to the hospital for examination due to quarantine. Only seriously ill people were accepted. I know for sure that the convent sisters were also not allowed in in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, no one visited the ward where my mother was. In 2023, during the month of treatment, a white sister visited once or twice, anointed those who wanted with oil, and then left. That’s all ministry. Mom used to enjoy going to the convent churches. She felt better when she could attend church and receive communion. But after the events of 2020 and the start of the war in Ukraine, I stopped trusting the people from not only the convent but also the entire Orthodox Church.”

Men’s and Women’s Farmsteads: Sister Alexandra’s Story

Another white sister – let’s call her Alexandra – was involved in various obediences in the monastery for several years, including going to farmsteads. She says that it is a disaster for Belarusian society that nobody takes care of homeless people, neither their loved ones nor the state. Therefore, the fact that the monastery accepts them to live in farmsteads seems like an important social ministry, especially in winter, when the homeless have nowhere to go.

She mentions that there are always more people in the men’s compound than in the women’s one. It happens that people leave the farmstead, and then return.

Most living on the farmsteads do some work there. Those who work get small payments from the convent. Not always, however – there are penalties there too. They have to pay for accommodation and subsistence; and the rest of the money may be withheld if, for example, the person commits a crime.

Procession of the cross on 9 May 2023. At the height of Russian aggression against Ukraine, participants marched with Russian flags and Z symbols used in Russia for war propaganda. Residents of the convent are used for ideological events.

Although most people who shelter in the farmsteads have various addictions and require intensive help, there is no rehabilitation program there. The only spiritual and psychological help is from a priest (Archpriest Andrei Lemyashonak) who visits weekly to offer confession and communion, and express anger at their behaviour. Occasionally, he kicks someone out.

“But is this how people improve themselves?” – Alexandra is perplexed. “I am under the impression that they are simply used as cheap labour and a cover to collect money. The farmstead inhabitants’s small salary comes from the convent’s income it makes from those people. The workshops cover all the expenses of the convent, including the maintenance of the courtyard.”

Alexandra believes that the ministry to the homeless is neither systematic nor radical enough and that the convent takes advantage of the hopeless situation of those people using them as cheap labour. In her opinion, those people can only really be helped through a dedicated program with the participation of specialists. “Fr Andrei [Lemyashonak], however, does not like any psychologists, and I generally doubt that he is capable of love and compassion off camera,” – she exclaims. “People live for years on farmsteads with all their troubles and illnesses for a bowl of soup.”

Workshops, Patronage Service, A Retail in the City: Sister Volha’s Story

Another sister — let’s call her Volha — worked at the convent just a short time since it quickly became clear to her what kind of organisation it was. She is very grateful for the experience at the convent where she met many wonderful people with whom she is still in touch. All of them also left the convent either disillusioned or fired in 2020 when the convent got rid of employees to redirect funds for the construction of the Kovcheg centre.

Volha believes that the idea of the convent was wonderful. It was blessed by Metropolitan Fhilaret, whose name is regularly used in connection with St. Elisabeth’s convent, however, the initial intention was completely spoiled in practice. “Unlike the smart, intelligent, educated Filaret, Lemyashonak does not study nor read, and he constantly and manipulatively appeals to God’s will. This is the main problem of the convent.” Sister Volha concluded that “instead of a real Christian ministry, it turned out to be a sect led by an uneducated, cunning manipulator”.

Metropolitan of Minsk Filaret (Vakhromeev) with the sisters of the St Elizabeth sisterhood, 1996. Photo: the convent’s blog on the Dzen website

She notes that initially the convent was a place of believers’ unity and creativity at the beginning. Everything good in the convent was created by such enthusiasts. However, the toxic environment that gradually developed led people to leave or be kicked out for disloyalty. “The atmosphere inside is very unfriendly, even aggressive,” Volha say. “The nuns hurry to Lemyashonak with denunciations of each other and employees. People are treated there as a resource: used and thrown away.” She believes that the same attitude develops not only towards employees but also towards the people who turn to the convent for help.

In her opinion, the convent’s social ministry is just a beautiful facade provided by enthusiasts — nurses and volunteers — who visit hospitals and boarding schools. People in their free time volunteer and do charity work on behalf of the convent which itself does not spend a penny. It can, for example, sometimes organize a charity event; lay people bring diapers and wipes, which white sisters then take to the sick. This is done by ordinary parishioners, the convent’s employees and sisters of mercy from their funds and resources. The convent, however, tells a completely different story to its sponsors.

When COVID started in 2020, employees of the convent’s external relations department called their foreign supporters asking for financial help since the convent ‘suffered from COVID’. It was cynical because, in the spring of 2020, Archpriest Andrei Lemyashonak repeatedly appeared in the media as a COVID sceptic denying not only the virus but also hiding the virus outbreak in the convent following mass gatherings in defiance of the pandemia-related restrictions. Also, during COVID, a large number of people lost their jobs, fired – the convent was short of cash to build a spiritual and educational centre.

While many Belarusian NGOs began to actively help medical institutions within the ByCovid19 initiative — sourcing, manufacturing and purchasing personal protective (PPE) and other equipment for medical staff and institutions across all of Belarus – St Elisabeth Convent did not join the national campaign at all. This is despite dozens of trucks parked idle as foreign travel was suspended and borders closed. Instead, before Easter, the convent brought Easter cakes to the doctors overworked with patients and suffering from the lack of PPE. This is particularly obvious in a video filmed for the state television channel STV.

Volha became aware that the convent representatives spoke of the Centre for Psychiatric Care in the Minsk suburb Navinki to their foreign sponsors as their infirmary supposedly maintained by the convent. A similar impression was given of other hospitals and boarding schools on the convent’s website and social media. In fact, due to COVID, in 2020 to 2022 convent sisters were not allowed to visit patients at all. Nowadays, visits have resumed where possible, but they consist only of conversations and, rarely, preparation for the sacraments of confession and Eucharist.

The convent does not spend any money on such a social ministry in hospitals and boarding schools: the priests going there are salaried and the white sisters – volunteer. By law, the convent cannot assist hospitals in purchasing equipment, medicines or anything else – hospitals have to purchase everything they need via a tender mechanism. “When visiting hospitals, convent employees take a few photographs, post them on the website and take them around the world. All the money collected for this ‘social ministry’ end up in the same hands and are distributed by Lemyashonak himself” – says Volha. According to her, the spiritual and educational centre Kovcheg (Ark) has priority when the collected funds are distributed to maintain the pace of construction. For the same reason, hundreds of convent employees were dismissed and left without a livelihood in 2020. The Kovcheg Centre is not part of the religious ministry; instead, cultural and political events take place there, including in support of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

As for the nursing care listed on the convent’s website in the “Ministry” section, according to Volha, it is only offered as a commercial service.

According to Sister Volha, the St Elisabeth Convent has a large number of retail outlets in Minsk, and each of them is very profitable. In addition to the goods produced in the convent workshops, they sell the goods sourced at markets near Moscow and illegally imported goods from precious metals.

During the mass protests in August 2020, many people went to those outlets to leave prayer requests for the missing or tortured loved ones. Sister Volha witnessed situations when instead of empathy the sisters blames the protesters saying that this was the fate of those who came out to the streets. One nun even suggested that protesters should have been crushed by tanks.

Volha got distressed when she heard from Archpriest Andrei Lemyashonak that they were going to build a nursing home by the convent (timestamp 1:59:17 in the video). She already knows several stories of people transferring their apartments to the convent in exchange for the promise of care which has never materialised. “This is another Lemyashonak’s scam for which sisters around the world will raise money under the guise of ministry. I understand that people abroad wouldn’t even think about such a scheme. In practice, when someone donates to an orphanage this money is spent on cars for the Russian military. There are so many people in the world in need of help right now, including Ukrainian refugees who were left with nothing because of mad people like Lemyashonak. I think that the hospitals and orphanages listed on the convent’s website would be very surprised if they learnt that the convent employees are constantly ‘raising funds’ on their behalf”.

The convent’s donation box can be found even in the European Parliament in Brussels

Volha believes that transparency of the church system and control by eparchies might have solved this problem. However, it seems to her that the leadership of the Belarusian Orthodox Church finds it beneficial that the convent’s representatives travel everywhere with icons, fundraise and do not ask the Church for money. Even the fact that these funds are spent on the war does not bother them. Therefore, only the believers themselves and the vigilance of sponsors can resolve the situation.

“Are We Abandoning Our Own?”: The Story of Maxim, A Volunteer of the Social Department of the Minsk Eparchy

The social department was often contacted by employees and former employees of the St Elisabeth Convent itself. They were fired and denied assistance in difficult situations.

A former worker of the convent workshops suffering from mental health difficulties contacted the convent’s social department. She said that she worked in workshops for a long time, then fell ill and was treated at a psychoneurological hospital for several months. When she was discharged and came to work she was told that her services were no longer needed and she no longer worked here. After prolonged treatment, the woman was left practically without a livelihood. She was extremely upset: “I wanted to come back so bad! It seemed to me that everyone there was so friendly, so close, so kind! I had such a good time there, but they just kicked me out because I was sick a lot”. She approached the social department of the Minsk eparchy for financial assistance; she got some food and clothing. Moral support was also important to the woman: social department employees, volunteers, and the priest there talked to her to console and encourage her.

A convent candle workshop employee also contacted the social department. He was old and asked for help in caring for his bedridden father and father-in-law. The elderly men required constant supervision and care and – in large quantities – hygiene products, in particular, disposable diapers. The employee asked his supervisor for help but was denied. He also asked permission to work from home – as is practised in the convent occasionally – to be able to look after the elderly relatives. The convent management fired him. The social department of the Minsk eparchy assisted the man with purchasing diapers. He felt disappointed and depressed. After all these years of working faithfully in the convent when he suddenly needed help, he was rejected.

“Discrediting The Sisterhood Movement”: The Story of Tamara, a Sister of Mercy of One of the Belarusian Sisterhoods

Many white sisters work at retail outlets as salespersons. They are dressed as sisters of mercy — in the clothes that historically were worn by women helping the wounded at war, orphans, disabled and other people in need.

Sisters of mercy from other sisterhoods were unhappy that such discredation of sisterhood was taking place. All other sisterhoods worked for free providing social assistance to the elderly, disabled and destitute people. They believed that the sisterhood uniform should be used for good work and help, not for attracting the attention of potential buyers in retail outlets. This was repeatedly raised by the sisters at general meetings of the sisterhoods and brought to the attention of the leadership of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, however, there was no reaction.

Around 2014-2015, the St Elisabeth Convent entered into conflicts with the management of several medical establishments: the sisters often violated their regulations. They dissuaded patients from taking medical treatments and medications and did not comply with the requests of hospital staff. Consequently, hospitals banned them from visiting patients.

Solicitors working for the convent and eparchy were brought to resolve the conflict. In the process, it transpired that the St Elizabeth Sisterhood hardly engaged in social ministry; in hospitals, sisters focused on ‘educational’ work and selling religious goods.

Trading Abroad: The Story of Emilia, a Former Employee of the Convent’s Department for External Relations

(this text was initially published on the SEM-News channel)

I imagined working in the department for external relations exclusively as a mission: trips to different countries to talk about Orthodoxy at exhibitions there. Soon, it became clear that the department’s job was trading around the world and fundraising.

In the very first days, bells already rang out about the real environment I found myself in. We went to the exhibition without any travel expenses; we had to save on everything, worked seven days a week, and lived according to a strict schedule. A minimum salary, no days off, no personal time, no pocket money. We were reproached for every extra expense and constantly instilled with a feeling of guilt. Some trips were particularly difficult, for example, we had to stand at exhibition stands without a heater in freezing temperatures.

It also depended on the project. Within the department, there was a hierarchy of ‘difficult’ nuns and good ones – those who treated the ‘novices’ normally. After the trips there were showdowns, most often the ‘novices’ were the bad ones. Compared with other workplaces, I have never encountered so much gossip and humiliation. Hard physical work and moral pressure badly affected my health. Being a neophyte, one perceives such an attitude as obedience, although it was difficult to understand what I was doing wrong.

All posters, publications, and the website of the St Elisabeth convent always call to donate supposedly for those in need. I thought that the money saved on trips also goes to help the disadvantaged. Over time, however, it became clear that this was not at all the case. Every department, even the farmstead where alcoholics, drug addicts, and former prisoners underwent so-called ‘labour rehabilitation’, not only provided for themselves but had to make a profit. The white sisters (sisters of mercy) helping in hospitals and a psychoneurological orphanage had to buy everything they needed at their own expense.

The promotional materials say that the money raised at the exhibition goes to fund social projects

The most unpleasant thing was lying. For example, a nun tells customers that the Matryoshka dolls were made in a convent workshop, but in fact, they were bought in Moscow and simply resold in Belarus. To my objections that this was a lie, they answered: “This is because you don’t believe it, while Archpriest Andrei [Lemyashonak] says: if you believe in what you say, the lie becomes the truth”.

The cult of personality of Fr Andrei should be mentioned especially. In the convent, everything is done as Lemyashonak says. It is instilled in everyone that “the priest prays, and God reveals to him; only salvation is in the convent; the world lies in evil; and you came and went, you are, actually, a nobody and a sinful person; who needs you outside the monastery”. People are treated like a mass there: squeezed like lemon, and then parted.

The last straw before my decision to leave came when we were caught for smuggling. I was so embarrassed! At customs, they said that we cheat all the time. I realised that I would not go anywhere again, I would no longer hide uncertified cosmetics under the seat. Most of the convent’s goods were smuggled across the border.

One can give many more examples… The declared quantity of goods in a box often did not correspond the reality. The goal was always to make as much money as possible. Part of the proceeds from the sales was used to purchase kilograms of silver for the convent; employees carried it across the border in thermoses and boots. If the trip turned out to be unprofitable, we had to give explanations at general meetings.

The best thing was the people who came at the behest of their hearts. They were sincere. Communication with like-minded people saved me. Many creative people contributed to the development of the best facets of the convent. Unfortunately, many got hurt. All merit, however, is still attributed exclusively to Lemyashonak.

For me, the convent experience turned out to be very traumatic, therefore my story may contain a lot of my emotions. I still have nightmares, I wish I could have avoided this experience.

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