Friar Guides Diverse Student Group Through Russia

Daniel Dwyer, OFM Friar News

Editor’s Note: The following report was provided by a history professor at Siena College who guided 30 students on a trip to Russia from May 18 to 27.

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — On May 25, I found myself celebrating the Eucharist in a Stalin era hotel in Moscow.  A small group of Siena College students and faculty gathered in my hotel room on the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  The students may have been too young, but I was old enough to realize that, not that long ago, we might have been caught on secret cameras and accused of something illegal.

The Mass that we celebrated that Sunday morning was a fitting culmination to two classes that had begun on the Siena College campus in January — my own class titled “The History of Russia’s Capitals,” and Dr. Dmitry Burshteyn’s “Comparative Psychology” class. We were accompanied by  Carol Sandoval, director of the Siena Higher Education Opportunity Program  (HEOP).

It was an exciting adventure as we visited St. Petersburg and Moscow.  Many of our 30 students had never left the confines of the United States.  I joked with some that most people start their travelling with a weekend in Montreal rather than a nine-and-one-half hour Aeroflot flight to Moscow!

Over the course of an amazing week, we visited the glorious palaces of the tsars in St. Petersburg, a nobleman’s estate near Moscow, a World War II memorial, The Kremlin, Red Square, and the Pushkin and Hermitage Museums.  Some of the students attended a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.

All of us experienced the food, culture, and history of an old Cold War enemy who had discovered the dubious delights of MTV and KFC.  We discovered a land and a people that seemed very different at first; eventually we began to experience the common humanity that binds Russians and Americans together.

A day or two before our liturgy, I stood in line to venerate the famous Icon of Our Lady of Kazan; and many of our students had been deeply moved by the chant of the Russian Orthodox liturgy that rose up in the Kremlin cathedral where so many early tsars were laid to rest.

What made the trip even more interesting was the diverse nature of our own group which included Irish- and Italian-Americans, a former Soviet citizen and a number of persons of Latino and African-American background.  We certainly turned heads in the Metro!  As I began the Mass, I said the opening prayers in Spanish, wore a stole from Guatemala, and used vessels that were a gift to me from a Jamaican Allegany Franciscan Sister.

As our trip progressed, we had the usual glitches and inconveniences; there had been some troubles with timetables; some frayed nerves and even, perhaps an encounter or two with Russian vodka.  I think that our celebration of the Eucharist will always be connected in my mind with the Feast of Christ’s Body and Blood.

In that hotel, with its hammers and sickles on the columns and its “New York Casino” off the lobby, we caught a glimpse of God’s Kingdom in all its beauty and diversity.  In the midst of Moscow, all of us were suddenly at home.

— Fr. Dan, a member of Holy Name’s Provincial Council, commemorated his 25th year as a Franciscan friar on June 19.