Chernobyl children at convent

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Metropolitan Yelsey surrounded by children from Chernobyl enjoying the celebrations in spite of hearing about another tragedy on the day

Few Rye residents know that there is a Russian orthodox convent on our doorstep, located on land at Rocks Farm, Ewhurst Green in an old farmhouse that serves as a temporary church. The  congregation is scattered throughout the general area of Hastings, Tunbridge Wells and Rye. Work has commenced recently on building a dedicated church on the site, and the congregation nurtures hopes that a full-time priest will be appointed in the not too distant future.

On July 19 a special service was held to commemorate the memory of the patron saint of the convent, the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who became a nun in Russia after her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, was assassinated by a member of the Social-Revolutionary party in 1905. She was renowned throughout Russia for her numerous good works, and was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth was glorified as a New Martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the early 1980s.

At least 100 people attended the service conducted by Metropolitan Yelisey of Sourozh, the head of the UK diocese of the ROC, and Father Stephen Platt from Oxford, who is currently acting as the rector of the parish.  Some of those present came from as far afield as Russia and Australia. A special feature of the day’s celebrations was a performance of song and dance by a group of Ukrainian children in colourful national costumes. These children are in the UK with the support of the Chernobyl Children Rye fund (http://chernobylchildrenrye.org/) to receive medical and other health-related care, and to have a holiday eating clean food and breathing uncontaminated air in the beautiful countryside of East Sussex. Their home area is the Zhitomir region of Ukraine, which is still recovering from the after-effects of the Chernobyl  disaster.

The general festive mood of the occasion under glorious sunshine, truly a day made  for rejoicing, was only overshadowed by the tragic shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane, Flight MH17,  over the conflict zone in Ukraine.  Prayers were said for the victims and their families at the service, and the Ukrainian children needed reassurance that the disaster did not occur above the area where their families live. Touchingly, one of their first questions was whether there had been children like themselves aboard the doomed aircraft. They were spoken to kindly by Metropolitan Yelisey, whose own family hails from a different part of Ukraine.

Speaking to Sarah Day, the driving force behind arranging UK visits for children from Chernobyl-affected areas in Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and elsewhere, the Metropolitan said he would welcome a visit by next year’s group at the ROC cathedral in London.

At present, the Herculean task of ensuring the day-to-day running of the convent is shouldered uncomplainingly by its sole resident nun, Mother Martha, who receives occasional assistance from kind-hearted parishioners to keep the convent shipshape. Hopefully. it will not be long before she is joined by more Orthodox nuns, and the convent will be able to come into its own as a beacon of faith and a thriving religious community.

Photo by Sarah Day