Ed West meets Fr Michael Shields, the priest who exchanged the frozen wastes of Alaska for the post-Soviet wilderness of Siberia
Last year The Catholic Herald ran a feature on heroic priests by nominated by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for the suffering Church overseas. Among the clerics were Fr Andrea Santoro, gunned down in Turkey in 2006, and Fr Ragheed Ghanni, the popular Chaldean Catholic priest martyred in his hometown of Mosul that same year – and American Fr Michael Shields.
ACN, originally founded after the Second World War to help the faithful in Soviet-controlled eastern Europe, now does much of its work in the Middle East. But Fr Shields inhabits a different world, or at least the far end of this one, eight hours from Moscow, in the frozen tundra of the Russian Far East.
He is heroic because he has dedicated his life to the memory of the hundreds of thousands who died in this bleak corner of the former Soviet Union, and of helping those who survived. Moreover, he has sought to rebuild a society ravaged by Bolshevism.
I meet Fr Shields while he is on a trip to Britain, where he’s raising awareness about the issues that affect Russia, but in particular Russia’s relentless consumption of its young. He almost just got consumed himself, by London’s traffic.
“The bus almost killed me, I don’t want to be martyred in London,” he says, but he’s still smiling, and jokes that he’s not used to this amount of traffic in Siberia.
I mean it as a compliment when I say that Fr Michael has something of the wild man about him, the sort of man whom wolves rather like. Although dressed in his habit and sitting in an office in Victoria he looks like he might be completely at home with a bearskin and staff. He was born and raised in Alaska, a vast wilderness twice the size of Texas, which is today home to barely 700,000 people but only 100,000 when Fr Michael was growing up.
“My parents are from the States – we call them the States – but I’m an Alaskan first. I was the only Alaskan-born priest for a while,” he says. “Now there are more.”
He calls life in Alaska an “unbelievable wilderness lifestyle” composed of “dog sled, camping, fishing and wild game”. A hunter and mountain climber – he’s conquered McKinley, the highest mountain in North America – he calls it a “Jeremiah Johnson lifestyle” after the Robert Redford film about the wild mountain man. “I didn’t realise it was tough when I was growing up,” he says.
Catholicism was also deeply ingrained in family life. He is one of five children, his three surviving sisters live in different parts of the US, and “all of them are active in various ways, from Church ministries to compassionate things”.
“My father would often bring people off the streets to eat with us. It would be Christmas dinner or Easter and there would be someone he would see in need, and he would open the table to them.
“As a child there was a man with cerebral palsy. My father saw him on the side of the road while we were going to Easter services and he stopped the car. They came to find out he was Catholic and was walking to church. I remember this terrible fear, this boogeyman was sitting right next to me. My father invited him home, and the monster was at my table. He became my best friend. That’s the kind of thing my father did, and it also helped me to overcome my fears.”
He felt he was called at an early age. “I remember the first time I thought of the priesthood was when I was seven years old. After that there wasn’t a time when I didn’t think of it,” he says. “There was a period in college when I’d left the Church and thought of marriage but in the depths of my heart I always knew that was the direction.”
One might think that, having grown up in the cold, spartan wilderness, he would have wanted to try out more genteel and comfortable parts of the world; Paris, maybe, or Miami. But Siberia? It was not, he admits, the obvious choice.
“When I was raised in Alaska, it was a cold place and you would have oatmeal in the morning, and my mother used to say: ‘Eat your oatmeal or I will send you to Siberia.’ Siberia was a place of punishment and isolation, even as a child, it was a large, black continent. If you told me as a young priest that I would go to Russia I would say it’s impossible.”
Ordained in 1979, Fr Shields served various parishes in the Archdiocese of Anchorage. In 1989, with political reform in the USSR well underway and Communism, although few knew it, on the brink of collapse, there was a “friendship flight” to Magadan, a city in the Far East of Russia and 5,600 miles from Moscow. Fr Michael accompanied Archbishop Francis Hurley on the trip.
“It was a shock going through customs. We Americans value our freedom and it was very restrictive then, and we were followed. In fact, right up to this moment my phones are tapped, without a doubt, and my emails are read.”
It was a culture shock, but there was another factor – the city’s extremely dark history under the Red Tsars.
“Magadan is known as the symbol of the prison camps because it was the most harsh and isolated and far away. The highway out of town is called the street of blood and bones. Prisoners came to Magadan by boat, and it would be much like the prison slave boats, full of prisoners, up to 6,000 in the hull, and many would die on the way.
“Someone sent me an archive, a cutting from October 1942 which showed who was in Magadan. There were 165,000 prisoners, all the different nationalities, and they’d be there to do different work, from cutting wood to mining for gold. Some would be shovelling uranium dust, and they would mostly die within five to six months.
“Then I started to meet Catholics, people who had been sentenced to prison camps. They would be from the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.” Many were nationalists or had been caught celebrating saint’s days, or praying illegally, but there could be any reason. The area is rich in gold, which Stalin desperately needed.
“They would go into a community with a quota – they would need 14 young women of a certain age – and take them. Families would be left without a breadwinner, who died in the camps. Most of the religious people I met were arrested under pretence with no legal reason. One estimate is that 24 million passed through the camps, and official figures say that a million people were in Magadan and 20 per cent died, but the figure could be up to two million imprisoned and a million dead.”
Magadan is a very ugly, Soviet city, he says, ugly and cold. “I fell in love with the romance of it, and then I fell out of love with it very quickly. Then I went on a 40-day retreat and at that point I realised I was called to help the people in the camp and pray for them. The romance was gone but the love in my heart went to these terribly suffering people.”
He went about finding more of the “repressed”, as survivors of the Soviet camps are called, and their families. He found an academic who did a doctoral thesis for Cambridge on the families of camp survivors.
“She spoke to these people, many who had not spoken to each other and were isolated, many of whom were Catholics. Out of that a ministry happened.”
These isolated individuals, who had spent 10 to 20 years in freezing camps and were then exiled in the Far East, were products of a truly broken society, destroyed by a rampant, all-powerful state and its sponsorship of brutality and suspicion. One of the first men he got to know had served eight years of a 25-year sentence because Stalin had died. “He had a family. They would be raised Communists, because that was the only way to go to school, and he would not speak of his past, because to do so to his family could be detrimental to their education. They were enemies of the country.
“When I started having these meetings, people would start recognising each other and saying: ‘I remember you at such and such in 1943, we were in the barracks together.’ And I would say: ‘Tell me about your life.’And it would go very quiet.”
He says it has taken five years of gaining their confidence to get people to speak. “It’s an oral history that’s not been recorded.”
Since the 1991 revolution Russia has continued to suffer. Although there was some hope during the early days of President Yeltsin’s rule, the country was soon racked by chronic gangsterism and corruption, food shortages, unemployment, reductions in living standards and alcoholism – which have contributed to a 20-year drop in life expectancy.
Another lasting scar of Communism is abortion. Russia was the first country in the world to legalise it, and then the first to ban it. This was not out of any sense of humanity on Stalin’s part but because his “reforms” had killed so many of the born that the country was demographically imperilled. In 1955 it was legalised again, and became the most liberal law in the world, so that at its peak, in 1964, there were 5.6 million legal abortions in the USSR (and there were still many illegal ones). Today, for every 10 births there are 13 abortions, while the average woman will have had five.
Fr Shields has established a branch of Rachel’s Vineyard in Magadan, which offer retreats for women who have suffered from abortions. He calls this “an incredible work of love”.
“During it you light a candle and name the child. Its very gut-wrenching, at one moment there were five women on this retreat and they lit 47 candles. It was the first time in my life I was stunned because we had run out of Russian names,” he says. “From then on I realised this was the major issue for women.”
In 2008 he also opened a centre for mothers who are thrown out of their dormitories when they become pregnant. A year later, he opened a pro-life centre offering pregnancy tests. For those women thinking about an abortion, advice is available offering alternative options.
“What has surprised us is how much the Nativity Inn project [the pro-life initiative] and our centre at the church in Magadan have grown through word of mouth,” he says. “We find again and again that women come along having heard about us from other women in the same situation.”
Eventually pro-lifers may just win by default. Russia’s demographic crisis has become acute, with a population that is shrinking by 800,000 a year. Former president Vladimir Putin introduced pro-natalist policies, such as cash incentives for second children, but this is having little effect.
“Russia is a contradiction,” says Fr Shields. “You have 40 degrees above and 40 degrees below. It is neither western nor eastern. One sees the greatest abuse and humanity, maybe in the same day. Here there is no doubt the Devil is real and evil is real because I’m looking at it every day. It is watered down in the West, in Russia it’s night and day.”
But in Siberia, he says: “I know who my enemy is. It’s easier on one level. Prayer is absolutely essential, or you die. Spiritually you can’t live without it, like being without armour in a battle.
“There’s a Russian saying, you cannot understand Russia, only love it. It’s lovely: so pure, so clear, 40 below zero, and a deafening silence all around. There is not a doubt in my mind that I will be here for the rest of my life, I will die in Siberia. Unless I get killed by a bus here for not looking the right way.”
Fr Shields was keynote speaker at Aid to the Church in Need’s Westminster event last year and the charity has supported various projects connected to Fr Shields. To contact Aid to the Church in Need email firstname.lastname@example.org, write to 12-14 Benhill Avenue, Sutton, Surrey SM1 4DA or phone 020 8642 8668