Bishop Seeks Help in Ministering to Expansive Diocese

Kaser, Andrea. "Bishop Seeks Help in Ministering to Expansive Diocese." Forum, August 1993, sec. 4A.

Bishop Joseph Werth has a big job to do in his homeland of Russia. The 40-year-old Roman Catholic Bishop is one of only three bishops recently installed by the pope in what is now the Commonwealth of Independent States.

His diocese of Siberia is 5,000 miles wide, 2,000 long, and 1.5 million believers full.

With so much land to cover and so many hungry souls to feed, he and his 35 priests simply can’t meet the demand, which is one reason the bishop is visiting North Dakota this week.

Werth, of Novosibirsk, Russia, who is German-Russian, and his traveling companion, Vicar
General Johannes Boesch of Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, who is German, are seeking Catholic clergy and lay people who have German-Russian backgrounds to teach the faith to the German-Russian in Russia.

Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was without a bishop for nearly 60 years. Much of the church’s teaching have faded, Werth said Saturday during a visit to North Dakota State University’s German from Russia Heritage Collection and the Northern Crops Institute.

"They’re believers, but they are still ignorant about the beliefs," he said through an interpreter.

Of the 35 priests in his diocese, only five are native Russians. The rest are mostly Polish or German. Werth had to recruit priests from other countries because of the shortage in his own. In the 1970s, he received his training under the cover of serving as a sacristan in Lithuania because the KGB required men who wanted to go to seminary to be registered. Because of his German-Russian ancestry, the KGB passed him over.

Despite a recent Russian parliamentary proposal that would limit the influx of religious groups into the country, Werth remains steadfast in his search for clergy who can speak the languages of the people in his diocese, which include Russian, Polish, and German. Many of the German-Russians in North Dakota still speak German and have relatives in Russia, according to Mike Miller, Germans from Russia bibliographer.

Werth has other reasons for visiting the United States, though. He wants to spread the word of the treatment of the German-Russians under Communist rule. The German-Russians have suffered in silence for years without fighting back, he said.

One group of the Germans came to Russia under the rule of Catherine the Great, who was a native German. Catherine invited the Germans to teach her subjects farming methods in the late 18th century. They settled in the Volga German Republic, but in 1941, Stalin disbanded the republic. Werth’s father was one of those thousands exiled to Siberia.

Werth also is asking for monetary support. His diocese has changed about 25 homes into places of worship, called "prayer houses." The diocese no longer has any money to buy more houses, he said.

The bishop and the vicar will visit communities in the state throughout the week. On Aug. 11, the two will separate. While Boersch goes to Washington D.C, Werth will go to Wisconsin and then Denver, where he will meet Pope John Paul II, and then to Chicago to Russia. They’ll return to Russia Aug. 17.

Reprinted with permission of the Fargo Forum.

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