Bishop Joseph Werth Returns to Ellis County for Visit

Legleiter, Scott. "Bishop Joseph Werth Returns to Ellis County for Visit." Ellis County Star, 15 June 1995.

Dr. Robert Firestone, left, interprets the messages of Bishop Joseph Werth of Siberia, right, during a press conference on Tuesday. This is Bishop Werth's second visit to the area in the past three years. He traveled to the area to recruit local clergy and lay persons to come and serve the Catholic Church in Siberia.

It was nearly three years ago when Bishop Joseph Werth of Siberia first made a trek to the Volga German communities of western Kansas to meet some of his distant relatives. He returned back to this area earlier this week but with a different mission in mind--to recruit both the clergy and lay persons to help serve the Catholic church in his diocese in Siberia.

With the help of interpreter Dr. Robert Firestone, Bishop Werth was able to communicate with members of the media at a press conference on Tuesday. It was there where he spoke about the mission of his current trip.

Bishop Werth came to Hays after attending an International Conference in Colorado Springs which dealt with the state of the church in the Soviet Union and its needs.

Although the overall picture of the Catholic Church in the Soviet Union is better than it was three years ago, Werth's diocese is still in need of many things.

Werth said that they "don't have many resources," and that he felt coming back to this area would "perhaps be helpful for the church."

The Catholic Church was first dismantled in Russia in 1917. It was at that time when the churches were seized by the Russian Government and the practicing priests and nuns had to do their work "underground."

He also spoke of how many people practiced their religion secretly, and how his own family would have daily prayers and a special vigil, similar to the mass, on Sundays. Werth was also baptized by his father.

The rebirth of the Catholic Church then came on April 13, 1991, but there were only three Catholic priests actively serving in the area. "That's why it is so important to find priests," said Werth.

Since the rebirth, Werth has been amazed at the amount of religion that is still remembered from the past. During the years where practicing the Catholic faith was not allowed, people still said the prayers and sang the hymns in their own private worship services.

"They have lost a great deal," said Werth. "But it is remarkable how much they have retained."

He also added that they still practice the old-time religion and they do not practice the changes which took place after Vatican II.

Today there are around 50 priests serving with largest diocese in the world with anywhere from 100,000 to one million Catholics. There are no exact numbers Werth said.

Also serving the area are around 50 nuns, including several from the Ellis County area.

Werth relayed the trials that he has underwent to help make the Catholic religion accessible to all. One of his main goals is to build more churches for people to attend mass. Since the requisition of the 100 churches in his area took place, only four have been returned by the Government.

This has led to the building of new churches, but the increasing inflation has made is virtually impossible. For example, a church built today would cost three times as much as one built only two years ago.

In addition, the lack of resources and unreliable contractors have made this effort "unconscionably difficult."

Werth did say that the new Government of the Soviet Union has been very receptive of the new Catholic Church. He has never been visited by the KGB, something that was common before the rebirth of his religion.

One interesting fact that he did present was that the people of Russia have more freedoms regarding their religion than we do in America. This is partly because there is no system of laws currently in place in Siberia.

"The faithful are not prevented in assembling for religious services," said Bishop Werth. "The priests in the United States are limited by laws."

Another purpose of Werth's trip to the area was to be reacquainted with the people of the area. He spent Monday evening in Schoenchen and was met by over 50 people who are distantly related.

He was born in the city of Schoenchen on the Volga River in Russia, so coming to this area makes him feel right at home.

Werth was also the celebrant of a special mass on Tuesday evening at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Although it is impossible to visit all of the communities in his diocese, the largest in the world, Werth enjoys visiting the smaller communities which also make him "feel right at home."

Werth's trip to the area was coordinated by Fr. Blaine Burkey, and following his trip to Hays, he will be traveling to North Dakota for other visits before returning to Siberia later this month.

One final mission of Werth's is to help seek financial contributions to continue to build churches in his diocese. The Volga German Society of Ellis County has supported this effort over the past three years.

He stated that the people in his diocese are very generous to the church, but are not able to give very much because of their low earnings.

"Our people are generous but they cannot finance the building of churches," he said.

Anyone interested in donating money to Bishop Werth's diocese or are interested in finding out how they can serve the Catholic Church in Siberia may contact Fr. Blaine Burkey for more information.

Reprinted with permission of The Ellis County Star.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller