By Fr. Thomas M. Simisky, SJ
Life can feel overwhelming at times. We’ve all been pushed to our limits on multiple occasions as we navigate the uncertainties of pandemic, politics, and our own personal challenges. How do we find God when faced with problems we’ve never seen before and don’t fully comprehend? Yes, we do honestly desire to live good, loving, faithful lives. But what does that mean in today’s world when it often feels that we are forced to take sides and decide between less-than-ideal options? Thomas’ response to Jesus resonates with me most days, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5)
Living and ministering in the middle of Siberia certainly presents unique challenges as I discern how Jesus is leading me through this cultural context. The fact that I’m even here feels like a miracle. Covid and geo-politics complicated my travel and visa process. But the real miracle is why I feel convinced that God wants me here, right now, serving the Russian people.
On a whim, I started studying Russian in 2009. I’ve always enjoyed foreign languages and exploring different cultures, ever since being an exchange student in Mexico when I was 16. And so, for no reason other than thinking Russian seemed interesting, I enrolled in night school classes while teaching at Cheverus High School in Portland, ME. That began a fascination that led me to serve in the Russian Region three consecutive summers during my theology studies at Boston College (2011 in Moscow, 2012 in Novosibirsk, and 2013 in Kyrgyzstan). I was ordained to the priesthood in 2014 and sent to Fairfield Prep, first as a Spanish teacher and then named president.
Leading a Jesuit school is all-consuming work. But still, something kept drawing me back to Russia. I continued language studies on my own and in 2019 spent the month of July serving in our Jesuit parish in Tomsk. Being summer, the school was closed, but I did meet with the leadership team. At the time, the outlook was bleak, and a sense of impending doom was in the air. The school was facing financial difficulties and concerned about their Jesuit, Catholic identity. They were hoping I could offer some advice based on my school experience.
The first question was, were they even a Jesuit, Catholic school? Given that Catholics are such a minority in Russia, only a small percentage of students and faculty are Catholic. And the diocese handed the school and parish over to the Society of Jesus just recently in 2014, so they were still figuring out what that meant. Due to distance, expense, and the fact that few school employees speak any language other than Russian, the school has been isolated from our networks of Jesuit schools and Ignatian formation.
Of course, the bottom line was their financial position. After considering revenues from tuition and government subsidies, they still needed to raise $225,000 a year for operations. Fundraising from parents and alumni was very limited. Just paying the annual tuition of $887 was a stretch for most families.
Listening to their concerns, it was clear they could not see any way forward. There appeared to be only one option, the one no one wanted to admit. Would this be the end of the school?
At that moment, I gazed out the window at the city below and thought about how the school’s location was ideal—on the historic hill where the city was founded in 1604, just up from the main square (Lenin Square), overlooking the river, in a city famous throughout Russia for its many universities.
Reflecting on the situation, I thought of the many similarities with Jesuit Nativity schools. Fundraising from Nativity families and alumni is limited. And in many of our schools, the majority of students and faculty are not Catholic, but find their faith community in the school. Ignatian spirituality is open, optimistic, and has something to offer all.
Most importantly, the Tomsk Catholic School is the only secondary/pre-secondary Catholic school in Russia (there is a K-4 Franciscan school in Novosibirsk, but our school is grades K-11). This is a worthy mission and one that continues the fascinating history of Jesuits in Russia.
And so, I promised to do everything I could to help advance the mission of the school. The marketing team at Fairfield Prep put together an annual report to show benefactors, Educate Magis, and the Jesuit Schools Network provided helpful resources. I also asked my provincials to discern a future missioning for me there.
After many conversations and much prayer, I found myself in Tomsk. I am deeply grateful to the USA East Province for making me available for this mission.
Challenges abound, but grace is superabundant. One of many difficulties is that I entered on a student visa. In addition to leading our school, I am also studying full-time for a master’s in education management from Tomsk State Pedagogical University (of course, in Russia, which is completely overwhelming for me right now).
Daily consolations continue to reveal the path. What seems like the end might be the next step forward. And in our moments of confusion and desolation, Jesus’ response to Thomas provides the only answer we need: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” If we stay close to Christ in prayer and service, there can be no doubt that we are exactly where God wants us to be.