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1 Feb, 2010 04:06

“Lost souls” finding home in small Russian town

A Catholic Frenchman in search of spiritual enlightenment found it in an unusual place. In a remote Russian town, 13 years later he is now an Orthodox priest and a Russian citizen.

Born Pierre Pasquet in France, Father Vasily was raised Catholic. But searching for something he could not articulate, the priest accepted the Orthodox faith and followed his spiritual advisor to Russia.

They came to the old town of Alatyr, in Russia’s republic of Chuvashia, in the height of its re-building of churches destroyed during the communist rule.

Inspired by the work and influenced by Russian Orthodoxy, Father Vasily sold his home and used the money to renovate his church, Iverskaya Icon Mother of God Cathedral.

"What I am doing here is not my job. It is my responsibility, my calling, my duty. That is how I live,” Father said.

13 years after settling here, he is now a Russian citizen.

“If I want to be a priest in Russia and to be a Russian priest, I have to be a Russian citizen,” Father Vasily said. ”So I decided to be, and I say it is a good thing.”

Parishioner Alyson Backhouse said that it is perhaps his open attitude that has endeared him to the congregation and to the community.

“I think, perhaps as a Westerner, perhaps he is a little bit more free and open, and his character – you know, he is somebody who jokes and is very easy to get on with,” she said.

”I think as a result many people – through him – it perhaps opens their eyes to another side of the church life," Backhouse added.

Like Father Vasily, Alyson Backhouse came from the West in search of religious clarity. Raised in England on the border with Wales, Alyson was a practicing Methodist.

“I had many questions about the history of the church, about the practice of the church and the faith of the church and I began to search,” she said.

She found answers and a new religious path as a foreign exchange student in Russia.

“Although at first it was something very strange for me – almost alien, not just strange – I gradually began to see that many of the things I was seeking really in my own church and not finding I could see in the Orthodox Church,” Backhouse said.

She moved to Chuvashia in 1995, first living in the capital Cheboksary, but after finding Father Vasily, as a spiritual advisor she moved to Alatyr.

Eight years later, Alyson is a permanent resident in Russia and a devoted member of the parish, teaching religious courses and leading the choir.

However, the religious road that led Father Vasily from France to Russia is now taking him to a new church home in Chuvashia’s capital of Cheboksary.

Following his calling, the former Frenchman hopes to bring more soul searchers to the Orthodox faith.