Right now, some of the best of a new generation of Eastern Catholics are two hours southwest of Vienna, in Gaming, Austria. There, in the Kartause Maria Thron, a restored 14th century monastery that once housed Soviet troops and horses, you’ll find 10 students from the East — this year from Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania and Serbia, as well as China — all studying, free of charge, at the Language and Catechetical Institute (LCI).
LCI is the tie that binds the stories of Artur Bubnevich, Lacko Bučko, Kristof Marik, Csava Szabo, and Boldi Koenig together. Each spent a year studying English and catechetics at LCI before returning to their homelands to engage in the work of the New Evangelization.
History of the group
Founded by a group of Americans in 1992 to assist Catholics from formerly communist countries, the mission of LCI has always been threefold.
First, to give Catholics from the East the English language skills necessary for success in a post-communist world.
Second, to provide young people who showed a predisposition for leadership in the Church with a fundamental knowledge of the faith.
Third, to give them an experience of what a lived faith in Catholic community looked like — an experience made possible by Franciscan University of Steubenville, which houses its study abroad program in the Kartause, and has shared living, dining, worship and classroom space with LCI for 20 years.
In that time, more than 400 young people from 26 former (or current) communist states have graduated from LCI, and their stories have been much the same as the students studying there today.
There are new converts, like Yuliya Ermakovich, a 24-year-old sociologist who worked at the Moscow Institute of Cultural and Social Programs before coming to LCI. Baptized Orthodox, but raised with no religion, Ermakovich’s first encounter with the Church came when she was 16.
Now discerning a religious vocation, she came to LCI at the recommendation of the mother superior of the order she’s considering joining.
Then, there are cradle Catholics like Barbara Ninacs, a sweet 19-year-old from Romania who has managed to escape the destructive influences of extreme poverty and a crime-ridden community primarily because of her love for the Church.
“Until I was in seventh grade, I never took my faith seriously,” Ninacs explained. “Then a new priest came to our parish who reached out to the young people. That changed everything. I began to discover what it meant to be a Catholic and to live that out in a holy way.”
Other LCI students include Valentina Khaimyk, from Ukraine, who grew up in a village where the absence of a Catholic Church required Khaimyk to walk an hour each way every Sunday in order to attend Mass; Mariya Yuzupanova, from Kazakhstan, a country where only 1.5 percent of the population is Catholic; Gratiela Labud, whose grandfather, a Greek Catholic priest, died for the Catholic faith under Communism; Krstyna Hronova, who grew up in a family with 12 children, something unheard of in Western and Eastern Europe today; and Srdjan Muharem, a Catholic from the Orthodox-dominated country of Serbia who wants to become a theology professor.
Each has come to LCI for different reasons — some to learn English, some for the theology, some because their parish priest or relative thought the program their best chance to escape the encroaching secularism in the East.
They are keenly aware of how the after-effects of communism still poison the culture of their homelands.
“You can still find people who have faith, but they haven’t enough knowledge of it,” Ermakovich told OSV. “It’s the history of our country. It’s communism. It’s taken away the Christian traditions and left us with different ideas, different teachers and opinions, a different way of life. So, even if you have faith, it can be easily lost.”
The young people studying at LCI don’t want that, which is why they’ve come here — to find a way they can help undo the damage atheistic communism has wrought. They’re praying they can succeed where their parents’ and grandparents’ generation failed.
“Our history is like a magic story, a fairy tale, that has not ended yet,” said Ermakovich of the people of the East. “We as a Church need to give them what others cannot.”
And that, hopefully, is a happy ending.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.