Saint Petersburg, 20 years of Caritas

Natalia Pevtsova directs charity services for the Catholic Church

Caritas celebrates 20 years of activity in Saint Petersburg. It was set up thanks to the enthusiasm of Fr Harmut Kania, who from his diocese in Germany moved to the delta of the Neva with tons of aids and immense enthusiasm, leading many people to adhere to Caritas’ philosophy: to help everyone without gaining anything in return. Among them, in 1995 was Natalia Pevtsova, a teacher born “during the Krusciov thaw”, raised in the Soviet Union and believing in the luminous future of Communism”, as she told SIR Europe. Pevtsova used to teach in Tihvin, not far from the former Leningrad. In 1996, she and some of her colleagues set up a school for juvenile detainees awaiting trial, “young people with broken destinies, some of them completely illiterate, 30 crammed into cells designed for 10 people, with two hours of exercise per day in the prison yard and not more that one visit by relatives per month”. Until, in 1998, father Hartmut (who died in 2001) became head of Caritas Russia and Natalia was entrusted the task of directing Caritas St. Petersburg. Besides the wealth of a few, Pevtsova said, today “there are more needs, more poverty, coupled my many facets of human tragedy (alcoholism, drugs, violence, AIDS). The differences between the rich and the poor are all the more outrageous and challenge us, because, unfortunately, a culture of solidarity does not exist in Russian society”. Let’s start from here: could you explain why a culture of solidarity is missing? “It is due to 70 years of Soviet rule: according to the ideology, there were no poor or needy people. Social assistance for old people living alone, orphans, large families, disabled, was the prerogative of the Soviet State. When in the 1990s that kind of State ceased to exist and nothing new was built, people remained alone with their problems. Then, several charity organizations started to file registration requests. But in fact, they were all businesses that imported duty-free humanitarian aids concealed under the false credentials of charity, which they sold for their own profit, thus discrediting the concept of philanthropy and triggering a negative approach towards authentic charities. Today a culture of solidarity towards the poor and the needy is gradually developing, not only by giving alms but respecting human dignity. Mercy, charity, assistance and support have returned to be present in our lives without negative connotations, and I think this is largely due to the transparent commitment of charities run by Christian Churches and believers”. 100 people are involved in the implementation of approximately 20 projects. How many people do you manage to help? “It’s hard to say with precision, since we provide various forms of assistance: we provide warms meals to over 500 people per day, while advice for social issues is given to over 2000 people a year. The program ‘Mother and child’ envisages hospitality, psychological, financial support as well as legal advice to pregnant women in difficulty, until the child turns 2. Thanks to this program over 300 children destined not to live, were born in St Petersburg. Moreover, support is given also to AIDS patients in hospitals and in their homes, to mentally ill patients and to their parents. We also run a centre for physically disabled persons, an information centre, therapy and training on addictions (drugs, alcohol, domestic violence). It’s one of the programs that is developing the most, owing to the problem of violence against women. We have two centers for children of families with difficulties, school dropouts at delinquency risk. Another program is directed to orphanages. In two infirmaries are held courses on how to take care of patients at home, while a rest home hosts elderly people without families”. Are you supported by political institutions? “We receive no public funding. Our legal status is registered as ‘religious organization’, and subsidies to religious organization are not envisaged by the State. But as a ‘socially important organization’, we can avail ourselves of tax breaks and subsidized rents for our work. 90% of donations come from abroad, but lately, more and more residents of St. Petersburg have been donating money and time to help those in need. All of our activities would not be possible without support by the population at large”. Is there an ecumenical dimension to your commitment? “Yes. We work in close cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular with the confraternity of St. Anastasia and the Pokrov Community. And in some projects – AIDS patients, healthcare centres – we resort to the help of Orthodox priests”.

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