250 years ago, Empress Catherine the Great issued a decree on the construction of the Butyrskaya Prison Fortress in the North of Moscow. Today it hosts Detention Center No. 2, known as Butyrka Prison. Since 2005, its prisoners have been under the care of Archpriest Konstantin Kobelev, sharing the most memorable incident during his service in the prison Church of the Intercession.
“This story happened on April 8, 2018, when the Patriarch visited Butyrka on the very first day of Easter. After visiting our prison church, Patriarch Kirill wished to also visit several cells to meet with the prisoners and learn more about their needs. Strikingly, one of them was sentenced for life.
Let us note here that Butyrskaya prison is a pre-trial detention center. Life-sentenced prisoners are not held here, except during the investigation and trial. After the sentence is read out they undergo further redistribution. That prisoner, named Alexander, was already convicted several years ago, and was in Butyrka temporarily as a witness in another case, when Patriarch Kirill walked into his cell.
His Holiness sat down at Alexander’s table and, noticing a bible on it, began a conversation with him.
‘I have a small request,’ the prisoner suddenly turned to the Patriarch, ‘It would be great if life prisoners had an opportunity to go to church to pray, at least on some big church holidays.’
Patriarch Kirill replied:
– It is a justifiable demand of a believer, regardless of whether he is free or imprisoned, to be able to come to church and pray. We will figure out how to do this, taking into account the rules and requirements of correctional institutions.
Believe it or not, the very next day we were able to meet with Alexander in our prison church! The temple had just been painted, and Alexander saw something that almost no one had seen yet: faces of the 236 new martyrs who passed through Butyrka, depicted on the walls of the church.
Then I heard his confession. He was a member of an organized crime group, responsible for many crimes. He is serving his life sentence in a specialized correctional colony for life prisoners located on Fire Island.
All his life Alexander was an unbeliever, but the unspeakable Divine love has brought to his cell a man who had already come to God. They talked a lot, and yet Alexander remained adamant in his atheism.
Once Alexander received news of his sister’s illness. Doctors discovered that she had a brain tumor and had virtually no chance of life. Then his cellmate said that he would pray. Surprisingly, the operation, which at first the doctors did not even want to take on, went successfully. Alexander then tried to hide what great impression this event made on him.
After some time, more sad news came: the disease had returned. Alexander’s friend began to pray again. And again a miracle happened, and Alexander’s sister is still alive.
When the guys heard this joyful news, Alexander confessed that he had also been praying.
I have always noticed how the prisoners’ faces change from when they come to the temple to when they leave it. It happened this time also. This desire of a life imprisoned person to pray in the temple impressed me in a special way, as well as the amazing coincidence bringing a prisoner to meet with the Patriarch, without which Alexander’s wish might not ever come true. This meeting appears to me to be evidence of the Lord forgiving the sins of a condemned person.
Soon Alexander left Butyrka and I never met him again. But I often remember him, because after this incident it became possible for the life-sentenced tenants of the sixth corridor to visit the temple.
I believe that visiting hospitals and prisons is a useful experience for every shepherd. May this story of God’s mercy to the condemned, making an indelible impression on a prison priest, also act as a remedy for “professional burnout” of those involved in prison ministry, helping rediscover its meaning and inspiring to carry it on.”
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds