Azerbaijan is a country in the South Caucasus, bordered by Russia and Georgia to the north and by Iran to the south. While never a Catholic country (it has an overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim majority), there was until the mid-1920s a thriving Catholic population of some 2,500, served by several priests, most of them living in Baku, the capital city, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea.
I lived in Baku from the spring of 1997 to the end of 1998, when I moved on to Kazakhstan. There were several thousand British and other expats in Baku at that time, the vast majority working at AIOC, the BP-led consortium of Western oil companies beginning the development of Azerbaijan’s offshore oil fields.
After many years being at least partially lapsed, I came back to the Church for good in 2005 (when living in Moscow) but had a short-term homecoming, which (the Lord forgive me) did not last very long, during my time in Baku. Nevertheless, I was during that time directly involved in a tiny way in the restoration of the Catholic Church in the country.
Two thousand five hundred Catholics I recall, and I think some six or so Polish priests. The Soviets shot all the priests (Father Simon or Stepan was the senior of them), and the laity were scattered throughout the camps of the GULAG. Very few came back. May God rest all their souls.
With this Soviet persecution, Catholicism was extinguished in the country until the very late 1980s, when a group of Polish ship-builders working in Baku’s yards wrote to the Vatican asking for a priest to be sent to them.
A priest was sent: Father Jerzy Pilus, a young Pole ordained near Krakow, I think. The problem was, he was several years too late. Father arrived, but the workers had already long since left for Poland following the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991. He was on his own in a former Soviet republic, the population nominally Muslim with a smattering of Russian Orthodox, not a single Catholic to be found, absolutely virgin missionary territory. His nearest backup was in another country, in Georgia to the north. Father became disheartened and seriously thought about leaving.
And then happened a series of providential events (little miracles, in other words) that led to a fully functioning Catholic parish in Baku and, later, even a visit from Pope St. John Paul II to the country.
It happened at the time when Father Pilus thought that not a single Catholic existed in the entire country. One day, he was in an open-air market (dressed in civilian clothes – clerical dress would have been inadvisable, even dangerous), buying some cheap vegetables. He chose a stall to buy from, and the stall holder, a lady, asked him if he was Russian. He replied (in Russian) that no, he was Polish. She asked him what he did. “You are working in the shipyard, I suppose.” “No, I am a Catholic priest,” answered Father Pilus.
He told me later that the woman physically jumped backward as if electrocuted, tearfully telling him that her mother was very aged and near death. She was one of the very few Catholics who had returned alive from Stalin’s camps, and all she wanted was to see a priest before she died. Desperate, she was praying constantly for this grace, but of course it was impossible for her daughter to arrange this for her. She asked if Father Pilus would come to her apartment, where her mother was bedridden, that very minute.
Father Pilus had found his first Catholic. He heard the old mother’s Confession (all Baku Azeris speak Russian) and gave her Holy Communion and the Last Rites. She died peacefully in the Faith some two or three days later.
Father told me this story later, and I remember my astonishment. Let us ponder this woman’s faith: she had not been able to receive the Sacraments for more than sixty years. She had lived her Catholic faith silently and without any human support throughout the time of Stalin, throughout the decades of atheism, and of course Our Lord Jesus Christ had not forgotten her for a single second.
So Father had found one Catholic, but she was now dead. What on Earth was he going to do now? Well, he didn’t know it, but he was soon going to have a parish to run.
I was in a bar one day and heard an English voice. A young man and I got chatting. He was in Baku for a short time on some assignment and asked me if I knew a Father Jerzy Pilus. I replied that I am a Catholic myself but hadn’t been to church for several years, and no, I’d never heard of him. He explained that “Father Jerzy is a priest here, but I can’t find him. I called the Nunciature in Georgia and they told me his name, but how to get in touch now that I am here?” I had no idea and couldn’t help.
The memory is hazy now. However, I do remember that a few days later, I called a BP client on the phone about some matter or other, and we fell into conversation – just small talk. I mentioned the fact of Father’s existence somewhere in the city, and, remarkably, a phone number was unearthed. How and by whom I cannot recall.
I called the number and got a Pole speaking very bad English. My Russian at that time was awful, but we somehow understood each other enough so that Mass was said two Sundays later in a classroom of the British-American school for about fifty expats.
Father had himself a parish. He was so very, very happy. As for me, I was conscious that I had been used, along with several others, as a small cog in what seemed to us all to be God’s design for an entire nation.
I moved to Kazakhstan in 1998, but I stayed in touch with Father. He eventually established a proper legal parish, after facing vast difficulties from the state authorities and the Islamic hierarchy. There were converts. Later, around 2000, the Salesian Fathers took over from him and he became the parish priest of Gori (Stalin’s birthplace) in Georgia. He had to return to Poland for some time, utterly exhausted and ill. Recovered, the last I know of him is that he was a few years ago the only Catholic priest in Muslim Abkhazia, one of the two Georgian regions conquered by the Russians in 2008.
Please pray for Father Jerzy Pilus, a toiler in the vineyard of the Lord, and for the Catholic Church in Azerbaijan. May we all emulate Father Pilus’s zeal, his fortitude, and his faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ!