VOLYN OBLAST – Ukraine’s oldest convent, Zymne Monastery, a stauropegial founded in 1001 by Prince Volodymyr the Great. The ancient cloister on the Holy Mountain near Volodymyr-Volynsky is going to mark its 1,010th (!) anniversary. You can feel the powerful energy of ancient European traditions and profound spirituality in every little stone here. This inimitable aura and the excellent human qualities of the Mother Superior and the nuns are working little mundane wonders every day.
The event that occurred later last year at the village of Zymne (Volynians usually associate it with the large nunnery) remained, unfortunately, unknown to most residents of the region. Only one local Internet publication briefly reported it, quoting the website of the Volodymyr-Volynsky District Administration. Yet it was an uncommon event. With the blessing of His Beatitude Volodymyr, Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Zymne organized music classes at a school restored at the convent’s expense.
As a matter of fact, these classes — Volyn’s first and only rural music school — had existed in Zymne for several years. Stefana, Mother Superior of the Zymne Holy Mountain Convent, had used the cloister’s funds to purchase a range of musical instruments for the local school, including two pianos (one of them is digital), a 6,000-hryvnia accordion (which she personally brought from Kyiv), violins, and pan-pipes. It was also Mother Stefana’s idea to set up a school choir oriented toward spiritual and patriotic songs, which also had elegant costumes made at the cloister’s expense.
The Zymne school and convent face each other from across the road. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, five busloads of whom come here every day in the summer, saw ruins on the other side of the road for years on end. Since a new school was built in Zymne in 1989, the old one has not been in use. School principal Alla Melnyk says there were plans to tear down this structure, an eyesore in the very center of the village. Last year the roof caved in under heavy snow, and the walls also began to crumble.
“The Mother Superior is now joking that the premises where children have classes is the ‘old’ school and the renovated convent is the ‘new’ school,” the principal says laughing.
The elegant little yellow building by the road resembles an Easter egg. It now houses studios, where children learn to play the piano, violin, accordion, and pan-pipe. There is also a spacious room for choir practice. The Mother Superior also promises to renovate the dancehall because two groups from the choreographic society have already resumed work in the new premises. The convent has purchased furniture, a boiler, and even well-equipped restrooms. The cloister has also hired designers to redecorate the interior.
Why is a self-supporting convent assuming these unconventional functions?
“Who do you think I turned to when teachers told me shortly before September 1 that two children from a poor family could not afford to go to school? To Mother Stefana. She gave [them] a thousand hryvnias. The convent also gave 10,000 hryvnias to finish the installation of electric lighting on the village streets,” says Zymne Mayor Viacheslav Katolyk who calls the cloister “the village’s asset and spiritual source.” As we can see, this “source” also renders concrete material assistance to the ancient village.
Mother Natalia, who was authorized to take us round the ancient cloister, said there are 40 nuns and lay sisters at the convent now. They cultivate 15 hectares of land, tend to the cows, and run greenhouses of their own. Incidentally, the world’s best landscape designers could envy the unearthly beauty that reigns supreme on the convent’s territory in the warm seasons. In fact, it is all the work of the modest nuns. The convent also has a mill and a macaroni production line of its own, where they baked bread until recently. Besides, the cloister lives an intense religious life full of long prayer services in the temple. Unfortunately, we failed to hear Mother Superior Stafana’s opinion about why the religious cloister is also assuming difficult mundane tasks. We came here at a time when almost half the nuns were down with the flu. Local schoolchildren were also sick. The Mother Superior was ill, too, so she instructed Sister Lukia to deal with us.
Sister Lukia says that the Mother Superior still manages the convent’s choir, though there are people who could replace her. She adds that Mother Stefana comes from a singing family and she sees singing as a divine gift and a part of her life. Children from the countryside, like Mother Superior once was, cannot afford to not make use of their talents. This is why Mother Stefana supports the Zymne children, among whom there are many gifted ones. For example, when the convent gave shelter to a dozen girls from problem families a few years ago, it used its own transport to take them to the music school or the art studio.
The small concert that the Zymne children gave on the same day after a PTA meeting aroused great interest among the teachers and parents. Packed in the small house, the audience reacted to the performance very emotionally. The school principal admits that children are eager to sign up for art groups, especially the choir of religious and patriotic song. When the choir won the 2nd all-Ukrainian festival of children’s art, Road to Success, held last June in Zaporizhia, the convent also rejoiced. The school choir had already sung at a convent temple liturgy together with the nuns’ choir on last year’s Easter Day. The school principal says that the reason why Mother Superior cares so much about restoring the old ruined school is that she can see the result of the nuns’ righteous labors. For the cloister’s charity also has a “mundane” price: it took the convent 331,000 hryvnias to restore the old building.
“And if Mother Stefana had not chosen to help us, this building would have already been taken apart!”
Oddly enough, we managed to find in the school only one good photo of children with the Mother Superior. It shows the choir kids caroling at the convent, but even on this photo Mother Stefana and Metropolitan Volodymyr, who was visiting the convent, are in the background. The teachers say that the nuns try to avoid displaying their goodness and charity “out loud.”