With Pope Francis’ apostolic journey to the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, Vatican News shares the beloved site of Kazakh devotion – Ozernoe – following a modern fish miracle in a time of war-induced famine .
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Until Pope Francis visited Kazakhstan last week and brought attention to the faith and culture of the local Catholic population, many may not have been aware of or associated Kazakhstan, southern Russia, as the site of a modern fish miracle.
As a result, Ozernoe attracted international attention, despite the fact that throughout the 20th century it had already been a beloved site of Kazakh Catholic devotion.
During his apostolic visit, Pope Francis remembered the miraculous site throughout his speeches with affection.
In addition, the beautiful icon of the Madonna, named “The Mother of the Great Steppe”, which was blessed in the Cathedral of Nur-Sultan, will find its place in the beloved national shrine of Ozernoe.
Vatican News spoke with a local Church official, Msgr. Piotr Pytlowany, on the history of Ozernoe, and its significance for Kazakh Catholics and all the faithful in Central Asia.
God’s answer – enough fish to feed other parts of Kazakhstan
“After World War II, people in northern Kazakhstan experienced hunger. And what they could do was just pray to the Almighty,” he told us.
Before the miracle, Fr. Piotr explained that people were praying the Rosary. He recalled that at the time, under the communist regime, there were no priests and no mass was celebrated.
This miracle took place on March 25, 1941, when people were starving during World War II as food made its way to the battle lines.
“After many years, this fact has been specially inspected by our Metropolitan Archbishop [of Astana] Tomasz Peta, together with other people, they built a small church,” he said.
Spiritual nourishment and the presence of Our Lady
Right now, he said, that church is our national shrine, where “for many years people have been given another food, not fish, but spiritual food.”
The beginning of Christianity in these territories, he explained, began in the 5th century, noting that its development continued over the centuries.
The growth of the Catholic Church in particular, Archbishop Piotr pointed out, was linked to the Franciscan friars who came to the country from Central Asia in the 13th century.
Ready for more pilgrims from afar
There are pilgrims who are not only Catholic inhabitants of Kazakhstan, not only Kazakhs, but also from abroad and from afar.
For example, many come from the border with Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, others make the trip from Poland, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, and even some from the United States and Italy.
As the shrine is located amidst the vast steppes and open fields of Kazakhstan, some joke that the beloved pilgrimage site has the largest square before it, ready to accommodate the growing devotion of pilgrims.
On March 19, 1990, the faithful obtained permission to build the church, and in May they began construction.
Prof. Tomasz Peta (now Archbishop of Maria Santissima in Astana) arrived and became its first parish priest.
Before Christmas the following year, the statue of Our Lady arrived in Ozernoe.
Cardinal Josef Glemp blessed the church on August 9, 1992 and Bishop Jan Pavel Lenga would consecrate it later.
In the fall of 1994, the priests of Kazakhstan and Central Asia decided to choose Our Lady of Ozernoe as the patroness of the Catholic Church in Central Asia.
On the anniversary of the miracle, March 25, 1996, perpetual adoration continued from morning until evening, and on June 25, Bishop Lenga consecrated the nation to Our Lady in front of the statue of Our Lady of Ozernoe.
During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2001, he consecrated Kazakhstan to Our Lady in front of this same statue which had been brought to the nation’s capital for the occasion.
continue the miracle
Some have observed the miracle, in a way, continuing even as recently as 2017.
In the spring of that year, the miraculous lake began to grow again, and in winter many fish appeared there again.
Some Kazakh Catholics also attribute this event to the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima.