Oasis for the soul

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Oasis for the soul


Fight for the restoration of a fallen parish in St. Petersburg



It has been 14 years since Fr. Richard Stark started his fight the purpose of which is to get back the property of the Blessed Virgin Mary Visitation Church in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. It was once nationalized by Communist rulers and now it is supposed to turn into a place of charitable love within an industrial area. The statue of Lenin is still there, marking a border. The border between brightly colored facades of the north baroque and classicist style of the city center and the grey color of the industrial area, on the Vyborg site. And while St. Petersburg’s festive promenade, Nevskij Prospekt, has changed a lot since the fall of communism, here it seems that the time has stopped. Instead of luxury shops one can only see concrete walls, asphalt streets and there like to block the sight of industrial facilities, scientific institutes and a women’s prison. Even more surprising is the view of “Mineralnaia ulica” as it joins “Arsenalnaia ulica which seems endless and is absolutely straight; behind a wall one can see a tower crowned with sharp tips. “The communists have some time ago cut the top of the bell tower”- explains Fr. Richard Stark. “They did not have the slightest idea what they could do with it”. In 1918 it was still different. In a black and white photo which shows The Tsar-photographer of German origin, Karl Bulla, a crowd of people can be seen, waving flags, gathered in front of the church. The tower bells greeted the festive Corpus Christi procession, in which there were people belonging to five city parishes, and which led through the city of Peter the Great up to its outskirts. “The communists did surely not know what they allowed to happen”- suggests Fr. Stark. After the February Revolution, the Russian Catholics had- for the first time in Russia’s history- the right to observe and practice their religion. So they enjoyed practicing their religion to the extent of nearly demonstrating it. Yet, a little later, a 20-year-long campaign of the Bolsheviks started against the parish. In July 1940 the militia men confiscated a hundred coffins, which were then prepared to be transported abroad; some coffins were emptied, graves-desecrated. In the same year, some armed men attacked the mother-church of St. Petersburg, St. Catherine’s Church in Nevskij Prospekt, a few days later it was set fire to; consequently, clergymen suffered from all kinds of persecutions, got severe penalties and were even sentenced to death. They were accused of causing tensions and stand behind all “antirevolutionary” actions. The sacred objects got into the cathedral of Kazan, which was turned into an atheism museum. Only one church, the French Church of the Most Sacred Mother of God of Lourdes, which was serving the needs of the diplomatic corps by then, was preserved and escaped the fate of the others, meant to serve the religious need s of about 70.000 Russian Catholics, who- at that time constituted 4 % of the Russian Catholic population.


There are still some iron pars and high voltage power wires sticking out of the walls, bricked up windows, which have deprived the church interior of its original character. Some toilets were installed in the sanctuary, sewers removed at the crypt. It is the crypt that the 73-year-old takes a particular care of. He is still shocked nowadays at the mention of the first time he entered. “The whole cellar was flooded with water, the graves were torn open and plundered”. Although he managed to remove 200 tons of dirt, along with his assistant, the awkward smell does still fill the crypt built of bricks in the shape of an arch. The sewage and ventilation systems do not work. When, in 1983, it could easily be predicted that the days of the Soviet Union are numbered, an institute of chemical soil fertilization was established there in a desperate effort to escape a sure fall through technological advances. The aim of it was also to do electro-hydraulic experiments. Photographs of huge machines which smashed up stones with their million voltage power, remind unwillingly of Fritz Lang’s fall prophecy “Metropolis” of 1927, where a ruthless inventor creates a machine-man in the shadow of modern sky scrapers in a queer medieval house.









Directly at the BVM Visitation Church there are storerooms and industrial facilities. However, no firm holds on for a longer period of time; “there is no blessing there”- maintains Fr. Stark which is his own, perhaps peculiar interpretation of the fact, which, however, he takes quite seriously. The buildings were built in the 70ties. There are still 40 thousand people resting under them who had been buried in the first Catholic cemetery of St. Petersburg that had been founded there in 1856. Not much is left out of the city’s once big, state-owned necropolis, most of it was destroyed, merely one tombstone survived the October Revolution and its devastating effect, as well as later “industrial” transformations. Representatives of high-rank clergy, gentry, military men, scholars, actors, composers and artists found here their last resting place, like- for example- Konstantin Danzas, Pushkin’s duel second, and the famous opera singer Angiolina Bosio, who was merely 29 when she died. However, the communists who were not willing to show any gentleness and respect, appeared rather respectful that time and had the following sign engraved on a monument in a cemetery of the Alexander Nevskij Shrine which can be visited for 200 rubles: “Perhaps there was still a place vacant in the choir of angels”.


The church is still not connected to the water supply and sewage systems. “The plans are ready, we have got money, I am just waiting to get it started at last”-says R. Stark. “What has been missing up till now was the permission of the city authorities. We had sent a lot of letters to them, yet they had been left unanswered for months. Recently, the mayor has been changed. Valentina Matvienko, who had been a party official in the Soviet times, and who was not able to keep everything under control, not to mention many corruption affairs she was involved in, was replaced by a “Putin-man”.


So the community moved to a winter chapel that was arranged last winter out of necessity. It is heated with a primitive coal stove and there is an electric samovar placed on it. The electricity comes from our neighbor’s, not from the city net, it is financially more convenient: the power plant charges according to the church space, not to the consumption, which does not make any sense at all. Besides, the time is short- in case the parish is not able to make a proper use of the church area within 10 years to come, it will fall back to the city management again, become again its property to be sold with quite a profit. We can’t expect our parishioners to give us any money. “there are quite many people already who lie in wait for our property, like vultures”- says Fr. Stark. A long, five-storey building which was built back in the 80ties, covering the area of about 8000 square meters, belongs to one of the country’s richest firms “Aroma”- its owner gained a lot of money through the wine import. Although the building is in a rather miserable condition, it is supposed to cost 9 million dollars. Stark: “It is crazy to demand so much for a building which, in fact, belongs to the church”. When in June 2011 a bright-colored Corpus Christi procession was organized for the first time in 93 years, the route of which led from St. Catherine of Alexandria’s Church along Nevskij Prospekt, it was considered to be a historic day for Russia’s Catholics. The festive pontifical Mass was celebrated by Moscow’s archbishop Paolo Pezzi. His predecessor, Monsignor Constantin Budkiewicz, who led that kind of a procession in 1918, was later, in 1923 Easter time, executed by the communists. There is a wonder what Lenin would have thought of a rebirth of Catholicism in the city named after him up till 1990. Would he have considered it a big obstacle in the way to “a modern, socialist human” and done away with faith in 1905? Would he then have declared: “Religion is the opium of the people”?







1) Reportage (II) of Christian Amman , see Würzburger Catholic Sunday newspaper,  Nr.25, 17.06.2012,     Traduction into English,                                Fr. Tadeusz Panek SVD


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