Past acquires its future
[b]Ancient churches in Grodno and Pinsk acquire new life[/b]The cities of Grodno and Pinsk in the west of Belarus are considered tourist ‘Meccas’, having retained so much of their history and boasting the greatest number of ancient churches — of various confessions. Wandering their streets, your can see the whole history of the country — in its religious and cultural diversity. Churches Catholic and Protestant, alongside a synagogue, have simultaneously acquired new life in these cities.
The cities of Grodno and Pinsk in the west of Belarus are considered tourist ‘Meccas’, having retained so much of their history and boasting the greatest number of ancient churches — of various confessions. Wandering their streets, your can see the whole history of the country — in its religious and cultural diversity. Churches Catholic and Protestant, alongside a synagogue, have simultaneously acquired new life in these cities.
Church of communists awaits fiesta
In 1782, in the north-eastern suburb of Pinsk, a stone Catholic church was built in a beautiful location, called Karolin: famous now as Karl Baromey Catholic Church. Walking along Kirov Street, it’s impossible not to admire the white church building with its red tiled roof, covered in greenery. Built in late Baroque style, as the age of magnificent Classicism dawned, the luxurious building has witnessed much.
Founded by monks from the Order of Communists, who arrived in Pinsk from Italy, they educated and raised youngsters to serve God. In Latin and Italian, the word ‘commune’ is pertinent.
Born to a noble Italian family, and related to the Pope, Karl Baromey was one of the prominent leaders of the Catholic Church during Counter-Reformation (when the Catholic Church was fighting the Protestant Church). He was later canonised and became Bishop of Milan.
In 1836, the last monk-communist died in Pinsk and the church was re-consecrated to honour the Holy Trinity. In 1960s, the church was closed and, in order to save the architectural monument, local authorities decided to restore it for use as a concert hall.
This autumn, it again opened to the public, hosting a city concert hall. After the New Year holidays, guests are invited to attend traditional February Musical Evenings and the Karolina Fiesta guitar music concert, as well as piano concerts by local and foreign virtuosos.
Protestant church visited by Bach
St. Johann’s Protestant Church in Grodno is Belarus’ only operating Lutheran church. In 1912, it acquired its contemporary appearance in Neo-Gothic style. However, it dates from much earlier, originally being a tavern. In 1793, King Stanislaw August Poniatowski donated the house to the Lutheran community, since there were many Lutherans in Grodno at that time, who had come from Germany to work at royal manufacturing workshops.
In 1834, the former three-storey tavern was rebuilt as a stone Protestant church and, later, a tower with a high spire was constructed (bearing a clock). In Soviet times, the church housed an archive, and, in 1995, was returned to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church.
Today, the Grodno Lutheran community has around a hundred parishioners, including Germans, Finns and Belarusians. Many are brought to the church through their love for Bach, who was a Lutheran and wrote chorales for the church. All services are performed in Russian and German, while observing German traditions. An ancient bell announces the beginning of the mass, rung by one whose grandfather also climbed the steep stairs, in the early 20th century. Recently, an organ was installed and the German Embassy joined volunteers and local authorities in helping restore the church: inside and out.
Vytautas’ Fara commemorated with a sculpture
At the decision of the Regional Executive Committee, a sculpture is being unveiled in Grodno, on the site of the famous Vytautas’ Fara (St. Mary’s Church). Due to be ready in 2014, it will take the form of a semi-destroyed arch, with a commemorative inscription. Local authorities plan to try and rectify the mistake made on November 29th, 1961, when the city’s largest Catholic church was demolished. Constructed upon the instruction of the Grand Duke of Lithuanian Vytautas, in 1389, it was commonly referred to as Vytautas’ Church. Initially made from timber, it was reinforced with stone in the time of Stephen Bathory, in the 16th century.
Synagogue survives, against all odds
On the night of November 27th, a fire broke out in the centre of Grodno. The synagogue — one of the oldest in the country — was burning. Seven fire brigades were sent to the site, as were road tankers and motorised fire-ladders. Rescuers saw an open flame between the second and third floors, where the wooden boards were burning, and it took them about an hour to extinguish the fire.
Sadly, windows were destroyed and damaged, and the facade blackened, requiring repairs. The old windows were replaced with contemporary double-glazed windows, and the facade was restored, with citizens from Grodno and abroad helping members of the Judaic community.
The synagogue survived WWII, despite the Nazis killing almost every member of the Jewish population in the city. Located in the centre of the ghetto, it was used as a gathering place before sending people to concentration camps or for execution by shooting.
In 1991, the church was returned to its congregation although restoration work only began recently. The first stone synagogue was built in Grodno around 1570, using a design by Italian architect Santi Gucci. The current building was erected between 1902 and 1905 — gin Moorish style. Major Judaic synagogues in Vilnius (currently operating) and in Minsk (which now houses the Maxim Gorky Theatre) were also built in this style.
By Viktor Korbut