Russia’s biggest Catholic Church celebrates 100 years

» 09/22/2011 14:07

by Nina Achmatova
From 23 to 25 September, Moscow’s Cathedral of Immaculate Conception will mark its centennial anniversary. Described by the pope as “a bright symbol of the strength of faith”, the building was defaced and its members repressed for 50 years. Archbishop Pezzi and Vatican envoy Card Tomko took part in the celebrations.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Russia’s biggest Catholic church, Moscow’s Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, will mark its first 100 years on 23-25 September. Many bishops will arrive in the Russian capital from Poland, the United States, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Lithuania, guests of the archbishop of the Mother of God, Mgr. Paolo Pezzi. The Pope, whose visit to Russia continues to be a sensitive issue in the ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, will be symbolically join Russia’s Catholics through his special envoy, Card Jozef Tomko. Benedict XVI gave him a letter in which he describes Moscow’s cathedral as “a bright symbol of the strength of faith”.

The letter notes that Tomko, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples who will hold Mass on 25 September, brings to Russia’s Catholics the Pontiff’s greetings and exhortation, that through Mary’s intercession, they may lead a life full of faith and charity.

The history of Moscow’s cathedral is one of “suffering and redemption”, Benedict XVI writes in his letter. Built between 1901 and 1911, on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, as a home for the parish of Saints Peter and Paul and that of Saint Louis as well as the capital’s 30,000 Catholics, mostly Poles, the church “shared the destiny of most Russian churches, falling under the yoke of militant atheism,” Mgr Pezzi noted.

After the October Revolution, it was declared “national property” and parishioners had to pay high taxes to keep it open as a place of worship. Members’ faith was strong to keep it alive. However, in 1938, Soviet authorities closed it for good. Defaced, deconsecrated and turned into a factory, it became the Mosspetspromproekt Research Institute in 1956.

Mgr Pezzi himself explained that the Malaya Gruzinskaya community suffered severely under Stalin’s cruel repression. In his address, he mentioned the names of three of the many martyrs connected with the parish. The first one is the first rector, Fr Mikhail Tsakul (1885-1938), who was executed at the infamous Butovo firing range. The second is Fr Leonid Fedorov, exarch of Eastern rite Catholics who celebrated his last Easter Mass at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception before he was killed. The third is Fr Sergey Solovyov, vice exarch of Russian Catholics, and nephew of the famous religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Things began changing with Gorbatchev’s perestroika. In 1989, the association “Poland House” applied for the return of the church, said Fr Kirill Gorbunov, spokesman of the archdiocese. In December 1990, the first authorised Mass was held in the church parvis. Despite the biting cold, hundreds of people attended the service, the clergyman noted. Starting in June 1991, Eucharistic services were celebrated there till January 1996 when the Mosspetspromproekt left the building and the next month the parish was informed that it had the right to use the church. With funds raised among the faithful and money from donors, restoration work began. On 12 December 1999, then Vatican Secretary of State Card Angelo Sodano re-consecrated the building. With the creation of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in 2002, the church earned the status of cathedral.

Like most of Russia’s Catholic Churches, the Immaculate Conception represents the “universal Church in miniature”, Fr Gorbunov explained. Most parishioners are Russian but with roots in other countries, inextricably linked to the local culture. In the church, Masses are celebrated in Polish, English, Spanish, Korean and Armenian.

Over the years, the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception has become a point of reference for the cultural life of the capital. Celebrations for the centennial of its dedication include concerts of sacred music, the inauguration of a monument to Mother Teresa of Kolkata, a photo exhibit, and the presentation of a book and a film dedicated to the cathedral’s history, which is a “significant monument” to the Marian faith of all Christians, as noted by the pope.