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Christian faith for people of the present territory of Latvia was first planted by missionaries from Polock, therefore orthodox churches in Jersika and Koknese appeared even before stone castles were built for the protection of the German crusaders. Latvian Orthodox Church, which has survived throughout the centuries, is now renewing and building new churches, many of them being striking as to their simplicity or splendour.
Latvian Orthodox Church is independent in all its spheres of life – political, social, economic, and educational. Its only ties with Mother–Church, that is Russian Orthodox Church, are of ecclesiastic and canonical nature. It has its own statutes, and Metropolitan Alexander as the head of the Latvian Orthodox Church, as well as elected Synod of Bishops of the Latvian Orthodox Church.
There are two monasteries in Latvia– Riga St Trinity-Sergiev Nunnery with its branch in Valgunde, Jelgava district, and Jēkabpils Monastery of Holy Spirit.
Renovation works are still ongoing in the biggest cathedrals in Riga, Jelgava and Liepaja, churches of Latvian congregations are completely restored in Ainazi (Vidzeme) and Kolka (Kurzeme), churches are established in Seda, Valka, Ogre and Salaspils.
Orthodoxy in Latvia has deep roots, it is one of the three largest denominations in the country and its temples of God – huge and splendid stone churches in town centres with the traditional hemispherical domes, or just the opposite – small, lovely wooden buildings with wood-carved lace in the middle of quiet countryside – are an integral part of the cultural scenery. Ancient roots of orthodoxy in this country are also explained by the notionally and phonetically close words in the Latvian and Russian languages, for instance, sacred, church, book, fasting, and cross. Depending on the ruling power, orthodoxy in Latvia has faced its flourishing, as well as denial and even repressions. Although in Latgale orthodoxy has always been one of the strongest and largest denominations, its exceptional golden age was during the time when Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire. Then money for erecting, arrangement and decoration of the temples of God and purchasing the nearby land was allotted by the richest members of congregations, patrons and the Treasury. However, there are historic evidence about tragic events when the temples of God were deliberately destroyed, demolished, plundered and burned, but the clergy prosecuted, tortured and killed because of their faith.
In modern Latvia Orthodox Church takes care of...double holidays. As we know, religious holidays in orthodoxy are celebrated based on the old-style or Julian Calendar, that is two weeks later than the western Christians. Therefore in Latvia it is possible to have two Christmas, two New Year and two Easter celebrations, and, if you wish, also fast for much longer time.
The most remarkable temples of God
Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the most remarkable temple of God of the Latvian Orthodox Church, situated in the city centre, Esplanade, in front of the Cabinet building. The Cathedral was built in 1876 – 1884 according to the design of R. Pflugh, in Neo-Byzantine style, it was the first building in Esplanade square. The design of the building was changed during its construction, as the architect had to annex it with the bell tower – 12 bells cast in Moscow and presented as a gift by Tsar Alexander II. The Cathedral is decorated with five domes with gilded arches and crosses, iconostasis is painted by professors of St Petersburg Academy of Arts. During the Soviet time from 1964 to 1990 the building was known as „The Science House” and planetarium, as well as one of the most popular cafés of the time „The God’s Ear” which was the favourite place of artists, musicians, poets and other „misconceived”.
Nowadays the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is closely connected with the famous Tikhvin Mother of God, Wonderworker, believed to be painted by the apostle and evangelist Luca. Until the World War II the icon was kept in Tikhvina monastery in Russia, but German troops seized it in order to use it during church services for orthodox believers in the occupied territories, thus hoping to win their affection. Thus, the wonderworker icon was passed into the hands of the orthodox bishop of the Nativity of Christ Cathedral Janis Garklavs who took it with him as he fled the county. The icon travelled around the world together with Janis Garklavs until it reached the USA. Mr Garklavs wished to return it to Tikhvin, his step-son Sergejs Garklavs, pontiff of Chicago Cathedral took care of it and he passed it to the Latvian businessman Karlis Zarins who brought it back to Riga and later – to Tikhvin.
There is another, to be more precise – two other special orthodox churches in Riga. Annunciation of Our Most Holy Lady Church in Gogola Street, on the outset of the Moscow Suburb is also known by the name of Holy Nikolay Wonderworker Church, which is one of the oldest in Riga (mentioned in the documents already in the 15th century). Actually, they are two churches separated by a wooden wall and glass doors which were merged into one in 1818 according to the project of an architect T. G. Schultz. Since then, the churches have not been reconstructed.
Revived from ruins
The fate of Jelgava St Simeon and St Ann’s Orthodox church has been dramatic. Outwardly splendid building constructed according to the design of the famous architect B. F. Rastrelli during the third quarter of the 18th century was rebuilt later – in 1890-1892, funded by Tsar Alexander II. It suffered greatly during the World War II, remaining in ruins up to the beginning of the 80’s when it was planned to be demolished. The decision was revoked at the last minute and now the splendid white building with its sky-blue domes is standing next to the pride of Kurzeme „Academia Petrina”.
And another story on the subject of resurrection from ashes – St Nicholas Maritime Cathedral with its gilded domes, which was turned into army gym-hall during the soviet years, surprises us in Liepaja Naval Port, the biggest military territory of the Russian Empire in the Baltic, the location of the first submarine base in Tzardom of Russia. St Petersburg architects are the designers of the Naval Port Cathedral, its construction is unique – it has no columns. The weight of all five domes is supported by four crossed arch vaults.
Afloat in Daugava
However, not only the mighty cathedrals are the temples of God of the Latvian Orthodox Church. Lots of people are worshipping in small churches, for instance, St Peter-Paul church in Kemeri, built in wood in 1893 with a facade decorated with luxurious wood carvings. It is the oldest church in Kemeri which according to the legend is built without a nail. Another small church on the right side of Riga-Daugavpils motorway near Livani is absolutely unique. This is Jersika Orthodox Church assembled from prefabricated constructions made at the beginning of the 19th century in Odessa. At first this church was situated in Daugavpils, then moved to its present location on a raft.