A tour through a Russian Lutheran church

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 17th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It:  the surprising ways faith communities survive and thrive.

Orthodox Christianity has been the dominant faith in Russia for hundreds of years. But in some parts of the country, Protestant denominations have deep roots.

REICHARD: Lutherans from Finland and Sweden began settling the region of Ingria during Ivan the Terrible’s war with Sweden in the 1500s. By the year 1640, one-third of the region was Lutheran. We know Ingria today as St. Petersburg.

WORLD Radio reporter Jill Nelson recently visited a church in Russia that has ties to those early Lutherans.

AUDIO: [Sound of church bells]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: It’s Sunday afternoon and the bells of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Mary call its members to worship. People file past the four white columns and into the ornate, emerald colored building.

AUDIO: [Sound of church service]

This afternoon church service is in Russian, but the morning service was in Finnish. That’s because Finns founded this church almost four centuries ago, before Peter the Great conquered this region.

MIKHAIL: After Peter the First almost destroyed the town, he took all the old congregation, old Sweden Congregation, okay, Finnish- Sweden congregation and put them all together at this particular place.

Mikhail Ivanov is the senior pastor. As we walk down dozens of stone stairs to the basement, he tells me through a translator about the layers of history underneath the cold, damp cement floor.

MIKHAIL: If you go deeper than the base floor of this church, you’d find another foundation of the pastor’s house that was built here in 1703. And that’s why our parish is older than St. Petersburg.

AUDIO: [Sound of hymn in Russian]

The parish built a wooden church 40 years later, and the current stone building in 1805. That’s when membership exploded to 20,000 people.

In a glass case in the church sanctuary, a Finnish hymnal from 1886 and a book by Martin Luther are reminders of that era.

MIKHAIL: There were so many people in the church that they had to sell tickets for Christian celebrations, for Christmas and for Easter.

AUDIO: [Sound of social hour in the basement]

The church owned all the nearby buildings. It supported schools, orphanages and homeless shelters, even gymnasiums.

They held three services on Sundays and one on Wednesdays but could only fit 2,200 people at a time. When services ended, the exodus of people and horses created traffic jams in front of the church.

They decided to plant more churches.

MIKHAIL: Because the church was so small for them, they already collected the money, already signed the documents for land in another part of St. Petersburg.

But the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to those plans.

MIKHAIL: We lost almost everything after the revolution but our parish continued to exist. The services continued. We continued to teach people the gospel, to give them communion. But at the same time a very strong persecution started against the pastors.

AUDIO: [Sound of quiet chatter after church]

The worst year for the church was 1938. As persecution grew, one of the pastors fled to Finland. The other pastor stayed, and Russian authorities arrested and killed him. His portrait hangs at the back of the church sanctuary.

MIKHAIL: He was buried at the place to the north of St. Petersburg where other believers and pastors, literally thousands and thousands, were buried who were killed for their faith.

Authorities confiscated the building, and the church went underground. The building became a storage facility, then a dormitory, and finally a natural history museum. Mikhail remembers those days:

MIKHAIL: When I was small I came here for an exhibit of cats.

MUSIC: [A Mighty Fortress is Our God]

The church began its new life at the beginning of the 1990s after the communist government fell. The parish returned to its building, and the Lutheran Church of Finland helped restore it in 2002.

After a difficult court battle last year, the church won full ownership of the building. Many Protestant churches in Russia have lost similar court battles.

The church maintains ties with the Lutheran Church in Finland, but is no longer a church for Finns alone. Estonian, Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian members also fill the pews.

And the pastor is Russian.

AUDIO: [Nicene Creed in Russian and singing response]

Mikhael says the biggest challenge his church faces today is barriers to sharing the gospel. Many Russians are wary of the church’s connection to European Lutherans.

MIKHAIL: In Russia, people are blaming Lutherans for things that are happening in Europe. So for us it’s another challenge to explain to people here we are not like all of those who are blessing gay marriage or doing some strange things in Europe.

AUDIO: [Sound of pipe organ]

One way they bring bring people to church: Pipe organ concerts each Saturday evening. Mikhael gives a brief sermon before each concert.

He says among the 33 new members confirmed this year, 12 first came to the church for an organ concert, a reminder that God often works in unexpected ways, and through various seasons.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson reporting from St. Petersburg, Russia.

(Photo/Jill Nelson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.