Centenary of the Archdiocese of Orthodox Churches of Russian Tradition in Western Europe

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Église Saint Alexandre Nevski et Saint Séraphin de Sarov à Liège

History of the Russian church in Liège

With its blue bulb bell towers, it is now part of the landscape of this district of Liège, next to the Liège Guillemins train station, at the foot of Cointe hill, rue du Laveu. It is undoubtedly an element - undoubtedly particular - which is a part of the city's real estate heritage. It is a witness of the life of a community which has seen several generations of migrants pass before opening up to the world. There were some Russians in Liège as early as the end of the 19th century, mostly students who were studying at the city's university. We can also find traces of this in the biography of Georges Simenon when he mentions his mother's tenants in the houses of Outremeuse. Initially, there was no Orthodox church there, but the priest of the Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, from the Russian Embassy in Brussels, came there once a month.

The first Russian church in Liège was established by Father Vladimir Fedorov, in an orphanage founded by the benefactress lady Kouzmina-Karovaïeva, who had found refuge in the premises of Vertbois (today buildings of the Walloon Region) in the 1920s after his expulsion from Istanbul. Thanks to the intervention of Cardinal Mercier, whose openness towards other Christian religions was known. In 1926, the orphanage left the city for Brussels and Father Dimitri Troïtsky was appointed in Liège to take care of the parish.

His first concern is to find new premises for the church, which is first installed in an apartment, then in a former Catholic chapel... which the Germans had turned into a stable during the First World War. Considering that the chapel had been desecrated, the Catholics had decided to give it to the city which had made it available to a musical society for classes and rehearsals. This made it possible to celebrate a liturgy there twice a month. But the chapel was much too big and without amenities. Each time, it was necessary to setup the icons - because there was naturally no iconostasis - and to hide the sacred vessels after the service in a small cubicle under the stairs. It was essential to find a new place, which Father Valent Romensky succeeded in doing. He had left the theological institute and was appointed rector of the parish in 1931. With the help of the parishioners - the city already had more than a hundred Russian families - he managed to get a new place from the municipality. It was a building attached to one of the city's museums in which, in about a year and a half, a "charming little church" was fitted out according to the words of Mgr. Euloge. The church was dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky and Saint Seraphim of Sarov. An iconostasis was established there, with icons "written" by members of the "Icon" society.

On December 16, 1944, a German flying bomb fell on the church. It was completely destroyed except for the iconostasis. This event is in fact remembered as a true miracle within the community. Indeed, a few hours before the celebration that was planned on that day, the priest was seized with a feeling of discomfort and canceled the office that should have taken place at the exact moment the V1 bomb fell on the church.

It was therefore necessary to find a new place of worship, but this time Father Valent wanted to build something new! On the land that was bought rue du Laveu, an old shed initially hosted the services while the construction of the church was being prepared.We began to collect funds for its construction in 1948. Among the donors were many Belgians, Catholics or Protestants. A large sum was even given by the Queen of Belgium, Elisabeth. The choir led by engineer Nicolas Zigankoff gave concerts to raise funds (including a famous one in 1950 at the Liège Conservatory with the Saint Petersburg Vocal Quartet). "Buy the domes of our church!" Father Romensky asked to his parishioners one day, because he lacked money to build them while the copper had already been offered by the Belgians. "The indefatigable" Father Romensky thought it was better to spend the money on the domes rather than on the monuments of the cemetery, because "the funeral monuments are destroyed quickly".

He also had his own ideas on the construction which inspired a first project of the architect Evertz. However, the church was finally built according to the plans of the architect Istselennov. Born in Irkutsk in Siberia, he was a student at the School of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg. He had stood out in Russia in 1914, when, to celebrate the 300 years of the Romanov family's reign, a floating church was built, the project of which he had designed. Pulled by a tugboat, it was to navigate on the rivers of the northern Russia by docking near villages for the celebration of services. Exiled in France from 1920, he was, among others, one of the builders of the Maine-Montparnasse Skyscraper in Paris. Istselennov was also part of the “Icon” association which did not only welcome painters but also architects.

The church is built in the style of the churches of Novgorod, that is a cubical with five domes in the shape of a bulb that are painted in blue. A sixth dome is located above the main entrance which rises to form a bell tower. This being on the side of the courtyard, it cannot be seen from the street. The foundations of the church were the work of Russian miners, and the whole colony took part in its construction for several months. For most of the Russians deported from Germany and living in barracks near the mines, the church was the only spiritual consolation. It was also a meeting place, a kind of cultural center with a Russian school and library.

Like the one that had preceded it, the new church was dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky and Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and consecrated in 1953 by Mgr Sylvestre, Bishop of Nice, on September 12 (Saint Alexander Nevsky's day). Founded by the first emigrants, those of the October Revolution, the church has seen a succession of waves of migration from people displaced by World War II to asylum seekers of today. But the parish also took its roots in the City and opened up to the world around it. Alongside the priests of Russian origin, there is a deacon from Liège, while the clergy of recent years is exclusively of Belgian origin. In 2012 a Russian-speaking priest was appointed. He has his origins in Eastern Ukraine and he completed his studies at the Institut Saint-Serge in Paris.

History of the Russian church in Liège

Parish life

Trisagion by the church choir, concert in the chapel of Saint-Joseph hospital from 01.12.2019

The Orthodox chapel of Banneux

It was in the winter greyness of the evening of January 15, 1933 that Mariette Beco (1921-2011) saw for the first time "a beautiful radiant lady in the family garden along the road". Mariette saw her seven times. On January 18, during her second apparition, the Virgin invited her to push her hands into a puddle by the side of the road: "Push your hands into the water ...". During her third apparition, she introduced herself as “Our Lady of the Poor”. She led the young girl several times to the source, saying to her: “I am coming to relieve the suffering”, to then tell her on February 6 and 7: “Pray a lot. Goodbye! ". Although she was little inclined to devotion, the sincerity of young Mariette was not in doubt afterwards. This is how, at her request, a small chapel was erected in honor of the Virgin, called the Little Chapel of the Apparitions of the Sanctuary. The Apparitions of Banneux were officially recognized by the Catholic Church in 1949. During his visit to Banneux in 1985, Pope John Paul II wished to meet Mariette Beco. On many occasions, miraculous virtues had been attributed to this source, some of which were confirmed by diocesan commissions. This mystical place attracts thousands of pilgrims from all nations every year.

On September 30, 2012, Mgr Gabriel, Archbishop in charge of Russian parishes in Western Europe inaugurated, in the presence of the Bishop of Liège Mgr Jousten, the Orthodox chapel, dedicated to the Mother of God of all protection, located in Banneux in a building provided by the Sanctuary. This is a first. Some speak of a historic event. Others emphasize the strong ecumenical gesture. Beyond the comments and appreciations, the opening of an Orthodox chapel on the site of the (Catholic) sanctuary of Banneux-Notre-Dame undoubtedly marks an evolution of mentalities and opens - one can hope - on meetings which could lead to a better mutual knowledge and perhaps then to exchanges and collaborations within the limits of the current situation of the Churches.

This all started with an idea one of those that crosses your mind and keeps resonating somewhere within you and never leaves. Father Guy Fontaines speaks of this first step in the first person: “I can find the precise date: September 15, 2007. That day, as I had been doing for several years on the third Saturday of the month. went to celebrate a liturgy in Slavonic at the Greek church of Verviers. Several families had made the request, but little by little, only a few faithful attended this service. As usual, I brought with me a choir singer who resided in Banneux and, as usual too, she had asked to go through the chapel of the apparitions. I was waiting for her at the roundabout. And that's when the idea came to me: "This is where I should be celebrating!".

At first glance, the idea might seem absurd, but here it was. The idea stuck to the point of wondering if, rather than some crazy idea, this was… a call.

Archbishop Gabriel, then the Bishop of Liège enthusiastically welcomed what gradually became a project.

A first visit to the sanctuary on December 2007 revealed the obvious: there is no existing chapel that was available and the potential premises did not seem satisfactory. The year 2008 was devoted entirely to the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the apparitions. It would have been a symbolic moment to initiate the project, but - understandably - the various events, ceremonies, commemorations kept those in charge of the sanctuary busy all the time. In November of that same year, a meeting was organized with the Bishop of Liège and the new rector of the sanctuary. Some ideas have been put forward, but it is on May 6, 2009 that a new visit to the site with Father Léo Palm ended with the choice of a location for our own chapel: it will be the “Pavilion of Nations” where, on June 13, a first liturgy is celebrated under very specific conditions (the premises obviously not being fitted out) but in an atmosphere of prayer and meditation which foreshadows what will be the Chapel of the Protection of the Mother of God.

The agreement between the archdiocese and the sanctuary was signed on March 15, 2010. The development work began. Everyone who participated were volunteers. In the iconography workshop, we enthusiastically undertook the writing of the large icons that decorate the windows, as well as those of the iconostasis… It is the iconographic workshop of Saint Seraphim of Sarov who produced the icons. The workshop was founded in 1989 by Annette Gottschalk. Two years of work, but what an outstanding result! Not only in terms of the arrangement or the artistic contribution but above all of the human and spiritual experience that has been experienced. As for the money, it came when we needed it and just for what was needed!

The orthodox chapel of the sanctuary of Banneux (South of Liège)