The Third Closing of the “Red Church”

OMON (riot police of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs) patrols are making it difficult for the faithful to gather for prayer at the grave of the church founder, the procession circling the building was threatened with dispersal twice.

A year ago, this information would have electrified the media. In the fall of 2022, in the face of successive offensives on the Dnieper, gas pipeline explosions and in the shadow of nuclear warheads, reports from Minsk pass by almost unnoticed. Perhaps more will be heard about them in a few days, when the Belarusian police begins to forcefully throw the faithful, relics and holy images onto the asphalt of Independence Square?

And yet, the events taking place these days are just as groundbreaking as they are meaningful. On Thursday, October 6, 2022, the city authorities terminated the Church of Saints Simon and Helena’s lease agreement, effective immediately. According to information from the curia, the parish was given “two or three days to retrieve its movable property from the building.”

This parish has experienced a heavy fate. The “Red Church,” one of Minsk’s most iconic buildings, has only stood in the city center since 1910 – since then it has already been secularized twice. In 1932, a canvas with Lenin’s gigantic head was even hung in its rosette. What else awaits the easternmost Romanesque church in Europe?

Unknown Perpetrators Back in Action

Meanwhile, the events of recent days have been arranged in a sequence that the authors of second-rate sensational novels would be proud of.

The attack by unknown perpetrators took place a week ago, on the night of September 25-26. The glass in the rectory building (not the church!), covered with a decorative lattice, was smashed with great force (it was a stained glass window in strong metal frames) and with precision; enough solvent was poured through a nearly round opening to set a kneeler a few steps away from the window ablaze.

  The crash and smoke alerted a woman on duty in the parish building; a few minutes later, not only the fire brigade arrived, but also the police, a representative of the prosecutor’s office and an OMON unit appeared on the scene. Already on September 30, the Commission for Emergency Situations of the Ministry of the Interior of Belarus issued a ban on the use of the building. Although the fire brigade extinguished the fire with water, in the opinion of the Commission, there was no arson but rather a “short circuit of alarm systems” and fire detectors. Simultaneously, the church was closed: first “until the remaining water was removed after the fire was extinguished” (!), then – until the alarm systems were repaired. However, it was a unilateral decision – neither the curia nor the parish leaders were contacted.
Edward Woyniłłowicz. Photo: Wikimedia
That same day, the power to the property where the church and the parish building are located was cut off. OMON patrols are making it difficult for the faithful to gather for prayer at the grave of the church founder, the procession circling the building was threatened with dispersal twice.

The whole situation seems Kafkaesque: one even gets the impression that the assessment on the causes of the fire had been prepared before the unsuccessful arson. One absurdity follows another, for further information the faithful are referred to the phone number of the parish office, to which… the power has been turned off. Will it really come to, for the third time in a century, Minsk Catholics having to – disperse?

The whole matter would also be outrageous if it had to do with the improvised chapel in the interior. But the church, atypical for Catholic shrines, under the patronage of Saints Simon and Helena, has a special history that is seemingly unknown to present-day Minsk bureaucrats.

Genta Albarutheni, Natione Poloni

The red-brick church (hence the name) was erected at a cost of nearly half a million rubles in silver at the beginning of the 20th century. The consent to erect it was obtained after more than a decade of efforts, only after the upheavals of the 1905 revolution. Before that, the efforts of the Polish nobility were effectively neutralized by the St. Petersburg alliance between the throne and the altar. Municipal and Orthodox authorities played “good copy, bad cop” with the Poles, only sometimes changing roles; when the governor expressed his consent to the construction of the Catholic church, the Orthodox bishop protested, when they managed to tame the bishop – the mayor firmly protested.

However, even the thaw of 1905 might not have worked, had it not been for the determination of the landowner, Edward Woyniłłowicz.

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This guy had flourish! A landowner of the Syrokomla coat of arms, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, dreaming of a career as an engineer, returned from an internship in Germany and Belgium out of the necessity of taking over the properties of the Puzów and Sawicze near Słuck. But the career of a patriotic minor landowner was not intended for him; he was one of the founders of the Minsk Agricultural Society (the only organization in which Polish landowners could associate in the North-Western Governorates), and its chairman from the mid-1880s. He founded insurance companies, a Savings & Loan Society, and when it was possible – schools, libraries and museums. When it was necessary – without enthusiasm, but with conviction, he ran for deputy to the First Duma (Lower House of the Russian imperial legislative assembly).

His Memoirs... (published in a tiny print run in 1931, and the second time – only a few years ago), as well as the scattered mentions of him by Minsk diarists and denizens, from Melchior Wańkowicz to Michał Kryspin Pawlikowski, paint him as the truest imaginable citizen of the Commonwealth. Restrained, distanced from the idealism and superficiality of the “natives” active in Vilnius, he had a local, “national” identity in his veins. The term “ecumenism” was not widely used at the time – but if it was, Edward, who during his childhood years necessarily attended Orthodox church services (after the January Uprising, the tsarist authorities closed all Catholic churches in the Lithuanian-Belarusian provinces), and declaring himself “Belarusian by birth, a Pole by upbringing and culture” would have considered it fitting.

The decision to put force, authority and enormous resources into the building of a church in Minsk was driven not only by Woyniłłowicz’s faith and readiness for public service, but also by personal tragedies: in 1897, his son Szymon died, six years later – his daughter Helena. But the founder always had in mind the idea not to divide, but to unite his fellow citizens: hence the patrons St. Helena and St. Simeon (the “Russified” version of Simon), two saints shared by Catholics and Orthodox.

Pre-Schism Style, Brick from Częstochowa

Hence the readiness expressed during discreet, challenging negotiations with the tsarist authorities to fund – if consent was not given for a Catholic church – an Orthodox church, provided that the patrons were preserved. So finally, the decision on the unusual (and wildly unfashionable at the turn of the 20th century, when neo-Gothic reigned in religious architecture!) style of the church was made. Woyniłłowicz opted for the neo-Romanesque formula, convinced that Romanism was the last style common to both Churches before the Schism of 1054 – and he brought Tomasz Pajzderski, an architect specializing in neo-Romanesque projects, all the way from Greater Poland.
The “Red Church” in 1932, a red flag on the roof of the bell tower, a portrait of Lenin in the rosette and the sign “15th Year of Soviet Rule” on the bell tower wall. Photo: Wikimedia
Later, it was possible to import brick from far-off Częstochowa and marble from the Kielce area – and the sum of 300,000 rubles in silver grew to half a million. The church, opened and consecrated in 1910, was being finished completed until the outbreak of the war. And then – chaos came.

Edward Woyniłłowicz managed to experience not only the Great War, the Revolution, the German occupation and subsequent turmoil. In 1918 he supported activists of the Belarusian People’s Republic, and in 1920 – the desperate actions of Słuck insurgents, who, in the name of a Free Belarus (and with weak Polish support) attacked the Bolsheviks in the autumn . Then – he was left with the exile’s bitter bread, because this is how the gentleman of Puzów and Sawicze perceived himself, living out his days in a modest rented apartment in Bydgoszcz. “Banished from my land by the Treaty of Riga / I had to trample foreign fields," his epitaph proclaimed. Before his death in June 1928, he himself put his experience in less obtuse words. “My entire work was crossed out in Riga and it is buried in the ash of oblivion,” he wrote in December 1925 to Professor Marian Zdziechowski.

He himself blew the ashes, keeping track of the situation in Minsk, including through his friends and supporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He certainly learned about the closure of the “Red Church” in 1923. Nine years later, in 1932, when the Soviet authorities created the so-called Feliks Dzerzhinsky Polish National District (Dzierżowszczyzna) in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Polish State Theater was opened in the church building. After the beginning of the Polish Operation (mass arrests and executions of Poles carried out by the NKVD in 1937–1938), the theater was closed as quickly as possible and a cinema opened its doors in the church.

Masses began to be celebrated in the Church of Saints Simon and Helena after the Germans entered Minsk in the summer of 1941. This lasted for three years. The Catholics in Minsk could not take up the fight to recover the church again until the fall of 1988. Two years later, on April 15, 1990, they obtained permission to celebrate Mass – but did not regain the church.

Strategically-Important Site
Even in the honeymoon months of perestroika, and then in the first years of independent Belarus, the authorities did not agree to give back the “Red Church,” although many churches throughout the country were returned to Catholics. Where did this resistance come from? It probably had to do with the parish being the best-known in Belarus, but other considerations could have been at stake. The church stands by Independence Square, a few dozen steps from the headquarters of the Central Election Commission and the gargantuan government buildings. In 1905, it was far from the main axis of the city, but today? Can you afford to lose control over such a strategically located place? Even so, much was achieved: up to eight Masses a day were celebrated in the church, a Greek Catholic (Uniate) chapel was created in its underground, two theaters and a choir operated within its walls, and for years, the Union of Poles in Belarus also functioned there, even after its official dissolution. In the summer of 2006, the remains of Edward Woyniłłowicz were also moved there from the Bydgoszcz cemetery; ten years later, on April 10, 2016, his beatification process, which is ongoing, began. The founder of the church is already referred to in official documents by the term “Servant of God,” and if the process is successfully completed – he will become the first Belarusian saint...

The agreement signed in 2013 with the municipal “Minsk Heritage” (Mienskaja Spadczyna) company, guaranteed the faithful the indefinite use of the church – until Thursday, October 6, 2022. Paradoxically, certain hope for a successful resolution of the conflict emanates from the position of the Minsk apostolic nunciature, which refuses to comment on the situation, possibly indicating that talks are ongoing. However, if the Minsk authorities stand by their position, the Church of Saints Simon and Helen would experience its emptying for the third time in a century. Will the authorities, like in 1932 and 1944, also decide to melt down the bells, this time cast in Poland and donated to the parish three years ago?

–Bohdan Miś

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Nicholas Siekierski

Used in work on the text were materials from Belsat Television, as well as the publications Głos znad Niemna (Voice from the Niemen) and information appearing on the Telegraf website.
Main photo: The Church of Saints Simon and Helena in Minsk has become the center of the Belarusian opposition. Pictured is the demonstration after Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in the presidential elections of August 2020 was announced. Photo: PAP/EPA/TATYANA ZENKOVICH
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