Catholics denied Smolensk Church crumbling from neglect
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, the church was built in the late 1800s. It was closed in 1936 and its parish priest, Father Ignat Žolnerovič, was sent to a gulag. During the Soviet era it was first used as the NKVD’s archives, then as the Region’s archives. Catholics have been asking for its return for the past 30 years and are willing to pay for its restoration costs.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – On Thursday, the fate of the Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, the Catholic cathedral of the city of Smolensk, in western Russia close to Belarus, came before the Smolensk Oblast Duma (Smolensk Regional Assembly).

The Duma recognised the church, large neo-Gothic building built in the late 1800s, as a “federal architectural monument”, noting that it is in a state of disrepair and in need of restoration.

In Smolensk, local Catholics want to have permanent usufruct of the building, which was confiscated and never returned to the Catholic Church, and are willing to pay for its renovation. However, the Duma has refused.

“The permanent concession of the Church to the Catholic faithful is not on the agenda now or in the future,” it said in a statement. This attitude of rejection has persisted for the past 30 years now, since the end of the Soviet period.

The local Orthodox Church has backed the Duma in rejecting Catholic demands, refusing to  acknowledge the right of Smolensk’s small Catholic community to use such a prestigious monument, located in a street once called Kostelnaya Ulitsa, "Catholic Street”.

During the Soviet era, the church was used as a repository which still houses the Smolensk Oblast Archive. In 2016, a project was put forward to restore the central nave of the church and turn it into an concert hall for organs.

The church was built in the 1890s and consecrated in 1898, replacing the old Church of the Nativity of Mary, which had become too small for the local congregation.

As one of the most important cities in the north-western Russia, Smolensk has always had close relations with neighbouring Catholic countries (Poland, Lithuania). At present, the Catholic presence is substantial with about 3,000 members; however, the local parish can accommodate only a few hundred worshippers in a nearby structure.

After the revolution, the large church bells were removed in 1922. The building itself was shuttered in 1936, when the parish priest, a Belarusian, Father Ignat  Žolnerovič (picture 3), was arrested and shipped to a gulag on Anzersky Island. After conducting the liturgy a few times in prison, Father Ignat’s sentence was increased by five years and he was sent to Kazakhstan where he died in 1939.

In 1940 the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, better known by its acronym NKVD (later KGB), set up its archives in the church. Starting in the 1960s, the building served as the Oblast Archives.

After the fall of communism, Catholics asked for the church to be returned. In 1992, they were granted the use of a cemetery chapel owned by a Catholic family. Since, then, a parish priest, originally from Poland, Franciscan Father Ptolomeusz  Kuczmik, has held holy Mass in the structure.

Next to the church stands the priest’s house (Dom Księdza), where at present the faithful can gather for other celebrations and activities, including those by the busy parish Caritas. This follows a tradition that goes back to the 1800s when local Catholics set up an important “Mercy” association to help the poor.

Because of its precarious conditions, the church was finally shut down in 2018. The Oblast Department of Monuments has repeatedly tried to start the restoration work, but has not obtained the necessary funds from Russia’s Federal Ministry of Culture.

Also, no official reasons have been given for refusing to grant the church to Catholics despite their willingness to begin restoration.

The Oblast Duma itself has complained that “without proper work the church will end up like the city’s ancient walls,” which have largely collapsed in past years.