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A Dormition Awakening

text and photographs by George Martin

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Deep in the Russian north, located some 200 miles northeast of St. Petersburg, lies Kondopoga, a dreary industrial town. Although suffering from the same economic stagnation and social disintegration afflicting much of Russia today, Kondopoga has a few bright spots: a picturesque parish church dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God – the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary – and the faith of those who worship within its lumber walls.

Last August, my wife and I joined Kondopoga’s Russian Orthodox parish community in celebrating its patronal feast day, an annual event that the Communists had restricted for years. Before the Communists seized power in 1917, Russians throughout the country celebrated the feast of the Dormition with liturgies and processions, carnivals and banquets. Russia’s most important cathedrals and monastic churches were dedicated to this Marian feast, an indication of the esteem and veneration of the Virgin Mary held by most Russians. In honor of Kondopoga’s patronal feast, Bishop Manuel, the head of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Petrozavodsk, led the celebrations.

Kondopoga’s log church dates to 1774. Villages in this area – the Karelia district of northwest Russia – often had a winter church built of masonry and equipped with stoves for heat, and a summer church built of wood. During the Soviet period, virtually all the churches were converted to secular use or destroyed. Kondopoga’s Communist officials converted the winter church into a club and, like many pre-Revolutionary structures, it fell into ruin. The log summer church had been made a museum, but was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church and restored for worship after the disintegration of Communist rule.

On the feast day the church, a tall and narrow structure crowned with a great wooden cupola, had been adorned with flowers blessed in preparation. The day’s celebration began when Bishop Manuel arrived and was presented with a bouquet of roses by a young priest. After Bishop Manuel entered the church he was ceremoniously vested by acolytes while the congregation swarmed around him, packing the small nave of the church and overflowing into an adjoining atrium.

I glanced over the congregation. There were the expected babushski, the old women who had persevered in their faith despite persecution. But there was also a broad spectrum of others. A young policeman reverently crossed himself before entering the church; two other young men wore the camouflage fatigues of soldiers. There were young mothers holding infants and a group of children sitting around a table in the atrium coloring pictures; there were teenage boys and middle-aged men.

Priests from neighboring parishes joined in the celebration of the feast. A small choir chanted the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic; congregational singing was led by a deacon. The liturgy proceeded at an unhurried pace; people had come to pray, not to get an obligation out of the way.

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Tags: Christianity Russia Russian Orthodox Church