Faithfully Ours

Historic houses of worship anchor and enliven communities worldwide.

Funny thing about Moscow: Every time I visit the city, there are more old churches than there used to be.

Like Kazan Cathedral. When I visited Moscow's Red Square recently on a National Trust study tour, Kazan caught my eye right away. It's such a striking little building—tall bell tower, gilded dome, wedding-cake tiers of ogee gables, peachy-pink stucco walls—that I couldn't understand why I'd never noticed it before. Then my guidebook explained it all: Originally consecrated in 1637, the church was razed in 1936 on orders from Stalin, who apparently wanted to make it easier for tanks and troops to enter Red Square for the annual May Day parades. The current cathedral, a faithful replica of the original, was completed in the early 1990s.

Later, our tour took us to the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, a marble mountain that looms above the Moscow River not far from the Kremlin. When I say "looms," I mean it: For many years after its completion in 1883, it was the tallest structure in Moscow, and it still dominates the skyline by virtue of its sheer bulk, its snowy whiteness, and its five golden domes. Like Kazan, today's Christ the Redeemer is brand-new. The original was demolished in 1931 to make way for a Palace of Soviets that was to have boasted a 1,000-foot tower topped with a 300-foot statue of Lenin. That monstrosity was never built, and the site later hosted the world's biggest outdoor swimming pool—which was eventually closed, according to one story, after it was discovered that paintings in the nearby Pushkin Museum were being damaged by the clouds of steam that rose from the heated pool in winter. With support from the Russian government and funding from public and private sources in several countries, the new cathedral was almost finished in time for the celebration of Moscow's 850th anniversary in 1997.

Construction of these two churches was costly (the price tag for Christ the Redeemer is said to have been well over $200 million), and it came at a time when the Russian economy was floundering and millions of people were in dire need of jobs and decent housing. So why were they built? Are religious buildings really that important?

Of course they are.

When I visited Kazan Cathedral, a service was in progress. Inside, the church was alive with the soaring music of the choir, the flicker of candles, the rich smell of incense; outside, the city streets echoed with the joyous bong, clang, and tinkle of bells. At Christ the Redeemer, throngs of visitors, Russians and foreigners, gaped at the bright murals and shiny marble, aware that the building symbolizes Russia's return to its roots—perhaps even the reclamation of its true soul—after decades of repression.

Like their predecessors in centuries past, these new churches are summoning and sheltering the faithful, ornamenting and enlivening the urban environment, taking people out of their daily lives and into someplace high and deep and meaningful. That's what houses of worship have long done, whether they stand in Russia or Bolivia or Senegal or Thailand or the U.S.A.

In this country we need sacred places—for the range of services they offer people in need, for the sense of stability and identity they provide to our communities, for the diversity they promote as a group, for what they say about us as a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom. That's why the Trust included urban houses of worship in this year's 11-most-endangered list.

When a building gets demolished, Americans generally assume it's gone for good. Not the Russians: When their churches got smashed, people knew they had lost something important—so they recreated them. Maybe that was the right thing to do. I don't know. I do know that we owe it to ourselves to ensure that our historic churches, synagogues, mosques, and meetinghouses aren't torn down in the first place. America's soul—interpret that any way you choose—becomes a bit poorer every time one of them disappears.

 

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