John Paul II, Socialism, and the Soviet Union: Roman Catholicism in Narva by Thomas Denson

First of all, when I get tired, I either shut up and don’t say anything or I go on fairly long rants; there is no middle ground.  Unfortunately, tonight I’m a bit verbose.

Long before we got to Estonia, it was actually while we still thought we were going to Moscow, one of my friends who was also going abroad came up to me to ask me about going to church in Moscow.  I told her that there were a couple Catholic churches in Moscow and that even though I’m not as active in the Church as she is, if she wanted me to I’d show her where the churches were and go to Mass with her.  Then, without much warning, plans changed and we went to Narva.

I arrived in Narva late, having a bit of an issue at Amsterdam requiring me to piddle away twelve hours waiting for the next flight to Tallinn.  A couple of days into the trip, my friend asked me if I knew of any churches around Narva that we could go to.  I had looked around on the internet, and it turned out that of the twelve Catholic parishes in the country, one is in Narva.  This morning, I got up and met my friend at the traffic circle halfway between the dorms and the hotel.  We walked down Pushkin Street toward the outskirts of downtown Narva and turn onto Vabaduse (Freedom) Street until we come across this:

84_bigNot much to look at, right?  Turns out the church that was here in Narva was destroyed during the war and was just never rebuilt.  Instead, they built a chapel on the second floor of the old rectory.  We went to the front door, which was locked.  So we found a side door, went inside and up the stairs.  The chapel was relatively small and plain, but much nicer than one would have thought from looking at the building in which it was located.  There were about twenty wooden benches in two columns down the length of the room, a small altar with a wooden crucifix on the wall behind it, a statue of St. Anthony and one of the Virgin Mary on either side of the altar, and paintings of the stations of the cross along the walls.

When we arrived, there were three бабушки there chattering away who looked at us like we had three heads.  We sat on one of the benches and after a while, a nun came in.  As soon as I saw her, I could tell she was going to come over and talk to us.  She was extremely friendly and asked where we were from.  As soon as we told her we were Americans, she said in Russian, “Oh! Are you two studying at the university?”  At first it took me by surprise that she would guess that right off the bat, but to be honest, besides the university, there isn’t much of a reason for the average American to be in Narva.  After talking to her for a little while, I realized I had seen this nun twice before near the university, once while going home after class and once in the morning going to class, so there was a chance she had recognized us.  She told us that Mass was starting at 11 today, so we left and came back later.

When we returned at 11, the priest had already gone through the beginning of the Mass and was already at the homily, the only five words of which I could understand were Иоанн Павел, социализм, and Советский Союз, though based on those words, I think I got the gist of what he was talking about.  The rest of the Mass went on as it normally does, except in Russian.  Once again, since this was all new vocabulary to me, even though I knew what was said since the words of the Mass are the same in whatever language it is said in, all I could actually understand was the blessing at the end.

It is interesting to see a church like this in a city like Narva.  In most of Eastern Europe, if there is a church in any given city, it is most likely Orthodox.  As would be expected, there are Orthodox churches in Narva, but there is also this small Catholic parish and a Lutheran cathedral.  While everyone always looks in wonder and marvels at the grand architecture of large churches and cathedrals, it is always the smaller churches where it is more interesting to attend services.


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