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History Reversed: What Communism Could Not Destroy

It seems so often that with each advancing political movement we hear promises of advancement, progress, change, new … better.

And sometimes being “better” means obliterating the memory of the people who hold the old, traditional ways dear.

Such was the case in 1937.

But first, a brief history.

I just returned from a national Germans from Russia conference where I attended a session on religious life in the German communities near Odessa, Ukraine. It was in this session where a Ukrainian woman, Inna Stryukova, visiting the U.S. for the conference alone, told a story of hope and restoration.

In 1827, a German Evangelical Lutheran Kirsche was built on the shores of the Black Sea. It was a cathedral that was beautiful in every way. Magnificent even. Its tall spire reaching so high that ships coming to harbor would spot first its belfry and cross before even the land itself. A statement, the community believed, that symbolized their values as well as a visual reminder of God’s love and protection and their devotion to their faith.

The church became a refuge of hope and security to its nearly 10,000 members and community surrounding Odessa. In addition to some residential buildings, the church also provided an orphanage and German school.

My family lived in a German village just outside of Odessa in the German village of Freudental. They often traveled to Odessa on business. I can imagine they may also have worshiped there.

In the 1930’s, the world changed. The world “progressed” … the party said. That party was communism.

In 1937, the communists turned their eye of change and progress toward the 10,000-member strong Odessa German Evangelical Church, an icon of everything they abhorred. “The kirche was closed in the 1930s. The cross from its steeple was removed and dynamited. Theophil Richter worked in this church. He was executed by the authorities,” said Dr. Edmund Ratz, bishop of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine.

The “party” had plans to dynamite the rest of the building as well, to destroy the memory of those who held it dear. But some would say that fate played its hand. Students from across the region came and demonstrated against the destruction of an architectural masterpiece, its beauty alone worth saving, and the artifice was left.

According to Inna Stryukova, our session speaker, the building was then converted to a storage facility and toilets and showers were installed where there was once an altar.

But its troubles were not yet over. In 1978, the church was set on fire, not once but several times. Finally, the interior was completely destroyed.

A victory? Progression of ideals? Change? It would seem. But I’ve always been warned to look beyond the obvious, not to believe in all that is … seen.

A shell was all that remained. A ruin … and a reminder. To some, it was an example of progress … but to others, it was a sign of hope. Strange that a burned out massacred defaced building could provide hope?

On December 1, 1991, Ukrainian voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum formalizing independence from the Soviet Union. In 1992, Ukrainian authorities released the ruins of the Odessa German Lutheran Church back to the Lutheran denomination.

Nearly 10 years later, on April 18, 2010, the kirsche was re-consecrated, once again restored architecturally and spiritually.

Fate? I don’t think so.

Biblical passage Matthew 16: 18 says, “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’),[a] and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.

The church was aptly renamed, St. Paul’s Lutheran Cathedral.

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