One of my first memories of Lviv was seeing the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. Like the majority of visitors to the city I arrived by train. After procuring a cab at the entrance to the station, I rode out of the parking area, down Chernivetska Street to make the turn onto Horodska Street, which is the main road leading to the city center. It was here that the soaring spires of the church suddenly appeared as a towering illumination of electric red, incandescent purple and lightning white that outlined the neo-Gothic edifice. By sheer presence the church commanded my attention. This was not a coincidence.
Tragic and Tortured – The Church Of St. Elizabeth’s 20th Century
I later discovered that the church’s placement near the main railway station was done intentionally. When it was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century, the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was built with the idea of being the first and most memorable sight to catch the eyes of new arrivals. The church was dedicated to the memory of Emperor Franz Josef I’s wife Empress Elizabeth of Austria who had been murdered by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Thus it was given the name, Church of St. Elizabeth. From the very beginning, the church was meant to be noticed. The design called for three spires shooting skyward, with the tallest one peaking at 85 meters. A bit more subtle, was the fact that the church was situated to impede the view of another landmark, St. George’s Cathedral.
This does not seem to make much sense today as both churches are now Greek-Catholic, but up until 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was Roman Catholic, built to serve the Polish community that made up a majority of Lwow’s (the city’s Polish name) citizens. They were determined to keep the city Polish through and through. And what could be more symbolic of the Polish, than Roman Catholicism. Conversely, St. George’s Cathedral was the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholicism. More than any church or building in Lviv, St. Elizabeth’s history is a direct reflection of the city’s tumultuous 20th century. The church’s proximity to the railway station did it no favors when war broke out. The structure suffered damage in World War I, the Polish-Ukrainian War, the opening days of World War II when Luftwaffe aerial bombing targeted what was one of Poland’s largest cities and later in the war as the Soviets took the city back from the German army. St. Elizabeth was also raided by its own side in the First World War, when its bells were taken and melted down by the Austro-Hungarian administration to aid in the war effort.
Crossing God – The Aspirations of Atheism
The darkest days for the church, dawned at the end of World War II, when the Poles were forcibly expelled from the city. As for the Ukrainians they to be transformed into atheists or so the ruling Soviets thought. The military conquest was complete, but the spiritual conquest was never accomplished. This was not for want of trying. In the summer of 1946 the Church of St. Elizabeth was shuttered. The interior was vandalized, with the confessionals and many sculptures smashed. The natural elements added to the degradation, as snow fell inside the sanctuary. No one was allowed inside, as the main entrance gate was kept locked. The sad state of the church made it no longer worthy of Queen Elizabeth’s memory. The glory of St. Elizabeth’s like that of Austria-Hungary’s halcyon days was but a distant memory by the middle of the 20th century.
What really drove the Soviets to distraction was the fact that the church was home to the tallest manmade structure in the city which was topped with a cross. This form of symbolism could not be tolerated. As long as that iron cross stood at the architectural pinnacle of Lvov (the Soviet name for the city), the communists must have felt that they failed in their aspiration for complete totalitarian rule over the city. Something had to be done about this. Short of bringing the whole church down, the Soviet leaders in the city thought they had a better idea. On a moonlit night in 1962 a man began to scale the central tower of the church with one goal in mind. He was going to cut the cross down with a handsaw. In retrospect, this was senseless madness, but the culprit’s passion was fired with ideological zealotry.
Something To Believe In – A Cross Cutter’s Final Moments
When one stands at ground level outside the church today, gazing at its apex, a feeling of dizziness takes hold. Just trying to imagine the vertigo felt by the cross cutting zealot can be overwhelming. The cross cutter would have been looking down on the flickering lights of Lvov and then upwards at a sky lit by the silver sparkles of a hundred stars. Working through the deepest hours of night until the first creeping expanses of sunlight appeared in the east. On and on he sawed. His work coming into focus as daylight exposed the cross. Meanwhile, a crowd began to slowly gather in the streets surrounding the church. They were said to have shouted threats and curses. All the while, the lonely zealot kept up his work. He held tight to the cross as he continued to saw and saw until finally, off came the cross, taking the zealot into free fall with it. He held onto it during the last moments of his life. The last thing he ever grasped was what he had so fervently rejected. The man and the cross fell to earth, but the Church was still standing.
Following this incident one would think that the ruling communists would have left the church alone. As the decades passed and the Soviet Union descended into stagnation the Soviets still would not moderate their behavior towards St. Elizabeth’s. The humiliations continued into the 1970’s when the church was turned into a cement storage warehouse. It is a wonder that the communists did not have the church demolished. They made plans to do just that, but it would have been too expensive, communism was not exactly known for efficient public works projects. The fact that the church was used as a warehouse can be seen as an indictment of communism’s inability to provide for enterprise. The powers that be were forced to utilize whatever buildings remained from the pre-communist period.
Spiritual Power, Staying Power
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Lvov became Lviv and the Church of St. Elizabeth was soon transformed into the Church of Saint Olha and Elizabeth. A church that had been built for Roman Catholicism and suffered under Soviet Communism was now protected and preserved by Greek Catholicism. The power of religious tradition had trumped atheism. The cross cutter’s story became an apocryphal tale of deadly ideological obsession and foolish destruction. A metaphor for a Soviet system that had tried to create a brave new world, but in the process had been consumed by an older spiritual one.