The Crossfires of Faith: Spiritual Militarization at Sts. Peter and Paul Garrison Church In Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City: Part 51)

Several years ago I was with an English friend in a small South Dakota town on the Great Plains. These communities are stridently patriotic. It is not uncommon to see a well-kept park with a memorial to the town’s military veterans in the center of town. There are usually several neat and tidy looking churches. At one of these, a Lutheran Church, there was a very large American flag conspicuously rippling in the unceasing prairie wind. My friend paused to look at it. He then said to me “I don’t like that. The church is supposed to keep a check on that. Nationalism has got a lot of good men killed. Churches should not be promoting that.” I often recall this comment when I am in Eastern Europe. I have been in countless churches where the national colors are hoisted close to the main altar or pulpit. Church and state seem to be inseparable. Even where the relationship is not quite as visible, churches and the military, churches and warfare in Eastern Europe are bound by history. This is certainly true for one of Lviv’s most famous churches.

Facade of Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church (Jesuit Church) in Lviv

Facade of Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church (Jesuit Church) in Lviv (Credit: Kugel)

The Church At War – Jesuits Under Fire
There is hardly a more appropriate name for a church than the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in Lviv. To most Lvivans, it is known as the Jesuit Church, a less than memorable name. The term “Garrison” speaks volumes about the church’s history, both by convention and chance. The name was given a century and a half after the church was first constructed. This happened following the Jesuit Order’s suppression by Pope Clemens II in 1773, as the church underwent a conversion whereby it began to serve the Austrian military garrison that now occupied the city. This was the first of several encounters the church would have with the military, many of these due to unlucky chances of war. During the Revolution of 1848, the Austrian military ended up bombing its own church. The roof and antechamber were damaged when they were struck by artillery shells. Such was Austrian Imperial disdain for the rebellion that their church got caught in the crossfire. This was collateral damage which could be repaired, at least in a physical sense.

While the city center of Lviv remained relatively unscathed by bombing during both world wars, the Garrison Church was not so lucky. In the Polish-Ukrainian conflict that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the roof of the church was struck. In addition, an area in front of the main altar was hit. Then in World War II, as the Soviets retook Lviv, a bomb went through the church’s roof and struck close to the altar once again. It would be a decade and a half before a new roof was constructed. By this time, the Jesuits had long since vanished from the church as had all worshipers. The church was closed for 65 years. When it finally reopened in 2011, a connection with the military was once again established when the 20th anniversary of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was celebrated. This brought the church’s relationship with the military forward into the present. The word “conflicted” best describes the garrison church’s history since the late 18th century. The time prior to that was less about conflict and more about survival.

Interior of Sts. Peter & Pauls Garrison Church in Lviv

Interior of Sts. Peter & Pauls Garrison Church in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Miracle Of Survival – Creations & Restorations
People have prayed within the Jesuit Church’s walls in search of miracles for centuries, hardly realizing that they were inside a miracle, a miracle of architecture, faith and endurance. The Garrison Church has been an inviting target since the time of its establishment. This was due to both its size and location. These attributes are indicative of the wealth and power behind the movement to build the church. The Jesuits arrived in Lviv during the late 16th century, exactly 50 years after the order was founded. As so often happened in the history of Lviv’s sacral architecture an initial wooden church gave way to a more formidable structure that signified a lasting presence. In this regard the Jesuits did not disappoint. The Sts. Peter and Paul Church took two decades to construct. Master architects were brought in from Italy to build a lasting and memorable structure. The final product was, as it still is today, one of the largest churches in the city, almost half a football field in length, rising eight and a half stories high. It could house up to 5,000 during large masses. The main façade replicated the Church of the Gesu in Rome, the first baroque facade known to history.

The rest of Sts. Peter and Paul Church did not disappoint either. It was a fascinating integration of late Renaissance and early Baroque architecture. A segue between two disparate styles, that when fused together created a basilica unlike any other. It was located at a prime, but dangerous spot within the Old Town walls, along the western side by the aptly named Jesuit Gate. This made it witness to the many sieges of the city. Yet it was not invaders, but fire that would offer the greatest threat to the church’s survival. A ferocious blaze consumed much of the original structure in 1734. A wealthy female patron and scion of the powerful Potocki family of Polish nobles, Elizabeth Potocki, came to the church’s rescue by paying for its renovation.

Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church was used as a book repository during the Soviet era

Sts. Peter & Paul Garrison Church was used as a book repository during the Soviet era (Credit: Wikipedia)

Systems of Belief – The Integration Of Church With State
Ideology offered yet another threat to the church from the late 18th century onward, as state trumped church with the onset of modernity. On multiple occasions the Jesuits were banished from Lviv. They were viewed as a threat to state control, whether imperial or communist. The fact that they would not toe the party line brought the order suspicion and suppression. The survival of the church was in doubt numerous times, never more so then during the years of Soviet rule. The church ended up serving as a book depository for several decades. Some of the interior’s sacral artwork degenerated, but it role as a depository saved the church from destruction. It now has been reopened and the tie between church and state is secure once again. The spiritual and political is bound together inextricably in Ukraine, for better or worse. The church does not keep a watch on the state, so much as support it. The difference between the two is blurred. The next time conflict comes to Lviv and threatens the state expect the Garrison Church to be caught in the crossfire.

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