We have interviewed the vicar of the Orthodox Church in Sosnowiec. Rev. Mikołaj Dziewiatowski, PhD, tells us about Zagłębie as the promised land, about the tragic event which was decisive for the construction of the temple, about how to prepare yourself to take Holy Communion and whether a priest can have a wife.
Rev. Mikołaj Dziewiatowski, PhD, graduated in sociology and management at the University of Silesia, and then went on to complete postgraduate studies in Orthodox theology at the University of Białystok, as well as doctoral studies in comparative theology – ecumenical education and dialogue at the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw. The area of his interest is to investigate the processes of acculturation and identity of social groups living in diaspora.
Could you tell us about the history of the Orthodox parish in Sosnowiec?
To tell you about the history of this place, we need to begin with at least a short historical background. Due to the fact that all three partitioned parts of Poland met in the territory that we now refer to as Zagłębie, people from many different regions arrived here. Because of its privileged location, Zagłębie was the best area for doing business and people used to come here a bit as if it was a promised land: to start a new life, trade, work or… hide their identity. However, everyone of them simply wanted to live better. Obviously, the development of mining, metallurgy, and perhaps mainly of the international railway line, were the most favourable conditions. Among the population settling in Sosnowiec were also members of the Orthodox Church.
When was the first Orthodox temple built here?
The interesting fact is that there were three Orthodox churches built in Sosnowiec. The first Orthodox temple in the area of today’s Sosnowiec was the St. Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church in Maczki, which was back then a railway settlement with a customs chamber, in the territory between Austria and Russia. Later, from 1876 until the end of the 19th century, the number of Orthodox Christians increased dynamically. However, the direct reason behind construction of the second Orthodox Church was not the number of believers, but the very moving and tragic history of one of them.
Can you tell us the story?
An employee of the customs office, the head of the customs chamber, Włodzimierz Diebil, lost his three children in a railway accident. On their way back home from school, the children were run over and killed by the passing train. After his children’s death, Diebil fell into apathy and was unable to handle the trauma. Aiming to turn his children’s death into something positive and to preserve their memory, he decided to build the Orthodox Church. He wrote a letter of intent to all influential people in Sosnowiec: factory owners, railway management, powerful entrepreneurs such as Dietel or Schön, to get their support for construction of the church. Interestingly, he also asked people who were not associated with the Orthodox religion for help and his appeal met with a wide response, which is very touching. In 1889, the Orthodox Church was completed thanks to the efforts of people from different cultures, nationalities and local communities. For instance: Dietel funded the bells, Schön brothers paid for the iconostasis, whereas the Jewish community contributed to the Orthodox Church by financing the stained glass windows with the Star of David which we can still admire today. It is the only Orthodox Church in Sosnowiec that has survived to present day.
And what about the third Orthodox Church?
The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox temple in Sosnowiec, was built in 1905 near the present-day Emilia Plater High School, in the current location of VIP Club (former Wedding Palace and Extravagance Gallery). It could hold up to 1,200 people and 3 choirs; there was also a heating ceramic hob, which was a really big technical achievement at that time. And so, there were three churches within one parish in Sosnowiec until WWI. During the wartime, the Orthodox community, both immigrant and local, was around 2,000 people in total. The Faith, Hope, Charity and their Mother St. Sophia’s Orthodox Church was closed in 1920s. The authorities wanted to transform it into a chapel for the railway school, but it ultimately never happened. However, that was the reason why the parish life moved to St. Nicholas church. In 1938, the latter was also closed down by the decision of the authorities and, worse still, it was consequently demolished. The main reason was that the local population closely associated the building with the times of Russian partition, the period of Russian domination. 1938 was also a year of growing nationalism and antagonisms. Approximately 500 Orthodox churches and chapels across Poland were demolished at that time.
What happened to the believers then?
It was the beginning of the most difficult period for the parish, because it did not have its own church, and the believers, feeling the need for community, would meet at a Pagan cemetery. During WWII, the Germans entered Sosnowiec, took over the city and gave back the keys to the church to the Orthodox community. The church was then reconsecrated, because for some time it had served as a chapel, then it was destroyed, devastated and became a spot for consuming alcohol and a night shelter for the local beggars. Since 1940, our parish church has been used continuously.
What is the current situation like?
Nowadays, the parish comprises approximately 350 families. Its territorial scope is vast, because it includes the entire Zagłębie Dąbrowskie, Upper Silesia, Podbeskidzie, Cieszyn Silesia and Żywiec Region. Some members of the parish have to drive as far as 100 km. The furthest they have to travel is from the areas of Żywiec and Racibórz.
So there are no Orthodox churches located nearer to them?
The nearest Orthodox churches are in Kraków, Częstochowa, to the west in Kędzierzyn Koźle, and to the south in Ostrava (Czech Republic). Nowadays, 50% of the members of the parish are Poles; even if their roots are in Kresy (eastern part of Poland pre-WWII), they have already lived in Poland for a number of generations now. About 40% of the members of the parish are Ukrainians – they are the most numerous national minority. Other minorities include: Russians, Belarusians, Serbs, Macedonians, Greeks, and we also have one Ethiopian.
So the period before WWII was the most difficult?
The hardest time for our parish was from 1950s to 1960s. That was the Stalinist period, when people were very scared to come here, afraid of persecutions and repressions, and the parish life was slightly dying. In the late 1970s we began to develop again, and now, following the democratisation of our country, we can see the revival of our parish. There are more and more believers who are increasingly willing to participate in sacraments and spiritual life, and the number of children attending religion classes is also growing. The parish is definitely developing these days.
In what language are masses held?
The liturgical language in our church is Old Church Slavonic, which originates from the 9th century. It’s an extinct language – it isn’t spoken anywhere and is used only in liturgy. The mass is sung in this language. This is our Slavonic Esperanto. Its liturgical scope covers Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. All teachings in our Church are transmitted in Polish. We also confer sacraments in Polish; we confess in native languages. Due to the fact that there are people from various countries in our parish, I have an opportunity to learn different languages. I hear confessions in English, Russian or Ukrainian.
You know many parishioners in private.
With 350 families in the parish, we avoid anonymity in the church. I personally know all families and their children who attend religion classes. If I see that Nowak hasn’t come to mass for a couple of Sundays in a row, then maybe it’s a good idea to call him, maybe he’s sick or something happened. The relations are very close and intimate.
If somebody wants to see what liturgy in Orthodox church looks like, then…
Then they can obviously come to the mass, every Sunday at 10:30 AM. Although it is forbidden to tour the church then, because it distracts those who are praying, you can take part in the service. You are invited to visit the Orthodox Church on Sundays from 9:30 to 10:30 AM. During the mass, you can come to see what it looks like and make the sign of the cross your way, nobody will pay attention to it. You can also leave during the mass. (laughter)
How do the Orthodox get on with the followers of other religions in Sosnowiec?
Very well. Despite such difficult moments as the Union of Brest and the year 1938 when the St. Nicolas Orthodox Church was demolished, or when it was closed, I have never come across any form of discrimination, and I’ve lived in Sosnowiec since I was born. In fact, It was quite the opposite, my schoolmates would ask me: What’s it like in your church? What does Christmas look like? Can I come to see it? I’ve never felt any animosity.
You grew up in an Orthodox house…
Yes, very Orthodox in fact. My father is an Orthodox priest. Just like my grandfather and great-grandfather were. It can’t be denied that this is our family tradition. There aren’t many families like ours, because the way of a priest is demanding, long and hard, whereas we, people, rather prefer to take a shortcut and a different way… an easier one. So I was born at the parish and watched the life of a priest since I was a child.
How did it happen that you also decided to become a priest?
The decision was taken after I’d graduated from my vocational studies. I completed sociology and theological studies, and then the bishop said that we needed some priestly ordinations. And I simply took it. It was the best decision in my life, because I think that what I do is important and worth doing. The fact that I’d been brought up in this parish definitely helps me a lot. Plus I perfectly know its needs, because I saw what it looked like 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years ago. Nowadays, I also have the opportunity to serve myself and develop together with the parish. This is my place on Earth. I feel very attached to it.
It is said that priesthood is a vocation. What was it like in your case?
When I was 17, I did not think about any priesthood at all. If somebody had told me back then that I would become a priest in the future, I’d have said they were joking – no, definitely not me. However, the need to understand Orthodoxy and reach deeper awakened in me more less at the age of 25. Going to theological studies was my personal decision.
My fiancée at that time (who is now my wife) found an advertisement in a newspaper about theological studies in Białystok. I obviously went there. This information reached the bishop who was here, in the Sosnowiec parish. In a conversation, he asked me to consider the decision about priesthood, because the parish was huge and help was needed, all hands on deck, as he put it. I wasn’t ready back then. I began my doctoral studies and, over time, I got closer to taking such a decision. After graduating, I began to help in the parish, and as the time went by, I assumed all duties. Right now, there’s no turning back.
How should I refer to you as an Orthodox priest?
You can simply call me Father. But I think you’re asking about the word pop. It originated at the time when communists ruled. They coined this pejorative term for a priest in the Soviet Union. To call an Orthodox priest pop is like to say klecho in the Catholic religion.
We probably often do not even know that the word pop has a negative connotation…
Indeed, it’s quite a colloquial expression. It appears frequently in movies, books, papers, or even in crosswords: Orthodox priest with 3 letters. You shouldn’t say it, but I think we’re aware that people say pop and nobody feels offended for this reason, at least I don’t. If it happens, I only explain what it’s really like.
Orthodox priests are allowed to have families, and children, of course.
Yes, and I get the impression that this is quite hard for the society to accept. We are priests, we wear cassocks and our external appearance is the same as that of Catholic priests, but we don’t have to live in celibacy. Before the ordination to priesthood, a young candidate has to decide whether he wants to spend the rest of his life in celibacy or not. It’s his independent decision: he may have a wife, but does not have to. However, once he takes the decision, it is a lifetime obligation. More less 80% of candidates for priests decide that they do want to have a wife. I started a family. When I wear a cassock and walk with my children, I attract interest. When I drive my car in priest’s clothes and there are child safety seats in the back, people get confused. I also remember when I was a child and a phone would ring and somebody asked: Father, can I…, and I’d answer: Daddy’s not home, then I usually heard: Yeah, right. Very funny, and the phone was put down. The society is not used to the fact that a priest may have his own family. That’s why I rather wear civilian clothes when I walk my children to kindergarten.
There are probably many differences, but I’ll take the risk and ask you: how does Catholicism differ from the Orthodox church?
The answer is both simple and difficult at the same time, because it must be clearly stated that these two creeds are closest to each other. The theology of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church is approximately 80-90% identical. There are 7 ecumenical councils, 7 sacraments, Holy Trinity, we have the same God… There had been no differences between the two creeds before 1054. Since then, the Orthodox Church has been in a ‘theological freezer’ – no novelties have ever been introduced. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church keeps developing, subsequent ecumenical councils are convened, the law and customs are changing. Our church is regarded as orthodox, more focused on the past, irreformable.
As a theologist, please tell us about the differences in rites between these two creeds.
Generally speaking, it’s more difficult for us due to the large number of fasts. Overall, there are about 200 days of fasting per year. Great Lent means abstinence not only from meat dishes, but also from alcohol and animal products, such as butter, cheese and eggs. Like in the Catholic faith, fasting means moving away from social life to be able to focus on God, but mainly on yourself: to clear your mind and contemplate… There are also differences in taking communion. In the Orthodox church, there is no First Communion in the same form as in the Catholic Church. Holy Communion is already given to newborns. The Communion (body of Christ) is received in a different manner. If we want to take Communion on Sunday, we begin to prepare as early as Saturday. Both the priests and the believers do not eat or drink from Saturday sunset until they have taken Communion. They cannot eat anything until they return from church. It is also mandatory to confess before taking Communion on Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
Does everyone observe such restrictive rules? It’s hard in today’s consumer world, where everything must be right here, right now.
Certainly, not all people observe such strict fasting. Our church is reminiscent of the Church of the first millennium. We show certain pattern, which in our opinion is the quickest way to salvation; however, it is a human with their free will who decides when, to what extent and how to fast. I know and understand the times we live in; I also understand that the rules of this creed are stringent, but they surely force us to think. As believers, and this is probably true not only in our religion, we tend to treat our spirituality in a shallow way. We want to have everything here and now. Contemplation and fasts slightly control it.
From what you’re saying, it looks that despite the orthodox nature of this religion, there are more information signs than mandatory signs in it.
Yes, it’s true. The Orthodox Church assumes that there is no monopoly for salvation. The Orthodox Church says: all men can be saved, only there are different paths to reach salvation. Obviously, the best and quickest way is to save yourself through the Orthodox Church (laughter), but others can also be saved. It’s a great mystery of God; I’m convinced that non-Christians can also be saved.
Thank you for the interview.