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Restoration of Cathedral in Pskov a Labor of Love - 2002-07-17

After the fall of communism, Russia's Orthodox Church experienced a rebirth. Property confiscated by Soviet authorities was returned to the church, but decades of abuse and neglect have taken their toll. Many of the country's churches and monasteries are dilapidated, crumbling wrecks.

Every Sunday the men, women and children of this congregation gather for services at the Cathedral of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It is a small group - only about two dozen people, but they come faithfully.

Polina Bobenysheva is one of them. "I have been coming here for two years, as much as I can," she said. "I was baptized here, my daughter was baptized here, my husband and I were married here. I like this church more than any of the others."

Polina Bobenysheva certainly has a choice.

The town of Pskov is filled with churches, spires and traditional onion domes seem to be everywhere. But the cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the oldest and, if you ask Father Andrei Davydov, the most special. "This is the oldest church still in existence in Pskov," he said. "It was built at the beginning of the 12th century, by the archbishop Nifont, a Greek who came to Pskov with artists and builders. Christianity had just come to Russia. This church bears signs of the old Greek and Byzantine culture and style as well as Russian style."

Father Davydov is both artist and priest. He came to Pskov nine years ago with a mission to restore the 12th Century cathedral, which had fallen into ruin after decades of communist neglect.

It has been a formidable task, but Father Davydov remains undaunted. There is no mistaking his love for this simple church on the banks of the Velikaya River. "Look at these columns," said Father Davydov. "See, they are absolutely alive. They were molded...this was no task of cold precision...It is all a piece of art. It is a very warm, very comfortable place. This place has a mystery to it."

The appeal of the cathedral may lie in its total simplicity, its stark whitewashed walls, its tin roof and domes that glitter in the morning sun. Even though the little church today stands in the middle of a parking lot - with a navy barracks on one side and a factory that produces radios on the other - nothing detracts from its unique charm.

From its humble origins in the 12th century, the church grew and prospered. In the 18th century a convent was built around it, founded by Princess Efrosinia of Pskov. It was a favorite for some of the area's aristocratic ladies - who brought with them not only their faith but also their wealth. The convent grew into a community that at one time was home to 5,000 people. The church was filled with precious paintings and icons.

All that changed in the 1920s after the Bolshevik Revolution. Father Davydov has heard the stories. "The convent was closed in 1924," he said. "The nuns were driven off and some even shot. The church buildings were used as storage areas for peat and vegetables. The church used as a garage by the KGB. Then, it just stood empty for 30 years."

It was a familiar story throughout Russia in communist times. Churches and monasteries were often closed, their valuables looted, confiscated, and sold off. Others were simply left to decay.

After the fall of communism, came the restoration of religious freedom in Russia. Those churches and monasteries still left standing were returned to the Orthodox Church. The cathedral in Pskov was abandoned until 1990. Then came Father Davydov.

Andrei Davydov is originally from Moscow. He studied art and it was his fascination for religious art and icons that initially drew him to the church. Eventually, he moved with his wife and children to Lithuania, where he became a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. He later took over a small parish in Latvia.

When the church authorities asked him to go to Pskov to restore the 12th Century cathedral - he immediately accepted the offer. He vividly recalls the gruesome discoveries that awaited him. "When we came here nine years ago, there were huge heaps of dirt mixed with bones," he said. "There were a lot of bones and skulls, some even with bullet holes in them. Who knows how the KGB used this place when they were here. Plus the church was once a burial ground for the local nobility and we found those bones too. We put all the bones together and buried them outside. This was all in ruin; we slowly brought back some order. There is still a lot of work to do."

For the priest and the artist, this was a unique opportunity. Father Davydov brought in workmen to help shore up the basic church structure the walls, floors and windows. As for the paintings and icons that once adorned the walls of the cathedral there was nothing left to restore and so Father Davydov set about recreating what had once been there - with his own original frescoes and icons. "I realized that my task as an artist is to listen to this space that was created here...just as in a choir... these walls tell you themselves what is needed here," said Father Davydov.

Father Davydov lives in one of the old convent buildings next to the church. This is also where he sits and talks at length about some of his favorite subjects, such as icon painting. "An icon is meant as propaganda of the gospel in a very positive way," he said. "The church tries to explain the gospel's ideas through art, realizing that art is more effective than any other form of expression. Icon-painting tries to express things that are theological other worldly. The language of theology is transferred into the language of paint. It is a hard, but wonderful and interesting task."

Father Davydov's has been helped in his drive to restore the cathedral by his son Philip, who is training to be an artist as well. There has been little or no money from the government for the effort, but there has been support from the local community and donations from private patrons.

For this small congregation the cathedral is a place of worship. Yet it is also an important historical site that is slowly being brought back to life.

For artist and priest Andrei Davydov it is both a testimony to his faith and demonstration of his skill and passion as an artist. Restoring this church has become his life's work.