The Russian Orthodox Church has opened its first seminary outside the former Soviet Union - in a small French town outside Paris. The institution is starting modestly but has big ambitions: to serve Russia's growing diaspora and foster closer ties between Eastern and Western Christian churches.
It is a bitterly cold afternoon, but the large stone building in the heart of Epinay-Sous-Senart is warm and welcoming, with smells of cooking and a Christmas tree in the front hall. Upstairs, half a dozen black-robed students are studying theology.
The building is an old convent. But the nuns are gone and their Roman Catholic crosses have been traded for Russian icons and incense. The students are on the front lines of a bold experiment launched by the Russian Orthodox church, the first pupils of the church's first seminary in the West.
Alexander Siniakov is the seminary's director.
"The Russian Orthodox church needs more than ever good specialists who know not only the life of Christian churches in western Europe, and in the West generally, but also who know the theology, the history of the Catholic Church and the other Orthodox Churches and specialists who know foreign languages and are able to study the experience that Christians in Europe encounter with secularization," Siniakov said.
The seminary was officially inaugurated in November and it is starting modestly with about a dozen students enrolled in its five-year program. Most are from Russia and former Soviet republics, but there are plans to diversify and grow the student body to 40 over the next few years, with the seminarians also earning master's degrees in theology from the Sorbonne University in Paris.
One of the students, 25-year-old Andrew Seebrych Anekcandroviych from Ukraine, says he likes the cross-cultural experience.
"It is a nice possibility to study French and to study and to know how western people live in France and in other Western countries," Anekcandroviych said.
Some students will return home after graduating. But others are being groomed to serve Russia's far-flung diaspora that has ballooned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Establishing a Russian Orthodox seminary in the West was the idea of Patriarch Kirill, who was elected to head the Moscow church in February. Orthodox priest and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, Stephen Headley, says Patriarch Kirill wants to train priests to serve parishes wherever Russian expatriates are located.
Father Headley also teaches at the seminary.
"He wanted to have a seminary in Paris where people would get used to using foreign languages, get used to living in a secularized society, like France," Headley said.
The seminary's director, Father Siniakov, says the institution is open to students of all Orthodox faiths, including those linked to the Patriarch of Constantinople in Istanbul.
The Moscow Patriarchate has also reached out to the French Catholic Church, asking for help in finding a location to house the seminary. French bishops put the Russians in touch with elderly nuns living in Epinay-Sous-Senart, who were moving out of their convent. The nuns still come back to teach the young seminarians French.
Monsigneur Michel Dubost is bishop of the Evry-Corbeil-Essonnes diocese where the seminary is located. He explains why it is important to have ties between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches.
"We cannot be Christian ignoring the oriental tradition. The church has got two lungs as Pope John Paul said, one occidental and one oriental. And we cannot know the roots of the Catholic Church when ignoring what happened in the Orthodox Church," Dubost said.
The relationship between the seminary and the French Catholic Church reflects more broadly the warming ties between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church after centuries-old divisions. The dialogue has intensified under the current leaders, Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Kirill, who have met several times in the past.
Although differences remain, Father Headley, the Orthodox researcher, believes the leaders are focusing on ways they can work together.
"I think there was a conscious decision on the part of the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate to try to cooperate on the social level, which talks about the re-Christianization of western Europe and the Christian roots of western Europe, because that would be a more fruitful and productive venue for them to work on," Headley said.
On a practical level, Father Headley believes the two churches may eventually lobby for causes they believe in. Both Pope Benedict and Patriarch Kirill have conservative views on matters like euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality.
Russian Orthodox church expert Michael Bourdeaux, who founded the British Keston Institute, agrees.
"If the Catholic and Orthodox churches came closer together, they would form a huge beacon for conservatism in the world today. Conservatism in terms of theology which they share, and conservatism in terms of sexual morality, morality in society in general," Bourdeaux said.
As night falls, the students at the Epinay seminary put their books aside and head for the large, plain room that serves as the school's chapel. They chant for Vespers service in Russian, with director Siniakov chiming in in French.
Asked earlier what the Orthodox Church can offer the West, student Anekcandroviych thinks for a while. His answer: spirituality. He says for many Russians, the Orthodox faith is not just a matter of rules and rituals. The Orthodox faith, he says, is alive.