The first new Orthodox church to be built in Warsaw for over 100 years opened yesterday. It is now the third in Poland’s capital, serving a growing number of Orthodox believers.
Both its name – Hagia Sophia – and its outer appearance refer to its famous namesake in Istanbul, which was originally built as a Byzantine cathedral, converted to a mosque by the Ottoman Turks, then deconsecrated into a museum in 1934 – and finally again turned into a mosque in July this year.
The church is located in southern Warsaw, near the Ursynów and Wilanów districts. Its location will save nearby worshippers from longer trips to the city’s other two Orthodox churches: the 19th-century Metropolitan Cathedral of St Mary Magdalene in the Praga district, and the church of Saint John Climacus in Wola, built in 1905. There are also several smaller chapels dispersed around the capital.
The last Orthodox church to be built in Warsaw was opened in 1912, when the city was part of the Russian Empire.
The Alexander Nevsky cathedral – which was then Warsaw’s tallest building and located at the heart of the city in what is today Piłsudski Square – was demolished in the 1920s after Poland regained its independence, along with many other Orthodox places of worship.
At the opening of the new building, Archbishop Sawa – the head of the Polish Orthodox Church – said that it would be dedicated to Polish Orthodox believers “over the centuries” and “especially those who died in camps in the east and west, and those who, strong in faith, gave their lives during the Warsaw Uprising”.
The parish priest, Adam Siemieniuk, says that the new church should “be a tribute to the cradle of Christianity, which is the Hagia Sophia [in Istanbul],” reports Radio Plus.
The temple’s construction began in 2015. Earlier this year, its western bell tower and nine bells were consecrated, but services took place in a temporary wooden chapel near the building site. Now the church itself is open for services, with only final touches being made to the interior.
The building was designed by Andrzej Markowski, who died last year. It is 35 metres wide, with a dome limited to being only 22 metres high, as it stands on the approach path for planes landing at the nearby Chopin airport.
The new church was funded entirely from collections among Orthodox believers. “We did not receive any funds from the state budget, so we can say that the whole thing was financed by our Orthodox community,” said Siemieniuk, quoted by Nasze Miasto, a local news site.
The church will also function as the venue for a Sunday school for Orthodox children.
The current Polish Orthodox Church was established in 1924, and has been headed by Archbishop Sawa since 1998. It claims to have around 500,000 members, although exact figures are difficult to come by.
According to data from the 2011 census, membership stood at 150,000, including 40,000 in Warsaw. However, an estimate for 2019, published earlier this year by Statistics Poland (GUS), a government agency, put the church’s membership at just over 500,000.
A separate recent report by GUS estimates the number of all Orthodox believers in Poland at 0.9% of the population (up from 0.7% in 2016), which would mean around 400,000.
One reason for growing numbers of Orthodox faithful in recent years has been the unprecedented influx of Ukrainian immigrants, an estimated 1.35 million of whom now live in Poland.