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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

You can’t move in Poland without stumbling over a church

I was a child in Minnesota during the 1950s, when US Senator Joe McCarthy of neighboring Wisconsin terrorized intellectuals with his accusations that many Americans – especially authors, actors, and diplomats – were communists. I didn’t know what a communist was, but I heard the radio news and was certain that the Soviet communist threat was real and that they soon would march down the street in our town of Jasper. So gullible was I -- and so easily oversold by civic boosters -- that I was sure they needed our quartz quarry, which employed perhaps a dozen people.

Our German Lutheran pastor added to these childish fears. He was so parochial that I considered the Norwegian Lutherans down the street to be nearly heretics – and Catholics, the only other active religious presence in the town, were anathema. He preached not only anti-Catholic sermons, but also sermons that mixed religion and nationalism in what I realize now was dangerous to democracy. God and country were the same to him -- and had he been in Germany, he might well have sworn me into Hitler Youth.

I say all this by way of returning to last week’s topic, my recent trip to the Baltic nations. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the end of World War II in the 1940s to the breakup of the USSR in the 1980s. People behind the Iron Curtain were godless, I was told as a child, and I accepted the common belief that communists destroyed churches. I pretty much believed that until this trip.

But in fact, you can’t move in Poland and the other Baltic states without stumbling over a church. In downtown Warsaw alone, guidebooks feature 28 as worthy of visiting. It is true that some were (and are) used for other purposes, but there was no evidence of destruction. Communists did not tear down these or other historic treasures, unlike fundamentalists in the Middle East today who destroy the property of opposing sects. Or like Protestants and Catholics in the 1600s and later – in Ireland, until almost the day before yesterday.

So the Baltic nations have beautiful churches and cathedrals both in cities and in the countryside. I think my favorite moment of the seventeen-day trip was in Riga, Latvia, when we went into St. Peter’s Church and realized that a concert soon would begin – even though it was late afternoon on a Friday. We grabbed a seat at the back (actually, a chair, as like many other European cathedrals, this was built without pews), and we listened to an a cappella chorus sing the sacred music of Bach, Mahler, and other composers. Many works were new to me. We learned later that the chorus included visiting Germans.

Construction on this building began in the 1200s, and it had reached the status of a Catholic basilica before Lutherans took it over during the Protestant revolution. Much of its space now is used for art, and there was an interesting display of local glass and ceramics, especially teapots. Latvians welcomed us, and we spoke with a concert organizer, a high-ranking city official who had been to Dallas, but did not recognize Tampa. This is an opportunity, Mayor Bob: Riga, like us, is a mid-size seaport city. Business and cultural exchanges would be good.

* * *

If I rank that unexpected concert as my favorite moment of the trip, my second-favorite probably would be the Museum of Icons in the Polish town of Suprasi, very near the border of still-totalitarian Belarus. I had seen this museum in guidebooks, but wouldn’t have gone except that some colleagues at the University of Bialystok wanted to spend part of our weekend that way. The entrance of the museum reminded me of Disney, with ghostly cobwebs hanging from the ceiling of a faux grotto – but the music was Gregorian chants and the Disney-likeness soon ended as the young female docent made it clear that she knew both theology and art. She would show us dozens of rooms and thousands of icons.

I don’t know if Americans are just irrepressible compared with everyone else or if others in the group were simply being polite to me and to the cultural attaché from the American embassy, but the two of asked by far the most questions. He was the first, inquiring if the icons were Polish or Russian. Almost entirely Russian, she said – and they had been smuggled out not because of fear of religious persecution, but because art dealers knew they could get more money for them outside of Russia. When he asked why they hadn’t been confiscated at the border, she replied: “because Poles are smarter than Russians.” Everyone laughed, and we went on to view a tremendous amount of Russian religious art, some of it in silver, gold, and precious gems. I think my favorite was one of pearls.

Most of the icons were very Marian, with many more images of the Madonna than of any male saint. And most strikingly, there was an image of her breastfeeding the baby Jesus! I’ve seen Orthodox icons in Greece and elsewhere that feature the infant close to his mother’s breast, but never one that clearly exposed breastfeeding. The artist made it decidedly un-sexual, though, as the narrow, elongated breast looked something like a garden hose.

I was glad that I asked about the drapery around one icon. It resembled a Jewish prayer shawl or an Islamic prayer rug, which are used primarily by men -- but it turned out that this related to Polish women. The docent explained that young women created such “fabrics” – her word – and used them only at marriage and childbirths, before final use as a burial shroud. Having asked more than my share of questions, I didn’t inquire about the burials of men. I hope they didn’t go to their graves naked.

From there, we went to an associated monastery. The monks were less competent in English, but one explained that his was a small Polish sect that had broken from both Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox faith, largely over the issue of whether or not priests can marry. Nuns are associated with this sect, too, but in answer to my pestering question, it was clear that he never had considered the idea of ordaining nuns as priests, nor of a married nun.

So there is a diversity of religious practices in these formerly communistic countries, and there has been for a long time. Northeastern Estonia features a rather large and publicly open community of “Old Believers.” They are somewhat akin to our Puritans and Quakers in their rejection of reforms that the Russian Orthodox Church made in the 17th Century. Far from being persecuted, the Old Believers’ communities were clearly posted on roadside maps. (By the way, they are much better than we about billboard-size maps at highway stops.)

We also saw a lot of personal religious symbolism in rural areas. Those in Lithuania especially resemble the totem poles of Alaska. Farm families posted them near the road as indicative of their heritage and belief systems. These totems were in the north, but throughout the area, many people placed shrines on their property or at road intersections. Some reminded us of Belgium, where metal crosses or other Catholic symbols are quite common on country roads. Other shrines, especially in Poland, were quite different. They were made of what looked like plastic ribbon, with cheerful colors shaped in domes.

* * *

And this brings me to cemeteries. Even in the US, if Hubby and I have time to kill, we walk through a cemetery; my history-buff sister and daughter like to do the same. Nothing is so revealing of the past, and we love to speculate on the lives buried beneath. So when Hubby and I spotted cemeteries in rural parts of the Baltic, we pulled over and stopped. Probably the most important thing we learned was that cemeteries seem to be relatively new. Guidebooks never mentioned them, which they do in western Europe, and we found none that were comparable to colonial New England or Richmond or Charleston -- or even Tampa’s Oaklawn.

I suppose that most Baltic people couldn’t afford proper burials until the twentieth century – but now there are elaborate tombstones that usually show evidence of recent care. Many graves were completely covered over with planted flowers, and plastic was rare. The cemeteries were different from ours in that many had big trees growing in them, but there seldom was any root disturbance to graves.

At one of these random cemetery stops, I heard singing in the nearby wooden church and slipped in. I never did figure out what denomination it was, but I suspect Lutheran. The sanctuary was far too plain to be Orthodox, and pictures in the vestibule showed teenagers at confirmation; Lutherans confirm their adherents at an older age than Catholics. I’m sure it was a fairly liberal Protestant denomination because when the pastor turned around from the altar, she was a white-haired woman. It was a weekday evening, and there were fewer than a dozen congregants – but some were young.

One of the things I noticed in this country church was what appeared to be a small tree growing from the floor near my pew. Later we realized that such “trees” were décor for the Summer Solstice, akin to American flags “planted” along streets for the Fourth of July. We later saw this décor at gas stations and cafes. Some people decorated their cars for the Solstice, placing green leaves and even saplings on the roof, window frames, or radiator grill.

Last week I said that Baltic peoples are not nearly as commercial as we are. Shops close at 6:00, even in tourist parts of town that attract a crowd during long summer evenings. This willingness to put time over money truly was proved at the Solstice. We were in Estonia’s Tartu – probably my favorite town of all -- when the longest day of the year occurred. Everything closed down: restaurants and museums were firmly shut and streets deserted, as everyone went to their ancestral farm for a night of bonfire and bonding with their families.

They truly believe in family values more than in making money – and that I’m not exaggerating this is clear in that we walked for blocks that night trying to find a place to eat. We finally asked a cabbie if she knew of an open restaurant; after calling her dispatcher, she said the only place that appeared to be open was McDonald’s.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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