Being Catholic in Irkutsk

Published: December 20, 2017

Staying religious abroad can be hard for many; I know it has been for me, especially in an environment where there is a language barrier and it takes a bit of effort to seek out the resources needed. Luckily, after visiting a few different churches, I found The Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral (Собор Непорочного Сердца Божией Матери). This church is Roman Catholic which is slightly different from the few Polish Catholic Cathedrals I visited in Irkutsk and was almost identical to the American services I am used to.

As a Catholic, I have found that going once a week has been a good way to maintain one’s identity, relieve a bit of homesickness, and focus on the similarities between life back home and a new life abroad.

The Church is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Joseph at Irkutsk. When founded in 1820, Irkutsk was still somewhat small with parishioners who were mostly Lithuanians, Poles, or Belorussians. Now the parishioners come from great number of the Russian Federation’s various other ethnic groups as well. The parish was closed during the time of the Soviet Union, its land confiscated, church demolished, and the priests sent to labor camps. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Russian government permitted the church to reinstate the parish. However, in 1998, the city of Irkutsk refused to return the land where the original church had stood, but instead allocated to them a plot of land to build a new church. The church was finally built and dedicated on September 8, 2000. The priest at the last mass I went to made this a bit humorous by alluding to the well-known passage in the Bible saying, “Upon this rock I build my church,” when Peter built the church exactly where he wanted it to stand. The priest humorously continued during the homily, “Peter clearly did not have to build a church in the Soviet Union.” I found the priest had a good sense of humor which was refreshing and really made the church feel comfortable.

The church exterior

The church does not enforce a specific dress code. However, after observing the people at mass I would strongly suggest wearing clothes that cover the shoulders and no open-toed sandals. There is also a higher standard of dress than what most Americans are used to. Dresses for women are by no means a requirement, but if people choose pants they always have them paired with a very nice blouse, shoes, and overall fancier attire. For men a dress shirt, nice pants (not jeans), and clean shoes seemed the norm.

As far as the mass itself goes, all Roman Catholic masses are the same worldwide despite the language,  which is great for following along. I was raised Catholic and therefore, when there were things I didn’t understand, I could still get the majority of what was happening. In addition, the “Alleluia” is the same tune as my church so I could sing at least one song which was pretty cool. There are mass booklets with all the songs as well as smaller books with all the readings and the Gospel preprinted which is excellent for following along.

The parish itself I would consider quite large but not so much that it feels overwhelming. Communion is the same as in America but most people here take the host by tongue rather than by hand. I however, took it by hand and did see others doing this as well, so if that makes you more comfortable it is no problem. The church is more traditional than where I come from in the sense that there are all male altar servers and there are more old-style church traditions that are only seen in the most traditional of American churches. Despite this, I still much preferred this church to the others that I visited in Irkutsk.

The outside of the church isn’t anything special and it doesn’t have the gorgeous towering designs that are characteristic of many cathedrals. The Polish Catholic Cathedral around Kirov Square is the one where people go for pictures and to admire architecture. Although The Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral isn’t the most impressive of buildings, the inside is what matters. Its simple layout almost makes it more endearing because the focus isn’t on everything around and tourists aren’t piling in to take photos. I felt very at home and have met several local friends there with whom I sit with every Sunday. In addition, the priest is very kind and specifically made time to welcome me to the parish as a new member. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral truly feels like a close parish and I recommend any Catholics traveling to Irkutsk to give it a try.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral in Irkutsk
Ulitsa Griboyedova, 110, Irkutsk
Mass Times: 11:30 and 18:00

About the author

Alaina DeLeo

Alaina DeLeo is an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, class of 2020. She is double majoring in Global and International Studies and Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies and is minoring in Russian Business and Professional Culture. She is currently studying Russian with the Siberian Studies program in Irkutsk. In the past Alaina has studied in Kishinev, Moldova with the NSLI-Y scholarship. After graduation, she plans to pursue a M.A focused on Central Asia and the Caucasus. She hopes to someday work in Russia with the US government in a career related to International Relations.

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