From Shanghai with Love: Russian Cathedral Opens its Doors?

Culture | by Peta Heinrich
Posted: May 17th, 2013 | Updated: September 15th, 2014 | Comments

It's served as a warehouse, hosted a stock exchange and housed a nightclub known as The Dome, but Shanghai's Russian Orthodox Mission Cathedral hasn't seen a religious service since 1962. That is until Wednesday, when visiting Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, presided over the Divine Liturgy here. The mass, held on 15 May, was the cathedral's first religious service in 51 years, but this reportedly didn't come easily. Lengthy negotiations involving the Russian government in the lead up to the Patriarch's visit were required to secure permission to hold this 2.5 hour ceremony, which was attended by hundreds of visitors and worshipers, including women in traditional headscarves.

History of This Shanghai Russian Cathedral

The blue-domed Russian Orthodox Mission Cathedral, located at 55 Xinle Road (Xīnlè Lù, 新乐路) in Shanghai's French Concession, was modeled on the style of the Kremlin. Built to accommodate 2,500 people, it was completed in 1937 when a sizable community of Russians resided in Shanghai—at one time up to 25,000. While much of the cathedral's stained glass was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the building underwent a restoration in 1988 and an art gallery/museum can sometimes be visited within. For some of today's resident Russians, it provides a link back to their tradition and culture. 

Religious activity is, however, strictly controlled in China and Russian Orthodoxy is not among the nation's five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism). While worshipers are officially required to attend state-approved religious facilities, in recent times the government has occasionally allowed them to gather at Shanghai's other Russian church, the Orthodox Cathedral of St Nicholas (Shèng Nígǔlāsī Jiàotáng, 圣尼古拉斯教堂) on Gaolan Lu (Gāolán Lù, 皋兰路)—a former washing machine factory and restaurant.

Nevertheless, religious crackdowns are not uncommon in China and those practicing religion unofficially should continue to tread carefully—as one South Korean pastor found out last Christmas in Shanghai. Detained during an unofficial sermon in Pudong and allegedly linked to the Doomsday cult Eastern Lightning, the pastor was threatened with deportation. While some of Wednesday's worshipers expressed hopes that the church would be returned to the community, plans for the building rest entirely on the shoulders of the Shanghai city government. But authorities may be reluctant to show too much flexibility in this regard, for fear of opening the door to claims for other religious properties, such as Shanghai's synagogues. While worshipers shouldn't get overly hopeful, time will tell if the cathedral's peacock-blue domes will see the resumption of sermons, and resound with the singing of choirs and orthodox chanting, or if its frescoed halls will once again fall silent.  

Cathedral photo © bricoleurbanism.

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