From February 28-March 4, 2019, His Grace Bishop Irenei of Richmond and Western Europe made his first archpastoral visitation to the Russian Orthodox Parish of the Nativity of Christ and St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Florence, Italy (known locally simply as "Chiesa Ortodossa Russa"). This historical occasion marked the first hierarchical visit since the parish was received into the Western European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in late 2018, and was a joyful moment in the life of the local Russian Orthodox community.
His Grace Bishop Irenei was welcomed to Florence by Archpriest Georgi Blatinskiy and Priest Oleg Turkan, together with the Starosta and other members of the parish community. The Great Saturday of Souls was served in the temple by His Grace, together with the local clergy; as were the Divine Services of the Sunday of the Last Judgement. During the Hours preceding the Sunday Liturgy, Bishop Irenei tonsured Yuri Gorchak as a Reader for the parish, and at the Little Entrance awarded the Priest Oleg the right to wear the nabedrennik. Between the services of the weekend, a special luncheon-reunion of the Parish Council was held to greet the Bishop and provide an opportunity for introductions and spiritual discussion; and Bishop Irenei also spoke with the Choir Director and singers, on whose splendid singing at the services His Grace remarked several times. A special concert was held in the church on Monday evening, to celebrate the visit.
In his homily on the Sunday of the Last Judgement, encouraging the faithful with the charge of mutual love that the Gospel and hymns of this day set before them, Bishop Irenei remarked:
"The questions of the last judgement will not be about personal accomplishments or achievements; they will be about our brother and our sister. When he was hungry, did you feed him? When she was sick, did you tend to her? When he was suffering, did you comfort him? When he was alone and afraid, did you give him your heart so that he would not feel abandoned on the sea of life?" Sharing the love of their communal life, the parish enjoyed a celebratory meatfare luncheon in the garden of the Church grounds following the Liturgy.
The Church of the Nativity and of St Nicholas has a long and remarkable history. The Russian colony in Florence had, by the end of the nineteenth century, long called for a temple to be their permanent spiritual home; and these petitions eventually gave way to the construction of what would be the first Russian Orthodox Church to be built in Italy. It was conceived by the renowned Russian architect Mikhail Preobrazhensky (1854–1930), and erected under the supervision of Italian architects Giuseppe Coccini (1840–1900) and Giovanni Paciarelli (1862–1929). Prior to construction of the church, the Russian community of Florence had congregated at the private chapels of its members, such as Michail Boutourline, or, more especially, the Demidoff family who, in 1880, donated many iconostases and other objects from San Donato for the new temple. When the Russian diplomatic mission opened in Florence in 1815, it also had a chapel that housed a reliquary, which Tsar Alexander I had carried with him on his military campaigns against Napoleon. A decree authorising the construction of the church was issued from St Petersburg in May 1891, and seven years later the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave its permission for works to begin. The consecration of the lower Altar (dedicated to St Nicholas) took place on October 2, 1902 in the presence of the Russian ambassador from Rome, the new rector and many Russian residents; and on 28th October 1903 the upper altar was consecrated.
The Church is considered an architectural gem by the residents of Florence, and in addition to being home to the Orthodox community and a place of pilgrimage for faithful visitors, also figures into many touristic visits of the city. It has a remarkable carved-wood entrance door which came from the private chapel at Villa Demidoff at San Donato, was inspired by Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ that form part of the baptistry of the Duomo. Depicting 22 scenes from the Old Testament, it won its creator Rinaldo Barbetti first prize in a national exhibition in Florence in 1861. Inside, the frescoed upper church contains a stone iconostasis that was a gift from Tsar St Nicholas II, together with many icons, liturgical items, vestments and adornments coming from Imperial Russia. The beauty of the temple supports a full liturgical and pastoral life, of which the Rector, Archpriest Georgi, has been the head for over twenty-two years.
Apart from his time spent in the Divine Services and meeting with the clergy and faithful, the parish also organised opportunities for Bishop Irenei to visit various cultural sites in the historic city of Florence, including an extensive visit to the Duomo cathedral, the ponte Vecchio, and shrines containing the relics of the Holy Apostles, St John the Baptist, St John Chrysostom, and many other Orthodox saints and martyrs kept in the city as a result of its long historical relationship with with Orthodox East.
On Tuesday, March 5, Bishop Irenei departs Florence for San Remo, to make his first archpastoral visitation there.
The Parish of the Nativity of Christ and St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Florence was received into the Western European Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in October 2018.
(Sections of this report on the history of the parish draw gratefully from D. Pirro, "The Russian Church: A Religious and Cultural Focal Point," in The Florentine, 10th January 2017.)