Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Svētā Sīmaņa baznīca, one of the oldest churches in Latvia

On the shores of the Gauja in central Vidzeme is the city of Valmiera. From archeological evidence we know the site has been inhabited for the last 9,000 years, but it was first chronicled as a town in 1323 after the master of the Livonian Order Wilken von Endorp constructed the Wolmar castle and a Catholic church on the river banks. A member of the Hanseatic League in the 14th- 16th centuries, the city has long been an important crossroads due to the central location and proximity to Rīga and Estonia, as well as the significant trade and travel possibilities on the river.

In the very center of the city is the aforementioned church, St. Simon’s (Svētā Sīmaņa). First constructed in the 13th century, it is one of the oldest churches in Latvia. The early history of the church differs slightly from source to source as to the exact year construction started and to its original style and size. However it is known and documented that the church has seen various reincarnations; not only has it served as a Catholic and Lutheran church, but it has been rebuilt and remodeled more than a dozen times after war and disaster. In the 1500s and 1600s alone it was destroyed four times. A report from 1613 reads ēka ir bez jumta, samirkušās velves draud sarukt, logi bez rūtīm (“the building is without a roof, the drenched vaults are close to collapse, the windows are without panes…”). Each time restored and rebuilt, it was in 1644 that the bell tower received its rooster and in the mid-17th century that the church was fully renovated and improved. This was just in time for a spire fire in 1698 and the Russian invasion not long after at which point the church burned down. In the following years the structure saw multiple fires (including two lightning strikes after which a lightning rod was finally installed), and various other improvements and renovations.

After World War II under Soviet occupation the church was converted into a museum and concert hall (various renovations partially responsible for the excellent acoustics today), but it was only in 1988 that the congregation recovered the church and was able to resume worship services. In 2005 Saint Simon’s Church received National Heritage status.

Other notable features of the church include tombstones from the 15th and 16th centuries in the basement, and an organ built in 1886 by German master craftsman Friedrich Ladegast. The latest renovations were to the spire and tower, and the globe and rooster will be returned to its rightful place sometime this August. During the restoration of the spire a time capsule was discovered, which had been concealed in the 1970s. You can read more about the capsule and its contents in the article “Atver Valmieras Sv.Sīmaņa baznīcas tornī atrasto vēsturisko kapsulu.”

The church grounds are just as historic and noteworthy as the church itself. Due to the elevated location on the river shore the spot was an important defense position. The ruins of the ancient Valmiera castle are located just to the east, and the modern day city hall is to the north. Various walkways connect to the Gaujas tramvaļš stop on the river, Dzirnavu Lake and Luces Park, and museums, cafes, museums and theaters attest to the area's importance as a tourist and cultural center.

It was an honor to attend Matīss and Līga’s wedding in such a remarkable church. We witnessed the exchange of vows during a beautiful service, the church pews were filled to the last with family and friends who had traveled long distances to be with the couple on this momentous occasion. The wedding celebrations were far from over however – soon we were off to historic Dikļi Manor.

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