Global cultural heritage - the elegant neo-Gothic church of Saints Olha and Elizabeth

  • Global cultural heritage - the elegant neo-Gothic church of Saints Olha and Elizabeth
  • Global cultural heritage - the elegant neo-Gothic church of Saints Olha and Elizabeth
Issue 50, October 2012.

Church of St. Elizabeth (Church of St. Olha and St. Elizabeth)
Kropivnitskogo Sq. 1

The elegant neo-Gothic Church of St. Elizabeth that pierces the sky with its sharp spires is the first to welcome guests of the city who arrive at the train station. It is one of Lviv’s most admirable and fascinating monuments and is truly considered one of the city’s most spectacular landmarks for over a century.

The church was built by the Latin Archbishop of Lviv, Saint Joseph Bilczewski, who in the years 1903-1911 as the parish priest aided the city's dynamically developing western suburb. It was designed by Polish architect Teodor Talowski, in the neo-Gothic style, similar to that of the Votive Church in Vienna. St. Elisabeth's, located on a hill, which is the watershed of the Baltic and Black Seas, with its facade flanked by two tall towers and an 85 m belfry on the north side with imposing spires was envisioned as Lviv's first landmark to greet visitors arriving in the city by train.
Primarily, built as a Catholic Church it was named in honor of the wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I – the people's favorite Empress Elizabeth, who was unfortunately killed by an Italian anarchist.

The architecture of the Church of St. Elizabeth embodies the best traditions of the neo-Gothic style that harmonically interweave with elements of the Roman style - peaked spires extending upward, tracery lancet windows, a portal with a large rose in the center. The entrance to the cathedral is decorated with a sculpture, created by famous sculptor Peter Voitovich whose works adorn many religious buildings in Lviv.

The church's interior - contrary to the luxurious exterior - is surprisingly simple and modest: high pillars, white walls with decorative dark red elements, a shining stone floor, soft light pouring through stained-glass windows. The pride of the Cathedral is the huge 73-chord organ installed in 1926. It was manufactured by the famous Polish company of the Bernatsky brothers, and is considered one of the best in Europe.

But this beautiful and majestic church has a history filled with hardship. The history of the Lviv Roman Catholic Cathedral is a series of tragic events. Just five years after the temple's opening, the First World War started, and the Austro-Hungarian government confiscated the church bells for military necessity. Soon afterwards, the Church of St. Elizabeth suffered new losses: during the Polish-Ukrainian War in Lviv, it was significantly damaged by Ukrainian artillery. In 1939, with the outbreak of the World War II - church walls and spires partially collapsed, after an air bomb exploded next to it.
From September 1-17th 1939, the German Luftwaffe conducted five relatively heavy (30-50 bombers) air raids on Lviv. Although the primary targets were strategic objects, as usual bombs also often hit other areas (the church is located very close to the main railway station). There were no Polish fighters to defend the city, so it must have depended only on its anti-aircraft artillery, which despite its few successes it still wasn't strong enough to stop the attack of enemy planes.
On September 12th1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Lviv. The city garrison consisted of a few infantry units (11 battalions), supported by policemen, boy scouts and other citizens. At first the German grenadiers broke through the Polish defense and managed to get to the Church of St. Elizabeth. They were admittedly soon rebuffed by a Polish counter-attack, however the enemy troops encircled the city.
On September 17th, according to the Ribbentrop - Molotov Pact, Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, and Red Army units joined the siege of the city. In the late evening on the 19th of September, Polish infantry for the last time tried to counter-attack in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to open the road for Gen. Sosnkowski's units, trying to fight their way to Lviv. The forest in the outskirts of the city where the fierce battle took place, was named by the Germans "Der Totenwald"; another story for another day.
On September 22nd 1939, the city surrendered. It still could have been defended for some time, but the commander of Lviv, Gen. Langner decided to save the civilian population and the city from further destruction. Obviously, it was a good decision, as defending Lviv for a week or two more was of no strategic importance, as the war was already lost.
However, throughout these tragic times of war, the church remained open and the most severe period of decline for the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth occurred during Soviet times. In 1946, it was closed and continued to crumble and disintegrate, and thirty years later the church was turned into a warehouse. The revival of the temple began only in the late 20th century. In 1991, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish was established and the church was reconsecrated as the Greek Catholic Church of St. Olha and St. Elizabeth and nowadays is considered one of the most attractive sights of Lviv.