As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.
“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”
A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.
In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.
All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese. (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site: www.chinese.orthodoxy.ru)
I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:
The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]
At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.
The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]
At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.
Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.
I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.
Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!
I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930′s and 1940′s.
Taken from the same spot as my photo above.
This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.
There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)