The Church of Transfiguration of the Lord in Ashabad
The preface of appearing of the Catholics in Ashabad was the fact that Turkmenistan was included into Russian Empire after conquering of Achaltekin Oasis in 1881. At once after the Russian Army with General M.D. Skobelev occupied this town, it was established military fortification and the city in European style was developed very fast in some distance from native part. In the beginning some families of officers and settlers from Iran and Caucasus came to live here, then after building of Trans-Caspian Military Railway and quick development of city infrastructure, a lot of immigrants from western part of Russia moved here to become the citizens of Ashabad. First of all came a lot of orthodox Christians but there were also more and more Catholics from Polish Kingdom. In 1889 they tried the first step to build Catholic Church in Ashabad, on the chosen for it free land Nr. 32 at the corner of Merv- and Serachstreet (later Machtumkuli prospect and Pushkinstreet), earlier this land was assigned to court counselor Nasvirbekow. This year application for building the church wasn’t satisfied, but in the next year an engineer lieutenant colonel N.N. Shatinski wrote to the head of Trans-Caspian district, general A.V.Komarov:
“During last visit of Roman-Catholic priest to meet the spiritual needs, we saw the difficulties to find a room for temporary church; that’s why Catholics decided to build such a room for prayer on their own financing. According to approximate consideration we can expect offerings from Catholics from Kisil-Arvata, Ashabad, Merv in quota 2000 rubles. It is enough for building. Moreover for the technical supervision colonel Rakind, lieutenant colonel Perekriostov and for offering collecting me, G. Regan, are responsible. I consider the honor to ask you Excellency at one side permission for aforesaid building and for the place at the corner of Mervskij prospect and Serachstreet.1” But also this time petition was declined by the Main Headquarters of Military Ministry “because of small number of Catholics, lived in abovementioned city2”.
13 years later the question about building of the church in Ashabad had arisen for the second time. At that time Justin Pranajtis was nominated as a curator in Roman-Catholic Church in Turkestan. The rules of permission for establishing of Roman-Catholic Churches (not prayer houses) in Russian Empire was pointed out exactly in article 124 of Statues of Spiritual Affairs of Foreign Confessions and in article 140 of Construction Regulation (See application). According to this regulation at the 19th of April 1903 chief of Trans-Caspian district colonel E.E. Ussakovski sent to colonel governor in Turkestan, N.A. Ivanov, petition from Catholics of Ashabad to permit building of prayer house, mentioned that “from his side there weren’t obstacles to satisfy this application”. Immediately entered the agreement between Tiraspol Roman-Catholic Spiritual Consistory and Turkestan Spiritual Consistory with “last reservation that the building should not be near the Orthodox Church3”.
Fr. Pranajtis applied to the Office of Trans-Caspian district to count how many Catholics could be in this district. They answered that there were 1300 civilians, 36 officers, 1848 low officials and 40 women from military families, in all there were 3224 persons4. In December 1903 Turkestan colonel governor was informed that in Ashabad lived 513 Catholics among militaries and 1050 persons from other citizens of Ashabad,
in all 1563 persons. Lutherans were numbered 1193 persons and they had permission to build their Church in Ashabad. It helped to start building Catholic Church.
There was formed a committee from 7 people. They had a responsibility for building and collecting offerings for this aim. On the 26th July 1903 in a room of Ashabad Bike Club, situated at the corner of Merv prospect and Serachstreet, where before Catholics tried to place their church, there was common meeting of Catholics: 61 persons by the closed voting elected the members of construction committee: actual Councilor of State, main controller of Railway, Joseph Markovski (chief), B. Pawlowich, A. Vitkovski, K. Butkevich, K. Kozlovski, A. Buzha, I. Ivashkevich. The secretary was Upper Accountant of Locomotion Service of this Railway K. Zainchkovski5. Authorized by the Roman-Catholic Society in Ashabad Albert Antonovich Vitkovich –insurance agent of the Company “Hope”from Saint Petersburg was nobleman.
The memorandum of college councilor Karl Butkevich has remained from the 21st of July 1903 till now. He wrote to the chief of Trans-Caspian district the following: “The Catholic Society in Ashabad submitted the petition about building of the Catholic Church there. I feel the deep sympathy to moral development, in this case it is building of a Catholic Church, so I think that this idea is a great blessing, that’s why I take it to my heart. Since that there isn’t a place for building of the Church, I am, as true serve of my Fatherland and Your Majesty, asking Your Excellency with a respect to allow me to offer my land Nr. 2148 in Ashabad for the building of this Church6. ”This petition was satisfied and the land of Butkevich on the Zheleznodorozhnaya street (later Druzhba avenue, now Gurbansoltan-edzhe street), in the middle of blocks between Torgovaya street (later Zhitnikova street) and Kirpichnaya (later – Libknecht bulvar) become a building site.
Father J.B. Pranajtis established the chapel, filial, belonging to Tashkent parish of Transfiguration of the Lord in Administration Center of Trans-Caspian district. In 1904 he asked Mogilev Roman-Catholic Archdiocese to bless him for building in Tashkent and Ashabad “prayer houses with altar, organs, bells and with other liturgical accessories7”. Then the Ministry of Military sent to the Department of Common Affairs of Foreign Confessions the petition of the Catholics to permit the building of a prayer house8, and after maintenance all the formalities they could start the construction work. It took them 5 years.
The project of edifice fulfilled staff captain Fiodor Nikolajevich Okunev, who lived in Ashabad from 1900 till 1913 and had a post of regional architect. He also fulfilled technical supervision of building of the Chucrh.
In September 1909 Pranajtis reported to the Chief of Mogilev Archdiocese that from the collected offerings they were able to build three stone Churches in Ashabad Kisli-Arvat and Margelan9.
The Church in Ashabad was built from half burning and natural brick, it “was Neogothical building. At the huge altar there was an icon of Transfiguration of Lord, donated to Fr. Pranajtis by the Spiritual Academy. At the sides of altar there were icons of Saint Mary, donated by the Parish of St. Stanislav from Saint Petersburg, and an icon of St. Expedite, ordered by curator in Tashkent. There was also the casting of the bells.10”
In project it should be basilica with three naves, with a part that comes forward and with above situated two-tiered bell-tower, covered with very extended eight-granted hipped cupola with a cross. The external sight of building looked like English perpendicular Gothic style, but there were a lot of elements: the character of decoration, a lot of details and volume composition had Polish and Russian roots of architecture.
Near Lutheran Church (1907), the Temple of Bahai and three big Orthodox Churches of Ashabad, the Catholic Church was in this dominant group for 20 years. The clear form of a tower was above the low city. Near the Church there was small garden with high open-worked fence from the street side. From other sides the Church was surrounded with private houses.
We can see this monument of architecture on the one old post-card from 1912. This picture was taken from the side of Railway. It was the front of the church. The later fate of this building was the same as a lot of other Churches in the former Soviet Union.
In 1921 Ashabad was the second Turkestan city after Tashkent. The number of Catholics in Ashabad was the biggest (approximate 100 persons). In next tens of years this number was declined because of immigration and growing pressure of Government on church.
In the end of twenties the Church in Ashabad was closed. Ruined building stayed till 1932, then according to Decision of local authorities it was destroyed as alien to Soviet ideology. On it’s place after the earthquake were built prefabricated wooden houses. These one-flour cottages have stayed till today.
1. Central governmental archive of Turkmenistan, F.I-1, op 2, d.2675, L.1
2 The same document, L.5
3 The same document, F.I-1, op.2, d.2759, L.5, 22
4 The same document, L.43,47
5 The same document, L.25
6 The same document
7 Russian State Historical Archive, F.826, op.3,d.43, L.128
8 The same document, F.821, op.125, d.1166
9 The same document, F.826, op.3, d.43, L.150
10 Majdowski A., The Catholic Church in Central Asia (History of Church building in Russian Empire). Warsaw, 1995, s.58-59.
Tom Nr.11. First Part. Article 124.
About building and renovation of Roman-Catholic Churches we can read the following rules:
1) Roman-Catholic Churches could be built only at those places, where it is needed because of growing Catholic population or when there are long distances between parishes and there are difficulties in contact.
Note: On small territory one parish with one priest can be only when there are 100 houses of parishioners there.
2) Persons or societies that would like to build a new church (p.1) ought to apply with a petition to a local gubernator. He should, according to an agreement between Orthodox and Roman-Catholic Authorities, see if there aren’t obstacles for permission and then inform the Ministry of Internal Affairs to decide definitely.
3) In Transcaucasia the churches cannot be built again without the permission from the Authorities.
4) Renovation of Churches and building of new churches instead of old destroyed churches can be fulfilled with the permission of spiritual authorities. This rule is actual also for Roman-Catholic Churches: filial and chapels, that have already governmental permission.
5) Renovation of churches after needed permission can be done without obstacles from the offerings of a community. In the case of small financing they can apply to government for helping.
Note: Other rules about building of churches are written in Statues about Building Punishment for rules offences according to the criminal law.
* Cultural Attaché of Vatican Embassy in Turkmenistan Andrzej Madei helped us essentially to find the sources for this publication. – R.M.