April 4, 2011

The Dominican Church in Gdansk

The Dominican Church of St. Nicholas is one of the oldest churches in Gdansk. Its history begins in the 12th century. It was built at the junction of two important trade routes: the ancient mercantile path (via mercatorum) and the route leading from the royal castle of Gdansk’s estate in Pomerania. The church from the beginning served both the local population, as well as many merchants and sailors who came here from all parts of the world. St. Nicholas was known in the Middle Ages as the patron of both sailors and merchants.

On January 22, 1227, the Pomeranian prince Svatopluk entrusted the Church of St. Nicholas to the Dominicans, who had just arrived in the Polish territories. Immediately they began intensive pastoral activities both within the city and in neighboring Prussia. The church became the site of a thriving Dominican priory, which soon had a population of nearly two hundred brethren.

Gdansk passed under the dominion of the Teutonic Knights in 1308, the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Church of St Nicholas. For the developing and prosperous city the church seemed to be too small. The Dominicans built a new church alongside the old one, which is preserved to this day.

The most dramatic period in the history of the church was the sixteenth century, the age of the Reformation. The church was repeatedly destroyed and plundered during the riots. The friars were expelled, and several of them lost their lives. In 1578 they returned to the priory and assumed the pastoral care of the Catholic population in the increasingly Protestant Gdansk.

Since that time, St. Nicholas became once again a celebrated church. Within the walls of the priory lived more and more friars, and the intellectual life and preaching of the brethren thrived. The church received new and significant appointments (the main altar, choir stalls, pulpit, organ). Visits by Polish kings on the occasion of their trips to Gdansk attest to the centrality and importance of St. Nicholas Church.

The end of the heyday of the monastery (and of the whole of Gdansk) came with the Polish partitions (1772), and then the Napoleonic wars. In 1813, as a result of Russian bombardment of the city, the priory was burned. Twenty years later, the Dominicans were forced to leave town, and eventually the ruined monastic buildings were demolished. The church was established as the Catholic parish of the city (one of four in what was then Danzig).

The diocesan priests who served the church until the outbreak of World War II were German, but their names (Maćkowski, Bruski) indicate Polish roots. Their vicars and associates were largely native Poles. German and Polish Masses were celebrated until the outbreak of World War II. The year 1945 proved to be disastrous for Gdansk. The city was 90% destroyed, and the people were expelled. All the churches downtown were reduced to rubble, except one. This sole survivor was in fact St. Nicholas. Dominicans credit Fr. Stanislaus with saving the church by convincing Russian soldiers not to destroy it.

In April 1945, the Dominicans returned to Gdansk (112 years after their departure in 1833). They had come mostly from Lviv, which had been abandoned by the Poles. They brought from there a medieval icon of Our Lady of Victory, the patroness of the city (today it is in the church).

In Gdansk, the Dominicans took up pastoral work among the increasing numbers of Poles arriving in the city. The parish, which they received, included a large part of the city. Over time, when there were more parishes, the friars could also give other types of pastoral ministry more connected with their charism.

Currently the community numbers nine Dominicans, who are busy with a variety of pastoral activities. In addition to the regular work in the parish church, where the “trademark” is the daily Mass at noon, beginning with the Angelus, there are different types of chaplaincies. For forty years the friars have been working at their Student Chaplaincy. People who lose loved ones to religious sects, as well as those who leave these sects, seek spiritual assistance and psychological support from the Dominican Center for Information on New Religious Movements and Sects. Those who hunger for religious knowledge come to the Dominican School of Faith. The Kitchen of St. Nicholas offers regular meals for the poor and homeless. The big challenge for community is the organization and construction of the Dominican Center of Saint Hyacinth.

The Church of St. Nicholas of the Dominicans in Gdansk is an extraordinary place. It is the oldest church in the city and thus one of the most important witnesses to its beautiful and dramatic history. It has survived all the turmoils of the World Wars and its rich and varied history gives it a unique atmosphere.