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The Orthodox parish of Hagia Sophia in Białystok

The Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church

The idea of erecting the Hagia Sophia Orthodox church in Bialystok emerged in 1986 on a plane back from Constantinople. Bazyli, who was the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in Poland at that time, along with Sawa, the Archbishop of the Bialystok-Gdansk diocese and the Metropolitan from 1998, and Father Aleksander Chilimoniuk, the parish priest of All Saints parish in Bialystok, were coming back from visit paid to the Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitri I. They had visited the famous Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. However, they could not pray inside it, because the Turkish law prohibited to do so. They also knew that praying was forbidden in three other Hagia Sophia temples situated in the Soviet Union, which had been fighting the Orthodox Church for seven decades.
“If another temple is to be built in Bialystok,” the dignitaries concluded, “let it be dedicated to Hagia Sophia”. “Let there be prayer at least in this church of the Holy Wisdom”. The Hagia Sophia Orthodox churches rank among the most impressive, beautiful and important temples. Not many of them had been built because they were founded by the most powerful people: Emperors and Princes in Constantinople, Sofia, Kiev, Polotsk, Veliky Novgorod and Thessaloniki. In the later period were founded also in Washington, Los Angeles, London, Basel (Switzerland), Harbin (China). 
The foundation stone of the Hagia Sophia in Bialystok was laid on 20 November 1987. Five years earlier, in 1982, a new parish was established, dedicated to All Saints, at the Orthodox cemetery church in 1 Wysockiego Street. The parish became home to a new Orthodox community of Saint Sophia – Holy Wisdom, i.e. Hagia Sophia. Father Aleksander Chilimoniuk, who was appointed as the All Saints parish priest, rose to the challenge and became the manager of the first, very difficult stage of building the Hagia Sophia Orthodox church in Bialystok. 
The new parish in Wysockiego Street gathered the faithful from the large district of Wygoda, located in the north-eastern part of the city. The cemetery church was very small and could only hold around a hundred people. A new temple was urgently needed.
In 1986, 8,169 square metres of land were bought for the purpose of building the church and the parish house. On 20 November 1987, Dmitri I, Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch, visited the construction site and consecrated the founding stone of the Hagia Sophia, accompanied by Sawa, the Archbishop of the Bialystok-Gdansk diocese and the All Saints parish priest Aleksander Chilimoniuk.
Within one year of burying the foundation act at the construction site, on 6 September 1988, Archbishop Sawa established the independent community of Saint Sophia – Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia. The territory of the new parish was separated from the All Saints parish. The Archbishop indicated in his decree that for the time being the community was the use the All Saints church and a temporary chapel built at the construction site and at the cemetery in Wysockiego Street.
The church, designet by Michał Bałasz, was built in times of economic decline, when building materials were scare in Poland. As a result, the church had to be constructed as economically as possible; therefore, the parishioners helped with the works.  
The parishioners carefully observed the constructions of their new church. As soon as the long wooden barrack was built, with the aim of serving as a storehouse and worshop, part of it was transformed into a temporary church. People prayer there from 1987 to 1996, which integrated the community, binding the faithful to the new place of worship.
In 1991, on the Nativity of the Theotokos, Archbishop Sawa consecrated the first cross, which was set on top of the church’s main dome. In the following year, crosses were fixed on the four smaller domes and in 1992 the church was finally given today’s shape. 
The first Liturgy was held inside on 21 September 1994, on a parish holiday. Archbishop Sawa, who came for the celebrations, consecrated the seven bells made in Voronezh in Russia. 
On 1 August 1995, Archbishop Sawa appointed Father Anatol Konach as the Hagia Sophia parish priest. 
On 15 October 1998, Hagia Sophia was visited by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. It was his first visit in Poland as patriarch. He was invited by the Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in Poland and Polish government. The Patriarch was accompanied by Sawa, the Archbishop of Warsaw and All Poland. Archbishop Sawa described consecrating Hagia Sophia as the most important part of the Patriarch’s visit in Poland. “It is from your homeland, from the Holy Fathers that we draw the fundament of our faith”, said Archbishop Sawa to his dear guest.
Archbishop Sawa expressed his gratitude to the congregation for the help in building the church, for the work of thousands of contributors, and especially to Father Aleksander Chilimoniuk, who stood up to the challenge eleven years earlier, to Father Anatol Konach, who continued the venture and the architect Michał Bałasz as well as Prof. Konstantinos Ksenopoulos, a Greek from Athens, the author of the polychrome.
The Hagia Sophia parish covered the districts in the north-eastern part of Białystok: Bagnówka, Jaroszówka, Pieczurki, Wyżyny and part of the Wygoda district. The parish life flourished. A group of the Orthodox Youth Brotherhood was established and parish choirs were formed.
Since 1992, Hagia Sophia has been the departure point of walking pilgrimages to the Monastery of the Annunciation in Supraśl for the Supraśl Icon of Our Lady holiday. The pilgrimage starts on 9 August every year.
The parish has become an Orthodox Church music promotion centre. In 1997 Archbishop Sawa initiated the first Białystok Orthodox Church Music Days. On 24 September 1997, one of the concerts was held at the church at Trawiasta Street. Since then, choirs have always given concerts during the Białystok Orthodox Church Music Days.
The biggest musical event was held in 2008, when Hagia Sophia held concerts of the choirs that won the International Fastival “The Hajnówka’s Orthodox Church Music Days”.
The church architecture
The building design compised five domes, with the central one – which is 16 metres wide – clearly dominating above the others. Along the east-west axis, the central dome is adjoined by quarters of domes; one over the altar and another over the choir balcony. 
The base structure is compact. The church is built on a rectangular plan; its dimensions are 22.5 by 32.5 metres. Althought it is not a square, those who enter the church clearly feel its centralized character, which is typical for Byzantine architecture. The building looks as if it was oriented around the vertical axis determined by the apex of the dome which is supported by arches and pendentives. At the same time similarly to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, there is a clearly visible horizontal axis pointing eastward from the entrance. This axis is underscored by two half-domes and a line of columns separating the nave from the aisles.
The light enters generously through the 24 windows, each 1.5-metre high, which are located in the lower part of the dome, as well as through seven large windows of various sizes, mainly narrow, situated in the nave.
The elevation is made of clinker bricks. Plaster was used only at the main entrance. Bricks were used, especially on the walls on the north and south side, to create intricate patterns in panels and pilasters, forming interpenetrating arches. The final effect, especially when light is coming from the side, indicates fine craftsmanship.
The height of the building from the floor to the highest point of the dome is 17 metres and its usable area amounts to 625 square metres.
Inside, Hagia Sophia is covered in paintings. The current iconographic program for the interiors of central-domed churches was established in Byzantine times after the iconoclastic period, i.e. after 843, though it was later subject to slight modifications. This program was imitated in Białystok’s Orthodox church. The program is based on the principle of a descending hierarchy of topics – from images showing fundamental, universal truths of our faith to historic events. Thus, the church, which is filled with paintings, resembles the Christian world, uniting heaven and earth, the reality of the living and the eternal spirit world, the biblical past and today’s liturgy which engages priests and the congregation.
Icon painters are perceived as people who communicate God’s knowledge. The iconographic program employed in the Białystok Holy Wisdom Orthodox church was executed by Professor Konstantinos Ksenopoulos, a Greek from Thessaloniki. The paintings on the dome, apse and in the altar area a gift from the Greek people. Konstantinos Ksenopoulos worked, together with his students, on the arrangement of paintings in Bialystok’s Hagia Sophia for sixteen years. The filled the interior with intensive, vivid and bright colours, characteristic for the sunny Balkans, thus introducing the atmosphere of joy and purity. Konstantinos Ksenopoulos combines painting icons with theological insight. He believes one cannot be a good painter of icons without good knowledge of theology. In his life, he has taught around two thousand students. He painted icons, among other place, in Finland, France, Germany, Austria, Constantinople, as well as in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Argentina, Canada, Egypt and on Mount Athos.
By way of its architecture and iconography, the Hagia Sophia church has become a token of the spiritual and cultural bonds joining the Republic of Poland with Constantinople and later Greece.
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