Russia, located just across the Bering Sea from North America - about 55 miles from Alaska at its narrowest point - is a close neighbour to Canada and the U.S.
Each summer by train, plane and cruise ship an abundance of tourists arrive in Vladivostok, eager to see Asiatic Russia’s largest port on the Pacific Ocean.
Vladivostok, translated from Russian as "ruler of the East,” is located on the Sea of Japan, close to the Chinese and North Korean borders.
The city was founded as an outpost in 1860. Today it is a melting pot of cultures, teeming with history, attracting tourists who flock to see its natural wonders and study the unique peculiarities of its early architecture.
The city is famous in Russia as the home port of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Visitors come from all over the world, staying in places like the historic Versailles Hotel, the oldest hotel in the city.
Pope St. John Paul II, who visited 129 countries - and was barred from visiting Russia - once referred to Vladivostok as “the edge of the world.”
Train enthusiasts are especially drawn to Vladivostok, arriving by droves on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway in the world.
When it was completed in 1916, the Trans-Siberian gave Vladivostok a major boost, forever putting it on the map, connecting Vladivostok with Moscow and Europe.
Today tourists begin their journey in Moscow and end in Vladivostok, a staggering 9,288 kilometres.
The history and strategic importance of the railway in the life and destiny of Vladivostok and the Far East cannot be underestimated.
Vladivostok’s majestic Czarist-era train station greets visitors as they arrive by train (situated across the street from where Hollywood icon Yul Brynner was born in 1920).
As the happy tourists disembark from the trains, they gather for photos at a stately monument celebrating the momentous terminus of the railway.
Most bus tours of the city include a stop at the Proto-Cathedral of the Most Holy God-Bearer, a major city attraction (known more commonly in English as the parish of the Most Holy Mother of God).
This magnificent structure, designed in the Polish Brick-Gothic style of the 1800s, is the Roman Catholic parish of Vladivostok. Construction began in 1908 and was not completed until 2010, nearly 100 years later.
The Catholics and their clergy who built the church were mostly Poles, many displaced victims of forced migration from Poland. It is estimated they numbered about 15,000 at the time the church was constructed.
In the following years still more Catholics came from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine.
It was Russian Emperor (and also King of Poland) Alexander II who in 1866 first erected a Catholic parish with resident priest in the Far East of Russia. In 1890 it extended to Vladivostok, the year before construction began on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Catholic parish in Vladivostok stands as a testament to the strong faith and the aesthetic knowledge of the people. It is in the city, overlooking the sea, yet sacred and removed from it.
Of all the heritage buildings in Vladivostok, this church stands out as unique, a historical gem of inestimable value. This is because it is one of a few churches in the region that survived the horrific purge of the Soviet Revolution.
Vladivostok’s Orthodox churches were all completely destroyed by the Communists. The Orthodox cathedral, built in 1902, was blown up by local Communist authorities on Easter Sunday, 1935. In its place a statue of Lenin was erected.
Further, the adjacent Orthodox cemetery (which included a Catholic section), was levelled and replaced with an amusement park and outdoor dance hall. An accurate replica of the cathedral was rebuilt on the same spot in 2007, amid the city park where families stroll and children play.
Historians surmise the Catholic cathedral was spared because it was relatively new - Soviet officials deemed it worth keeping, adding three interior floors and converting the space into a state archive.
After the fall of Communism in 1991, the church was given back to the Catholics of Vladivostok on Jan. 1, 1994.
Gradually, the two interior floors were removed and the church was restored to its original design. Meanwhile, the exterior structure was completed in 2009 with two matching steeples that had been envisaged by the original architect, but never completed due to the interruption of the Revolution.
Further, there are 4 bells in the new steeples, created in a foundry in Poland and shipped on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok. They were blessed by Pope John Paul II during his journey to Poland in 1999.
The Gothic Revival sanctuary with its stunning 40-foot-tall altarpiece is the creation of U.S.-based Matthew Alderman Studios, a project completed in 2010.
Parishioners are also particularly proud of the stained glass windows, all hand-crafted in Belarus by professional glasswork artisans.
The parish has become renowned in the city and region for its sacred music concert series, held several times a year. Locals flock to hear the pipe organ, a rare sound in the Far East of Russia.
The classic concerts resonate with the local people. It has been said Russians have a deeply liturgical soul. Russian liturgy is very solemn – it is the music that makes it so. Tchaikovsky’s Hymn of the Cherubim comes to mind.
The Gothic architecture lends itself to perfect acoustics, the result of resonating arched spaces, where instruments, voice and acoustics work together in a unique and harmonious synergy.
For those visiting Vladivostok with a particular interest in Polish history or the Russian Revolution, this church is a must-see. The site attracts an interesting array of travellers, some who stay for the experience of Sunday services and tea time, which begin at noon.
Although the parish was raised to the status of cathedral in 1923 when the Holy See created the Diocese of Vladivostok, since 2002 it is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Irkutsk, the largest geographical Catholic diocese on earth.
The longtime pastor, American-born Fr. Myron Effing, arrived in 1991. He can sometimes be seen in the churchyard with a rosary. He is revered by locals as a dedicated spiritual father of proven generosity with a deep and abiding love for the Russian people.
Russia, the largest country in the world – a sixth of the world’s land mass – is an enchanting land with a beautiful people who have survived a century of upheaval and anti-Christian persecution unparalleled in modern history.
May the Russian Catholics of Vladivostok continue to inspire us with their faith and hospitality and may their multi-ethnic community at the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway always flourish.
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.