THE ORTHODOX CHURCH AND PARISH IN BIALOWIEZA
Bialowieza village settled at the time when the hunting lodge of the king Wladyslaw Jagiello was built in the heart of the Bialowieza Primeval Forest, on Lutownia river, before 1409. At the end of the 16th century, the royal hunting settlement moved to the right bank of Narewka river. The increase of the settled area formed the clearing called Bialowieza Glade. A few villages built on the Glade are now given the common name Bialowieza, although Bialowieza village proper does not exist after 1710.
During the settlement of Bialowieza village, the outskirts of Bialowieza Forest were inhabited by Ruthenians. Initially of Orthodox creed, they had to join the Uniate Church after 1596. According to the spoken tradition, the first small church in Bialowieza existed in the 17th century. Is was burnt in the early 18th century along with village infected with the plague.
First the parish church for the inhabitants of Bialowieza was in Szereszewo. In 1680 (and till 1800), the newly built church in Suchopol became the parish church for the Bialowieza villagers. In 1793, Bialowieza built its own wooden church. A parish was established here in 1800 or 1801.
In 1839, when the Polish Uniate Church subordinated to papacy was suppressed, the church and parishioners of Bialowieza returned to the Orthodox Church.
The wooden church fell into disrepair soon, so the inhabitants of Bialowieza built a new wooden one in 1853, but the old church was pulled down as late as in 1870. St. Nicholas the Worker of Miracles became the patron of the church.
In the 1860s, a parish school was founded in Bialowieza, and in 1890s, two additional small school were installed in Pogorzelce and Teremiski. In 1870, the parish council was established to support and take care of the Bialowieza church. Two choirs existed here, one of boys and another of the local administration officers.
The church fell into disrepair after some 25 years. The decision to construct the new church had been made before 1888, when the Bialowieza Primeval Forest was incorporated into the appanages of the Russian tsars. The consecration of "the most beautiful orthodox church in the whole Grodno province" occurred on January 22nd, 1895 (acc. to an old style calendar). Now, this church still serves the orthodox believers in Bialowieza and a few other villages in the Bialowieza Forest.
In 1900, the parish had 2315 worshippers. In August 1915, the local people, endangered by the invading German army, were forced to evacuate far into Russia. At that time, most of the church endowments and ornamentes (including a huge bell) were also irretrievably evacuated. After the World War I, the parishio-ners, decimated by poverty and disease, returned to their homes, although their settlements were often badly destroyed. Slowly, they repaired the church and replenished its poor furnishing. Just before the World War II, the number of parishioners was over 5000 people.
On September 1st, 1939, German bombers casted down two bombs, which destroyed the church seriously. The congregation and the parish priest were able to repair the church in 1943. During the war, Germans organized many execu-tions of the local population. Over 90 people were hanged on the trees growing by the church.
After the WW II, during the last few decades, the parishioners took care of their church. Several larger and smaller repairing projects were conducted. The vicinity of the church was arranged in order. Ornaments and furnishing were supplied or changed.
The parish often hosts the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church from all over the world. Also, many priests (including minister of other Christian creeds) frequently visit Bialowieza. Recently, the parish began cooperation with one of the Protestant parishes in Lausanne, Switzerland. Participants of the annual Festival of the Orthodox Church Music in Hajnowka are regular visitors of the Bialowieza orthodox church. Many tourist visit the church with great interest, and admire its iconostas made of Chinese porcelain, a unique monument of this kind in Poland.
In 1989, the Brotherhood of Orthodox Youth established its education-recreation center in Bialowieza, and it organizes international seminars.
Nowadays, the orthodox church in Bialowieza has 1000 parishioners. The parish holidays are celebrated on May 22nd and October 14th.
The orthodox parish in Bialowieza administers the local cemetery founded in the first half of the 18th century. Funerals of people of various creeds and atheists take place here, and there is no division into denominational sections. The oldest preserved graves dates from the 1870s. In the cemetery, there is an orthodox chapel, under the invocation of Saints Cyril and Metody, built by the parishioners in 1873.
The orthodox congregation is the oldest and most numerous creed in Bialowieza. Other creeds possesing their own churches are: Roman catholics (about 800 parishioners) and baptists (about 10 members). In Bialowieza, there are also Jehova Witnesses, Pentecostals, and members of the God's Church in Christ. Be-fore the WW II, Jews were numerous (over 500 people), but they all were exterminated by the Nazis in 1941.