Latvia's Abandoned Churches, Part 1: Western Zemgale

At the beginning of last summer, my wife became interested in possibly painting some of Latvia's abandoned churches. We began reading as much as we could on the internet in both Latvian and in English about them, and made a map of the 27 that we could find. Although my wife wasn't planning on painting all of them, she became determined to visit each and every one of them over the course of the summer. We did so over the course of five trips, the first three of which lasted a day each, and the last two taking two and three days respectively.
Although her art project never quite came to fruition, knowing that many of you out there are interested in exploring abandoned places, I decided to write a series of articles about our experiences traveling to them, and what we found. Each of the articles will document one of our five trips, which just happen to have vaguely coincided with Latvia's cultural regions. Today's will look at our first journey which took us through the eastern part of our home region, Zemgale.

Please keep in mind that these pictures and descriptions are already at least a year old at the time of this article's publication, and that the situation at each church might already be quite different than how it is written about here. In some of the churches' titles, you can find links to pictures of how the building looked like before being destroyed or abandoned. If you would like to visit the churches yourselves, I have added map coordinates for each of them in the individual write ups. Make sure to respect the fact that a number of these are on private property, and do use common sense when visiting them as many are in dangerous, unstable condition (hence the fact that they are abandoned).

Part 1: Western Zemgale

Before setting out to visit the first church on our map, we took a "quick" detour to pick up a friend of ours who had stayed the night in Ķemeri, a beautiful village at the extreme western end of Jūrmala which I would strongly recommend all of you to visit once reconstruction work on its historic center hopefully finishes next year.

Throughout the day, we were able to visit seven different churches along a route that looked something like this:

Zebrenes luterāņu baznīca
(56.61373, 22.90024)

The first church we visited was just north of the village of Zebrene, 10 minutes south of the Rīga-Liepāja highway about halfway between Jelgava and Saldus. 

Luckily, despite the area being heavily overgrown, the church was fairly easy to see from the main road as it sat atop a relatively tall hill (at least for legendarily flat Zemgale). Not so luckily, the path towards the church was lined with giant hogweed, which can cause highly painful and long-lasting burns if touched. With a bit of caution, we were able to make it right up to the church's building.

The congregation was apparently founded in 1548, with the church itself built between 1856 and 57 with 300 seats. After being damaged in World War II, a kiln for drying grain was installed in 1957. Although the church was never restored to its former glory, there was a fairly well-maintained cemetery just behind the building.
Unlike the cemetery, no attempt whatsoever seem to have been made to trim the grass and weeds outside of or around the the church building itself. Having brought along neither machetes nor industrial strength weed whackers, we were unable to get inside the church itself.
If you decide to visit: If you want a truly "abandoned" church, this is about as real as it gets. However, it has deteriorated to the point where it's difficult to visually distinguish it as a "church" rather than any other type of abandoned building. Considering how overgrown the hill was in the summer, I would recommend visiting in winter or early spring before the tall grass (particularly the dangerous giant hogweed) make it difficult to access. Whenever you visit, make sure to respect the fact that the cemetery seems to still be maintained, and visitors may be there to spend time at family members' grave sites in peace and quiet.

Īles luterāņu baznīca
(56.5524, 23.01699)

Next up was a church that wasn't nearly as abandoned as we had thought (or even at all anymore), found just about halfway between the towns of Dobele and Auce.

When we got there, we found people landscaping the area, and could see that there had been repairs made to the building in the recent past. According to an LSM article published just days after we visited, it turns out that the more than 350-year-old church had been "reopened" for a concert on the annual Night of Churches in June 2016, and that a small congregation had very recently resumed monthly services. The church itself has a rich history closely connected with the nearby manor, which you can read about in Latvian or with the help of Google Translate) here.
This set off a debate between my wife and I which lasted the entire rest of the summer, and was never fully resolved; what should count as an "abandoned" church? Obviously a place like this where regular church services still took place couldn't possibly be considered "abandoned," but what if it was just a few events from time to time such as concerts or weddings? If the building itself was completely unused but people were still trimming the grass and planting flowers nearby, was it truly "abandoned?" This is a philosophical question that you can decide on an answer to for yourself. In any case, since people were actively working on the church yard, we decided not to bother them and get too close to the building itself.
If you decide to visit: Īles luterāņu baznīca is a fascinating and heartwarming example of a church that had been all but abandoned but has been brought back to life by an active and engaged community. With the prevailing narrative in Latvia being its rural areas emptying out, it's nice to see a counter-example such as this. It remains to be determined how long the church's second life will last, but for now you just might have the opportunity to visit this place as a wedding guest, concert goer, or worshipper instead of an explorer of abandoned places. 

Lielauces luterāņu baznīca
(56.51366, 22.87627)

Driving deeper down the dirt roads of western Zemgale we came to the truly abandoned Lielauce Lutheran Church.
According to a number of internet resources that are difficult to verify, the church's history follows a pattern that will soon begin to sound familiar; a stone church with a wooden was built between 1744-48 to replace an older deteriorating wooden church. After being renovated a few times in the 1800s, the church was significantly damaged in World War II and then unceremoniously converted a storage facility as part of the local collective farm set up by the occupying Soviet regime. Eventually, the badly maintained building deteriorated to the sorry state of repair you can find it in today.
If you decide to visit: Like with Zebrene, this one is truly abandoned but doesn't have much of the appearance of a church anymore after decades of neglect. However, it is far easier to access from the road, and is much less overgrown. If you do decide to visit, I would also strongly suggest checking out the nearby Lielauce Manor and its gorgeous lakeside territory which we unfortunately did not have time to visit on this trip.

Zvārdes luteraņu baznīca
(56.56092, 22.63262)

Next on our journey was what might be the most popular abandoned church of all. After leaving Lielauce, we began the journey deep into Zvārdes mežs, a former Soviet Air Force training base turned nature park. 
According to an informational sign put up next to the ruins, the stone building was built in 1785 to replace an older wooden church, surviving the First World War but getting badly damaged in the second. Far worse for the sanctuary's fate was the Soviet Air Force's establishment of Zvārdes poligons in the 1960s, which both forcibly removed all local residents (including parishioners) and put the church smack dab in the middle of a military training ground.
The church's almost completely destroyed condition should come as no surprise given both the Soviets' attitude towards houses of worship along with the building's unfortunate proximity to the training range. Although you could argue that the building itself is technically in the worst condition of all of the ones we visited, the scenic ruins have captured enough imaginations to be given a second life as a makeshift open-air sanctuary. Painted wooden pews have been installed, along with a cross and altar, and according the zudusilatvija portal, church services still take place during summer months (though I could not confirm this in any official sources). Far easier to confirm is the site's low key popularity as a wedding venue, perfect for those seeking a very unique mix of nature and religion.
If you decide to visit: Both the church and the surrounding Zvārdes nature park are gorgeous, but please use extreme caution wandering off of marked trails; as this was a military range, there are still deadly unexploded shells hidden in deeper areas of the forest. Please also respect the fact that the area still seems to be actively used for church purposes, and that there could be peace and quiet-seeking worshippers there at the time of your visit.

Ķerkliņu luterāņu baznīca
(56.51975, 22.67008)

Deeper down the dirt roads of Zvārdes mežs was Ķerkliņu luterāņu bāznīca, as of yet the most isolated church we had visited.
The area around the church was so overgrown, that despite it being on a hill and us driving relatively slowly down the road, it was the very first one that we accidentally drove by the first time around and then had to circle back with eyes peeled in order to find it. It's almost impossible to imagine that this has once been clear-cut and well-maintained farm land.
Ķerkliņu luterāņu baznīca is one of the only abandoned churches we visited to have its own Wikipedia page. Built in 1641, the church was damaged in both of the world wars and then was made inaccessible due to its location deep within the Zvārde military base. Thanks to its tower remaining mostly intact despite the war damage, this was the very first church we had visited that actually looked like a traditional church at first glance. While it doesn't seem like the premises had been recently used in the same way that that the ones at Zvārde and Īle had, someone had bothered to print out and glue to the wall a giant Latvian language comic strip depicting a man being sent to eternal damnation by an angry god for a variety of sins.
If you decide to visit: As mentioned above, use extreme caution venturing off of the beaten paths of the forest, as you do not want to discover any active explosives the hard way. Enter the building at your own risk; although I lack an engineering degree, I'm fairly confident in my assessment that the tower's structural integrity leaves much to be desired, and bricks seem to be falling fairly regularly. Drive slowly while approaching the church, as you may end up driving right by it during the overgrown season as we did. If you have time, you might also check out the remains of the Kerklingen Manor on the other side of the street along the coast of the lake.

Jaunauces luterāņu baznīca
(56.45853, 22.67017)

Making our way out of the forest, our next stop was Jaunauce, a tiny village just six or so kilometers from the Lithuanian border. The church was about a kilometer northeast outside of town.
As is a very familiar story by now, the building was constructed in 1612, damaged in the Second World War, and then properly destroyed by soldiers from the nearby base, with the bricks being hauled away to build new structures in the nearby village. The congregation was re-established in 1995, making the wise financial decision to hold services in the Jaunauce Manor building rather than spend a not-so-small fortune on rebuilding the church itself.
If you decide to visit: Thanks to the existence of the congregation, the area around the church tower is well kept, complete with a cross and an informational sign (in Latvian only) that explained all of the history I mentioned above. Although just one wall remains due to most material being repurposed by the Soviets, what remains certainly gives the impression of a once glorious church, and the surrounding territory is both scenic and serene. While no church events seem to take place here, please do respect the fact that this still seems to be the property of the congregation.

(56.58773, 23.4681)

While we had originally planned on traveling another 12 kilometers southwest to the church at Ruba, it was already getting late and we decided to leave it for another day. Instead, we headed back east towards Jelgava via Auce, stopping at the remains of Glūdas evaņģēliski luteriskā baznīca on the way.
The history of the church of Glūda differs from that of those mentioned so far in a number of ways. For starters, it was built relatively more "recently" in 1894 to house a congregation that had only been established less than 50 years prior as an offshoot of a larger Dobele congregation. Instead of being damaged in World War II, it was apparently used as a makeshift hospital in the later part of the war. The Soviets then unceremoniously converted the building into a tractor shed and fertilizer storage facility, walling up with windows and hauling out anything of value. A "blue shield" sign on the outside indicates that the church is registered as a protected cultural landmark, although that status has done seemingly little to stop it from slowly deteriorating.
If you decide to visit: This was by far one of the most convenient churches to access, being just a 20 minute drive from Jelgava along a major road. It was unclear whether or not the building was on municipal or private property, so do keep this in mind and be smart. Although at first glance the building looked the most like an actual church out of virtually all of the ones we had visited that day, something about the way it had been "renovated" and then mistreated by the Soviets made it feel like its soul had long been ripped out. It certainly evoked for me the most complicated feelings I had of nearly any of the churches we visited throughout the entire summer.

That was it for our day trip through the west of Zemgale! Next time, we will take a much shorter look at the three churches we visited on our second day trip, this time through the more central portion of the region. 

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