Latvia's Abandoned Churches, Part 2: Central Zemgale

This is the second part in a series recounting the journey through Latvia that Joe and his wife took in order to visit as many abandoned churches that they could find. Today's article looks at the churches they found on a day trip through the central part of Zemgale. If you missed the first article, you can read about their drive through western Zemgale here.

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 2: Central Zemgale

About a week after traveling though the western part of Zemgale, we set off on what we thought would be a much quicker day trip through a region I am going to somewhat erroneously call "Central Zemgale." It's a misnomer both because the final church that we visited was further west than one of the ones we had visited the week before, and also because if you are thinking of Zemgale as the modern official planning region rather than the historic cultural region, all of the churches are firmly on the western side. Our route ended up looking something like this:

Salgales evanģēliski luteriskās baznīca
56.52647, 23.99031

The remains of our first two churches were on opposite sides of the Lielupe river which flows through much of Zemgale and then empties out to the Baltic Sea on the border of Rīga and Jūrmala. The first, Salgales evanģēliski luteriskā baznīca, was on the eastern bank a bit south of the town of Emburga. 

According to the official Ozolnieki region website, a church had existed at this location since 1567. Ferdinand Kettler, Duke of Courland and Semigallia, ordered the building of this stone church at the duchy's expense. This seems to have been completed in 1711, with an apparently majestic organ being installed a year later and intricate wood carvings being constructed over the next decade (both by experts from Ventspils). After the original wooden tower burnt down in 1796 and repairs were carried out a decade later, a new stone tower was constructed in 1866. Although the church was heavily damaged in World War I, the roof was rebuilt and a new organ (the third overall) was installed.

Unfortunately, like with the other churches we had visited so far, World War II and the Soviet occupation marked the end for what had been nearly 400 years of history for this place of worship. The official Ozolnieki region website says that while the church's roof, tower, and ceiling were destroyed, the inside remained mainly intact as was the case with the recent tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris. However, with organized religion no longer sanctioned by the occupation regime, most of the interior was carted off and used by hard-up locals for more practical purposes. The Latvian National Library's Zudusi Latvija portal claims adds that it was bombarded by Red Army artillery since the Nazi army had been using the church, and that part of the interior was saved and is now in the collection of the nearby Rundales pils museum. According to a segment on the TV3 news program "900 sekundes," the re-established parish has been unable to raise the massive funds needed to rebuild the church, and decided to donate it a few years back to the municipality (who has also been unable to raise the funds).

The history of this church really highlights just how apocalyptic the Second World War and the following Soviet occupation really were for the country, and the countryside in particular. My birth city of Portland, Maine is considered one of the oldest cities in America, but by the time I was born it had only been settled by Europeans for 359 years. This church had existed as a continuous entity for 18 years longer than that by the time it was destroyed in 1944. Those living there just before the war might have had great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents who had been baptized, married, and laid to rest in that very place. Seeing it in its current form as nothing more than a curious feature of the residential surroundings evoked existential dread — even as the war was raging and the occupations destroying the social fabric of society, could the residents really have imagined that this place that had been such an institution for generations upon generations, despite previous fires and wars, would simply cease to exist in a matter of months? We take our surroundings for granted as permanent and eternal, forgetting just how rapidly everything can get swept away by the tides and currents of history.

If you visit: Since the church was so close to nearby houses and the yard so nicely kept, Līga and I were paranoid that it might be on private property and therefore did not get too close to the building. Later we learned that the territory seems to be maintained by the nearby congregation in Emberga and the municipality, and it seems that there are many pictures on the internet by people who got far closer to the church than we did. In any case, a fence was blocking off access to the inside, indicating a dangerous condition. If you decide to go, please do so respectfully and at your own risk.

Mežotnes luterāņu baznīca
56.44315, 24.04206

To get to the next stop on our journey, we had to double back to the bridge by Staļģene and then drive up the Lielupe along the western bank. In doing so, we got a view of the church at Salgale from the other side of the river.

Since the road was unpaved virtually the entire way, today's trip was already taking longer than I had expected. It took nearly 40 minutes to get to Mežotne.

In Latvian history, Mežotne is a location of importance. The village was mentioned in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry, the oldest written historical account of the region, as a flash point in the conflict between the Semigallian tribe and Bishop Albert's crusaders that came under siege by King Viestards when the locals converted to Catholicism. Shortly after the territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire, Empress Catherine II ordered the construction of the modern manor on the opposite side of the river in 1797 for her close confidante and governess of her Charlotte Margarete von Lieven. During Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812, the village was the scene of a not insignificant battle between the French and Russian empires. Battles also took place here during World War I, the Latvian War of Independence, and, of course, World War II. 

As with many of the other churches covered thus far, the roof was destroyed by the Red Army and the congregation ordered to stop worshipping. Just like the church at Glūda, the irreverent communists showed what just what they thought of organized religion by converting the building into a fertilizer warehouse.

If you decide to visit: The church at Mežotne is perhaps the one I can most recommend visiting for a number of reasons. First, although it is for all intents and purposes abandoned, it is in good enough condition that it actually has the appearance of a church. Since the building is slowly being restored, it is less dangerous to access than some of the others we visited (but still please do so only at your own risk. If you are so inclined to travel there, I would strongly suggest doing so as part of day trip that would take you first to the newly restored Bauska castle, then to Mežotne manor, then to the church here and the nearby historic hillfort, and finally to the gorgeous Rundale Palace just a five-minute drive away. If you're really crazy, you could even take a selfie outside of Jelgava Palace on your way back to Rīga!

If we had known just how much of an adventure it would be getting to the final church of the day, we likely would have saved it for another time. Google Maps claimed that it would take just over an hour to get there, but that didn't take into account a seemingly endless amount of road works in which we would sometimes have to wait minutes at a time by a red light despite no one coming from the other direction (I began to deeply miss the low-tech "flagmen" I had grown up with at construction sites). That time estimate also took into account neither those very gravel roads that so badly needed that repair in the first place, nor the fact that what we thought was our destination was actually 11 kilometers off course. Thankfully, some helpful residents in the town of Ukri gave us much more helpful directions than the ones from the internet which had led us astray, and we finally found the church at Sniķere.

According to Zudusī Latvija, the story of the church follows the same basic, depressing outline as most of the others we visited. A first wooden church that was built in 1669 had collapsed by 1735, being replaced by a second wooden church in 1740 that itself had collapsed by 1830. A final stone building was constructed between 1839 and 1841, being destroyed in the Second World War and then turned into a tractor shed.

Although the surroundings of the church were landscaped and the grass was mowed, the inside was something like a mini-arboretum. Entering the church felt almost like walking into Narnia via the wardrobe. The church may have been abandoned, but it was far from dead — in fact, it was positively brimming with life!

Despite the village being so deep in the countryside and seemingly having felt the effects of rural depopulation, it's obvious that those who have remained take pride in where they live. Both Līga and I were struck by how well maintained the town was, with bus stops well-painted and all of the yards recently having been trimmed. While the municipal government likely gives little funding to this tiny village far from any major towns, locals seem more than willing to take things into their own hands and keep the place looking beautiful.

If you go there: Since Sniķere is highly unlikely on your way to or from virtually anywhere, I would recommend only the most dedicated explorers to check the church out. If you do though, you will find one of the most unique locations that we visited all throughout that summer, and a personal favorite of mine.

That was just about it for our second day drive through Zemgale! After about an hour and fifteen minute drive home along the same iffy roads (and once again passing by the church at Glūda from the previous trip), we made it back to Jelgava just as the sun was setting. Next time, I will write about our journey through southern Kurzeme, in which we were joined by none other than our occasional co-host and cycling enthusiast Mr. Kris Akenfelds himself as he moved to Liepāja for his teaching stint.

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  1. Mežotne church is closed now. There's a fence around it and it's being renovated.


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