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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The New Volga Boatmen Sing God's Praises

On a hot day this summer, villagers from Nariman in the Volgograd region went to swim in the Volga-Don Canal. Floating off...shore, behind the reeds, they glimpsed the onion dome of an Orthodox church, topped with a shining gold cross. The bells were ringing and an Orthodox liturgy was in progress.

"They thought it was a devil's spell, started to cross themselves and ran away," Archpriest Nikolai Agafonov said.

But it was not a delusion. It was a real Russian Orthodox Church, albeit on a barge. Consecrated May 22 by Archbishop German of Volgograd, it has since been sailing from village to village along the Volga-Don Canal and the Don River. Thousands of Russians who have not seen a practicing Orthodox church in decades, or ever, have come to services, been baptized and married on this waterborn chapel.

Agafonov, who runs the missionary department of the Volgograd Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and undertook the unusual project with funding from the international Roman Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, is justifiably proud.

"When we saw that people were crying from joy, we understood that we did the right thing," he said by telephone from Volgograd. "People who were nearly 70 years old came to confession for the first time in their lives. In every village, we were asked to stay forever."

The floating church will be docked in one of the villages and continue functioning through the winter. But when the ice melts next spring, the onion-domed boat will resume its journey, stopping for a couple of days wherever there is no Orthodox church.

Hundreds of churches in the Volgograd region were destroyed by either the Soviet authorities during their militant atheist campaign in the 1920s and 1930s, or during World War II. The horrific battle of Stalingrad - now Volgograd - dragged on for five months and was a turning point in the war.

"We will not restore these churches, not in 10 or 20 years," Agafonov said. "That would take tens of millions of dollars." But $50,000 provided by Aid to the Church in Need has made a difference.

Archpriest Theodore van der Voort, an Orthodox priest from the Netherlands, who runs the Catholic charity's projects of aide to the Russian Orthodox Church, said the idea of a floating church had first emerged when he came to Volgograd in November 1997.

He and Agafonov were in the banya, the Russian steam bath, in the house of a friend, Vladimir Koretsky - chief of Volgograd's railway station, an Orthodox layman and devoted sailor.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to sailing, and Van der Voort noted that Bishop Sergy of Novosibirsk had rented a boat for a missionary trip on the Ob River.

"This is something we in Volgograd also need!" Van der Voort recalled Agafonov saying. But instead of simply traveling by boat and celebrating the liturgies with a movable altar in houses of culture and other public spaces, which, Agafonov said, Russians don't take seriously as churches, they decided to go for a full scale temple on a barge.

Koretsky contacted a friend who was the director of Volgograd's shipyard and located a barge, which used to serve as a dormitory for workers.

Later the same month, Agafonov and Koretsky went to Konigstein, Germany, where Aid to the Church in Need is based, and the funds were released. The 27-meter barge was bought for 80,000 rubles ($13,600), and the rest of the $50,000 grant was spent for refurbishment and all that is needed for a proper Orthodox church: altar, iconostasis, liturgical vessels, bells and a dome.

On May 22 the Volgograd bishop consecrated the floating church of Saint Metropolitan Innokenty, and on June 5 it sailed, pushed by the Saint Prince Vladimir tugboat. Agafonov said the tugboat was also transferred to church property earlier this month.

The church's divine patron, Metropolitan Innokenty Veniaminov, was a renowned Russian Orthodox missionary in the first half of the 19th century who brought Christianity to natives of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Agafonov said the past five months have been full of notable events for the traveling mission, on which he took turns with two other priests he trained as missionaries: Sergy Tyunin and Gennady Khanykin. The journal recording the trip's miracles and disasters should be published, Agafonov said.

On June 26, the boat went aground in the Cossack settlement of Golubinskaya, Agafonov said. It was unbearably hot and a drought was killing the crops. People asked the priest to hold a special prayer service for rain, and at 2 p.m. it started pouring.

On Oct. 6, police occupied the boat in the town of Serafimovich. When Father Gennady attempted to bar the armed policemen from entering the church, they arrested him, and he had to spend several hours in a police cell. Policemen later said they were looking for a shipment of arms but never explained why they suspected the traveling church, Agafonov said. The ship was searched without a warrant and a case of church wine disappeared, he added.

Though few people in the region remember a time when there were churches in their town, they are looking for religion, Agafonov said, warning that they will turn to other faiths if the Orthodox Church does not step back in.

In the town of Komsomolsk, the priest said, half of the population became Jehovah's Witnesses through the active work of missionaries. When the floating church started calling on their shores, many of them "returned to the Orthodox Church and repented," Agafonov said.

Van der Voort, who in Russia is known as Father Fyodor, recalled how he celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the boat on a hot day in July in the settle ment of Treostrovskaya: "It was tremendous! Sixty to 70 people attended, I was soaked, my lower robes were wet, but it was great!"

At a time of complicated relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, when the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly accused Rome of "proselytizing" in Russia and grassroots resentment of non-Orthodox Christians has grown across Russia, Aid to the Church in Need has been a welcome presence. The charity has helped the Russian Orthodox Church to rebuild its infrastructure by providing aid mainly to seminaries and parishes in many dioceses across Russia, working strictly through Orthodox bishops.

"We are not making a lot of fuss about it. We are just helping," Van der Voort said. His status as an Orthodox priest evidently has promoted the friendly relations.

"We have never had bad relations [with the Catholic Church], Agafonov said from Volgograd. "As far as the supreme authorities are concerned, I don't know. What I know is that there are kind people in the West who have supported us with their money."

Van der Voort said the aid organization considers the Volgograd project so successful that two more boats are in the planning.