GALLERY: Night of Churches opens doors of nearly 50 churches, congregations across Estonia
On Friday night, a total of 48 Christian houses of worship across Estonia, including churches, two chapels and one house of prayer, were open to visitors, offering special programs, concerts, and opportunities for visitors to explore and ask questions about the churches and their activities. In Tartu alone, visitors were welcomed at 14 locations across the city, many of which stayed open until midnight.
Despite the chilly drizzle, from 6 p.m onward, small groups of people could be seen moving from church to church across Tartu, carrying cameras and small info booklets that were stamped at each visited church or congregation participating in the annual event.
For many visitors, this was perhaps the first time they had set foot in one or another of the city’s many churches, as Christianity in particular suffered a major decline in popularity among Estonians during five decades of occupation, and active membership in Christian congregations is considered by many to be more niche than the norm today.
The Night of Churches, or Long Night of Churches, as it is known in some countries, has been gaining popularity in Europe since the first was held in Germany in 2003. The event, called Kirikute öö in Estonian, was organized in Estonia for the first time in 2012; in its first year, a dozen churches in Tartu and one church in Tallinn took part.
The aim of the event is for churches to open their doors and encourage inquisitive visitors to step inside, get acquainted with the church itself and, if interested, the activities of the congregations as well. Various churches offered prayers, services and Holy Communion, but also refreshments, concerts, tours of the church and informational presentations. Yet others encouraged visitors to simply come and go as they please, ready to answer any questions visitors may have had.
Visitors to the ruins of Tartu Cathedral, which also house the University of Tartu History Museum, and the Church of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Tartu's only Roman Catholic church, were also given the opportunity to take in the views from the top of their respective towers.
This year, the list of churches and congregations participating in the event included Harju, Järva, Lääne-Viru, Pärnu, Rapla, Saare, Tartu and Valga Counties, with the most places open to visitors in Tartu County (14 in the city of Tartu and one in nearby Nõo), followed by Valga County (nine in the town of Valga and one just over the Latvian border in the city’s other half, Valka). While many Estonian churches belong to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELK), other denominations were represented in the event as well, including Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and Estonian Orthodox.
The Night of Churches has been organized in a number of European countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands and Slovakia.