A Texan in the Czech Lands
by Leigh Darilek
Part Two--Exploring the Churches of Prague
Prague Castle (center) with St. Vitus Cathedral, roofs of the Lesser Town. At left, the Saint-Nicholas church, at right the Saint-Thomas.
[Leigh Darilek, a young Texas Czech who now lives and works in Prague, Czech Republic.]
When you know you have a set amount of time, you always seem to get more accomplished. You also relish each minute down to every specific second and have this enhanced memory for excess details that can later be recalled with more vivid colors, precise descriptions and rich emotions.
That would be a good way to describe my first eight weeks in Europe, the summer of 2000, and also now to an extent. After moving across the Atlantic, at what some might call a spontaneous moment, I do not know how long I have here and the uncertainty makes me yearn to take in as much as possible.
One way I took advantage of my limited time was by visiting and attending mass at a different church each Sunday. I also saw many cathedrals during excursions our group took, but to attend mass in a church that is over 700 years old is quite amazing. To attend mass in the same cathedral as past kings and queens is like a tale from a storybook. And to know these churches heard the prayers, petitions and words of these royalty as well as peasants, travelers, invaders of the past along with present day community and tourists makes me feel so tiny and humbled as I genuflect before entering a pew.
The interior of Saint Vitus Cathedral looking at the Rose window to give a feeling of the height of the ceiling. Photo courtesy Leigh Darilek.
Naturally the first cathedral I visited was Saint Vitus, the famous cathedral in the castle ground hosting beautifully exquisite stained glass by famous artists like Alfons Mucha. The ceiling seems to reach high into the sky, making you feel as tiny as an ant. On the outside, creepy gargoyles line the church like soldiers. My favorite gargoyle is this one that looks like a roach’s underside. It is really gross, but definitely my favorite.
Construction of Saint Vitus began in 1344 by Charles IV. In spite of the endeavors of some sovereigns to secure the continuation of the construction, the cathedral remained incomplete for centuries. It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that the Union for the Completion of the Building of Saint Vitus's Cathedral began the repair of the original part and the completion of the building of the cathedral in Neo-Gothic style. The cathedral was solemnly consecrated in 1929. They don’t hold mass at Saint Vitus now, that I am aware of, but it is full of tourists daily to keep it occupied.
Saint Thomas Cathedral (center back) with spiked dome. Photo courtesy Leigh Darilek.
The first Sunday mass I went to was to the church of the Infant Jesus. They have a separate mass for Czech, English, and Portuguese communities. During the summer months, with no air conditioners and many bodies inside, it is extremely hot, but you do not notice the heat because you are focused on the architecture and the altar where the Infant Jesus rests behind a glass case in beautifully ornate robes to match the season. A group of Portuguese ladies seem to be in charge of taking care of the church; cleaning it, keeping the flowers fresh, providing a choir for mass, etc. Presently, it is under some reconstruction and restoration like most cathedrals here.
The history of the Infant Jesus of Prague started in the 17th century when a statue of the Infant Jesus was brought into Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and eventually was given to the Discalced Carmelites in Prague. Since then, the statue has remained in Prague and has drawn many devotees worldwide to go and honor the Holy Child. It has been said that many graces, blessings, favors and miraculous healings have been received by many who petitioned before the Infant Jesus. In 1776 the altar was rebuilt using marble and two huge sculptures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were placed to the left and right sides of the altar. The Holy Infant was kept in a glass case standing on a pedestal engraved with crystals, and surrounding the Infant are twenty angels in gold.
On an excursion to Stromberk, in Moravia, Arnold (my summer partner in crime amongst other things) and I attended mass in the small, local church with our professor. After mass, she introduced us to the priest, being that her native Czech is better than our elementary bumbling Czech, and then he blessed us and prayed for us and our group’s safe return to Prague. On the outside, this church was simple, pale yellow and brick red colored, but the inside was extravagant. It had a beautiful altar and paintings on the ceiling. What made our experience even more memorable is that during that excursion, Arnold met relatives of his! They spoke no English, but through our professor’s translations, he learned a lot about his family. They gave him two bottles of homemade slivovice (REALLY strong and potent, made from plums), and welcomed him and our group to visit them at any time in the future.
Then, one day as I was exploring Prague on my own, wandering aimlessly in the hot sun, looking in any open door or window available, I glanced down a small alley with a dead end. On its right side was a huge door that was an entrance to a cathedral - Svaté Tomáš. I believe it was on a feast day, which would explain why the doors were unlocked. Normally, the doors stayed locked when not having mass because of the historic interiors.
I walked in and my breath was taken away. Looking up to the altar, I was awestruck by the amount of gold on everything from columns to picture frames larger than doors to decorative grails covering windows. And its coolness compared to the 39 ºC (102 ºF) weather outside was not only welcomed, but added to the mystique and overt quietness of the church.
I then looked up. Bugged-eyed and jaw-dropped, my breath stopped, my heart seemed to pause and I tried to take in all the color. I then inhaled deeply and cannot explain the amazement I felt at the artwork that covers the entire ceiling; from the front altar to above the organ in the back loft.
Looking down, you see the original cement floor has been mostly tiled over, but the more decorative slabs still remain seen, as well as what looks like a now sealed door to a basement crypt below.
I have been told that pews were not used in churches until more recently, which I would say is the same for Saint Thomas. The pews look like they were brought in after the tile floor was placed, and they are extremely old and uncomfortable. You have to either sit extremely upright with part of the pew hitting your back or slouch into its curve. And, I always have sore knees if I kneel for longer than a couple of minutes!
But, let us return to my first tour. I walk up the outer left hand side, admiring each separate altar and the painting above it. Each painting seems darker and more mysterious than the one before. The majority of the paintings are not originals. From what I have been told, most of the originals now reside in Swedish museums after they were confiscated by the Swedes sometime after 1628.
From a distance the altars look composed of multi-colored carved marble slabs, but on closer inspection, you can see that they are made of wood, painted, and stained masterfully. I was recently discussing this observation with Carol, a friend of mine who is teaching a summer course here through the University of New Orleans. She said these altars are very classic Baroque art, as Saint Thomas is a Baroque cathedral. As I understand it, Baroque architecture is known for its movement and “trompe l’oil” which translates to “trick the eye.” These altars do exactly that. They trick your eye into thinking you are seeing this beautiful massive slab of marble carved into an altar, when really it is only wood. I asked Carol why didn’t they just use marble? Her guess is that cost was probably a major deciding factor.
The Baroque art continues around these altars and along columns and lives in each statue. They are alive. They portray emotion so vividly in their facial expressions and by the way their three dimensional figures extend out from their resting point. And these are not just statues of saints and royalty, but of priests, bishops, peasants, cherubs, slaves, men, women and children. One of my favorite statues is actually on the right side of the church. It is a woman draped in a robe of flaked-off gold. She is in-between a crouch and a kneel, arms slightly outstretched, hands clasped together. I never seem to grow tired of her facial expression which varies from appearing to be a moan in agony to her singing to the heavens.
Back to the left-hand side, about halfway up - yes, still only halfway up to the front - I stop at an altar and there is a small glass coffin-slash-display case. I’m taken aback, close my eyes for a second, not believing what I just saw and when I open them again, it is still there. I grow more curious, and take a closer look. The coffin is only about five feet long, and it contains a few bones and relics of a man. I imagine him to be a Knight of Malta preserved this way for some heroic death. This is only my imagination though. There is no plaque describing it or the similar one opposite it on the right side of church. And now, they both contain cloth coverings which I think is for preservation reasons.
I move on, past more paintings and statues, to the front where the pulpit protrudes from the wall about seven feet above the ground. These types of pulpits are common in the vast majority of old historic cathedrals and churches. These elevated stands are normally made of stone or wood and might have an acoustic canopy, along with a bookstand. This particular one is extremely elaborate with carvings, paintings, statues…the works.
And now…I am in the center of Saint Thomas, facing the main altar and a vast amount of space behind with even more altars and paintings on each side and a gigantic, elaborate gold altar holding the crucifix, chalice, consecrated host, etc. at the far end. It holds two huge paintings and the smaller of the two on the very top catches my eye. It is a painting of a saint by the sea questioning a small angel. The angel is pointing to the hole in the sand and answers his question by saying it is easier to fit the entire ocean in this hole than to understand God.
After a few minutes of awing at everything, I look up again at the ceiling. I keep tilting my head back and begin to turn around to see the ceiling to the very back of the room where I began. Then…WOW. My jaw drops again as I stare at the enormous Baroque organ in the loft. And, luckily, it is not just sitting up in the loft being pretty. Saint Thomas uses the organ at special masses like Christmas midnight mass and Easter with a Czech choir singing Baroque music along with it. Beautiful.
I then proceed down the right hand side of church, and it is basically the same, just different paintings. And then I get back to where I began and as soon as it started when I walked in the door, it ends, about twenty minutes later. I never went to mass there my first year, because after that visit, I checked it off my list since I had so many others to go see.
A view of Saint Thomas from the loft. One can see the various altars on each side as well as the main altar. Photo courtesy Leigh Darilek.
One year later, I am back in Prague indefinitely and I want to find a church to go to on a regular basis. I “tried out” a few, but I couldn’t quite get into the community. and then I remembered Saint Thomas. I decided to try it out one Sunday, and loved it! Father William, the English community’s priest, is smart, articulate, and listening to him is so easy. It has a good atmosphere when full of people. And the clencher for me happened during the ending announcements, a woman said she was asking for volunteers for the Sunday school program. What better way to get to know more people than by volunteering?
I have been at Saint Thomas for almost a year now. Sunday school only lasts during the school year, and this past year, another American from New Jersey, name Steve, a Slovak, name Stanley, and I taught the Fifth and Sixth graders. That was quite an experience! Most are from military families, but there are a few from other parts of the world as well.
Also during the year, I was asked to help organize and lead a Children’s Liturgy. Another great experience that I am hoping to continue next autumn. It is neat to see kids understand a reading and both answer and ask questions related to it.
The winter months were cold! There is no efficient heating system in the church and many days, it was colder in the church and warmer outside. Normal heaters cannot be used in a church this old because the heat would ruin the painted ceiling and could harm other antique pieces in the church. We were supposed to have a heating system approved by the end of January, but it had to be approved by many many different people and committees. It did not pass this year, so we froze. Hopefully next year when the proposal is submitted once again, it will be approved and we will be warm.
I really believe Christmas was the coldest day in my life, and even with all the layers of clothing I wore, I was frozen by the end of the hour. But, it was more than worth it. There was Baroque music from the huge organ in the loft and a choir. I kept thinking the organist’s hands had to be frozen solid. The first part of construction was also finished so all the construction equipment had been removed and the church was beautiful. Cold, but beautiful.
We had first communion this May. I helped with that when I could, and to see these young kids getting their first communion in a church that is celebrating 775 years in 2003 is really neat. And to them, it’s just church.
The other weekend, I arrived to church and there were bows on some of the pews. I was a bit confused thinking my watch was behind. A couple who are part of the community got married that day! They wanted a small wedding, with our entire church community involved. Father William integrated their vows and ceremony into a normal mass. She wore a simple pastel dress, and he a simple gray suit. And I thought, “Wow. They just got married in a really old and beautiful church! And I was a part of it.”
A gargoyle from Saint Vitus Cathedral. Photo courtesy Leigh Darilek.
Last year the church went under its first phase of reconstruction and renovations, which were finished before Christmas. Also last summer, a group of high school girls from Spain made a trip to Prague and volunteered to clean different rooms such as the church library. They worked many hours, and yet seemed so happy and excited to do this tedious task of cleaning for free when they could have been on a beach or with friends. The second and third phases are to begin soon, and I am excited to see the finished product. It will take many months, but it is well worth the wait.
From April 24, 2002 through its formal conclusion on November 23, 2003, the Augustinian Parish community is presenting a program commemorating the formal consecration of Saint Thomas Church in A.D. 1228.
And I am a part of it.
Reprinted (with color photographs added) from the August 2002 issue of the Český hlas,Czech Voice, the newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society (CHS) of Texas. Susan Rektorik Henley is the editor of the quarterly newsletter. The newsletter is one of the benefits of membership in the CHS of Texas.