Our Church of the Virgin with Three Hands (1991-2017)
This is the story of how our church was built and the story of how our church was named in honor of the Virgin with Three Hands.
When freedom returned at long last to the shores of Estonia, Anatoli Ljutjuk shepherded his underground flock of Ukrainian Greek Catholic believers out into the open. As they searched for a permanent home for their congregation, they met in different places until one day a friend of Anatoli identified a possible place within the walls of Tallinn’s Old Town. Understanding that the congregation needed a roof over their heads, Estonia’s Prime Minister helped Anatoli secure a former KGB warehouse as the home for the new church. As the KGB had stolen the 14th Century building from the Estonians, it seemed only fitting that this former baptistry of St. Olaf’s Church should be returned to its former medieval glory.
Anatoli and his friends then set about building their new church by hand. Pulling wooden beams, bricks, and stones from the Baltic Sea and salvaging other ancient construction material from the potential oblivion of dump sites around Tallinn’s Old Town, Anatoli and his friends began to give shape to their church, aided by both Anatoli’s formal training in design as well as by the skills within his hands. As they worked to strengthen the physical structure of the future church, Anatoli’s adopted son discovered a stone hand. The hand, once been part of a religious carving, had been severed and then used as filler between two walls.
At long last, Anatoli and his friends completed their magnum opus and Tallinn’s first Eastern-rite Catholic church was ready. Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archbishop Volodmyr Sternyuk consecrated the new church and the congregation finally had a home. As a Uniate church, the new church fused together both Catholic and Orthodox traditions while being subject to the spiritual authority of the Pope in Rome. And although the new church was still unnamed, the severed stone hand became a visible part of a new stone wall.
Unable to comprehend the beauty of what Anatoli and his friends had built, several arsonists laid waste to the new church on a New Year’s Day. Although the fire damage was severe, Anatoli and his friends decided they had to rebuild their church after such a philistine attack. And so, slowly but surely, a new church rose from the ashes of the old one with the help of new friends (including the City of Tallinn and several Catholic foundations) as well as old ones (including their patron the Prime Minister upon his return to office). Thanks to a new iconostasis painted by a master artist from Lviv artist, the new church was even more beautiful than the one before it.
While providing moral support for the reconstruction effort, an old Estonian monk serving at the Church of Constantinople gave Anatoli an icon of the Virgin with Three Hands and told him the story of the Virgin and of St. John of Damascus. If you don’t already know it, then you may want to read the story about How the Virgin Got Her Third Hand. The Virgin with Three Hands is the protector of all living beings who have been falsely accused or unjustly persecuted. She protects all those who have suffered innocently, without cause.
Realizing that both the icon and the severed stone hand must be a sign, Anatoli consulted his spiritual fathers about his dream to name the church that he and his friends built – and then rebuilt – by hand in honor of the Virgin with Three Hands. And so, with the full blessing of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, the newly rebuilt home of the congregation became known as the Church of the Virgin with Three Hands. But our story does not end here.
Not long afterwards, Archbishop Husar gave Anatoli his blessing to recite daily prayers to celebrate all of God’s living creatures. Convinced that many beautiful prayers to nature already exist, Anatoli put out a call to all monks, priests, poets, and fellow believers to help him find the right prayers. He also commissioned a series of icons dedicated to every Christian saint connected with nature.
Sadly, misfortune struck our sanctuary once again when a new priest – unable to comprehend the true meaning of the story about How the Virgin Got Her Third Hand – decided to ban Anatoli and his friends from entering the very church that they had built by hand. Somehow, the misinformed priest believes that the misguided actions of one man can somehow sway another man’s faith.
For those of us known as Anatoli’s friends, we began at long last to truly understand how St. John of Damascus must have felt when Byzantine soldiers chopped off his right hand at the order of the Emperor. Just imagine how Anatoli himself must feel.
— A Friend of Anatoli’s