Sunday, 5 October 2008

A Most moving church

Most is a city of 70,000 people in the coal mining region of Northern Bohemia. While the majority of its buildings are from the 20th century, the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary dates from the 16th century and hides a beautiful interior in the late gothic style.

Slender sandstone columns soar up to support a ceiling webbed with intricate vaults of sandstone in patterns of stars, crosses and flowers. The thick vertical columns of the outer walls support upper galleries that run the length of each side and the recesses beneath are all used as individual chapels devoted to the patron saints of important trade guilds and aristocratic families. The light that streams through the tall narrow windows shows wonderfully how the gothic builders managed to create a feeling of lightness from those massive blocks of stone.

The viewing platform of the attached bell tower offers views over Most, Hněvin hill, the coal mining basin, chimneys and cooling towers of the Litvinov power plant. The church itself sits on an open piece of land and around its base well maintained parkland and a manmade lake are popular with walkers and dog owners.

The odd thing about this church is that, even though construction began in 1517 and was completed within a hundred years, the church has stood on this site only since 1975.

When a rich deposit of coal was discovered under the old town of Most in the late 1960‘s, the powers that be decided to demolish the town so that they could get to it. Except for the church, which was far too valuable an architectural monument, even during the anti-religious communist era, to simply demolish.

Disassembling the church and reassembling it in a new location was ruled out because of expense and the historic value that would be destroyed. Leaving it in place and digging the mine around it was another option but nobody could really see the point of a church atop a hill surrounded by an open cut coal mine.

So they decided to just pick it up and move it.

Which was a courageous decision. By best calculations, the church weighed more than 10,000 tonnes and would need to be moved almost a kilometre (more than half a mile). Nothing like that had ever been done before.

Preparing for the move took five years. Removable things like the sculptures of the apostles and the high altar were carefully disassembled and packed away. The internal columns were braced with a web of steel beams, the upper sides of the ceiling arches were sprayed with a cement glue and the entire base of the church was enclosed in a thick belt of reinforced concrete.

Then the bulldozers moved in and dug out the floor of the church, gradually replacing the foundations with temporary blocks and digging two long parallel trenches under the length of the church. In those trenches were constructed the beginnings of the twin railway lines along which the church would move.

As the preparation neared its end, the weight of the church (now more than 12,000 tonnes with all its belts and braces) was transferred onto fifty-three trolleys specially made by the Škoda engineering works. Then on September 30, 1975, propelled by four huge hydraulic jacks, the church began to inch its way to the new location.

The route the church would travel had a downhill incline of 12 in 1000, so another four hydraulic jacks faced the other way to be used for braking. They weren’t needed, but who really knew for sure?

The move averaged 2 centimetres per minute and with the sections of track being leapfrogged around to the front, it took almost a month to cover the 841m to the place where new foundations were built up beneath the church.

Now open to visitors from 9am -6pm May through September (closed Mondays) and 9am to 3pm in April and October (closed Mondays and Tuesdays), the admittance is 50Kč with an extra 10Kč if you want to climb the tower. The first part of the visit is to the church interior, accompanied by a guide, who in my case, said “just have a look around and if you want to know anything ask me” and then leaned up against a wall to fool around with her mobile phone.

Once all the SMS’s were sent and my questions answered I was led down to a small screening room, where an eight minute film tells the story of the move and shows footage of the preparation, the demolition of old Most and the traffic signs explaining that churches have right of way.

I couldn’t find a copy of that film on the internet, but here’s one showing, within the first 30 seconds, glimpses of the church trussed up for its move.


Hello Xu Xu said...

That film comes in three parts, the second of which is shown here (thanks el capitan). The first part has some really good footage of the old town as a living city, it looked like a beautiful place, despite the neglected old buildings (which was common in the entire country at that time). What a tragedy to destroy it all for some coal which has now already been burned up for who knows what benefit. Even sadder is that this is still happening today in places like China. I wonder how the locals thoght about it at the time, were they sad to see the city or their forefathers, all those memories and history go, or excited and priveledged to have an entirely new city built just for them, and jobs at the mine to boot?

Captain Oddsocks said...

Hi XuXu,

I'm glad at least one person clicked through to watch all three videos. They're good aren't they?

I'm sure at the time there were people who felt fortunate to be moved into modern buildings, but they don't seem to have youtube accounts, because the comments there universally condemn the decision to destroy old Most to expand the mine.

If people were against the expansion at the time though, their opportunites for speaking out were at best extremely limited. Like in China today, perhaps?