In the heart of the Opole cathedral, a dispute broke out between trying to save the history of our ancestors and maintaining the sacred function of the church. Sensational archaeological discoveries became a flashpoint in the conflict between researchers and the Opole curia. This dispute, full of dissonance between the attempt to discover and document the past and the need to maintain the sacred integrity of a place of worship, does not leave simple answers to the question whether science and faith can exist side by side in harmony.
In mid-July last year, the Opole cathedral was closed due to the planned removal of the floor and work related to the installation of underfloor heating. Initially, these works were only intended to modernize the interior of the temple, but it quickly turned out that the ground beneath the floor hides sensational discoveries that shed new light on the history of the region.
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Already in the first week of archaeological works, the first pillar – a structural element of the pillar with flower decoration – was discovered at a depth of 70 centimeters. In the following weeks, researchers discovered the former main altar, the remains of an old tomb and a new tomb, described by archaeologists as a sensation.
Prof. Romuald Kaczmarek, a recognized specialist in medieval Silesian tombstones, personally examined this tomb. Fragments of paintings and ornaments considered unique in Silesia were discovered there. According to prof. Andrzej Legendziewicz, the tomb dates back to the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, and it is believed that it may be the burial place of Władysław Opolczyk, who died in 1401.
– The last such a big discovery was in 1976, when, during reconstruction works after the fire in St. Basilica. Elizabeth in Wrocław, they found the original parish church of St. Wawrzyniec. Therefore, this is a situation that happens only once every few dozen years, and its importance is huge, not only for Opole itself. When we add that high-class details have been preserved on site (…), it is truly a find of a unique scale – emphasizes Prof. Andrzej Legendziewicz from the Faculty of Architecture of the Wrocław University of Science and Technology.
Bishop Andrzej Czaja no longer wanted excavations in the cathedral
Despite these discoveries, in mid-October, the Bishop of Opole, Andrzej Czaja, decided to cover the discovered foundations.
– In the current situation, methodical burying of secured relics is the best possible way to protect the discovered historic substance – argued Andrzej Gołembnik, the bishop’s representative for archaeological work in the cathedral, in a press release.
Gołembnik also noted that the bishop adopted a position in line with the conservators’ suggestions, so it was not his arbitrary decision.
However, this contradicts the information shared by Prof. in an interview for the University of Opole. Ph.D. Anna Pobóg-Lenartowicz, medievalist from the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw and member of the Management Board of the Polish Historical Society.
– Mr. Gołembnik refers to the opinion of conservators who supposedly decided that it would be best. Three or four conservators – out of twenty! Most of the meeting participants were against it, especially the guests invited by the provincial conservator of monuments – explains Prof. Pobóg-Lenartowicz.
In this interview, there is some more important information that sheds new light on the background of Bishop Czaja’s decision. We read in it that the church was terrified by the enormous amount of archaeological work and increasingly bold hypotheses regarding the value of these finds, which meant they had to be exposed. Therefore, arguments were sought to force the research to be abandoned.
– That’s why we first looked for specialists who could question the importance of our discoveries. Unsuccessfully. Later, they looked for bacteria that were dangerous to health, and certainly present in the grave pits – however, tests showed that they were not there… The expertise of experts, professors of geology, also refuted another argument – that archaeological works would disturb the foundations of the cathedral – admits Prof. Pobóg-Lenartowicz
It also turned out that the decision to fill in the excavations was made before the meeting of the commission, which was to decide whether the results of the excavations would be displayed and how.-
– Until December last year, he (Bishop Czaja – editor’s note) was favorable to us. And we promised that we would not turn the cathedral into a museum, that the excavated monuments, e.g. the tomb, would not interfere with the liturgy, and that we would make every effort to ensure that the Ministry of Culture finances the cost of their exhibition. But when Fr. the bishop spoke at the end of the meeting, he admitted that his illness had changed everything: as the “owner of this place”, he made the decision to cover it, because the cathedral is the heart of the diocese and it is supposed to serve it – admits prof. Pobóg-Lenartowicz.
This unprecedented situation prompted outstanding scientists to clearly oppose the decision of the Bishop of Opole, Andrzej Czaja.
Rector of the University of Opole Marek Masnyk, the previously mentioned prof. Pobóg-Lenartowicz and Dr. Magdalena Przysiężna-Pizarska from the Institute of History of the University of Opole, who led the team conducting archaeological works in the cathedral, unanimously described the decision as “scandal” and “great barbarism”. Scientists unanimously expressed outrage, emphasizing that burying the discoveries constitutes a serious violation of cultural heritage and hinders the ability to fully understand the history of the region.
– In the opinion of representatives of the University of Opole, the scale of discoveries in the Opole cathedral – taking into account the role and responsibilities of the researcher – requires conducting scientific research and its popularization – emphasizes Marek Masnyk, rector of the University of Opole.
New floor tiles are to be installed in the cathedral by the end of the year. And everything indicates that the bishop will not want to withdraw from his decision.
The statements of scientists from the University of Opole, as well as the open letter of Professor Legendziewicz and other scientists from various centers in Poland, who clearly indicated that burying the tomb and other details will be a loss not only for the cathedral itself, but also for the inhabitants of the region and parishioners.
However, the Opole diocese emphasizes that the interior of the cathedral will be covered with a stone floor, without tying it to the ground, which means – according to the curia – the possibility of returning to the discoveries made in the future.
– However, this will not happen in our lifetime – says Dr. Magdalena Przysiężna-Pizarska.
It also indicates the great commitment of students and volunteers who worked for many months, sometimes several hours a day, free of charge, for discoveries in the cathedral. Everyone was convinced that they were participating in something special.
– And now they are being told to bury the excavations because the parishioners want to have a place to go to church again. And I agree that the cathedral has a sacred function and should have one. Nobody denies this. However, it is a completely different matter to end archaeological discoveries against the will of scientists at the moment when we discovered this sensational tomb – adds Dr. Przysiężna-Pizarska.
Two months ago, Elżbieta Molak, the Opole provincial conservator of monuments, initiated a procedure aimed at recognizing the tomb as a movable monument. This means that until the final decision is made, all work on it is suspended, including its possible filling. Scientists hope that the conservator will accept the archaeologists’ arguments and soon it will be possible to investigate who is buried in this mysterious tomb.
See the gallery(38 photos)