About Our Diocese: History

About the Diocesan Region of Western Europe


Our Diocese’s presence in Western Europe has a long history, dating to the beginnings of the Church Abroad — and, in many places, to the pre-revolutionary diaspora. It has been headed by many notable Hierarchs, including the glorified St John the Wonderworker who was the Ruling Bishop in the mid-twentieth century.

We are currently preparing an overview of our presence in Western Europe for this new site. In the meantime, we offer the below information on its central Cathedral, located in Geneva.

The Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross, Geneva

In 1862, the city authorities of Geneva donated to the Orthodox community a piece of land on the site of the former early Christian cemetery, where the monastery of St Victor had once stood, for the construction of an Orthodox church.

Thanks to the labours of Archpriest Athanasius Petrov, the necessary funds were collected in Russia and the present magnificent Cathedral was built on this land. It is believed that the initial concept for the church came from Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, eldest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I. The architect of the detailed plans was David Ivanovich Grimm, professor of architecture at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg; and construction work was led by the Geneva architect Jean-Pierre Guillebo.

The Cathedral’s foundation stone was laid on 14th / 26th September 1863, and precisely three years later, on 14th / 26th September 1866, the temple was consecrated in honor of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In 1916, in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Cathedral, on the initiative of Archpriest Sergiy Orlov, all three naves were significantly expanded and a bell tower with five bells was installed over the central porch.

Designed in the ancient Moscow style, the Cathedral was built of stone extracted from Swiss quarries. Its walls outside are decorated with large crosses made of gray marble while over the church rise nine gilded domes. The external charm of the structure is further enhanced by the fact that it is enclosed by a small garden in which flowers and bushes with their colours and foliage that harmonise with the bright walls.

The whole building consists of the main nave, above which the main vault rises, and two aisles, separated from the nave by six massive pillars consisting of bundles of interconnected columns. Entrance to the temple is through a narthex, which leads to the nave and aisles.

The Cathedral’s wall decorations, conceived in the old Russian style with evident Byzantine influence (such as branching and foliate ornaments, geometric drawings and the repeated Greek monogram of Christ ‘ХР’) reflect a harmony of colours. The vaults over the aisles are dotted with gold stars on a blue background. All these internal adornments belong to the brush of the iconographer Joseph Benzoni from Lugano.

On the fresco of the central vault, the Lord Almighty surrounded by seraphim is depicted on a gold background, holding the fingers of his right hand in the customary sign of blessing, with a globe in his left hand. On the four corners of the vault are the images of the four Evangelists, accompanied by their symbols from the vision of the prophet Ezekiel: an eagle, a bull, a lion and an angel. These images are all from the hand of Professor Giacomo Donati from Lugano.

The two largest icons of the iconostasis, on the right and left side of the Royal Doors, depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary, are from the hand of Nikolai Andreevich Koshelev, a famous artist and member of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. In frames of white marble with rich sculptural adornments are: on the right, the icon of the Virgin ‘Quick to Hear’; and on the left, the Great-martyr Panteleimon. Both of these icons were donated to the Geneva Cathedral  by Russian monks from Mount Athos.

The walls and columns of the temple are decorated with numerous, sometimes ancient and very beautiful, icons. Just a few might be mentioned here: the Tikhvin Mother of God is adorned in a wonderfully-decorated kiot with multi-coloured jewels, and dates to the beginning of the 17th century. Near the requiem table is a large icon of the Mother of God with scenes of her life and the text of the beginning of the Akathist to the Most Holy Theotokos, dating to the 18th century. The beautiful icon of the Saviour “Not Made By Hands” is from the 16th century; and the Novgorod icon of the Most Holy Theotokos “Of the Sign”, surrounded by four saints, is venerated in an elaborate silver kiot, dating from the 17th century.

On the right side of the entry two of our Diocesan bishops are interred: The Right Reverend Leonty, Bishop of Geneva, ruled what was then the Swiss Vicariate from 1950 to 1956; and with him is his brother, the Right Reverend Anthony, Archbishop of Geneva and Western Europe from 1957 to 1993.

The beginnings of Russian Orthodoxy in Western Europe

The first Russian Orthodox parish in Switzerland, created in Bern under the Imperial Decree of 12th / 24th December, 1816, was served by the following priests: from February 1817 to 1830, Priest Vasily Razumovsky; from 1830 to 1832, priest Simeon Krasnotstov; from 1832 to 1836, Priest Ioann Guliaev; from 1836 to 1838, priest John of Grazian; from 1838 to 1847, Priest Lev Kachenovsky (in 1842 elevated to the rank of Archpriest); from May 1847 to 1848, priest Vasily Polisadov. From 1848 to 1854, the Russian church in Bern was closed for political reasons; thhen, in November 1854, the parish was transferred to Geneva, and until September 1866 services were sent to a private house in Eaux-Vives, first led by Archpriest Arseny Sudakov and subsequently by Archpriest Athanasius Petrov.

Since the founding of the Russian Orthodox parish in Geneva, the following priests have sustained it: from November 1854 to 1856. Archpriest Arseny Sudakov; from 1856 to 1883, Archpriest Athanasius Petrov; from 1883 to 1901, Archpriest Dmitry Opotsky; from 1901 to 1903, Archpriest Nikolay Apraksin; from 1903 to 1905, Archpriest Alexander Smirnopoulo; from 1905 to 1944, Archpriest Sergiy Orlov, a man who had extraordinary charisma and who performed tireless and fruitful pastoral labours during his long tenure and left a vivid memory of himself in Geneva. From 1950 to 1956 the rector of the church was His Grace Bishop (Bartoshevich), Bishop of Geneva, who ruled the Swiss Vicariate of Russian Orthodox Parishes (then including Bern, Zurich, Lausanne, Vevey, and some other), and Archpriest Avenir Dyakov helped him in his ministry. After the untimely death of Bishop Leonty, his brother, His Grace, Anthony — the first to be named Bishop of Geneva and then Archbishop of Geneva and Western Europe — became the rector of the Cathedral; Archpriest Geogiy Samkov was appointed as Ecclesiarch, and in 1974 was replaced by the Priest Pavel Tsvetkov (Archpriest since 1988). From 1993 to 2006, the Rector was His Grace Ambrose (Kantakuzen), Bishop of Vevey (from 2000–2003, Bishop of Geneva). From 2006-2017 His Grace Michael (Donskov), Bishop of Geneva and Western Europe (since 2011, Archbishop) was the Cathedral’s rector. Since September 2018, this position has been held by His Grace Irenei, Bishop of London and Western Europe.

More Resources:

Administration of the European Diocese