L’Eglise catholique romaine en Lettonie
The history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latvia began along with the conversion of the Baltic peoples to Christianity in the 12th century. Traders from Western Europe were interested in extending trade eastward and, thus, made regular trips to the Daugava estuary. Around 1182, Meinhard (1130/34-1196), a monk from the Segeberg monastery, also arrived there as a chaplain for German traders and began to preach Christianity to the Livs living on the banks of the Daugava. In 1184, the first Catholic church in Latvia was built at Ikšķile. The Archbishop of Bremen ordained Meinhard as Bishop (1186), with his Seat at Ikšķile, in this way creating the episcopatus Ixcolanensis. The Roman Catholic Church within Latvia achieved success with Bishop Albert von Appeldern (around 1165-1229) who founded Rīga (1201) and, being an energetic practitioner of realpolitik, attained his goals with the support of the knights.
According to information found in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry, in 1208, near the place where Valmiera currently stands, the Latgalians sought the advice of their gods concerning the type of Christianity that they should adopt : Eastern or Western Christianity. The decision of the gods was favourable to the West. The social relationships of Western Europe were introduced, along with adoption of Christianity in Latvia. The Livonian Confederation (the current Latvia and Estonia), which existed for about 400 years, contained the Roman Pope’s ecclesiastical states, of which the largest was the Livonian Order’s state. Along with the Reformation, the outcome of the Livonian War (1558-1583) and the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629) determined Latvia’s denominational geography, but in practice, the principle of cuius regio, eius religio dominated. In the 17th and 18th century, Catholicism flourished through the activities of the Jesuits and the Dominicans in Latvia. The Roman Catholic church made its greatest strides in the eastern part of Latvia (in Latgale), where a great number of churches were quickly built, with the funding provided by the local landlords.
In the 19th century, Latvia’s Catholics fell out of favour with the Russia Tsar due to the Polish Uprising (1830-1831). The situation with the Catholic deteriorated even further after the Polish Rebellion of 1863 : in the fight against the Poles, the Tsarist government also battled against the Latgalians and the Roman Catholic Church. 57.9% of the monasteries were closed, and more than 400 Catholic priests from the western province were deported to Siberia. The 1864 decree, which forbade the printing of books using Latin alphabet, remained in force right up to 1904. In practice, this “printing ban” applied only to Catholics in Latgale, as the Lutherans living in other parts of Latvia printed books using the Gothic script. The Tsarist government tried to reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, taking churches away from Catholic congregations and handing them over to the Orthodox. The turning against the Catholics by the Russian Empire facilitated the confluence of the Polish ethnic and religious identity. A similar process also occurred with the Latvian of Latgale. This is why the National awakening in Latgale (1890s) was initiated by Catholic priests. When Latvia declared its independence in 1918, Latgale, which had been administratively split off from the rest of Latvia during the Tsarist Empire, was included in the new state.
For a long time, the country’s legislators were unable to agree on the most suitable model for the relationship between the State and the Church. The political role of the Roman Catholic Church increased, along with the joining of Catholic Latgale to the Latvian state, since one of the main demands of the Latgalians, prior to the unification with the other regions of Latvia, was the demand for a legal status for the Roman Catholic Church. As the Latvian Catholics were incorporated into dioceses which were located outside the territory of Latvia (the Catholics of Latgale and Vidzeme in the Mogilev Diocese, the Catholics of Kurzeme in the Žemaitija Diocese), the Vatican was interested in regulating the Roman Catholic Church’s situation in Latvia, so the Pope renewed the Rīga Bishopric (1918). In signing the Concordat (1922), the Latvian state guaranteed the Roman Catholic Church freedom of belief and worship, and also gave it legal rights. The state coup (1934) did not affect the internal life of the Roman Catholic Church, as the authoritarian regime did not dare to breach the Concordat. However, it did make strong demands on the national orientation of the Church, which was part of the program of Latvianization of the society. Because a significant number of priests of Polish or Lithuanian nationality served in the Catholic congregations, the Latvianization program did not work in the Roman Catholic Church and ethnic disharmony grew in the congregations. On the other hand, by introducing censorship and banning anti-religious propaganda, the authoritarian regime created favourable conditions for religious education. In the first year of the Soviet occupation (1940-1941), attacks on religion took place in different ways : nationalization of Church property, closing of religious organizations, and repression against priests and the most committed members of the congregations. After the Second World War, the Catholics had differing attitudes to the Soviet occupation : active resistance (involvement in partisan groups in the fight against the communist regime), passive resistance, and collaboration. The period of heavy restriction on the activities of the Roman Catholic Church (1958-1964) was replaced by the thaw. However, spying, recruiting, and repression, continued throughout all the Soviet regime. Catholic congregations were more resilient, and were more successful in continuing their activities, as compared to the Lutheran congregations which suffered the most during the communist years. After the collapse of the USSR, the Roman Catholic Church in Latvia immersed itself in the active construction of new church buildings.