History of St. Sergius and the Trinity Lavra

St. Sergius of Radonezh

The Trinity St. Sergius lavra was founded in 1345 by a local monk named Sergius, who was canonised as a Saint in the early 14th Century and is now recoginised in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Eschewing a diplomatic career early in his life, Sergius instead chose to live in the forests outside Moscow as a hermetic monk. He built a cell for himself and a small wooden church dedicated to the Holy Trinity and within time other monks came to join him in his ascetic lifestyle.

After several requests Sergius eventually agreed to become Father Superior to these monks who followed his ascetic practices and soon as the community grew with more monks arriving to study and build their own cells, a monastery appeared with a small town surrounding it. Following the example of Sergius, all the monks lived under their own labour - spending the day building, washing, cleaning and cooking as well as praying and studying and focusing on living a spiritual political life. Sergius’s disciples spread his teachings across Russia, founding around 40 similar monasteries in remote parts of Northern and Western Russia, as well as Moscow.

Sergius died on September 25 in 1392 and not long after his death the monastery was all but destroyed during a Tatar raid. The monks were forced to flee into the forest taking with them as much of the monastery’s most precious scriptures and icons as they could while they waited for peace. After the Tatar’s retreated the monks returned to rebuild the monastery and on July 05 1422 during the construction of the new Trinity Cathedral they discovered Sergius’s incorrupted remains, with even his clothing still intact, near to one of the destroyed churches.

St. Sergius is canonised

Sergius was interred in the new Cathedral and soon his final resting place became a pilgrimage destination for people from across Russia. The best icon painters of the day, including Andrei Rublev, were invited to paint the Cathedral’s frescoes while St. Sergius was made patron saint of Russia. To this day September 25 (his death day) and July 05 (the day his remains where uncovered) remain important holidays in the Russian Orthodox calendar.
 
Defeat of the Tatar's and battles with the Poles

A century later in 1559 Ivan the Terrible commissioned the monastery’s huge blue domed Assumption Cathedral to be built in honour of the final defeat over the Tatars of Kazan. During this period the wooden fences surrounding the cloister were replaced with the thick stone walls that can be seen today.  Luckily the walls were built just in time - only a few years later in 1608 the monastery was besieged by 30,000 Poles wishing to turn the Russians to Catholicism during what Russians call the Times of Troubles. Shell holes from the unsuccessful blockade can still be seen in the gates and walls which held up under the onslaught.

The Tsar's favourite monastery

Decades later these formidable walls also sheltered a young Peter the Great during the Streltsy rebellion of 1685, leaving the future Tsar eternally grateful to the monastery there after.

In the following centuries every Russian Tsar came to visit the monastery and many were baptised here and constantly showered the monastery with precious gifts. All except Catherine the Great that is who liked to point out to the monks how St. Sergius had chosen to live in poverty and thus did not donate any riches. She did however give the monastery the holy title of lavra, the highest kind of Orthodox monastery.

Sergiev Posad during the Soviet Union

At the time of the communist revolution Sergiev Posad was the most popular religious destination in Russia housing hundreds of monks, a hospital and a large seminary as well as hosting hundreds more pilgrims. In 1920 the Soviets closed the monastery and sent the monks to GULAGs although they left the monastery buildings intact.

The town was renamed Zagorsk and the Moscow Patriarch (who under communism had no official spiritual followers to lead) was exiled here throughout the Soviet period until 1983 when he was finally invited back to Moscow under perestroika. In Soviet times the majority of the monastery buildings were used for storage, as work places and as a medical clinic during and after World War II.

Sergiev Posad in the 21st Century

Nowadays the monastery is a fully working religious centre and is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site. Around 300 monks live here and many more priests study at the monastery’s bustling seminary and as Russians re-embrace the Orthodox faith Sergiev Posad has again begun to attract a high number of pious pilgrims.

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History of St. Sergius and the Trinity Lavra comments Add Yours

  • Holger - Berlin, Germany 25 July 2012
    Finally visited Sergiev Posad! Thanks for all the good tips it was worth the travel. For everyone who is interested in the Monastery Oxford Press published a very good historical book about it. The title is The Heart of Russia Trinity-Sergius Monasticism and Society after 1825 by Scott Kenworthy. The Russian monks wanted to build a heavenly city on earth says the book. They almost succeeded.

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