In the XIII century, Catholics settled in the neighboring area where the church is built and in 1240 the Dominican Order founded a monastery on the location. In 1328 Tbilisi was raised to an Episcopal See and the Cathedral Church was built and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Catholic worship was interrupted here in the XVI century. During the XVII century Catholic missionaries returned to Georgia and built a new church dedicated to the Annunciation (the so-called “Latin Church on the Catholic street”). Later, King Teimuraz II would once more deprive Catholics of worshiping on this location.
The current Cathedral was envisioned by Friar Philipo Foranian and it was built beside the premises of the previous Annunciation Church (1805 – 1808). In 1884, the building was further embellished by Fr. Dmitri Tumanishvili. Between 1998 and 1999 the Cathedral Church underwent major restoration work under the guidance of the Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto and architect A. Solomnishvili. At the conclusion of the restoration the church was rededicated in honor of the Assumption of Mary. Today, the building shows elements of baroque and neo-gothic architecture and the sanctuary is adorned with a contemporary fresco work (1999 – 2000).
In addition to this Cathedral Church, the Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul is also located in Tbilisi.
Christianity spread to Georgia in the first century. The Apostle St. Andrew was among those who came to preach the Gospel in Georgia (in the Kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis). He was followed by the Apostle Simone the Cananita who is buried in Abkhazia in western Georgia. Christianity spread to the Kingdom of Kartli (Iberia) later in the fourth century with the Roman Empire. In the first half of the fourth century Santa Nino of Cappadocia came to eastern Georgia in search of the Holy Tunic of Christ, brought from Jerusalem to Mtskheta by Jews in the first century.
On her way to Georgia, St. Nino had a vision of the Mother of God who gave her “The Cross of vines” (a cross made of vine branches fastened by Saint Nino’s own long hair). Given the sermons of St. Nino, in 326 King Mirian of Kartli embraced Christianity and proclaimed it the official religion of Kartli (eastern Georgia). At King Mirian’s request, the Emperor Constantine sent a bishop and priests to Mtskehta, the capital city of Kartli. King Mirian built the church of Svetitskhoveli in Mtskheta, upon the place where the Holy Tunic of Christ was laid. The Church became the seat of the Patriarchate. It was in this church that Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II, together with the Georgian authorities, welcomed two Popes during their visits to Georgia: Pope John Paul II (1999) and Pope Francis (2016).
Christian culture soon spread throughout the Kartli Kingdom. During the Reign of King Vakhtan in the V century, the first hagiographic text of the “Martyrdom of Saint Shushanik” was written and the Bishop of Mtskheta was raised to the rank of Catholicos having been recognized its autocephaly by the Patriarch of Antioch. Since the XI century, the bishops of Mtskheta have used the title of Catholicos-Patriarch.
By the 6th-8th centuries there were three ecclesiastic regions still subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. But by the 9th century, these ecclesiastic regions passed onto the jurisdiction of the Catholicos-Patriarch of Mtskheta.
Georgian Bishops become more actively involved in the life of the Christian world. Bishop Stratofile of Pitiunt (Bichvinta), a city in western Georgia, participated in the ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325.
During the great schism of 1054 the Georgian Church believed that the disagreement between Constantinople and Rome was politically motivated and continued to maintain normal relations with the Apostolic See of Rome. However due to Suljuk Turkish military incursions and a weakened Georgian Kingdom, relations became infrequent.
The balance of power in the region changed with the Crusaders’ defeat of the Seljuk Turks and the temporary conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. At this time the Suljuk Turks concentrated their attention to dangers arising from the West. With the moral and military support of the Crusaders, King David IV, “the Builder” (Agmashenebeli) (1089-1125), began the expulsion of the Suljuk Turks from Georgia. The Georgian army counted with as many as 200 French military members within its ranks at the Battle of Didgori in 1121.
The Kingdom of Georgia flourished during the Fourth crusade (1204) with the establishment of the Latin rule in Constantinople (1204-1261). Queen Tamara (1184-1213) over took the province of Trabzon in 1204 from the Byzantine Empire.
By the XIII century, the Crusaders were no longer able to fend off attacks from the Islamic coalition and maintain control of the Holy Land. To maintain the Holy Land, the Crusaders asked for support from Georgia. In 1221 Pope Honorius III wrote a letter to King George IV Lasha (1213-1223) inviting him to assist in the defense of the “Holy Land”. In the years that followed, Popes also turned to Queen Rusudan (1223-1245) for assistance. With the incursions of the Mongols in Georgian territory in the 1220’s, Georgians could no longer help the Crusaders in the Holy Land. The seriousness of the situation in Georgia prompted Queen Rusudan to ask several times for help from Popes, first to Honorius III and then to Gregory IX.
The Queen’s request was answered and a special mission was sent to Georgia. In 1240 the Dominican Order established the St. Martin Monastery in Tbilisi and a new historical phase began with the stable presence of the Latin Rite Catholic Church in Georgia.
In the XIV century, King, George V (1318-1356) convinced Pope John XXII to transfer the Catholic archbishopric’s seat from Smirna (Ismir) to Tbilisi. It would remain in Tbilisi for almost a couple of centuries. At that time there was also a Catholic bishopric’s seat in Tskhumi (Sukhumi) in western Georgia. During the XIII – XV centuries, the Catholic bishopric’ seats and monasteries both in Tbilisi and Tskhumi served as diplomatic missions and channels of exchanges between Georgia and Western Europe.
By the second half of the XV century, with the conquest of Constantinople and the ensuing geographic and political context, communications with the Holy See were obstructed and reduced to a minimum. Yet, from the first half of the XVII century, with the efforts of the Georgian kings, this relationship found new vigor when in 1614 Queen Kétévan of Kakheti was held hostage in Iran. Unwilling to renounce her Christian faith, Queen Kétévan, was accompanied by Portuguese Augustinian monks who supported her during her ordeal and eventual martyrdom. After her martyrdom in 1624, the Augustinian monks managed to secretly bring the remains of the martyred Queen to Goa (India). In 1628 the Augustinian Father Ambrosio dos Anjos brought the relics of the Holy Queen to the King of Kartli, Teimuraz I (1589-1663). In gratitude, the King gave the Augustinian monks land and supported them in establishing a monastery.
The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (now Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples), established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, played an important role in the activity of Catholic missions in Georgia. During the years 1626-1629 the King of Eastern Georgia, Teimuraz I, sent his Ambassador, Nikoloz Cholokashvili, to the Papal court of Pope Urban VIII. In 1629, the fist Georgian printed book was published with the support of the Holy See and Stefano Paolini. With the support of Nikoloz Cholokashvili, the Italian Teatine friars arrived in Georgia to establish a mission in Gori. Later the Teatine missions would spread to the principalities of Guria and Samegrelo. The Teatine Friars played an important role in missionary and educational activity in various regions of Georgia. They also carried out important diplomatic missions.
The books written about Georgia by the Teatine Friars, Fr. Cristoforo Castelli and Fr. Arcangelo Lamberti remain valuable historiographic documents. By the XVII century, a relatively large number of Latin Catholics emerge in Georgia playing an important role in the cultural, commercial and financial life of the country. From 1669 to 1845 the Capuchin Friars are present with a mission in eastern Georgia (Tbilisi, Gori), providing for pastoral needs.
In the first decade of the XVIII century, King Vakhtang VI sent Rev. Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani as Ambassador to the Papal court of Pope Clement XVI and King Louis XVI of France to obtain international support for the Georgian cause. Orbeliani was a catholic ecclesiastic of the Easter Rite, a renowned scholar and author. He is considered to be the first official Ambassador of Georgia to the Holy See.
King Erekle II of Kartli fostered close relations with Catholics. The Capuchin Friars functioned in the King’s court as doctors and ambassadors with special assignments. Other diplomats for Georgia included a high profile Catholic merchant, Rafiel Danibegashvili, who carried out diplomatic missions in Eastern and Central Asia. The Capuchin Friars that served the population of Kutaisi were held in high esteem by King Solomon II of Western Georgia. Catholic’s service to the Kingdom earned them the King’s respect and he granted them land to build the Church of the Annunciation.
In the XIX century, the Russian Empire conquered Georgia. The Tsarist Regime systematically sought to limit the Catholic Church’s activity in Georgia which for centuries had served as a bridge connecting the Georgian people to Europe. In 1845 the Russian Authorities forced the Capuchins Friars to leave Georgia.
Georgian Catholic priests were expelled from their very homeland. In 1861 they establish a Catholic monastery, seminary complex in Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire. Since 1870 and for over 60 years a printing press was operated from the Monastery. Over 200 publications were edited in Georgian, French, Turkish, German, English and Greek. The monastery’s library and reading room held more than 80,000 books and historical documents. This Catholic complex provided spiritual support and assistance to Georgian Catholics and Georgians of all faiths alike. Georgian literature was printed by its presses and sent to Georgia. It was a center of spirituality and culture that brought together Georgians of differing interests, religions, political affiliations and social organizations. The altar of the Monastery church was adorned with images of Svetitskhoveli (the main Church of Georgia) and of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, symbolically representing the unity of the Eastern and Western Churches.
Today Masses as still celebrated in French, Georgian and Turkish at the Georgian Catholic monastic complex in Istanbul. It serves as an educational center for Georgians living in Istanbul. The complex is made available to Georgian Protestants in Istanbul. The Apostolic Administration of the Latin Rite Catholic of the Caucasus supports initiatives of Georgian scholars and conferences are organized annually.
During the three years of independence proclaimed in May 1918, Catholics were engaged in the construction of the newly formed independent Democratic Republic of Georgia. Catholics served in the Georgian armed forces and defended the country’s territorial integrity.
In 1921 Bolshevik Russia occupied Georgia and the following year annexed the country. The Soviet Regime targeted the local Catholic Church in Georgia with heavy repression. The Catholic clergy gave generously of themselves to save the faithful and steadfastly resisted collaboration with state structures. For this, Catholic clergy fell victims to the Soviet persecutions of the 1930s. Only two priests were left in parishes, Fr. Emanuel Vardidze and Fr. Constantine Saparashvili. One might say they were simply “lucky”, having been deported to the “Solovka” concentration camp where they continued to celebrate Mass in hiding. In Fr. Constantine’s memoirs we find that they had hidden a bowl and a plate in the hollow of a tree, near the barracks of the prisoners. An hour before the forced labor began, Catholic detainees secretly attended Mass. When the concentration camp gathered for work, Catholics had already received Communion and were the first in line.
From 1937 until 1990, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul of Tbilisi, was the only Catholic Church of the Latin rite functioning in the whole Caucasus.
By 1975, after the Soviet Union signed onto the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Declaration),. a reawakening was afoot and a legal struggle for the protection of human rights began. Faithful began to demand protection of the freedom of conscience. Daily worship in the Catholic Church in Tbilisi was held in various languages, Georgian, German, Polish, Syrian Chaldean, Armenian, Russian and Latin. They also began the tradition of prayer for Christian unity.
The election of the Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtila as Pope in 1978 became a land mark event for the Catholic Church in Georgia and in the Soviet Union. John Paul II’s historic message to millions of Catholics behind the “iron curtain”, “Do not be afraid!”, instilled hope in those who suffered under communist regimes. The small Georgian Catholic community felt encouraged.
Since the 1980s, the Catholic community in Georgia experienced new vitality. Churches that had been converted into warehouses were once again places of worship filled with faithful.
Relations with the Holy See began to normalize after the 1980’s when the Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II visited Pope John Paul II in the Vatican on June 5 and 6, 1980. The visit fostered a new sense of fraternal collaboration and strengthened relations between Georgian and the Holy See.
A slow process of restitution of Catholic churches, previously confiscated during the Russian and Soviet era, began in 1987. Catholic churches in the villages of Turtskhi (189), Arali (1989), Khizabavra and Vale (1989) began once again to function as Catholic places of worship.
Georgia’s international visibility began to increase grew thanks to initiatives of famous Georgian artists such as Zurab Tsereteli. He played host to Mother Teresa, Nobel prize laureate, who came to Tbilisi following her visit to Moscow. Her visit was a gesture of solidarity with Georgians and she founded a mission of her charitable Order At the Patriarchal Church of Sioni, Mother Teresa attended Liturgy celebrated by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia who awarded her a medal.
On several occasions the Tbilisi Mission of the Sisters of Charity of Mother Teresa received high ranking Prelates from the Holy See, including the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches Cardinal Achille Silvestrini. On November 8, 1999, Pope John Paul II celebrated the inauguration of the premises that would house the Missionaries of Charity in the old Avlabari district of Tbilisi. During his stay the Pope logged at the Missionaries’ Mission, a gesture that gained wide admiration.
Georgian Catholics’ role in the economic development of Georgia is well documented. For centuries, some of the most enterprising commercial interests were entertained by Catholics such as Rafiel Danibegashvili and the Zubalashvili dynasty amongst others, who maintained close relations with European and Asian entrepreneurs.
Georgian Catholics also distinguished themselves in a wide spectrum of fields, scientific, academic and cultural. Some of the most highly held names include: Petre Melikishvili, the first Rector of the University of Tbilisi; Ioseb Otskheli, founder of the Georgian gymnasium and of the popular University of Kutaisi; Zakaria Paliashvili, founder of the Georgian Music Academy and author of the National Anthem of Georgia; Petre Otskheli, was ahead of his time as founder of the Georgian staging school; Simon Kaukhchishvili, a founder of classical philology in Georgia and the School of Byzantinology; Victor Kokochashvili, a world renowned chemist, Giorgi Tumanishvili, a renowned engineer, among others.
Given Georgian Catholic’s creative and professional success abroad, they projected Georgia internationally. Georgian history became known with the research and scholars of Rev. Mikheil Tamarashvili and Rev. Mikheil Tarkhnishvili. Their research in the Vatican Archives and Italian libraries allowed them to publish important Georgian documents that brought to light ancient liturgical texts. Following the Second World War, Georgian culture is popular in Europe given artists such as Nikoloz Janelidze, who was awarded the Albert Shweitzer Prize in 1983 for his contribution to Georgian-German friendship. Felix Varlamishvili is a celebrated painter popularly known as Varla, who enjoyed remarkable success in Europe.
In 1991 when Georgia proclaimed its independence, the Holy See was the eighth State to recognize Georgia’s independence on 23 May, 1992 and an Apostolic Nunciature was opened in Tbilisi with jurisdiction extending to the entire southern Caucasus.
Pope John Paul II, visited Georiga on 8 November 1998, drawing international attention to the country’s challenges. The Pope’s visit was a great celebration for local Catholics. All segments of Georgian society showed interest in the visit. The Pope and the Patriarch signed an appeal for peaceful at the Patriarchal Church of Svetitskhoveli. The Pope visited Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Tbilisi to meet with faithful who stood steadfast in their faith throughout the period of Soviet repressions.
In August 2008, during the Russian – Georgian war, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against Russian aggression in Georgia. Then, on three occasions the Pontiff came to the defense of Georgia and its internally displaced people. Immediately, the Italian Bishops Conference sent a million euros to help the displaced needy in Gori. Caritas and other Catholic institutions continued to increase aid to Georgia, devastated and suffering a humanitarian situation.
With Pope Benedict XVI’s diplomatic interventions and activity, Latin American States rejected Russian international pressure to partition Georgia into various separate states.
The Papal historical visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis in September 2016, were the first Pontiffs visits to post-Soviet countries. The Papal visits gave Georgia moral international recognition showing support, visibility and solidarity with the Georgian people.