Russians pay last respects to Alexy II, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church [EPA]

The woman took a deep breath, shivered and looked at us intently. "Is it true?" she asked. 

We told her it was. 

"Oh no! He was a saint. I pray every day [when] I pass this cathedral. He was a great man," she said before turning to the impressive building behind us and crossing herself several times all the while fighting back tears. 

The death of Alexy II, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, has come as a shock to many in this city and many of his followers around the world.

He had suffered from heart problems for years, but the announcement that he had finally succumbed to his illness was greeted with tears and prayers.

One woman told Al Jazeera: "I listened when he talked. He touched my soul."

Alexy II led his Church through the turbulent end of the Soviet Union and its restoration as a voice of moral authority in the country. 

His election to the post of patriarch in 1990 was significant because it was the first time the Soviet government did not interfere with the process.

Religious life

Born Alexei Rediger in Tallinn, Estonia in 1929, he decided to pursue religious life at the time the Church was being suppressed by the authorities. 

Many were persecuted for their beliefs.

He moved through a series of top positions but was always aware when dealing with the communist authorities that compromises had to be made to allow worship to continue.

This led to persistent rumours that he was an agent for the secret police, the notorious KGB.

However, it was something the Church always denied. 

In the dying days of communist Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then Soviet president, helped restore the Church's stature as an important aspect of Russian life.

This was later further cemented into the Russian system when Alexy blessed Boris Yeltsin, the country's first democratically-elected president. 

In the days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexy saw the rebuilding and rededication of many buildings which had been neglected or turned to other uses such as warehouses or even stables. 

Religion enjoyed a surge in popularity as people returned to worship.

Orthodox Church 

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of the biggest Christian churches in the world, claiming nearly 135 million adherents. 

Its power base is in Russia and areas of the former Soviet empire, but it has branches in China, Japan, the US, Europe and really anywhere Russians have settled. 

However, while the new atmosphere in Russia helped the Church to flourish, Alexy II was worried about what religious freedom would bring.

So using his Kremlin connections he successfully lobbied for a new law which placed restrictions on the activities of religions other than Russian Orthodoxy - Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. 

He resented attempts by other Christian churches to poach 'his people' which eventually led to discord with the Roman Catholic Church which has never been fully repaired. 

One of Alexy's biggest achievements, however, came in 2007 when he presided over a re-union with a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church whose members had fled abroad during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The end of the 90-year schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was widely welcomed. 

Popular figure

Alexy II grew in popularity as a public figure over the course of the past 20 years.

His death prompted Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, to cancel plans for a trip to Italy, and instead stay home to lead the official mourning.  

In the last few years of his life, Alexy II had also grown close to Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, who said on Friday that the patriarch's death was "a great loss" for the country.

The funeral will be a grand and elaborate affair with dignitaries from all over the world flying in to pay their respects.

Over the course of the next six months, the Russian Orthodox Church will appoint a new patriarch; however, Alexy II is likely to remain a significant figure in the Church's history because of his role in helping it to emerge from what was considered the dark age of communism.

Source: Al Jazeera