SAINT NICHOLAS PATRIARCHAL CATHEDRAL IN NEW YORK CITYHISTORY
... The majestic Russian Orthodox church in New York! - so will say anyone who looks at him for the first time - and he says a lot to the Russian Orthodox heart! "
— Russian Orthodox American Messenger. 1902
HISTORY OF SAINT NICHOLAS CATHEDRAL
St. Nicholas Cathedral was erected more than a hundred years ago. Its foundation associates with the names of two great Russian Saints — St. Tikhon. Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia and the newly-martyred Protopresbyter Alexander Hotovitsky.
At the end of the XIX century a large community of orthodox immigrants tracing their origins from the western areas of Ukraine and Byelorussia settled in New York. For a long time, the immigrants could not afford а church building because of their weak ﬁnancial condition.
In 1870 on behalf of the most Holy Synod the ﬁrst Greek-Russian church was constructed in New York. It was located in a private house on Second Avenue. Among its parishioners were Greeks, Serbs, Syrians, but the majority of its people were diplomats and those who served in the consulate of the Russian Empire. Thus the church was named a "consular church". Father Nicholas Bjerring born in Denmark and converted from Roman Catholicism became church rector. Before he converted he had been performing duties of a professor of philosophy and history at the Roman Catholic seminary in Baltimore, MD.
Remarkably, father Nicholas used to be а personal friend of was the US president during that time. Utilizing the extensive connections he had in America he displayed a great zeal in preaching orthodoxy to the American continent. In particular he was publishing a periodical "The Oriental Church Magazine" widely distributed in the United States.
ln 1894 Nicholas Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands based the new house church consecrated in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in New York. He appointed archpriest E. Balanovich rector of the church. In October 1895 Alexander Aleksandrovich Hotovitsky, a native of Krementz in the Volynsk province and a graduate of both the Volynsk Theological Seminary and St.-Petersburg Theological Academy, was installed as psalm reader in the church. On February, 25, 1896 bishop Nicholas ordained him a priest and appointed him to succeed Fr. E. Balanovich as the church dean. Though divine services continued to be held in the house church, church authorities searched for the possibility to erect a separate church building in New York.
In 1899 а committee was established whose task was to examine the opportunities for purchasing property and constructing a church in the city. in September of the same year the Church purchased land of 150 sazhen (about 1050 square feet or 3195 square meters) at a total cost of $36 000 (72 thousand rubles) — 44 thousand rubles of which was paid immediately by the most Holy Synod. A church capable of accommodating 900 people had to be erected on this land. There were plans to construct premises for Sunday school, a hall for assemblies and apartments for clergy. The estimate for the construction was about 114 thousand rubles or $57 000. In February 1900 with the blessing of the most Holy Synod — which had received the highest sanction of Emperor Nicholas ll to gather necessary resources — Father Alexander Hotovitsky as the chairman of the Construction committee made a trip to Russia to collect money for the construction.
The ﬁrst payment in the sum of ﬁve thousand golden rubles was offered by the family of Emperor Nicholas ll. Invaluable prayers and moral support were rendered by Father John of Kronshtadt who brought in 200 rubles of his personal assets and who wrote on the ﬁrst page of the book specially set up to record the names of donators: “Bless God this book and work these donations are asked for…”.
Many orthodox people in Russia followed the example of the Priest from Kronshtadt and the Emperor‘s family. Quite often after sermons given by Father Alexander Hotovitsky parishioners bestowed their own earrings, rings, necklaces, and bracelets. In a very short time 80 thousand rubles were collected. Nevertheless, the means collected were insufficient, so the Holly Synod declared that January, 6 (19), 1901— the feast of Theophany — would be the day fundraising for the construction of an Orthodox church in New York. On this great feast all Russia collected donations to assist brothers and sisters in far-off America.
On May, 9 (22), 1901, on the feast of Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a cornerstone was laid to celebrate the founding of a new church, Consecration of the cornerstone was performed by bishop Tikhon of the Aleutian Islands and North America, who was to become Patriarch of all Russia and the Confessor of the Church There was a religious procession in New York that day. Around the area of 2nd Avenue and 97th East Street in Manhattan the houses were decorated with the Russian and American ﬂags. Thousands of believers participated. Among them were representatives of the crew of the legendary battleship "Retvizan" which had been built in Philadelphia and was to become famous during the Russo—Japanese war. The sailors donated to the future church a cross which has been kept in St. Nicholas Cathedral since then.
In one—and—half years the best American civil engineering company John Dawney and Son erected a building of St. Nicholas Cathedral. Russian architect l.V. Bergessen designed it in the unique Moscovite baroque style.
On November, 10 (23) Bishop Tikhon performed the Great Consecration of the church and presided over the first Divine Liturgy. About three thousand people were present. Among them were the Extraordinary Ambassador of Russia Count A.P. Kassini, representatives of the Russian Embassy, the mayor of New York City S. Low, General Consul N.N. Lodyzhensky, the Envoy of Russia in Korea А.Р. Pavlov, the Consul of Russia in Canada N.B. Struve and representatives of various confessions.
In his salutatory address Bishop Tikhon said: "...we repeatedly complained that our church was poor, tight and uncomfortable. These days have put an end to such complaints. as God has heard our intimate lamentations and a church will be erected on this place. It will be worthy of Russian people and right for greatness of Orthodox faith! To tell the truth, our new church yields to many churches of Russia, but as well as the temple of Solomon it has a missionary value: we hope that people of different beliefs shall hear about it and shall come and shall pray here to God, and shall lift up their hands to our God".
In 1905 St. Tikhon promoted to the rank of Archbishop transferred the diocese centre from San Francisco to New York. St. Nicholas church thus became Cathedral and spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodoxy in North America. All the subsequent bishops of our Church carried out their duties in this Cathedral.
The 1917 revolution in far—off Russia affected the life of the Cathedral in New York. In post revolutionary time, in the 1920s especially, regular spiritual life in St. Nicholas Cathedral was broken. To pay the debts pan of the Cathedral property had to be sold. The Cathedral could not avoid being seized by the renovationists. In 1924 "archbishop" l. Kedrovsky, who proclaimed himself official representative of the Russian Church sent to the US from Moscow, arrived in New York. Through the civil court he occupied the Cathedral and "owned" it until he passed away in 1934. After Kedrovsky‘s death his children, Nicholas and John continued to serve in the Cathedral, one in "episcopal" and another in "priest" dignity. Both were also connected to the "Living church". In 1944 Nikolay Kedrovsky died. His brother John Kedrovsky, having lost legal support and hierarchical leadership joined with Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov) who at that time was the ofﬁcial representative of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA.
In 1933 Archbishop Benjamin with the blessing of Metropolitan Sergius arrived in the USA to deliver a series of lectures. During his stay there he was appointed Exarch of America by the decree of November, 29 of the same year and took the title of Archbishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America. In 14 years of his service in the USA Archbishop Benjamin managed to revive life of the parishes that belonged in the Patriarchal Church. In particular, he created about 50 new parishes. By the end of his sojourn in the US he was elevated into the rank of metropolitan.
On July, 2, 1941 soon after the treacherous attack of Germany on the Soviet Union, he addressed the massive meeting at Madison Square Garden in New York and made a huge impression. "Everyone knows, that the most terrible and crucial moment has come for the entire world. It is possible to say and should be said, that the destiny of the world depends upon the events in Russia... And consequently it is necessary to welcome the intention of the president of the United States and other statesmen to cooperate with Russia… All Russia rose up! We shall not sell out our conscience and the native Land!" These words, as they were written in the newspapers, literally electriﬁed an audience of thousands.
In 1945 the return оf the Cathedral to the Moscow Patriarchate was legally recognized, but this recognition was not yet ﬁnal. The lawsuit initiated by Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky), who had refused to accept orders of the Most Holy Patriarch Tikhon, proceeded, though the Metropolitan died. The dispute about property rights over the Cathedral was transferred from one court to another and as a result the lawsuit lasted for 36 years. in 1947 the Court of New York State ruled that the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and the congregation must abandon St. Nicholas Cathedral.
At this hard time the Presbyterian church allowed the Orthodox community to carry on Divine services in a church building on 96th Street. It was only on November, 23, 1952 that the Cathedral was returned to the Moscow Patriarchate by the decision of the United States Supreme Court. Lawyer F. Adler brilliantly won the case. On November, 24, 1952 Metropolitan Makarius (llynsky) wrote in his telegram to Moscow Patriarch Alexy I: "Lawsuit over the Cathedral is gained... I kindly ask to reward with mitre the Dean of the Cathedral archpriest Dzvonchin for his ﬁght for the Cathedral. Thank God for all. We ask prayers and blessing of Your Holiness for forthcoming works". From then on, the Cathedral again has become headquarters of Exarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA and in North America and the centre of the Russian Church in the USA.
Meanwhile the Supreme Court of appeal in New York State did not agree with the decision of the Supreme Court and transferred the Cathedral to the so called Russian Metropolia with Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich) as its head. Metropolitan Leonty did not recognize the Patriarch of Moscow, and therefore the lawsuit prolonged until 1960. By the verdict #824 of the US Supreme Court which was rendered on June, 6, 1960 this action was dismissed. Although verdicts of this type are seldom observed, The New York Times, in its issue from June, 6, 1960 noticed: "Today the Russian Orthodox Church has gained full victory in its 15-year struggle with its American division about possession of St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York".
Since 1970, after autocephaly had been granted to the Orthodox Church in America, St. Nicholas Cathedral has been designated as а church of the Representation of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA. Simultaneously it became the centre of the Patriarchal parishes that stayed according to Autocephaly Tomos under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church as they did not wish to join the Orthodox Church in America. St. Nicholas Cathedral remains a church of the most Holy Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia who through his vicar bishops governs parish life in the United States. The Vicar bishop is also the head of the Representation of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA.
Life of the Cathedral in the second half of the XX century is closely related to the activities of such outstanding hierarchs of the Russian Church as Metropolitans Boris (Vik), John (Vendland) and Nikodim (Rotov) who either carried out their archpastoral duties at St. Nicholas or made signiﬁcant strides in strengthening the positions of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA.
Years of trials, lawsuits and ﬁnancial difficulties affected the condition of the Cathedral which had not undergone changes since 1902 and had subsequently fallen into decay. In 1954 with the blessing of Metropolitan Gennogen (Kozhin) renovation works were started to restore the roof, domes and the cross. The works were continued by subsequent bishops. ln 1973, an event transpired that reﬂected upon the cultural value of the Cathedral when the Architectural Society of New York City placed on its wall a bronze memorial plaque describing the uniqueness of the building, thereby monumentalizing the Cathedral for its contribution to the city architecture.
By the year 2000 the condition of the Cathedral appeared to have deteriorated, and a decision was made to carry out major repairs and restoration work.
Reconstruction of the Cathedral art furniture coincided with the completion of painting of the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which at the end of the XIX century was the pattern for Russian churches. After the reconstruction in 2000, as well as in the XIX century, the Church of Christ the Savior became that token without which it would be impossible to execute restorations in churches of the Russian Orthodox Church - both in Russia and abroad.
The groundwork and gathering of materials on the lost interior and paintings began at the end of the 1990s. The required reference source was found in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Priest Leonid Kalinin, the head of the coordination group of experts for the reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, visited America several times. During his work on these reference sources in the Library of Congress and with personal assistance of the Librarian of the Library of Congress. Dr. J. Billington, it became possible to locate some materials on the history of construction of St. Nicholas Cathedral in l900—l902. The most essential documentary information about the Cathedral was gathered from the archives of Orthodox Church in America in Syosset, New York, which is headed by A.P. Liberovsky.
The traditional arrangement of plots was selected as a basis for composition of the church, with the image of Christ the Pantokrator in the dome, followed by Heavenly Hosts, and with great events of the Gospel history: Transﬁguration, Cruciﬁxion, Ascension and Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles below it. All these images were painted in the top pan of the church, on concave surfaces of the walls, which support the dome and are called "sky".
At a lower level it was decided to place around the church the cycle of images revealing the Gospel history from the Nativity of Christ up to the Dormition of Mother of God.
Below is located the cycle of four images from the life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker: "Rescue from Execution", "Rescue on Waters“, "Secret Compassionate Benefit", "Accusation of Arius at the First Ecumenical Council".
The Representation of the Moscow Patriarchate in the USA is located in the reconstructed building оf St. Nicholas Cathedral. Alter the end of renovation works its task has been essentially extended. The basic mission of the Representation is to testify position of the Russian Orthodox Church, to have contacts with representatives of other denominations, religious leaders of other traditions, American ofﬁcials as well as international organizations and media in order to create an Orthodox unity on American continent. Clergymen appointed by the decision of the most Holy Patriarch and the Holy Synod fulﬁl their duties in the Representation.
These labours are undertaken not for the glory of people, but for the glory of God. "Not unto us, О Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory, for Thy mercy, and for Thy truth's sake." (Psalm 113: 9)
Saint Nicholas Patriarchal Cathedral has always been the main church for the spiritual unity where our compatriots can get together. Self—denying contribution to the restoration of the Cathedral provided by our fellow countrymen both in Russia and in the United States should be a good example and a guideline for our contemporaries and descendants.
Hallowed be Thy name, O Lord, in this stronghold of Russian Orthodoxy on the American continent, and may many people start from here their way to Thy Kingdom.
Remember, O Lord, all those who have served without idleness on this place and "pour on them Thy rich mercy" in both this temporary life and life eternal. Amen.