July 4, 1892

Artwork from the cover of the Chicago Inter Ocean, July 4, 1892.

Artwork from the cover of the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, July 4, 1892.

Last month, I did a podcast on the attempt to form a pan-Orthodox parish in Chicago in 1888. (You can also read a post about it here.) That attempt failed, and in 1892, separate Greek and Russian parishes were founded in Chicago. The Greek church was founded in April, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Athens, and with Fr Panagiotis (Peter) Phiambolis as the priest. Then, in May, a second parish was created as a part of the Russian diocese of the Aleutian Islands. It was called “St Nicholas,” and its priest was Fr Ambrose Vretta.

Not long after this, Independence Day was celebrated, and the St Nicholas parish community joined in the festivities. Here is an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 5, 1892:

Probably the most unique celebration of the day, as it was one of the most earnest, took place in the Graeco-Slavonian Church, No. 20 North Peoria street, yesterday afternoon. Members of the Greek faith in this city gathered there at 11 o’clock and with a monk of high order in picturesque vestments at the altar the mass or liturgy of Servian freedom was recited and applied to the natal day of American independence. The religious features of the services throughout were the same as those employed in Servia to commemorate the independence of that country, and the vestments worn by the celebrant were white and gold, symbolic in Slavonian churches of freedom won and enjoyed.

The church is known as that of St. Nicholas, but externally has nothing to indicate that it is a sacred edifice. The building is a two-story and high basement frame and the first floor is the church. On the end fronting the street the altar is placed, and in its symbols and decorations, resembles that of a modest Catholic church. When services are not in progress it is hidden by curtained partitions extending some distance from each wall, and in the center, where the altar steps begin, are two swinging doors, surmounted with a golden cross, and over that a silken curtain depending from near the ceiling. Except this altar space or sanctuary, the church is simply furnished, there being nothing to relieve its plainness and lack of suggestiveness but a few religious pictures on the walls.

The pastor of this church, the celebrant of yesterday’s services, which were in the nature of a Te Deum, is Fermillian, an Archmandrite of the Graeco-Slavonian Church, or a monk of high order, of which he was at one time the head or chief. He is a man of about 40 years, with a strong face and high forehead, framed in a heavy head of hair and full black whiskers. His eyes are kindly and his manner dignified and courteous. He speaks several languages fluently, but not English. He was rector of a theological school in Belgrade and had charge of the education of young King Alexander of Servia and resided in the royal palace. Being a monk he is not married. Priests of the Greek Church are permitted to marry, but by doing so are debarred from reaching any higher clerical dignity than that of the priesthood.

After the conclusion of the services, which were in the Slavonian language, the Archmandrite delivered an address, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the freedom of this country and the benefits it confers upon those of his own and other races who were the victims of oppression. He drew a parallel between the struggles of the United States and Servia. This happy land had won its liberties in one war, while Servia had been fighting for over 500 years and yet only a portion of the Slavic race was free. Bosnia, Herzegovinia, Macedonia, Dalmatia, and other States are still the victims of Turkish and Austrian tyranny. Only 3,000,000 Slavs are free in Servia and Montenegro and 4,000,000 are still in bondage. But he had hopes that a united Slavic nation would yet be like the United States, free and independent and happy. It was a glorious privilege, he said, to live in a land of liberty like this.

This Greek church on Peoria street is the first one of that faith established in Chicago, and it has been in existence scarcely two months. The Slavonians and Greeks here organized the Christian Orthodox Association about a year ago and sent a petition to the Metropolitan of Servia for a pastor. He complied with their request and sent them Fermillian the Archmandrite. The church now numbers about 175 members, and every Sunday additions are made to the roll. The intention is to begin the erection of a new and handsome church before long, and the expectation is that, at any rate, it will be completed for the World’s Fair and will be open for the reception and worship of Greek Chrsitians from every quarter.

Given that the Fourth of July has just passed, I thought it appropriate to post this article. But it also raises some questions. The Archimandrite Fermillian mentioned by the Tribune was apparently under the Serbian Church, and was sent to be the pastor of St Nicholas parish in Chicago. But the very same St Nicholas parish had been founded just two months earlier under the Russian Church, under the leadership of the Russian priest Fr Ambrose Vretta. And we know that Fr Vretta continued to serve in Chicago.

So what was a Serbian archimandrite doing in the “Russian” church in Chicago? I can only guess at this point, but here’s my theory. The Orthodox community in Chicago consisted primarily of Greeks and Serbs, with only a minority of Russians. The Greeks formed their own parish and got a priest from Athens. The Serbs seem to have requested a priest from Serbia in 1891. However, they were also in contact with the Russian authorities, and in May 1892, this culminated with the founding of St Nicholas church. But, communication being what it was in those days, the Serbian Church probably still sent Archimandrite Fermillian, who arrived in time to celebrate that distinctive Independence Day service. Since arrangements had already been made with the Russians, he probably returned to Serbia a short time after this.

While I can’t prove all that, what this confusion does demonstrate is the jurisdictionally chaotic nature of early American Orthodoxy. From one Orthodox community came two parishes, involving four ecclesiastical authorities — Russia, Greece, Serbia, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the latter having also been contacted by the Chicago Orthodox in 1891).

But, all that aside, the most interesting thing about the above Tribune article is how the Chicago Orthodox were attempting to embrace American life while retaining their Orthodox faith. They wanted to celebrate Independence Day, but they wanted more than fireworks, speeches, and parades. They wanted something distinctively Orthodox, and their solution was rather ingenious — to adapt a Serbian Independence Day service for use in America. And they were serious about it; the Tribune says that the Orthodox celebration “was one of the most earnest.” I don’t know if this practice continued, but it demonstrates a remarkable fusion of American and Orthodox.

Update: In the comments, “Linnapaw” posted a link to a page on the website of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. It includes the following note:

1892 – Archimandrite Firmilian Drazich, later to become Metropolitan of Skoplje, visits Chicago from April until September. Fr. Drazich has the distinction of being the first Serbian Orthodox priest to serve the Orthodox liturgy in Chicago (in a rented hall). Three Cathedrals in Chicago — Annunciation Greek, Holy Trinity Russian and Holy Resurrection Serbian—herald their beginnings from this common chapel.

As I said in the comments, while there was no formal Orthodox parish (and no resident priest) in Chicago until the Greek church was founded in April 1892, we know that there was a lay Orthodox organization prior to this, and it is certainly possible that they had a chapel. By the time Archimandrite Firmilian came along, the Greeks had already started their own parish, but the rest of the Orthodox community may have continued to use the earlier chapel.

The Serbs didn’t get their own church in Chicago until 1905. But long before that (beginning in 1881), they had an organization called the “Serbian-Montenegrin Charitable Institution,” which was renamed “Jedinstvo” in 1894. When Archimandrite Firmilian visited Chicago in 1892, he gave the group vestments and a chalice, and when the Serbian church was founded in 1905, Jedinstvo donated the holy objects to the new parish. It would be interesting to know whether the Serbian cathedral still has these objects.

9 thoughts on “July 4, 1892

  1. If I have my history right, the Russian church was organized as St. Vladimir’s, and got a huge boost from the people who came over from Russia with the Cossack exhibit of the World’s Fair. The church later was named Holy Trinity Cathedral, in the hope that it would help Orthodox unity in the city, since “Holy Trinity” is a lot less ethnic than “St. Vladimir”. According to my understanding as well, Bishop Tikhon (who consecrated Holy Trinity) was working on a plan for Orthodox unity in the US as churches were coming in, and in this plan, the Chicago bishop was to be Serbian. Also, if you ask the people at Holy Trinity, most of them would argue that the founding of St. Vladimir predated (by a couple months) any other Orthodox Church in the city of Chicago.

  2. Linnapaw, thanks for visiting, and for your comment. I’m just getting my information from the sources themselves. There was certainly an Orthodox community in Chicago prior to 1892, but no parish existed. On April 6, 1892, Fr Panagiotis Phiambolis arrived in Chicago and founded Annunciation parish under the Church of Greece (cf. the April 17, 1892 issue of the Chicago Tribune, page 44).

    On May 17 of the same year, the Russian priest Fr Ambrose Vretta came to Chicago and founded St Nicholas parish under the Russian Church (cf. the May 19, 1892 issue of the New York Times, page 3).

    Off the top of my head, I don’t know how the name switched from St Nicholas to St Vladimir. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that the Russian parish was founded prior to the Greek one, though I’d certainly love to learn more.

    As for St Tikhon’s hope for a bishop in Chicago, he did indeed express such a desire, though this was a number of years after the events I’ve related. The World’s Fair you mention is a fascinating subject in its own right, and eventually, I’ll write about it in detail here.

  3. Just to follow up: the first reference I’ve found to the Chicago Russian parish as “St Vladimir” is from the Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1894 (page 7). It’s definitely the same parish as the earlier “St Nicholas,” with the same priest (Fr Ambrose Vretta).

    One difference, however, is the location. In the July 5, 1892 article (cited above), the location of St Nicholas is given as No. 20 North Peoria. By April 9, 1893, the Tribune reported that the Russian church was located at No. 13 South Center Avenue. As best I can tell, the name was changed along with the location. (This is rather common. The Russian/OCA cathedral in San Francisco has received a new name each time its building has changed.)

    Here’s another wrinkle: on December 24, 1899, the Tribune did a story on a donation by the Tsar to build a new church in Chicago, and it referred to the parish as having a “Brotherhood of St Nicholas.” I’m not sure what exactly this “brotherhood” was. It’s possible that the community called itself “St Nicholas” and called its building “St Vladimir.” (This is rare, but not unheard of. The OCA community in Santa Rosa, CA is called “The Parish of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Mary,” but the actual church building is dedicated to St Seraphim of Sarov.) It is also possible that the “Brotherhood of St Nicholas” was an organization within the parish which took care of the church property.

    The first mention I’ve found of “Holy Trinity” is from the Tribune, on April 13, 1902 (reporting on the upcoming cornerstone laying for the new church building). Once again, with the move to a new church building, the parish changed its name.

  4. *L* I certainly haven’t done any terribly in-depth research, and most of what I have heard about Holy Trinity has come from people around the cathedral. I was walking around the other day, and happened to come upon the former church building of Holy Resurrection Serbian Cathedral, and their website claims that in the beginning, there was one Orthodox church here, and services were held in a rented space, and from this congregation, the beginnings of Holy Trinity, Annunciation (Greek) and Holy Resurrection can be traced. (http://serbiancathedral.org/Parish_Info/parish_info.html)

    Another little interesting caveat to researching Chicago before 1909 or so is that the street names and numbers are crazy. At some point in the mid 1800s, the Post Office mandated that buildings have numbers on them in order to deliver mail. In Chicago, there were at least three different methods for house numbering to be found in the city, and none of them made a whole lot of sense, and so the city of Chicago decided to standardise the system. Also, there were many street names that were repeated at different points in the city, and streets that only used a particular name for a couple of blocks, and this was also more or less standardised. As a result, Holy Trinity, for example, had its address changed from 560 N. Leavitt to 1121 N. Leavitt. Holy Resurrection Serbian Cathedral first had the address 8 Fowler St., which became 1905 Fowler, which became 1905 W. Schiller. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church had the address 34 Johnson, which became 1101 Johnson, which became 1101 S. Peoria (which is now a space occupied by the University of Illinois at Chicago, meaning that the address doesn’t really exist anymore).

    I actually happened by a building that had a large Russian-style cross on top of it. So far, I haven’t been able to find out any information. It’s a mansion on an old street, and the address now, is 2141 W. Pierce St, but back in the day was probably 82 Ewing.

  5. Okay, I just posted, and after spending a good amount of time looking for it online the other day, *now* I’m able to find what the building on Pierce was – the Theodore D. Juergens House, which was the residence of a Russian bishop…
    Now off to find a little bit more info on this! :)

  6. Linnapaw, it sounds like you have a gold mine there in Chicago.

    From the link you posted to the Serbian parish website, I found this note:

    “1892 – Archimandrite Firmilian Drazich, later to become Metropolitan of Skoplje, visits Chicago from April until September. Fr. Drazich has the distinction of being the first Serbian Orthodox priest to serve the Orthodox liturgy in Chicago (in a rented hall). Three Cathedrals in Chicago — Annunciation Greek, Holy Trinity Russian and Holy Resurrection Serbian—herald their beginnings from this common chapel.”

    This is obviously the same “Archimandrite Fermillian” in the Tribune article I reprinted above. It certainly may be true that the Chicago Orthodox community had a common chapel prior to the establishment of any of the parishes. There was no resident priest in Chicago, and no formal parish, until the Greek church was founded in 1892. But we do know that there was a lay Orthodox organization before this, and it’s possible that they had a chapel.

    The early history of Orthodoxy in Chicago is extremely interesting, perhaps more interesting than that of any other US city. I look forward to hearing what more you find.

  7. Btw, on Holy Trinity’s name, I was told when I went there the same story about Holy Trinity being more “Pan” Orthodox, but also that the ground was broken on Pentacost.

    On another American Holiday: From a book for private distribution, “His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Alexis in the United States of America during the winter of 1871-72″”

    Yesterday being Thanksgiving Day, the Grand
    Duke and some of his suite went to the Greek Chapel to attend service.

    The Duke was met at the door of the chapel by the officiating clergyman, Father Bjerring, holding in his hands a golden crucifix with which he blessed the Duke, and to which the latter very piously pressed his lips.

    At the close of the service the priest again blessed the Duke, who also again very piously kissed the crucifix.
    http://www.archive.org/stream/hisimperialhigh00unkngoog/hisimperialhigh00unkngoog_djvu.txt

    I could swear I saw something in the NY Times on Fr. Bjerring celebrating with Bishop Paul Thanksgiving in 1870 (bishop Paul left the States Nov. 26 from NY. I’ve seen elsewhere in NYTimes (in the context of Bjerring’s defense of Russia’s religious policy in connection with the Lutherans, IIRC) Bjerring was just recently naturalized

    • Isa, you are correct about Bp Paul’s visit to Bjerring’s chapel in 1870. Look at the November 25, 1870 issue of the Times.

  8. Pingback: OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » Fr. Ambrose Vretta: pioneering priest in Chicago & Seattle

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