Fr. Ambrose Vretta: pioneering priest in Chicago & Seattle

Fr. Ambrose Vretta, 1895

Fr. Ambrose Vretta, 1895

In the past, I’ve mentioned the Russian Mission’s practice of employing “client clergy” — non-Russian priests with ties to Russia, who served multiethnic or non-Russian parishes in America. St. Raphael and Fr. Sebastian Dabovich are perhaps the most famous examples, but there were many more. One of the earliest of these client clergy was Fr. Ambrose Vretta, who has the distinction of being the first pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago and St. Spiridon’s Cathedral in Seattle.

Vretta (or Wretta) was originally from Macedonia. He was born in 1859, attended the Imperial Medical College in Istanbul, and then toured Europe and studied in Rome. He then returned to his homeland, but, according to the Chicago Tribune (9/2/1895), “he found the systematic persecution to which he was subjected by the Turkish Government too much for comfort.” So he left for Orthodox Russia, where he was warmly received. It wasn’t long before he had developed close ties with the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg (probably Metropolitan Isidore). At some point along the way he was ordained a priest; I assume this happened in Russia, but I can’t be sure. Vretta may have encountered a young Jovan (later Fr. Sebastian) Dabovich, who studied in St. Petersburg in the late 1880s.

When the newly-consecrated Bishop Nicholas Ziorov was assigned to America in 1892, the 33-year-old Vretta came along with him. His first assignment was Chicago, where a significant Orthodox community existed. For several years, the Orthodox of the city had been trying to organize a parish, but for various reasons, they hadn’t been successful. (We’ve discussed that a bit in the past, and will talk about it in great detail in the near future.)

On May 17, 1892, the first Russian Orthodox church was founded in Chicago (although, it should be noted, there were hardly any actual Russians, with much of the congregation being Serbian). This came only weeks after the first Greek parish was organized in the city. Vretta was present at that initial meeting, and he remained at the parish for the next three years. During that time, he also assumed responsibility for a new Orthodox parish in Streator, Illinois.

One of the most notable aspects of Vretta’s tenure in Chicago was the warm relationship between the Russian and Greek churches: although the Orthodox community of the city had split into two parishes, there doesn’t seem to have been any rivalry. Vretta concelebrated with the Greek priest, Fr. Panagiotis Peter Phiambolis, on numerous occasions. When the Greek Archbishop Dionysius of Zante visited Chicago for the World’s Fair, the Vretta went over to the Greek church for services. When the Russian Bishop Nicholas came to town, it was Phiambolis’ turn to visit the Russian church. In 1894, a special service was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Orthodoxy in North America, and both Vretta and Phiambolis were present. Later that year, Tsar Alexander III died, and for the memorial, Vretta went over to the Greek church, which was simultaneously dedicating its new building.

Vretta was transferred to Seattle shortly after that, in November 1895. Up to that point, the fledgling Orthodox community of Seattle had never had a resident priest. Fr. Sebastian Dabovich had been holding services on Saturdays, but Vretta was the first full-time pastor of the new St. Spiridon’s Church. He didn’t confine himself to working in Seattle, though. In the spring of 1896, Vretta and his young reader Vladimir Alexandrov traveled to Montana, where they celebrated the first-ever Orthodox services in the state. In her fascinating paper, “Circuit Riders to the Slavs and Greeks”, Brigit Farley tells this story:

[Vretta] began in Anaconda, where he administered the sacraments of marriage and chrismation to several Serbian Orthodox believers. The priest moved on to Butte, where he learned of an Orthodox miner named Mike Gamble, who wished to see a priest in order to receive Communion. Fr. Vretta finally located Gamble after a long climb up the side of a mountain, during which he had only the assistance of dogs and a sled for his baggage. After his meeting with the miner, he reported, he managed to convince two Uniates to accept union with the Orthodox church.

In December of 1896, Vretta was transferred from Seattle… And I’m not sure where he went. He was only 37 years old, so he presumably had a long career ahead of him, but I can’t find him on any later lists of clergy (and I’ve got lists for 1906, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1918). He doesn’t seem like the type of priest — non-Russian, literate, mission-minded — who would be sent to Russia; in fact, he’s exactly the sort of priest that was being sent from Russia to America.

It’s possible, I suppose, that he remained with Bishop Nicholas. In 1898, Bishop Nicholas was transferred to a diocese in Russia; perhaps Vretta joined him (?). If anyone out there has more information about Vretta, particularly his whereabouts after 1896, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.

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