Orthodoxy in Chicago, 1888-1892

Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky visited Chicago in 1888 and again in 1891.

Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky visited Chicago in 1888 and again in 1891, but was unable to start a parish.

Back in June, I did one of my first podcasts on an attempt, in 1888, to form a multiethnic parish in Chicago. Here are the basics:

By 1888, there were about a thousand Orthodox Christians living in Chicago, most of them Greeks and Serbs / Montenegrins. A few years earlier, they had organized themselves into an Orthodox society and petitioned the Church of Russia to send a priest and form a parish. There actually was no Russian bishop in America for much of the 1880s, so it wasn’t until Bishop Vladimir’s arrival in 1888 that the Chicago community got some attention from the hierarchy. In May, Vladimir wrote to the lay leaders in Chicago and asked them to call a meeting to determine just how many people were interested in starting a church, and just how much money they might be able to contribute. One of the highlights of the meeting was a speech by Greek leader George Brown, who said, “We will surprise the Americans. Let us stick like a brothers.” Bishop Vladimir himself came to Chicago in October, serving the first known Orthodox liturgy in the city, at No. 85 Fifth Avenue.

For some reason, despite the promise of the May 1888 meeting, no parish was formed. The reasons for this failure aren’t clear. A few years later, the Chicago Inter Ocean (7/11/1891) reported,

An effort was made some time ago to organize here to build a church or temple, as there are fully 2,000 of the faith residing here, but under the name of the Grecian Brotherhood Association it failed, as the Russians, Servians, and Slavonians would not come in under that title.

The Inter Ocean goes on to explain that, in June 1891 (so, three years after the initial meeting), a new organization was created, called the “Grecian, Slavonian, and Russian Orthodox Association.” This seems to have happened in conjunction with another visit by Bishop Vladimir to Chicago that spring. Hierarchical services were celebrated in Gazzolo’s Hall, at 82 West Madison Street. From the Chicago Tribune (6/1/1891):

Before the service a meeting had been held, at which it was decided to make application to the Holy Synod [...] for license to organize a church. The synod must consent to this before a church can organize. [...] There is little doubt that the license will be granted.

A nine-man committee was appointed to obtain the necessary signatures, and it wisely included three Russians, three Greeks, and three Serbs. Everyone hoped that the parish could be founded in time for the World’s Fair, which would be held in Chicago in 1893.

A couple months later, in July, an Archimandrite Lininas, from the Russian Cathedral in San Francisco, made a follow-up visit to Chicago. The aforementioned George Brown, one of the Greek leaders of the society, told a newspaper that the community had been promised a priest “as soon as they have erected a church.” I must say, it’s an odd approach, requiring the laity to construct a building before giving them a priest.

No building was erected, and no priest was sent. Throughout most of his episcopate in America, Bishop Vladimir was embroiled in a horrific scandal in San Francisco. Early on, his cathedral was burned to the ground (and some whispered that it was arson). Rumors swirled that funds had been embezzled. The accusations against Vladimir himself were the worst — he was charged by his detractors with sexually assaulting numerous young boys. To this day, it’s not clear whether these accusations were true or false.

More to the point of this story, the scandals in San Francisco had major ripple effects in Chicago. A Montenegrin named Gopchevich was one of the key players in the Chicago Orthodox community, and his brother happened to be one of Bishop Vladimir’s mortal enemies in San Francisco. In the fall of 1891, the Orthodox society met to discuss the crisis. From the Inter Ocean (11/2/1891):

Personal opinions vary. However, Bishop Vladimir had intended to establish the church here, but the local society has determined to remain entirely independent of Vladimir, and has sent a petition to the Russian Government and to the head of the Greek Church in Constantinople for a priest.

As it happened, Bishop Vladimir was on his way out, replaced by Bishop Nicholas Ziorov. In March of 1892, the new bishop and his entourage passed through Chicago on their way to San Francisco. Some of the leading Chicago Orthodox figures met with the group, and there was again talk of forming a multiethnic parish. But the very next month, Fr. Panagiotis Peter Phiambolis came to Chicago under the authority of Athens, and he founded a Greek church. The next month, Fr. Ambrose Vretta was sent by the Russian authorities to establish a Russian church.

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