Plans for a New York church in the 1870s

Immediately upon Fr. Nicholas Bjerring’s arrival in New York City in 1870, news spread that the Russian Church planned to construct a great temple in the city, on the corner of 51st Street and Lexington Avenue. This is from the Christian Advocate journal (6/29/1871):

A magnificent structure is about to be erected by the Russian government on Lexington Avenue for the devotions of the members of the Greek faith in this city and country. The designs will arrive here in a few days from St. Petersburg, when the work will at once be commenced. When finished the church will have cost between $500,000 and $600,000.

Half a million dollars in 1871 works out to something close to $9 million today. I’ve seen other references putting the figure at $200,000 to $300,000, but regardless, it was a pretty big chunk of change, and I have a little trouble believing that the Russian government was really going to foot that kind of bill for a representation church. In 1866, estimates out of Russia put the total cost of the proposed church at $20,000, or a little over $350,000 in modern terms, which sounds a lot more reasonable.

Konstantin Katakazi (Catacazy), Russian ambassador to the United States

Konstantin Katakazi (Catacazy), Russian ambassador to the United States

Already, the Russian ambassador, Konstantin Katakazi (or Catacazy), had spent $20,000 to purchase the necessary land. When Grand Duke Alexis arrived in America for his famous visit in the fall of 1871, he brought with him plans for the building.

Everything looked like it was going smoothly, until the next summer. From the New York Times (7/22/1872):

The site was purchased by him [Catacazy] for $17,000 in currency. When the deed came to be made out Catacazy desired that $20,000 should be inserted, instead of the amount actually to be paid. There was some difficulty experienced in getting this done, but the intriguing diplomat at last succeeded. By paying the increased cost of revenue-stamps, and possibly using some other inducements, the character of which are not stated. Then he drew on his Government for $20,000 in gold to pay for the site. These facts  became known to or suspected by some of the Russians in New-York, who had an interest in the matter, and through them it was made known to the Russian Foreign office. When Catacazy was tried on his return, this was one of the charges which his own Government placed before the Commission for investigation, and it was fully proved.

It might just be a coincidence, but this report ran on exactly the same day that the same newspaper reported on Bjerring’s return to New York after a lengthy visit to Russia. Whether through Bjerring or some other channel, in the summer of 1872, the Russian government figured out that Ambassador Catacazy was skimming money. He had other issues as well (check out his Wikipedia entry), and he was soon exiled to a lowly post in Paris.

As you might expect, plans to build the New York church ground to a halt. But the Russian government still owned the land on Lexington Avenue, and two years later, the plans were revived. From the Baltimore Sun (9/17/1874):

The Russian chapel in New York being too small to accommodate the members of the Greek Church in that city, Russian subjects there have represented to the imperial government the need of a new church edifice for their use, and plans for a structure to cost $85,000 have been sent to St. Petersburg for approval. About $35,000 in aid of the project has already, it is understood, been obtained from various sources, Mr. Ross Winans, of Baltimore, having given $10,000. A plot of ground for such a church was purchased for the Russian government three years ago.

Who, you might be wondering, was Mr. Ross Winans? Well, from his Wikipedia entry, he was one of the first American multi-millionaires, an “inventor, mechanic, and builder of locomotives and railroad machinery.” Also, there’s this:

The Winans engine designs impressed a Russian delegation, and he was asked by the Czar to build the Imperial railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Winans sent his two sons, as well as engineer George W. Whistler to Russia for several years for that project. Winans may have sold as much or more equipment in Russia as he did in the United States. Winans’ son returned to build a Russian style estate in Baltimore, named Alexandrofsky.

So Ross Winans had some serious ties to Russia and the Russian government, and also some serious capital at his disposal. The New York Orthodox, for their part, had apparently scaled back their ambitious plans, reducing the proposed cost of the church from several hundred thousand dollars down to $85K (around $1.6 million today).

Despite that encouraging report, the church was never built. I’m not sure what happened. Even on the eve of the New York chapel’s dissolution in 1882, there were still reports that the Russian government planned to construct a great edifice in the city, but of course they never materialized.

Not everyone realized this. In their 1871 Annual Cyclopaedia, D. Appleton & Company said this:

The first building in the United States designed expressly for a Greek church was erected in the city of New York, during 1871. It is on Lexington Avenue, between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets. The cost, about $260,000, is defrayed by the Russian Treasury in St. Petersburg. The church is attached to the Russian legation in the United States, but is directly under the supervision of the Metropolitan at St. Petersburg, and is not in anyway connected with the diocese of the resident Greek bishop at San Francisco.

They were wrong, of course; when that statement was written, the New York church was only in its earliest planning stages. What’s especially interesting about this Appleton’s reference is the assertion that the New York chapel was under the direct authority of the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, rather than the Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.

In any event, it’s not clear precisely why the plans for the church never came to fruition. Perhaps the money just couldn’t be raised — after all, New York’s Orthodox community was small and generally not wealthy. Perhaps the Catacazy scandal made the Russian government think twice about investing in a New York church. Perhaps the Russian Church changed its mind about the need for a great building in New York. The answer is out there somewhere, probably in some church archive back in Russia.

Also, what happened to the Lexington Avenue property? By all accounts, the Russian government had already bought the land.

As with so many of the stories we recount here at OrthodoxHistory.org, this one ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers.

2 thoughts on “Plans for a New York church in the 1870s

  1. 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″”
    After describing the arrival into port of the Grand Duke, and his welcome, it goes on:
    “No sooner had the procession disbanded and the sight-seers dispersed to their homes than the Grand Duke, left free to act from impulses of his own heart, went at once, with his staff, to the Russo-Greek Church at 951 Second Avenue. They left the Clarendon Hotel about ten minutes past four o’clock. Weary and tired as the imperial party must have been after their long voyage and their reception yesterday, still the religious faith and customs of Russia and of the imperial family of that empire are so strict that the Duke and his retinue hastened to return thanks for their safety, and to receive the priestly blessing at the hands of the only
    Russo-Greek clergyman in the country. Rev. Father N. Bjerring.

    As His Imperial Highness entered, the Rev. Father Bjerring gave the benediction with the cross, and blessed the Duke and party with holy water, and continued the services for more than half an hour, at the close of which the priest addressed the Duke as follows : —

    ‘^May it please your Imperial Highness : It is with the sincerest joy of heart that I venture, in the deepest humility, to bid Your Imperial Highness a happy weloome in this little chapel, and this welcome I venture to offer not only as a priest of the Orthodox Church,
    but also as a citizen of the United States. As everywhere in the world where there are orthodox Greek Christians, so also the professors of the orthodox faith in this land look to the borders of Russia, as the Bethlehem of the body politic, from whence the illumination of the apostolic faith spreads itself in unalloyed purity. It is a great idea, yes, the greatest idea, for man ; not a fantastic idea, but a living reality, which assembles the hearts of orthodox Christians around the Russian centre, whether they be dwellers in the Eastern or in the Western hemisphere. This great idea is not what some are pleased to call Pan-Slavism. No; it is an immeasurably greater idea: it is what I would designate Pan-orthodoxy. The existence of this chapel, the first in New York, is owing to orthodox Russia ; and as a grain of mustard-seed spreads itself in gradual growth, so I hope, with God’s grace, that the care of the Holy Synod for its spiritual children here
    will not be in vain. But all the more jubilant are our hearts to-day for the presence of an imperial member of that distinguished house-
    hold which by its piety has inscribed itself in brilliant lines in the annals of history.

    *’ May Your Imperial Highness be a thousand times welcome. May Your Imperial Highness find many delights in this land, and may the
    God of love preserve and defend Your Imperial Highness. This I pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
    Amen ! “^

    The service concluded with a prayer and with the customary rite of wishing the imperial household many happy years. The Duke immediately thereafter shook hands with Father Bjerring, thanked him for his kind
    words of welcome and invited the reverend clergyman to pay a visit at his hotel this morning before his departure for Washington. The party thereafter entered their carriages and returned to the Clarendon. ”
    http://www.archive.org/stream/hisimperialhigh00unkngoog/hisimperialhigh00unkngoog_djvu.txt

  2. Pingback: OrthodoxHistory.org » Blog Archive » Inside Bjerring’s chapel

Comments are closed.