Inside Bjerring’s chapel
I got a little tired of quoting long sections of primary sources, and thought I’d try something a little different for a change. Don’t worry, though; I’ll be back with my regular style tomorrow. And if you’re wondering about sources, just let me know — I didn’t make any of this up, or anything.
Walking along Second Avenue in New York City in the 1870s, we encounter #951, a private residence in a nondescript brownstone. The only odd thing about the place is a gilt Greek cross that hangs over the door. As it turns out, this place isn’t just a home; it’s the only Russian Orthodox place of worship east of San Francisco.
We enter on the parlor floor. Originally, this was two rooms, but it has been modified — now, one of the “parlors” is the sanctuary, while the other is the nave. Where there were once doors separating the two rooms, now there is an iconostasis, surmounted with a gorgeous icon of the Mystical Supper. The iconostasis has only the Royal Doors — no deacon’s doors — which makes for an odd-looking Great Entrance. Inside, the altar table is lavishly ornamented. The altar cloth alone is worth a king’s ransom, made of yellow satin and embroidered with gold and silver lace. The sacred objects in the chapel — marriage crowns, chalice, candelabras, censer, diskos, crosses, etc. — were all gifts from the Tsar, and they looked the part, made of pure gold and studded with gemstones. On the opposite end of the room, over the mantelpiece, is a large mosaic and a gold cross — gifts of the Russian government. On the four ends of the cross, there are medallion icons with scenes from Christ’s life. The rest of the walls are covered with more icons and banners, also depicting scenes from the life of Christ.
The room feels bigger than it is, with no pews and only a couple of chairs on the floor. An impressive chandelier hangs from the high ceiling. But really, the place is tiny, and it feels crowded with a couple dozen people inside. When the Grand Duke visited in 1871, throngs of American girls begged the priest to let them in, but, as one journal said, the chapel wouldn’t hold a tithe of them.
They talked for years about building a great Orthodox church in the city; the Russian government even bought land on Lexington Avenue, but it all came to naught. The Russians pulled their money, and the Danish priest joined the Presbytery. Makes me wonder what exactly happened to all those treasures in the chapel. Rumor has it that some of them turned up in a pawn shop, of all places! It’s quite a shame how things turned out, and one has to wonder if this is the end of Orthodoxy in New York.
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