On today’s episode of my American Orthodox History podcast, I talk about the tragic death of Bishop Nestor Zass, head of the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska from 1879 to 1882. One of Bp Nestor’s parishioners in San Francisco was the 19-year-old Jovan Dabovich, the future Archimandrite Sebastian. Years later, Dabovich wrote a history of San Francisco’s Orthodox community, published in the Vestnik (the diocesan magazine) on April 13 and 27, 1898. The whole article is available in the Holy Trinity Cathedral archive, and we’re reprinting the section devoted to Bp Nestor.
In 1879, once again the Lord regarded the humility of the Orthodox children of this Diocese and sent us a good shepherd in the person of the Right Reverend Nestor, who arrived in San Francisco in the spring, accompanied by the Hieromonk (and later Archimandrite) German.
As usual, the Western Churches followed closely the activities of the Eastern Churches, and in this matter the Anglican Church reported quite sympathetically on the Right Reverend Nestor’s assignment to America.
Here, for example, is what we read about this in the London Journal:
The Holy Synod of the Russian Church has appointed to the Episcopal See of the Aleutian Islands the Archimandrite Nestor. Father Nestor was in early life known as Baron Zass; he was an officer in the navy, and besides his theological attainments he is well versed in secular learning, and understands fully the English language, in which he expresses himself fluently. He is distinguished for his lofty character, his Christian convictions, and his thorough devotion to duty. Father Nestor will be quite in his proper place in America, for at the time of Admiral Lesoffsky’s visit to New York, in 1863, he made himself highly esteemed by the Americans. It is to be hoped that the Episcopate of Father Nestor may be a source of close and intimate relations between the Orthodox Russian Church and the Church of North America. A letter which came to the Holy Synod, not long since, from the American bishops gives reason to hope thus. God grant that through the cooperation of the future Bishop of the Aleutian Islands brotherly relations may be established [between] these two great Churches.
Also in 1879 Bishop Nestor visited Sitka. In 1880 he traveled to Unalaska. In 1881 he made an inspection of Kodiak. Having made Bishop Nestor’s acquaintance, Americans regarded him most highly as a man adorned with every Christian and civic merit.
In 1881 the Cathedral Church in San Francisco was moved to its present location. On June 30 of that year the purchase deed for a house was signed by Gustave Niebaum for the sum of thirty-eight thousand dollars in American gold coin. This was a duplex house at 1713 & 1715 Powell Street near the wharves in North Beach between Russian and Telegraph Hills where Powell crosses the wide commercial thoroughfare of Montgomery Ave. Before the purchase of this property Bishop Nestor and Father Herman lived in a private flat. In the new house an apartment was arranged for the bishop as well as quarters for the Ecclesiastical Administration — a school, a storage area and an archive. The church with its new and elegant principal iconostasis, its new holy table, its new vestment wardrobe, etc. was formed out of two rooms (at 1713 Powell St.). In addition the large front room of the second story was removed, so that the altar area and a part of the church had high walls — in two worlds. The church was quite proper, and under the circumstances could not have been better.
In the winter of 1881-82 His Grace frequently complained of headaches and suffered from general malaise. Yet that did not prevent him from preparing for a trip to Alaska in the spring of 1882. This time he planned to visit the furthest reaches of the mission in Alaska and spend the winter of 1882-83 on the shores of the Kwipach (Yukon River) in the village of Ikogmut. In view of all this he prepared for his needs, including even a rubber ryasa and skufya. He obtained a small but well supplied medicine chest from one Doctor Palitsky, a San Francisco resident. His Grace left San Francisco in the first part of May on the steamship St. Paul, belonging to the American Trading Company, taking along one of the school boys, Ivan Shayashnikov, an unassuming young man of 17, as his traveling companion. Several months had passed, when suddenly in the evening of 1/13 August the St. Paul returned with the sad news that his Grace Nestor was no longer with us. He had drowned in the waters of the Bering Strait. It is difficult to imagine the horror and sadness with which all were overcome.
This unfortunate incident occurred not far from shore opposite the St. Michail’s Redoubt on the return voyage. His Grace, for some reason having abandoned his intention of wintering there, was desirous of returning to San Francisco, but he drowned. All the newspapers and magazines were filled with information about the late archpastor. As a rule all were of the opinion put forward by the main newspapers, the Evening Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Morning Call of 3/15 August, 1882. They wrote:
On June 12 (n.s.) the ship left St. Michael’s Redoubt headed for San Francisco. At a few minutes before eight Captain Erskine stopped by his Grace’s cabin to wish him a good morning, after which he left to fulfill his duties. A quarter hour later another passenger, Dr. Noyes, approached the captain and asked him if he had seen his Grace. The captain replied that he had seen him recently in his cabin. The doctor announced that he had just now come from there and that the bishop was nowhere to be found. Then out of concern his friends began to investigate the reason for his disappearance. Upon examination of His Grace’s cabin, it was noticed that His Grace’s papers and other things were carefully folded. But the fact that he had left some of his clothing, his watch and valuables (most likely his engolpion and pectoral cross) in the cabin gave rise to doubt. A further inspection of the entire vessel only confirmed the suspicion that the bishop, suffering unbearable pain as a result of his neuralgia, had cast himself overboard into the sea. The ship’s direction was reversed and an inspection made of the waters already traversed, but no vestige of the missing bishop was sighted. Consequently they returned to St. Michael’s Redoubt and instructed a company agent to attempt in every way possible to recover the body of the drowning victim. Last Sunday, when the St. Paul arrived in port with the sad news of Bishop Nestor’s demise, his flock was struck with grief and sorrow.
If the members of the Holy Synod or relatives of the late bishop (who live in Saint Petersburg and Arkhangelsk) did not form any conclusion about the cause of His Grace’s death from their relationship with him, the Consul General at that time in San Francisco, A. E. Olarovsky could not do any better. Through a notary he took the deposition of every officer on the ship and several agents of the Alaskan Trading Company, inquiring as to what they knew about the bishop’s death. But as far as I know, all those documents only repeated what had been printed in the newspapers.
And thus was our Church widowed once more.