US Orthodox memorials for Tsar Alexander III

Tsar Alexander III of Russia died on November 1, 1894. A week later (and 116 years ago today), on November 8, two memorial services for the Tsar were held in America. Both were of note, for various reasons.

New York had no Russian church in 1894, so the Russian consul and numerous other dignitaries converged on the Greek church of Holy Trinity, on West 53rd Street. Here is how the New York Times described the event the next day:

The church was draped in black and white, and the walls were covered with a background of white, relieved at intervals with white crosses. Flags of Russia, Greece, and the United States hung in the forward part of the church, and in front of the altar was a canopy of black crepe, with a wreath of violets on one side, and another of white roses on the other side.

Father Matrofani, a Russian monk, conducted the services, partly in Greek and partly in Russian, and Father Agathadora, the pastor of the church, assisted him. An introductory prayer in Russian opened the service, and then Father Matrofani appeared before the altar clad in full golden sacerdotal robes, accompanied by Father Agathadora, who wore a black surplice.

Both priests carried lighted candles, and Father Matrofani led the chant choir, which consisted of Mme. Eugenie Lineff, Mlle. Chacquin, and Peter Popoff. Two Greek gentlemen who stood to the left of the altar responded to some of the Greek chants.

A portion of the service which seemed queer to the Americans present was the eating of a portion of rice and a raisin by Father Matrofani at the conclusion of the singing. This is an old custom in the Greek Church, commemorative of the early Christianity, when the priests were fed by their congregations.

Following the Russian custom, the women were separated from their escorts upon entering the church, and were conducted to their seats in the aisle to the left of the altar by Consul General A.E. Alarovesky of the Russian Consulate.

The Times went on to list the many notable people who attended the service, including Russian officials, representatives of numerous countries, the granddaughter of the last Tsar of Georgia, and future St. Nicholas Cathedral founder Barbara MacGahan. The article concluded, “Father Matrofani, who is on his way from San Francisco to Russia, sailed on the Columbia  yesterday. Before going he expressed the hope that a Bishop of the Greek Church, now on his way to this country, would establish a Russian congregation here.”

The Times was slightly misinformed, as the bishop in question, Nicholas Ziorov, was already in America and had, in fact, conducted a memorial for the Tsar in Washington, DC on the very same day. This service is especially notable because it was attended by the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland. The following account is reprinted from the Daily New Mexican of Santa Fe (11/9/1894):

Profoundly impressive ceremonies were held at the Russian legation to day in memory of the late czar, Alexander II [sic]. President Cleveland and his entire cabinet, except Postmaster General Bissell, attended, accompanied by Mrs. Cleveland and the cabinet ladies. Foreign ambassadors and ministers, with their extensive suites, wearing their rich official and court costumes, were present in a body, lending a brilliant color to the solemn occasion. Ambassador Bayard and ex-Secretary of State Foster were also there. The service began at 9 o’clock with mass celebrated by Bishop Nicholas, of the Russian Greek church, assisted by a Greek monk and two attendants. These services lasted until 10 o’clock and were held in private, being attended only by Prince Count Cresene, Russian minister, his daughter and the officials of the Russian legation. At 10 o’clock, chants and prayers for the repose of the czar’s soul began in the presence of the president, the members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps. Each participant held a wax candle throughout the service.

I’m not certain, but this may be the first Orthodox church service ever attended by a US President. When the previous Tsar, Alexander II, died in 1881, Fr. Nicholas Bjerring held a memorial in Washington, but President Garfield was unable to attend (Washington Post, 3/16/1881).

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]