Posts tagged Grand Duke Alexis
February 14, 1872: Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, on a tour of the United States, visited New Orleans and met with representatives of the city’s fledgling Orthodox parish. The Grand Duke presented gifts to the parish, including, most likely, a gold-embossed Gospel book. 130 years later, the parish still has these gifts.
February 14, 1959: The Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elected Fr. James Coucouzis to be the new Greek Archbishop of North and South America. The new primate took the name Iakovos and was the most prominent and influential figure in American Orthodoxy until his retirement in the 1990s.
February 15, 1966: Antiochian Metropolitan Antony Bashir died in Boston at the age of 67. He had led the Antiochian Archdiocese of New York for three decades, and was one of the most important American Orthodox bishops of his time. For more on Bashir, check out the article and podcast I did two years ago.
February 17, 1977: Metropolitan Orestes Chornock, founding primate of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, died. There is a nice little biography of Met Orestes on the ACROD website; click here to read it.
February 19, 1909: In South Omaha, Nebraska, a Greek man named John Masourides shot and killed policeman Ed Lowery. Two days later, a mass meeting was called to decide how to “rid the city of the undesirable Greeks.” At the close of the meeting, a mob descended on the Greek quarter. They attacked the Greeks, rioted, and destroyed property. The Greeks fled the city. The governor called in the National Guard. Order was restored, but the bigots of South Omaha had accomplished their goal: the Greeks were gone, and most of them would never return. The mass exodus almost wiped out the parish of St. John the Baptist. To learn more, check out this article I wrote in 2010.
From the New York Times, December 1, 1871:
Thanksgiving Day was observed by the Grand Duke Alexis yesterday in a very quiet manner. In the morning he went to the Greek Chapel at No. 951 Second-avenue, accompanied by Minister Catacazy, Admiral Poisset, the Secretary of Legation and Consul-General Bodisco. By 9 o’clock the privileged few who had tickets of admission to the chapel began to assemble. A serving-man was at the outer door, and he assisted each gentleman to lay aside his overcoat and hat, and showed all into the front parlor or auditorium of the chapel.
There were not more than twenty persons in all. The ladies stood on the left side of the room looking toward the chancel or back parlor, the gentlemen on the right. Prince Gallitzin, the Russian impressario, was among the earliest arrivals. The few present were, with perhaps one or two exceptions, members of the Greek Church. The chapel was lighted up before 10 o’clock, and Father Bjerring, his assistant and the chaplain of the Svetlana, stood robed at the door through which His Imperial Highness must enter, awaiting him. Father Bjerring held a massive gold crucifix, and his assistant a holy water font and “aspersion whisk.” At about 10:40, some commotion was heard at the hall door, and immediately after the Grand Duke appeared at the chapel door, kissed the crucifix presented, crossed himself and received the holy water. The whole party entered and stood in front of the chancel. Father Bjerring then chanted a “Te Deum” in English, comprising also the prayers for the Emperor of Russia and the President of the United States. His assistant repeated the same in Slavic, and the services concluded. They did not last longer than twenty-five minutes, after which the Imperial party saluted the chaplain of the Svetlana and retired.
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.
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.
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.
In 1927, Fr. Boris Burden wrote the following:
The Church of the Holy Trinity in New Orleans, La., claims to have been the first Greek church in the United States. On the occasion of its dedication in 1860 Alexander II, Czar of Russia, sent to its Greek Priest, the Reverend Father Michael, a gold-embossed Book of Gospels in token of his imperial pleasure over the beginning of Greek-speaking churches within the American diocese of the spiritual jurisdiction of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Russia. For nearly fifty years after the Russian Hierarchy in America had thus established the first Greek church in this country Greek churches and faithful continued to increase and multiply under the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America.
This quotation (and, frankly, Burden’s whole article) is fraught with inaccuracies. Unfortunately, Burden had a pretty significant influence on later thinking about American Orthodox history, so his errors have become, in many places, conventional wisdom.
- The New Orleans Greek church was not dedicated in 1860. It appears to have been dedicated around 1866; in any event, it was the late 1860s.
- The “Reverend Father Michael” (aka Fr. Michel Kalitski, Fr. Michael Karydis, or Archimandrite Misael — all, apparently, the same person) didn’t become the pastor of the church until about 1881.
- The Russian Church certainly didn’t found the New Orleans parish.
- The claim that Greek parishes, for the next half-century, ”increased” and “multiplied” under “the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America” just doesn’t hold water. The next Greek parish, period, was founded in New York in 1892, under the Church of Greece. The overwhelming majority of Greek people, parishes, and clergy were completely independent of the Russian bishops.
Anyway, my point is not really to pick apart Fr. Boris Burden’s 82-year-old essay. No, I want to focus on one aspect in particular: the “gold-embossed Book of Gospels.”
The first traces that I can find of this Gospel Book date to 1872. That year, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis was touring the United States, and in February, he visited New Orleans. Among those greeting him upon his arrival were representatives of Holy Trinity Church, among them Nicolas Benachi, the Greek Consul. From the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper (February 15, 1872):
Mr. Benachi took occasion to add a few remarks on their behalf, praying His Highness to think his mother, the Empress of Russia, for the kind solicitude she had manifested for their Church, and the rich presents which she had bestowed upon the tiny edifice, situated on Dorgenois Street, near the corner of Ursulines; and also to express to the Empress the wishes of thee Greek and Russian congregation of New Orleans for the welfare and prosperity of the Imperial family of Russia.
The Gospel Book appears to have been one of the gifts sent by the Empress — that is, the Tsarina, rather than the Tsar. But the text isn’t really clear on when she sent the book. Was the parish thanking the Grand Duke for a gift sent prior to his visit, or were they thanking him for a gift that he himself had brought, on that trip, on his mother’s behalf?
In any event, the Gospel Book was far from the only gift sent by the Empress. A travel guide from 1885 mentions that the parish had a “rare Madonna and child, brought from the far-off shrine of St. Petersburg.” Another 1885 book describes an icon “of Christ partaking of the sacrament; around it in Russian: ‘He who takes the sacrament never dies.’” A 1904 guide to New Orleans says, “The ornaments on the altar were presented by the late Empress of Russia.”
When I spoke with the current pastor of Holy Trinity several months ago, he confirmed that the parish still possesses a Gospel Book and old icons from Russia; these are almost certainly the same items that were present in 1872. I’d love to get some photos of those things, particularly photos of any inscriptions that might appear. (If anybody out there can help, let me know!) That might help us better understand when the items were sent, and what exactly they meant to the sender and the recipients.
 Hieromonk Boris (Burden), “The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America,” Orthodox Catholic Review 1:1 (1927), 10.
 His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Alexis in the United States of America During the Winter of 1871-72 (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1872), 216-218. This was taken directly from the February 15, 1872 issue of the New Orleans Daily Picayune.
 Lydia Strawn, “The North, Central and South American Exposition, New Orleans. Opens November 10th, 1885. Closes April 1st, 1886.” In Pen Points from the American Exposition, Presented by the Illinois Central R.R. (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1885), 10.
 Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs (New York: Will H. Coleman, 1885), 121.
 The Picayune’s Guide to New Orleans (New Orleans: The Picayune, 1904), 58-59.