Posts tagged Vladimir Alexandrov
In the past, I’ve mentioned the Russian Mission’s practice of employing “client clergy” — non-Russian priests with ties to Russia, who served multiethnic or non-Russian parishes in America. St. Raphael and Fr. Sebastian Dabovich are perhaps the most famous examples, but there were many more. One of the earliest of these client clergy was Fr. Ambrose Vretta, who has the distinction of being the first pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago and St. Spiridon’s Cathedral in Seattle.
Vretta (or Wretta) was originally from Macedonia. He was born in 1859, attended the Imperial Medical College in Istanbul, and then toured Europe and studied in Rome. He then returned to his homeland, but, according to the Chicago Tribune (9/2/1895), “he found the systematic persecution to which he was subjected by the Turkish Government too much for comfort.” So he left for Orthodox Russia, where he was warmly received. It wasn’t long before he had developed close ties with the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg (probably Metropolitan Isidore). At some point along the way he was ordained a priest; I assume this happened in Russia, but I can’t be sure. Vretta may have encountered a young Jovan (later Fr. Sebastian) Dabovich, who studied in St. Petersburg in the late 1880s.
When the newly-consecrated Bishop Nicholas Ziorov was assigned to America in 1892, the 33-year-old Vretta came along with him. His first assignment was Chicago, where a significant Orthodox community existed. For several years, the Orthodox of the city had been trying to organize a parish, but for various reasons, they hadn’t been successful. (We’ve discussed that a bit in the past, and will talk about it in great detail in the near future.)
On May 17, 1892, the first Russian Orthodox church was founded in Chicago (although, it should be noted, there were hardly any actual Russians, with much of the congregation being Serbian). This came only weeks after the first Greek parish was organized in the city. Vretta was present at that initial meeting, and he remained at the parish for the next three years. During that time, he also assumed responsibility for a new Orthodox parish in Streator, Illinois.
One of the most notable aspects of Vretta’s tenure in Chicago was the warm relationship between the Russian and Greek churches: although the Orthodox community of the city had split into two parishes, there doesn’t seem to have been any rivalry. Vretta concelebrated with the Greek priest, Fr. Panagiotis Peter Phiambolis, on numerous occasions. When the Greek Archbishop Dionysius of Zante visited Chicago for the World’s Fair, the Vretta went over to the Greek church for services. When the Russian Bishop Nicholas came to town, it was Phiambolis’ turn to visit the Russian church. In 1894, a special service was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Orthodoxy in North America, and both Vretta and Phiambolis were present. Later that year, Tsar Alexander III died, and for the memorial, Vretta went over to the Greek church, which was simultaneously dedicating its new building.
Vretta was transferred to Seattle shortly after that, in November 1895. Up to that point, the fledgling Orthodox community of Seattle had never had a resident priest. Fr. Sebastian Dabovich had been holding services on Saturdays, but Vretta was the first full-time pastor of the new St. Spiridon’s Church. He didn’t confine himself to working in Seattle, though. In the spring of 1896, Vretta and his young reader Vladimir Alexandrov traveled to Montana, where they celebrated the first-ever Orthodox services in the state. In her fascinating paper, “Circuit Riders to the Slavs and Greeks”, Brigit Farley tells this story:
[Vretta] began in Anaconda, where he administered the sacraments of marriage and chrismation to several Serbian Orthodox believers. The priest moved on to Butte, where he learned of an Orthodox miner named Mike Gamble, who wished to see a priest in order to receive Communion. Fr. Vretta finally located Gamble after a long climb up the side of a mountain, during which he had only the assistance of dogs and a sled for his baggage. After his meeting with the miner, he reported, he managed to convince two Uniates to accept union with the Orthodox church.
In December of 1896, Vretta was transferred from Seattle… And I’m not sure where he went. He was only 37 years old, so he presumably had a long career ahead of him, but I can’t find him on any later lists of clergy (and I’ve got lists for 1906, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1918). He doesn’t seem like the type of priest — non-Russian, literate, mission-minded — who would be sent to Russia; in fact, he’s exactly the sort of priest that was being sent from Russia to America.
It’s possible, I suppose, that he remained with Bishop Nicholas. In 1898, Bishop Nicholas was transferred to a diocese in Russia; perhaps Vretta joined him (?). If anyone out there has more information about Vretta, particularly his whereabouts after 1896, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
A few days ago, we discussed the tragic story of Fr. Vladimir Alexandrov, the early 20th century Russian priest whose life reads like (as Fr. Andrew Damick has suggested) a Russian novel. Very briefly: Alexandrov accidentally killed his son; his wife had an affair with his assistant priest (and took the family’s $19,000 savings); he joined the Living Church, a puppet of the Soviet government, and became a bishop; he got into court battles over church property in America; and in 1933, he joined the Roman Catholic Church. And, as I discovered shortly after publishing the initial article, Alexandrov died in Baltimore in on May 20, 1945.
Anyway, I’ve continued to look for material on Alexandrov. It turns out that he participated in the first Orthodox liturgy ever celebrated in Canada, in 1897. Alexandrov was a chanter at the time, and the service took place in Alberta. Later, as both a deacon and a priest, Alexandrov would make other visits to Canada, receiving Uniate converts into Orthodoxy.
In 1915, Alexandrov was the rector of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, and he participated in the Fourteenth International Lord’s Day Congress, held across the Bay in Oakland. Afterwards, the conference papers were published in a book. Alexandrov’s is called, “The Church and the Sabbath: Position of the Greek Church.” The book also includes a small photo of Alexandrov, which appears above.
A lot of Alexandrov’s article isn’t as basic and rudimentary as one might imagine from the title. Talking about the Sabbath in Russia, he acknowledges the significant Jewish minority in the country, and its desire for an official rest day on Saturday as well as Sunday. He doesn’t think such a thing should or would happen, but he does say,
Besides, we are probably on the eve of possible Jewish political independence in historic Palestine, where, if God helps them again to establish their political entity, they will have their own Kings, or Presidents, and of course, their own up-to-date laws and privileges, and in all these, I for one, wish them God-speed.
I’m somewhat surprised to read such a sympathetic position towards Jews, held by a Russian priest in 1915.
Alexandrov also notes that a small percentage of American Christians attend church on Sundays, relative to Christians in Europe. “On Sundays, the churches are quite often only half filled or wholly empty while the moving picture houses as well as some of the theatres of the poorer class, often with very bad shows, are overcrowded,” he said. His solution? That churches offer Christian-themed movies on Sunday afternoons and evenings. According to Alexandrov, in Russia,
[B]esides the usual services on Sundays, semi-religious meetings were offered to the people in buildings of various schools and public institutions, in which moving pictures from the Bible were produced illustrating the life of Christ, His Mother and the Saints, and at the same time short lectures were delivered, accompanied by choir and general singing; and the success was grand.
In Alexandrov’s view, the same sort of thing should be adopted in America. But he doesn’t stop there. “I believe,” he writes, “that the so-called Kinematograph or moving picture industry should be under the control of the State for educational and religious uses in such a way that it shall not harm but help people mentally and spiritually.” He then echoes the ideology of the future Soviet regime: “If we have a ‘pure food law,’ why may we not also have a ‘pure thought law’?”
Finally, from the article, we get a little bit of additional biographical data: “During my twenty years’ work in the United States and Canada,” writes Alexandrov, “I have built about fourteen churches,” and ministered to Orthodox of all nationalities.
UPDATE: A reader named Schultz, who lives in Baltimore, dug through various Baltimore newspapers in search of an obituary for Alexandrov. Here’s what he posted, in the comments section of my earlier article on Alexandrov:
No real obituary in the Baltimore Sun or the other, smaller Baltimore papers. There is, however, the following death notice, printed on May 22, 1945, p. 16, c. 6 in the Sun:
ALEXANDROF – At 1:30 A.M., on Sunday, May 20, 1945. VERY REVEREND VLADIMIR V. ALEXANDROF, former Arch-bishop elect.
Solemn mass of Requiem in St. Mary’s Seminary, Roland Park, on Thursday, May 24, 1945 at 10 A.M. Interment in St. Charles College Cemetery, Catonsville.
“Former Arch-bishop elect” — now, what does that mean? Presumably, he was never confirmed, or fully received, or something, as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. There’s got to be a story behind this. I would think that the local Roman Catholic diocese would be the best place to look for answers.
Fr. Vladimir Alexandrov was a priest in the Russian Mission in the late 19th and early 20th century. He began his career in 1896, as the choir director of the multiethnic St. Spiridon Church in Seattle, Washington. After his ordination in 1898 (or ’99), he remained in Seattle as the pastor of the church. It was there, in 1904, that tragedy struck. From the San Jose Evening News (January 28, 1904):
Rev. Vladimir V. Alexandrof, pastor of the Greco-Russian Orthodox church gave his five year old son Nicholas a teaspoonful of strychnine last evening. Three physicians were immediately summoned, but before they could do anything the child died in convulsions. Both Rev. and Mrs. Alexandrof are prostrated over the terrible mistake.
Alexandrof thought he was administering penopeptine in accordance with the physician’s instructions, but picked up the bottle containing strychnine instead. The medicines were in bottles of [the] same size. The Alexandrofs had only two children, and it is a little girl which is left to them. Rev. Sebastian Dabovich of San Francisco has been telegraphed for and will arrive in time to conduct the funeral services next Saturday.
This has to be one of the saddest stories in early American Orthodox history, and it is also illustrative of the pharmaceutical industry at the turn of the century. The Alexandrovs no doubt had strychnine in the house to kill rodents, but it was in the same generic bottle as the actual medicine, and apparently kept in the same place. (Incidentally, I looked up penopeptine, but found no results. Anyone know what it would be used to treat?)
Normally, if a priest takes a life — even by accident — he can’t continue serving at the altar. St. Tikhon, who was the Russian bishop at the time of the tragedy, must have decided to exercise economia in this case. Fr. Alexandrov was a young priest with a family, and he was obviously suffering immensely. Losing his priesthood would have only made things worse.
I haven’t been able to track Alexandrov’s whole career, but he appears to have been transferred to the parish in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. After that he served in, among other places, Ansonia, Connecticut; Chicago (as successor to St. John Kochurov); and San Francisco.
But Fr. Alexandrov’s troubles were far from over. His life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. In 1917, he was rector of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco. Upon returning from a trip to Russia, Alexandrov found that his wife had disappeared and $19,000 was missing from his bank account. The culprit in both cases was Fr. Vasily Dvornikoff, Fr. Alexandrov’s assistant priest. Dvornikoff and Mrs. Alexandrov were lovers, and had run off to Buenos Aires, Argentina with all of the Alexandrovs’ money. Fr. Alexandrov sent a public letter to the newspapers:
October 7, 1917.
Mrs. Rose V. Alexandrof, wherever she may be.
Dearest Wife: October first I returned from Russia finding you missing. I know from your letters your desire to join me in Russia. No matter what may have happened to you, please know my absolute faith in your goodness, truthfulness and love for me and children and pay no attention whatsoever to the slandering false stories.
Nobody believed them, as your noble and exemplary record of wifehood and motherhood for twenty years with me, known by many, stands well in your favor, and if you fell victim of prearranged criminal plot of robbery of those whom you and I were helping in their needs and who having robbed you, still, are trying to defame you, please do not for a moment hesitate to communicate with proper authorities and me, as I care so much more for you when you are suffering.
Trust in God’s mercy and help and in my everlasting devotion to you and that soon our hears’ wounds will heal and we will become still happier. My trip to Russia was especially successful. I received special honors for my services to my fatherland in connection with this God-blessed country and have full hope that we shall enjoy life with our dear children better than ever before. My address is 834 Cabrillo street, telephone Pacific 8381, San Francisco, Cal.
REV. ARCHPRIEST VLADIMIR ALEXANDROF.
Dvornikoff was indicted by a grand jury on the charge of grand larceny, and he was arrested upon his arrival in Buenos Aires. Mrs. Alexandrov was with him. (Documents and articles related to the case can be found here.)
So Fr. Alexandrov had lost both his son and his wife, and both in the worst ways possible. I’m not sure exactly what happened to him in the years immediately after 1917, though I suspect he returned to Russia. In 1923, he was made a bishop of the Bolshevik-backed Living Church. He returned to America, and to his old parish, St. Spiridon in Seattle. He was obviously a damaged man, and he became a thorn in the side of the Orthodox community.
In 1932, “Bishop” Alexandrov filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court, trying to take control of the St. Spiridon church property. Alexandrov won, but the St. Spiridon parishioners stripped the church of everything — icons, holy vessels, etc. Alexandrov was left with an empty church, and essentially no congregation. (For more information, see click here and go to page 6.)
Of course, the Living Church itself wasn’t to last much longer, and in July of 1933, Alexandrov was received into the Roman Catholic Church, which recognized him as a bishop. Here is the New York Times report from July 28, 1933:
SEATTLE, July 28 (AP). — The Most Rev. Vladimir Alexandrof, Seattle Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, has been made an Archbishop-elect of the Catholic Church.
The reception of the Russian Archbishop into the Catholic Church, with Papal recognition of his rank, was disclosed by The Catholic Northwest Progress and the Right Rev. Mgr. J.G. Stafford, pastor of St. James Cathedral.
Church leaders here said that his request for recognition and the acceptance is the first among fourteen other Russian orthodox priests in America.
Papal recognition of his rank was involved, editors of The Catholic Northwest Progress said. He spent several months at the Franciscan Graymoor Monastery at Garrison, N.Y., for a period of meditation and prayer before he made his profession of the Roman Catholic faith.
The profession was made to the Most. Rev. Peter Bucys, who was delegated by the Holy See to receive it, on June 4. As Archbishop-elect he is now at the head of the Catholic Russian Mission of North America.
The Most. Rev. Alexandrof was married — the Russian clergy is allowed marriage — and he was received into the Catholic clergy under the vows of celibacy, with which many other men, once married, have become priests. He has been separated from his wife for several years.
I’m not sure what happened to Alexandrov after that, but whatever the case, it’s a sad end to a tragic story. One cannot help but think that all of Alexandrov’s troubles began on that awful day in 1904, when he accidentally killed his son.
May God have mercy on his soul.
UPDATE (9/30/09): It appears that Alexandrov died in Baltimore, Maryland on May 20, 1945. The entry just lists his title as “Rev.”, and I’m not sure if he was still a Roman Catholic bishop.
Also, I stumbled upon the 1932 diary of James Wickersham, the then-Congressman from Alaska. It includes the following entry for June 28: “Archbishop Vladimir Alexandrof who claims to own the Russian Church property in Alaska called – I do not care for him – He is a troublesome Soviet agent if I am not mistaken.”