A Russian Church in New York, 1895

Since the closing of Fr. Nicholas Bjerring’s chapel in 1883, New York City had been without a Russian Orthodox place of worship. Greek churches were founded in the city in 1892 and ’94, and by 1895, there were Russian parishes in Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Finally, in April of 1895, the Russian Mission returned to New York with the founding of St. Nicholas Church.

St. Nicholas began in the former home of one of the parish trustees, at 207 East 18th Street. The main floor housed the chapel; the priest, Fr. Evtikhy Balanovitch, lived upstairs with his family; and a Sunday School and reading room occupied the basement. (Before long, the parish moved around the corner, to 233 2nd Ave.)

But despite these modest beginnings, from the start, the parish had some impressive characteristics. Its iconostasis had previously been owned by the Russian army, and was used in the field during battles in the Balkans. A 12-person choir was led by Eugenie Lineff, a former opera singer.

Photo of Barbara MacGahan, 1893

Photo of Barbara MacGahan, 1893

The church trustees included some famous people — the Russian ambassador and consul general, and, most significantly, Barbara MacGahan, a famous journalist. Despite her surname, Mrs. MacGahan was actually a native Russian, and it was her strong desire for a Russian church in New York that ultimately led to the creation of the parish. These founders had been part of a New York Slavonic organization called the Virgin Mary Brotherhood, and they were the ones who petitioned the Holy Synod to establish a church.

Another impetus that led to the founding of St. Nicholas was the presence, in Brooklyn, of a sizeable number of Uniates, who, presumably, would be attracted to a nearby Orthodox church. It’s not clear whether these Uniates did, in fact, join the new parish.

The first priest of St. Nicholas was the aforementioned Fr. Evtikhy Balanovitch. He was apparently from Austria, and only in recent years became associated with the Russian Church. (In fact, in one place he’s referred to as a “recent convert,” which makes me wonder if he wasn’t originally a Uniate.) The New York Times describes him in this way:

[He] is a man of striking appearance. Of immense frame, clear complexion, and with locks hanging far down his back, he had the appearance of a prophet of old.

Balanovitch was an educated man, with a Doctorate of Divinity from the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg. He must not have been terribly practical, though, as he quickly made enemies with the founder of the parish, Barbara MacGahan.

From the New York Times (1/11/1896), we learn that, during a meeting of the church trustees on November 17, 1895, Balanovitch called MacGahan (a journalist) some sort of name — a name which, according to the Times, “meant that Mrs. MacGahan’s pen is at the disposal of the highest bidder, and that consequently no value could be placed on her statements as a newspaper correspondent and magazine writer.” St. Raphael Hawaweeny, the newly-arrived Syrian priest, was present at the meeting, and didn’t know what the word meant. Confused, he asked somebody, and that person told MacGahan, and MacGahan promptly filed a lawsuit against Balanovitch.

MacGahan soon dropped the suit. On December 1, Balanovitch had agreed to resign as pastor and leave the country. MacGahan determined that Balanovitch himself wasn’t entirely to blame — “the whole trouble had been brought on him by outside parties,” MacGahan’s lawyer said, explaining that others within the new parish had incited the priest to make enemies with MacGahan. Mrs. MacGahan herself told the Times that, while Balanovitch “is a man of good intentions, he is easily led by others.”

These unfortunate events would have a happy ending, at least for the parish of St. Nicholas. Later in 1896, Balanovitch’s replacement — St. Alexander Hotovitzky — arrived in New York.