From Repki to the New World: A Belarusian Priest in America

Editor’s note: For quite a while now, I have been corresponding with Ales Simakou of Gomel, Belarus. Ales describes himself as “a researcher of Belarusian-American (especially Indian) contacts,” and he has been researching the life of Fr. Nikolai Grinkevich, a Belarusian priest who was ordained in San Francisco and served in America in the 1890s. What follows is a translation of an article on Grinkevich, written by Ales. It was originally titled “From Repki to the Distant World” and was published in Golas Radzimy (Minsk) on February 4, 2010, No 4 (3172). Ales himself has translated the article into English, and we are very pleased to present it here. 

Fr. Nikolai Grinkevich may be one of the clergy in this photo, from the American tenure of Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky (1888-1891)

Working out the theme “Belarus and the Indians”, we Belarusian Indianists, accidentally have come upon the trace of our compatriot, Nikolai Grinkevich, the son of Stepan Fedorovich Grinkevich, an Orthodox priest from the Rogachev uezd of the Mogilev province, a possible relative of the mother of the well-known writer Uladzimir Karatkevich. By the way, the bulletin Vesnik BIT that reflects the life of the Belarusian-Indian Society is published in Gomel. 

Recently, the list of Belarusians connected with the history of Alaska was updated essentially due to the reference book Who’s Who in the History of Russian America by Andrei Grinev that was issued last year. Definitions from this biographic dictionary impress: “a native of the Vitebsk province”, “a Polotsk petty bourgeous”, “a Mogilev petty bourgeois”, “an appanage peasant of the Vitebsk province”, “was baptized in Polotsk” and so on. And do the surnames Bobrovskii, Bobchenko, Dudarev, Ivanov, Kovanskii, Kumachev, Pogurskii, Pushkarevich, Torkulov, Timofeev, Shapiro, Evstifeev tell you of anything?.. I suppose it will be interesting for present-day creators of genealogical trees in Belarus to search for their own ancestors among them. But the list of “Belarusian Alaskans” continues to be updated. 

In North America of those times there were a lot of working people, hunters, sailors, merchants in stores… Among them was the priest Nikolai Grinkevich, a teacher of a spiritual school, where Indian children were also taught. By the level of education and the real scale of personality, N. Grinkevich is perhaps second among the Belarusians of America “in the diocese” after the famous doctor Russel (Nikolai Sudzilovskii) […*]. From the accumulated material emerges an interesting figure of the “eternal traveller”, whose first significant trip was, probably, the arrival at the Gomel Theological School for training. The Grinkevich brothers, Dmitrii and Nikolai, were born at the village of Repki in 1862 and 1864, respectively, and were taught together at the Mogilev Theological Seminary and the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. When Nikolai was in his fourth year, Vladimir, the new Bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska, was recruiting students at the Academy to participate in his mission. The Academy’s governing body satisfied the desire of the “true student” Grinkevich “to devote himself to serving the Orthodox church in the remote Diocese of the Aleutians”, having released from the final oral exam and having postponed the awarding of a scholarly degree of candidate of theology until Grinkevich could complete his dissertation. 

In the spring of 1888, the group headed by Bishop Vladimir sailed to New York. From there it reached San Francisco, the diocesan center, by train. And here Alaska has drawn nearer to priest Nikolai in the form of Native boys, other Alaskans. Our compatriot was a clerk, treasurer of the Ecclesiastical Consistory, and church rector. A photograph from the  M. Vinokouroff Collection in the Alaska State Library shows the milieu in which Belarusian N. Grinkevich in 1888-92 was known also as a teacher of the “theological school”. In the photo, we see pupils with sextons, priests and other persons, who took care of them, all surrounding the bishop. The school was experimental. Both Russians, Ukrainians, Anglo-Saxons, Jews and other “whites” and the indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere – Indians (Athapaskans and Tlingits), Eskimos, Aleuts, as well as mixed-bloods – met in it as pupils and teachers. The parish also included those coming from Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece; Macedonians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Orthodox Arabs also appeared in the enormous territory of the diocese. 

Grinkevich has made the acquaintance with many notable people representing these ethnic groups. He “often called on” the revolutionary Doctor Russel. While not so obviously and sensationally as his countryman and namesake, Grinkevich has left his name in “social history”, concerning both public charitable activities and ones of a clerk-organizer close to archival science. In 1893, he was sent for three months to Chicago to the World Exhibition on the occasion of 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World, where he collected donations and served, as one of the first priests, in a local church. And before that he actively participated in relief to the victims of the bad harvest of 1891-1892 in Russia. 

In 1896, Nikolai Grinkevich, already in the rank of archpriest, returned to Russia. At the same time he was approved in the degree of candidate of theology for the work “The Laws of the North American United States on the conclusion and termination of marriage in comparison with Russian church-civil legislation on marriage and divorce”, which received a positive review at the Academy. At the turn of the century he supervised the Orenburg Theological School, and afterwards he served in the Tula province. 

The last known position of Father Nikolai is a religious teacher of the Tashkent Cadet School. What happened to him, his wife (the daughter of an Alaskan missionary), and children after the revolution, remains a mystery. After the events of October 1917, the School had to be evacuated to Irkutsk. Did the “Repki wanderer” try to reach his brother, who worked as a teacher of arithmetic and geography at the Blagoveschensk Spiritual School on the Amur? 

I think if Uladzimir Karatkevich knew of the life path of his more then possible, but “forgotten” relative, it is possible that he would have written a story about him. 

Ales Simakou, Gomel 

The Golas Radzimy editorial staff’s caption for the photo: 

Perhaps, one of the priests in the photo is our compatriot Nikolai Grinkevich. 

The Belarusian original was published in the weekly Golas Radzimy (Minsk) on February 4, 2010, No 4 (3172). Click here to view the original

*THE AUTHOR’S NOTE *[who was the first president of the Republic of Hawaii in 1893-1902″] This phrase that blatantly misinterprets the role of Nicholas Russel in the political history of Hawaii is an “insertion” of someone from the newspaper’s staff. The Republic of Hawaii’s period was from 1894 to 1898. This widely-spread mistake can be found even in some Belarusian encyclopedias, including the national universal Belaruskaia entsyklapedyia in 18 vols. 

Link for the photo (Michael Z. Vinokouroff Photograph Collection,
Alaska State Library – Historical Collections, P.O. Box 110571, Juneau, Alaska).

3 Replies to “From Repki to the New World: A Belarusian Priest in America”

  1. I am pretty sure I know the answer, but “Indian” in this article is always referring to Native Americans, correct? Or, did “Belarusian Indianists” focusing on work with Indians from the subcontinent “accidentally come upon the trace of [their] compatriot, Nikolai Grinkevich” as having served American Indians, too? It seems odd that a society dedicated to Belurussian-Native American contacts would have only accidentally discovered something about Nikolai Grinkevich, so I thought I would ask.

  2. I’m not sure the society is dedicated to Belarus-Amerindian contacts, but rather is a Belarus Society dedicated to the study of Amerindians, which stumbled across Fr. Grinkeevich, which peaked Ales’ interest (who is interested in Belarussian-Amerindian contacts).

    In Belarussian, the words are different: Індзейцы come from the Americas, Індыйцы from the subcontinent.

  3. Just a quick note: I recently found a Daily Alta California article from January 28, 1891, reporting that Grinkevich had married Alexandra Kedrolivansky, the daughter of the late (murdered?) Fr. Paul Kedrolivansky. Bishop Vladimir officiated. Less than three weeks later, Grinkevich was ordained to the priesthood.

    And to avoid confusion, I should note that this Alexandra Kedrolivansky had the same name as her mother, Alexandra (Fr. Paul’s widow).

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