Fr. Sava Matanovich: the first Serbian Orthodox priest in America

Just a brief note today: I had always assumed that Fr. Sebastian Dabovich was the first Serbian Orthodox priest in America, but apparently he wasn’t. The first Serbian priest in America — and probably the first Serbian priest the California-born Dabovich had ever seen — was Fr. Sava Matanovich. From the 1985 book Sacred Places of San Francisco: “The first Serbian priest to visit America was Father Sava Matanovich, a Montenegrin, who participated in three liturgies in 1875.”

I should note that I don’t know for sure whether someone from Montenegro should be classified as Serbian. Most references I’ve found treat Montenegrins as a subset of Serbs, rather than a distinct group. More importantly, I think (but again, I’m not certain) that in 1875, a priest from Montenegro would have had no quarrel with being called a Serb. The Serbs and Montenegrins in America seem to have totally intermingled. If any of our readers want to correct me on this, please, by all means, do so.

Anyway, the visit of Matanovich is verified by Dabovich himself in his 1897 history of Orthodoxy in California (published in the Vestnik in April 1898):

In 1875 a priest from Montenegro, Father Sabbas Matanovich, arrived in San Francisco. He was received into the Bishop’s house and served two or three Liturgies, but as he was not assigned a position, he went back home after several months. At the present time the honorable Father Matanovich is an archpriest in Cetinje.

I haven’t been able to find any other references to Matanovich’s visit, and I suspect that the 1985 Sacred Places in San Francisco reference used the Dabovich article as its source. It would be interesting to know what other places (if any) Matanovich visited in America. Did he serve liturgies in other cities besides San Francisco? If anyone else turns up anything, please let me know.

This article was written by Matthew Namee. He can be reached at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.

2 Replies to “Fr. Sava Matanovich: the first Serbian Orthodox priest in America”

  1. “I should note that I don’t know for sure whether someone from Montenegro should be classified as Serbian. Most references I’ve found treat Montenegrins as a subset of Serbs, rather than a distinct group. More importantly, I think (but again, I’m not certain) that in 1875, a priest from Montenegro would have had no quarrel with being called a Serb.”

    Not to get into the ethnic and nation(alist) issues, I’ll just stick to the ecclesiastical ones.

    The Principality of Zeta-rougly the modern Montemegro-held out when the rest of the Serbian domains had fallen to the Ottomans (Previously, it had been ruled by the heir to the throne of All Serbia, something like the Prince of Wales in Great Britain). In 1499 the Otttomans filnally asserted authority over it. In response, the Serb clans took to the mountains to hold out, and this remnant became known as Crna Gora “The Black Mountain,” while the Venetian Republic appointed governors of “Montenegro” who tried to assert authority from the West. In 1516 the prince of hte highlands Đurađ V Crnojević (George V Tsernoyevich) retired to Venice after he got the clans to recognize his Archbishop of Cetinje, Metropolitan of Montenegro and Exarch of the Serbian Patriarch of Peć as the central authority in their refuge. Under the “Vladika” they presented a united front against the Doge and Sultan.

    In 1697 the Vladika Danilo I Šćepčević Petrović-Njegoš added to his title Vojevodič srpskoj zemlji “Duke of the Serb Land” in his program of settlikng clan disputes and coordinating defenses, in launching an offensive against the Otttomans in 1711. To this end in 1715 he went to St. Petersburg to forge an alliance, a journey which became the tradition of his successors. He capped this off by donating a Gospel to the Patriarchate of Peć, and elevating his kinsmand (nephew?) Sava II as his successor.

    When the Ottoman Sultan “abolished” for the Phanar the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć in 1766, founded by St. Sava, Vladika Sava II as the Metropolitan of Cetinje and the Litoral, (one of St. Sava’s original Diocese and the only one to remain intact) refused to recognize it, appealing to the Holy Governing Synod of Russia and the Empress of Russia for support against both Turk and Greek, which he received. The Vladika, as the Exarchate of the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć, became autocephalous (receiving its chrism from St. Petersburg).

    Vladika-Exarch Sava II passed his office to his kinsman St. Petar I, who modernized the state, unified the highlands with the coast and lowlands by defeating the Ottomans and Napolean, and sent word to the allied Russian army in the Balkans “The Russian Czar would be recognized as the Tsar of the Serbs and the Metropolitan of Montenegro would be his assistant. The leading role in the restoration of the Serbian Empire belongs to Montenegro.” His will passed his office to his kinsman Petar II, who as Vladiko abolished the vesitge of the Venetian governor on the coast and instituted the Senate of Montenegro. After him his younger brother Danilo II was elected by the Senate to succeed him as Vladika, and he went to Russia to be so consecrated. However, in consultation with Czar Nicholas I, he became Knjaz (Duke/Prince) instead. He inflicted a decisive victory on the Ottomans in 1858, which forced Europe to affirm Montenegro’s borders and independence by treaty, a victory celebrated by all Serbs in the Metropolitinate (also autocephalous at the time) of Karlowitz. He was succeeded by his nephew Nikola I in 1860, who proclaimed Montenegro a Kingdom in 1910. During WWI the Austrian Hungarians drove him out, but the victorious Serbs at the end of the war annexed the Kingdom to the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, whose monarch was married to Nikola I’s first child. Although Nikola continued to claim the Montenegrin throne, he expressly supported, IIRC, the Autocephalous Exarch of Montenegro rejoining the recently reunited Serbian Patriarchate of Peć, Belgrad and Karlovci in 1920.

    In what was until recently Yugoslavia and what is still the juridiction of the Serbian Patriarchate, in 1875 the Serbs were ruled in five states (Austrian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Principality of Montenegro) and in six autocephalous Churches (Constantinople, Karloca, Belgrad, Montenegro, Czernowitz, Bulgaria). After WWI the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovens and the Serbian Patriarchate were formed out of uniting the Serbs(/related peoples) out of the above.

  2. Fr. Sava Matanovich was my great-grandfather. His son, Michael, a medical doctor who moved to AZ in the twenties, was my mother’s father. My grandfather definitely considered himself a Serb. Fr. Sava Matanovich, whom family members referred to as Popo, christened my mother in Yugoslavia. My mother was born in Dubrovnik in 1922. I was told my great-grandfather laid the cornerstone for the San Francisco Serbian Orthodox church and that his name was inscribed there. When I first visited San Francisco, I tried to find it but had no success. Later I learned the church had been destroyed in the earthquake. My grandfather died when I was fifteen–forty-eight years ago. My mother died last August and her only sister died in January of this year. My mother’s only brother, the grandson of Fr. Sava Matanovich is alive and living in Phoenix, AZ. He had most of the Matanovich records but many were lost in a house fire a few years ago. I have a very few. My uncle might be able to answer your questions, as might one of my cousins who did much historical investigation of the family. I remember my grandmother giving my great-grandfather’s onyx cross to a museum. I have a small photograph of my great-grandfather, as well as a family tree, and my sister has a large photograph of him. I was always told he was the religious adviser to the king of Yugoslavia. Please feel free to contact me if you think I could be of help to you: My name is Michele. I was named after my grandfather, Michael.

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