Photo of Unidentified San Francisco Priest

Unidentified priest, Michael V. Vinokouroff Photograph Collection, Alaska's Digital Archives

Unidentified priest, Michael V. Vinokouroff Photograph Collection, Alaska’s Digital Archives

I was browsing in the wonderful photo collection at Alaska’s Digital Archives the other day when I ran across the above photo, which was titled, “3/4 length seated portrait of unidentified priest.” Who was he?

The bottom of the photo gives us a clue, of course: the name “Weitz” (probably the photographer) and the name of the studio where the picture was taken — St. Louis Art Studio, 34 Third Street, San Francisco.

A quick Google search identified the photographer — Hugo Weitz, a fairly prominent turn-of-the-century photographer who did, in fact, operate the St. Louis Art Studio in San Francisco. As best I can tell, the studio opened in 1885, although I’m not 100% certain that it wasn’t open earlier. The studio seems to have operated into the 1890s, but again, the dates are fuzzy.

So I think we can date this photo to somewhere in the 1885-1895 range. My best guess is that this is Fr. Vladimir Vechtomov, a married priest (although he doesn’t have a wedding ring, which may not mean anything) who served at the Russian cathedral in San Francisco from 1878 to 1888. I also thought the lack of a pectoral cross was odd, but Aram Sarkisian explained to me that pectoral crosses didn’t become standard on all Russian priests until the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. As the story goes, the tsar approached someone he thought was a priest and asked for a blessing, only to discover that the man was a simple monk. Afterwards, he decreed that all priests must wear pectoral crosses, so that mistake would never be repeated. (I may be getting some of the story wrong — if you’ve got details, let me know.)

Anyway, Fr. Vladimir was the successor to the murdered Fr. Paul Kedrolivansky, and he left just in time to miss the scandalous tenure of Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky. The most notable thing that happened during Fr. Vladimir’s time in San Francisco was the 1882 suicide of Bishop Nestor Zass, who jumped off a ship in a fit of neuralgia and died in the Pacific Ocean. From 1882 to 1888, the diocese did not have a resident bishop, and Fr. Vladimir was the highest ranking clergyman.

Here’s a bit more on Fr. Vladimir, from Terence Emmons’ book Alleged Sex and Threatened Violence: Doctor Russel, Bishop Vladimir, and the Russians in San Francisco, 1887-1892. (This is a very difficult book to read. It chronicles, in pretty explicit detail, the allegations against Bishop Vladimir and all the drama surrounding his tenure in America. Fr. Vladimir Vechtomov left when Bishop Vladimir arrived, so he wasn’t involved in any of that mess.)

From Nestor’s death in 1882 to Vladimir’s arrival in 1888 the diocese was administered for the consistory of the metropolitan of St. Petersburg by the archpriest V. Vechtomov, a man, according to the Consul-General Olarovsky, of unimpeachable character. In declining health and heading into retirement once a new bishop arrived, Vechtomov received high praise from Olarovsky for, among other things, having accumulated a tidy sum of money for the diocese while opening four parish schools in Alaska and a Sunday school in San Francisco. Father Vechtomov’s stewardship appeared to be a respectable interlude.

If anyone can confirm that the priest in this photo is Fr. Vladimir, or if you have another theory, let me know at mfnamee at gmail dot com.

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