Fire Destroys Historic New York Church

firefightersYesterday — on Pascha, the most joyous and holy day of the year for Orthodox Christians — St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in New York was destroyed by fire. The cathedral was originally an Episcopalian church, called Trinity Chapel, and it was acquired by the Orthodox in 1942. St. Nicholai Velimirovich helped raise money from Serbs across the United States to fund the purchase. [UPDATE: To make a donation to St. Sava Cathedral, click here.]

What few people realize is that this building has an even older place in Orthodox history. In March 1865, it was the site of the first documented Orthodox liturgy in New York, celebrated by the infamous Fr. Agapius Honcharenko. Several years ago, I wrote about that original church service and Trinity Chapel / St. Sava Cathedral. I don’t want to take attention away from the immediate crisis facing the Serbian Orthodox community in New York, but this being a history website, I felt it appropriate to reprint, with some minor revisions, the substance of my articles on the church.

On March 2, 1865, New York City witnessed its first-ever Orthodox liturgy. The service was held in Trinity Chapel, which belonged to the Episcopal Church. The priest, Fr Agapius Honcharenko, was originally from what is now Ukraine and what was then a part of the Russian Empire. But he came, apparently, from the Church of Greece: he had been sent, or perhaps volunteered, to serve as a priest for the handful of scattered Orthodox Christians in America.

As I have discussed in depth elsewhere on this website (and in my old Ancient Faith Radio podcast), Honcharenko was a bizarre character, and we have to regard his ecclesiastical credentials as suspect at best. At the time, though, he was welcomed in New York by the Episcopalians, who offered their chapel and provided a choir. The occasion for the service was the anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation; this appears to have been suggested not by Honcharenko but by Dr Morgan Dix, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. Here is Dix’s diary entry from that day:

This 2nd. day of Lent was a memorable one, because the Liturgy of the Eastern Church was sung in Trinity Chapel, at 11 A.M. This never occurred before so far as I have heard, in any Anglican Church. Bishop Potter was to have been there, but backed out, and went down to S. Paul’s instead, to the noon day communion. A full account of this delightful service, will be found at the end of this diary; I cut it out from the Evening Post.

Dix went on to note that the service “took just 1 hr. & 15 m.,” and he included multiple newspaper clippings which reported on the event. (It’s kind of ironic that Dix chose an event related to the Russian Tsar as the occasion for the service, because Honcharenko would spend the rest of his life claiming that Tsarist agents were trying to assassinate him.)

The following day, the New York Times reported, “The church, both aisles and galleries, was crowded with ladies and gentlemen to its utmost extent, although there had been no advertisement in the papers regarding the celebration. There were present upward of fifty clergymen of the city and neighborhood. The music (only vocal) was very fine. The ceremonies were impressive, solemn, and, to almost everyone present, novel, but exceedingly interesting, and, it might be said, beautiful. We ought to say that there were some sixty Greeks and about twenty Scalvonians [sic] or Russians present, who occupied seats in front of the altar.”

The Times actually reprinted several sections of the liturgy itself. The Protestants present were especially struck by the absence of the filioque from the Creed. The music, sung by a small group of Episcopalians, was provided by a certain Dr Young. This man was a member of the Russo-Greek Committee of the Episcopal Church – the group charged with fostering relations with the Orthodox Churches. Dr Young had brought texts and music back from a visit to Russia, and he put the Slavic words into English phonetics for the occasion.

Not everyone was excited about the service. The magazine Evangelical Christendom (4/1/1865) commented, “Some of the religious papers find in it an unbecoming complicity with mischievous superstition and error; since the filioque was omitted from the creed by the Episcopal choir, and the ‘sacrifice’ ‘received’ by the priest is claimed to include all the enormities of transubstantiation and the Mass.”

News of the event quickly traveled around the world. It was reported in Orthodox publications in Russia and France. The French Orthodox journal Union Chretienne soon broke the news that Honcharenko had been involved with the exiled Russian radical Alexander Herzen, and had written several articles criticizing the Russian Church.

This revelation led the Orthodox of New York to cut off contact with Honcharenko, who went on to have many more strange adventures over the next several decades.

Trinity Chapel originally belonged to Trinity Church. It was built in the 1850s, and despite being called a “chapel,” it had a considerable congregation. By the 1940s, though, demographics had changed, and church leaders decided to sell the building. New York City’s first full-blown Serbian parish had begun in the late 1930s, and as soon as they heard that the chapel was on the market, they were interested. With help from St Nicholai Velimirovich, Serbs from across the country, and the Episcopalians themselves, the modest Serbian parish was able to purchase Trinity Chapel in 1942.

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