Within decades the St. Nicholas parish has grown from a small home church to the primatial cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America.
Like so many American stories, St. Nicholas Cathedral was born of the vision and dedication of a small group of émigrés fleeing persecution in their homeland. Following the war and revolution in Russia, a small band of refugees reached Washington in the 1920s, and settled in the capital. Most of them were Tsarist officers and members of the nobility who were forced into exile to escape the Bolshevik terror. Along with diplomats of the Russian Embassy, they managed to find a new life and work. For most of them, their new life sharply contrasted with the richness of their former existence. Baroness Elizabeth Heiden catalogued books and magazines in the library of the Smithsonian Institution. Peter Eglevsky, a former Cossack colonel, prepared Russian dishes in his restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Mrs. J. Mishtowt, a former lady-in-waiting at court, helped her husband manage the National Women’s Club in Bethesda, Maryland. But they all brought with them their most treasured legacy, their Orthodox faith. About twenty in number, they would gather in private apartments to pray for the liberation of their homeland.
In 1930 the small congregation officially incorporated their church community in the District of Columbia, dedicating it to St. Nicholas, one of the most popular saints in Russia and the patron saint of the last tsar. The new parish was officially known as “The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of St. Nicholas”. It was founded with the idea that eventually they would build a memorial church in the Russian tradition of perpetuating the memory of victims of wars, battles and other historic events, in this case the Russian revolution and World War I.
At first, services were held in the home of one of the founders, Boris Timchenko, on Riggs Place, NW. But by 1936 the small congregation was able to purchase a row house at 1768 Church Street, NW. On the first floor, a small chapel was arranged which could accommodate 30 to 35 persons – standing. The basement was used for church meetings and lectures on Russian culture as well as for tea after the services. Larissa Mikhailovna, “a dear old lady who would often make tea and wash the dishes” is still remembered by a member of one of the founding families of St. Nicholas today.
A few parishioners lived on the upper floor, including Baroness Heiden and her sister, Mme. Marie Bobyrikine, a former maid of honor to the last Empress. Their father and two brothers had been shot by the Bolsheviks. Rev. John Dorosh was the first pastor of the new parish, followed by Rev. Paul Lutov, whose family is still active in the parish today.
For nearly twenty years, the Russian colony in Washington was centered at the Church of St. Nicholas on Church Street. Services were conducted in Church Slavonic according to the Julian Calendar still used in the Russian Orthodox Church. They all understood that they would never go back to Russia, but that something valuable would vanish “unless we keep it alive here”.
The beauty of Russian culture was shared with American visitors who would come to the events held for the benefit of the church. Bazaars were elegant affairs where tables were set with lace cloths and shining samovars. The parish women in attendance would wear Russian costumes. There were also evening galas such as the White Russian Ball, headed by Prince Leonid Ourusoff, that was held at the Sulgrave Club in April 1938. The parish was still quite small at that time with only some 30 members.
In the 1940s, following World War II, a second and much larger wave of Russian émigrés arrived in Washington. Drawn by government job opportunities necessitated by the Cold War and the need for trained personnel who could read, speak and teach Russian, they worked as researchers, translators, interpreters and broadcasters for the State Department, the CIA, the Library of Congress and the Voice of America. With the additional influx of other Orthodox faithful attracted by government opportunities during the war, the facility on Church Street became inadequate to meet the needs of this growing congregation. A building fund was established and a search began to look for property on which to build a church.
In 1951 a site was purchased on Massachusetts Avenue at Edmunds Street and blessed by Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich), head of the then North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. By this time, there were more than 100 members of the parish and the concept of building the new church as a memorial in the Russian tradition, to “those who gave their lives . . . during the tragic years of World War I and the Russian revolution”, began to take hold. Later that year Metropolitan Leonty appointed the first Orthodox Bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Jonah (Stahlberg), a former Tsarist officer who undertook theological training late in life.
Bishop Jonah, took up residence in Washington, 1951-1955, and became head of the parish as well as director of the national campaign to raise funds for the building of the St. Nicholas National War Memorial Shrine. With soil from Russia in its foundation, the basement of the church was completed in May 1955 and blessed by Bishop Jonah just a few months before his death. Services were held there for the next seven years. Bishop Kiprian was the next bishop assigned to Washington, from 1961-1964.
In 1961 construction of the church was begun under the spiritual guidance of Archpriest Arkady Moiseyev, beloved pastor of St. Nicholas from 1952 until his death in 1986. Under the energetic and dedicated lay leadership of Col. Boris Pash, a leading figure in US Army military operations during World War II and son of a previous Metropolitan, Theophilus, the congregation decided, after much discussion, to build an enduring architectural monument – something that “would bring people in” as Col. Pash insisted.
Anatoly Abramov-Neratoff, a specialist in Russian medieval church architecture, was engaged and prepared a design patterned after one of the architectural treasures of Russia, the 12th century Cathedral of St. Dimitry in Vladimir. With faith, prayer and sacrifice, the members of the parish dedicated enormous efforts and resources to build the church. Russian Orthodox communities across the country contributed to the fund-raising efforts of the local congregation. On November 25, 1962 the $260,000 structure was consecrated by Metropolitan Leonty assisted by Archbishop Iriney of Boston (later to become Metropolitan), Archbishop John (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco and Bishop Kiprian (Borisevich). An overflow congregation of 600 was present. “Without the opportunities presented to the Russian Orthodox by the American system, the church could not have been built”, the Metropolitan said at the end of the service, speaking in both Russian and English.
The new church was formally dedicated on May 19, 1963 as the National War Memorial Shrine. This was the Sunday closest to the May 22nd Feast of St. Nicholas according to the Julian calendar. As reported in the Washington Post, General Jacob Devers, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, was present as one of the speakers. Under the direction of Nicholas Borodulia, the renowned choir director of St. Nicholas for more than 25 years, an augmented choir sang both “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Kol Slaven”, an ancient Russian hymn that was traditionally sung in the presence of the tsar. By coincidence, May 19 was the birthday of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.
Through all these years, the growing parish of St. Nicholas was part of the surviving North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. Having lost communication with the church center in Moscow following the revolution in 1917, this diocese had become a temporarily independent metropolitan district known simply as the “Metropolia”. This ambiguous status lasted until 1970 when the Metropolia was officially granted autocephaly – or fully self-governing status – by the Moscow Patriarchate and became the Orthodox Church in America - the OCA. Metropolitan Ireney (Bekish), who headed the church from 1965-1977, was the first Primate of the OCA. Bishop Theodosius (Lazor), the 2nd Primate, elected in 1977, was the first to be American-born.
Services in English began in the 1950s and by 1965 Divine Liturgy was served in English once a month. Since 1971, there have been two services every Sunday, the first in English, the second in Slavonic. This has enabled the church to bring the Liturgy to a growing number of American converts as well as the younger generation of émigré families, still preserving the best of the Russian spiritual tradition of the Mother Church. On major feast days there is a single service conducted in both languages.
Although English is now the official language of the Orthodox Church in America and services are observed according to the Gregorian calendar, there are still close spiritual ties to the history and culture of the Mother Church of Russia. In 1988 the bell tower was built in honor of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. Dedicated to St. Prince Vladimir and the baptism of Rus’ in 988, the bell tower was blessed by hierarchs of both the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church, assisted by cathedral and diocesan clergy. In his sermon at the dedication on December 4, 1988, V. Rev. Sergei Glagolev spoke of the missionary vision of the Slavic legacy as part of the American dream. “The bell tower is raised not simply to remind people from whence we came . . . but for the hope of America’s bright future bathed in the Light of Christ.”
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Orthodox Christianity in America, it was decided to complete the interior of the cathedral with iconographic wall paintings. It was in 1794, during the presidency of George Washington, that the first priests and monks arrived in Alaska from Valaam Monastery and began to preach the Gospel not only among the Russian fur traders there, but also to the native Alaskan peoples. Many were baptized and became followers of Christ. This was the beginning of Orthodoxy in North America.
In 1990 Henry Sawchuk, long time President of the Cathedral Board of Trustees ( now the Parish Council), led a special delegation to Russia to make an arrangement with the Moscow Patriarchate and select a team of iconographers. The artists arrived in Washington in October 1991 to begin the work of painting the cathedral. They designed a program of iconography in the Russo-Byzantine style of the 12th century, in keeping with the architectural style of the Cathedral of St. Dmitry, the model for St. Nicholas Cathedral. Their work was completed in 1994, in time for the official celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Orthodoxy in America.
The iconography has added a remarkable spiritual and artistic dimension to the cathedral. St. Nicholas is now considered one of the cultural treasures of the nation’s capital.
His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksy, took a personal interest in the success of the iconography. He visited and served at St. Nicholas Cathedral in November 1991 and again in February 1996 when he was able to see the completed iconography.
With the appearance of this architectural gem on the Washington landscape, the parish of St. Nicholas entered a new phase in its development, taking up the mission of the North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church before 1917, which was to bring the Gospel and Orthodoxy to America as well as to serve Russians in the US.
Many church leaders have given spiritual inspiration to St. Nicholas parish over the years. Archbishop Dmitri (Royster), who later developed the exemplary Diocese of the South, served as Bishop of Washington from 1970 to1972.
In January 1980, Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) was the first bishop to be consecrated at St. Nicholas Cathedral. He served briefly as Bishop of Washington and auxiliary to Metropolitan Theodosius. At that time, St. Nicholas became the National Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America and Metropolitan Theodosius became Archbishop of Washington. The following year, Bishop Basil was confirmed as Bishop of San Francisco and the West. Following his retirement in 1984, he returned to Washington, continuing his special mission of religious broadcasting to Russia until his death in 1999. Reaching millions of listeners, these broadcasts played an important role in the rebirth of Christianity in the last decades of the Soviet Union. Bishop Basil often served at St. Nicholas Cathedral, where his sermons would be recorded for broadcasting. Grandson of Michael Rodzianko, President of the last Imperial Duma in Russia, Bishop Basil became a well known teacher of Orthodoxy in Russia and also at St. Nicholas Cathedral where his spiritual legacy is still preserved.
Archpriest Dmitry Grigorieff, Dostoevsky scholar and Chairman of the Russian Department at Georgetown University for many years, was ordained to the holy priesthood at St. Nicholas Cathedral in 1969. Following the death of Fr. Arkady Moiseyev in 1986, he was appointed Dean of the Cathedral until his retirement in 1998. He remained Dean Emeritus until his death in 2007.
Archpriest Constantine White, Dean of the Cathedral from 1998 to 2011, was the first American convert to become pastor of St. Nicholas. Fr. Constantine first came to the cathedral in the 1970s while a student at American University. He converted to Orthodoxy and after graduation, attended St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He was ordained to the holy priesthood at St. Nicholas Cathedral in 1985, succeeding Fr. Dmitry as Dean in 1998.
Fr. Valery Shemchuk, Associate Pastor of St. Nicholas at present, came to America from Belarus in 1993 on a scholarship to participate in the work of an Episcopal summer camp near Annapolis, MD. He was baptized there and later was taken to visit St. Nicholas Cathedral. Not long after that, he was received into the Orthodox Church by Bishop Basil. This was the beginning of a new life of spiritual education under Bishop Basil that eventually led him to St. Tikhon’s Seminary. He was ordained to the holy priesthood there in May, 2002. Now Fr. Valery is bringing Orthodoxy in Washington DC area. There are now many baptisms of those who have discovered Orthodoxy here.
With the political changes in Russia in the 1990s, a new wave of émigré families has come to Washington and become part of the St. Nicholas community. The fall of communism has also opened the door to a new and cooperative relationship with the Russian Embassy, no longer a silent neighbor up the street. The annual galas held at the Embassy for the benefit of the cathedral are elegant affairs hosted by the Ambassador and his wife. The founders of St. Nicholas Cathedral could never have imagined this.
Looking back over the years and the remarkable growth of St. Nicholas Cathedral from a home church to the Primatial Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America, the parish itself has become an icon of unity in diversity – an icon of Orthodoxy in America.