Followers of the Eastern Orthodox faith who settled in San Francisco had no priests to serve them at first. In 1857 they established the Slavonian Illyrian Benevolence Society to help one another in tending the sick, sustaining the aged, and burying the dead. The first Orthodox service in California after the closing of Fort Ross took place in San Francisco in 1859, when a priest came ashore from a Russian vessel anchored in the bay to baptize several Russian and Serbian children. Religious services were provided intermittently by Russian naval chaplains for another five years.
The Russian-Greek-Slavonian Church and Philanthropic Society, the first permanent Orthodox parish in California, was formed on Easter night, 1864. Admiral Popov, whose fleet of six Russian vessels had arrived in San Francisco after visiting Japan, invited a group of Orthodox faithful to a service at the home of the acting Greek consul, George Fischer (actually a Serb who had anglicized his name). The services were conducted by Archpriest Cyril, a chaplain from Popov's fleet. The sixteen founding members of the new parish included Serbs, Russians, and Greeks. Furnishings for the church were supplied from one of the Russian Naval Ministry's field chapels. The church was formally registered at the San Francisco City Hall in 1867, with several additional members, including a Syrian. Martin Klinkovstrem, the Russian consul, was the first president. In response to a request from the San Francisco community, the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia appointed Father Nicholas Kovrygin dean of the new parish, underwriting his salary for the first two years, and also sending the money to build a new church. This House of Prayer of the Orthodox Church was erected at 5O4 Greenwich Street, and services were offered in old Slavonic, Serbian, and Greek.
On June 10, 187O, San Francisco became the cathedral city of the newly established episcopal see of the Orthodox church in the U.S.A. Archimandrite John Mitropolsky, former Inspector of the Moscow Theological Seminary, was the first bishop. The tall, bearded figure of Father Fedor Pashkovsky, first dean of the cathedral, became a familiar sight not only in San Francisco, but nationally. In later years he was named Metropolitan Theophilus of the United States and Canada. Although he maintained a home in Long Island, he returned each winter to his beloved city by the Golden Gate.
At a time when much of the city's population was moving to the south and the west, the Orthodox community settled in the north, overlooking the bay, on the slopes of what soon came to be called Russian Hill. The cathedral was moved to 915 Jackson Street in 1872 and to Pierce Street in 1874. Between 1876 and 1881 the diocese was administered from St. Petersburg. With the arrival of Bishop Nestor in 1881, the church, offices, archives, and school were moved to a remodeled house at 1715 Powell Street near Columbus Avenue, the present location of the Pagoda Palace Theater. During these years the cathedral was consecrated to various saints ‹ Saint Alexander Nevsky, Saint Nicholas, Saint Basil the Great ‹ before receiving its present name, the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, on November 16, 1897.
Not all the clergy were Russian. In 1892 Sebastian Dabovich was ordained as the first American-born Orthodox priest. Father Sebastian had been among the Serbian infants baptized by a Russian chaplain in 1863. While serving as missionary priest to California he founded the state's second Orthodox congregation, St. Sava Serbian Church, in Jackson, Amador County, in 1894. After several years of service in Alaska, he was named Archimandrite Sebastian, head of the Serbian Mission to North America, in 1905. A Greek priest, Father Andreadis, served at Holy Trinity Cathedral from 1905 until 1918, when he joined the newly formed Greek diocese.
The year 1899 marked the arrival of Bishop Tikhon, one of San Francisco's most illustrious clergymen of any faith. He introduced the use of English as a liturgical language in the Orthodox church service, which proved to be effective in reaching the younger generation. The cathedral, with its seven onion domes, was totally destroyed by the earthquake of 1906. By a stroke of good fortune, the church belfry was in the process of being repaired, and the cherished bells, temporarily stored in a wagon, were saved. The present cathedral at 1520 Green Street was dedicated in 1909.
In 1907, Bishop Tikhon moved the administrative center of the Orthodox Church in America to New York, to be more accessible to the large numbers of Slavic, Greek, and Arabic Orthodox Christians who were beginning to settle in the eastern and midwestern sections of the United States. On his return to Russia in 1917, Tikhon was named Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, a post that had gone unfilled for more than two centuries. Although the Bolshevik Revolution succeeded in suppressing the Orthodox church within Russia, it had the effect of spreading the faith throughout the western world. More than a million Russians left their homeland, and emigration from surrounding areas increased accordingly. In November 1920, Tikhon authorized the bishops outside Russia to establish temporary ecclesiastical jurisdictions, to function until such time as the Patriarchate of Moscow could again assume control. Several such groups were formed. Tikhon defended the church against the new state regime and was eventually sentenced to prison for a time. After his release he retired to a monastery. Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco has several treasured mementos of Patriarch Tikhon's service here, including his vestments, which are used in special services.
The Orthodox Church in America, already established in New York with a resident bishop, continued to administer the churches under its jurisdiction, after 1926 functioning as a de facto autonomous body. In 197O the Patriarchate of Moscow declared the Orthodox Church in America to be autocephalous (independent). The San Francisco parish also includes Christ the Saviour Church at 490 Twelfth Avenue -- a modern structure designed by Joseph Esherick after he had studied traditional forms in Russia.
San Francisco's Holy Trinity Cathedral resembles Chicago's cathedral of the same name, designed in l900 by Louis Sullivan. The present building (designed by an unknown architect) was built in l909, with additions in 1934 and 1979-1984. This rambling structure is both recognizably Russian and turn-of-the-century American Period Revival. Distinctively Russian components include the kokosniki-decorated base and gilded finial of the bell tower and main dome, the various gilded crosses, and the minor polygonal dome. The flat pedimented main door, rusticated surfaces, block-outlined cornices, and rich Georgian balustrade reflect American influence. Holy Trinity Cathedral occupies the main floor, and the St. Innocent Chapel the lower level. The downstairs chapel is dedicated to a seventeenth-century missionary bishop of Irkutsk in Siberia (at one time both Alaska and California were included in the diocese of Irkutsk).
Among the cathedral's treasures are the seven bronze bells, cast in Moscow in 1888 at the request of Bishop Vladimir of San Francisco. An inscription on the largest commemorates the miraculous escape of the Russian Emperor Alexander III and his family when revolutionaries bombed the train on which they were passengers. Such bells are exceedingly rare because most of them were melted down for the metal during the Russian Revolution or World War II. The open bell tower was rebuilt in 1979, giving it the extra height characteristic of churches on the flat Russian steppes; the original, more Serbian tower is to be reused on a chapel the parish is building at Point Reyes.
As is traditional for Orthodox churches, Holy Trinity is built in the form of a Greek cross with the altar in the east. The dome, representing heaven, has stained glass windows in the drum, and a massive brass chandelier hanging from its groined center. Many oriental rugs and brass stands holding candles give a rich warmth to the church. The congregation is separated from the altar by a screen, or iconostasis, covered with sacred images or icons. Originally an iconostasis was an openwork barrier, but in later times it became the almost solid wall it is today. Doors in the iconostasis afford glimpses of the altar as priests pass through during services. Icons -- two dimensional representations of saints -- are considered to be windows into heaven. The icons and murals throughout the church were done by the artist Gleb Ilyn. Poetry and music, chanted and sung without accompaniment, give Orthodox worship its distinctive character. Early Orthodox congregations were led by cantors, but in America most congregations westernized their worship services by adding choirs -- at first male, and then mixed. There are no pews or benches in Holy Trinity Cathedral; worshippers stand or kneel in accordance with age-old custom.
Reprinted from SACRED PLACES OF SAN FRANCISCO, by Ruth Hendricks Willard and Carol Green Wilson with photography by Roy Flamm and architectural comment by Joseph Armstrong Baird, Jr. Presidio Press, Novato CA; copyright (c) 1985 San Francisco Alumnae Panhellenic.