A DRAMATIC CHURCH HISTORY

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Dark Mysteries Connected With the Greek Church.

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THE DEATH OF AN ARCHPRIEST.

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Was the Good Bishop Nestor Murdered in Alaskan Waters in Order That Crimes Might Be Concealed? – At Attempt to Destroy the Sacred Edifice at Night That Was Never Explained.

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The history of the Russo-Greek Orthodox Church in California is a tale full of dramatic interest. If one tenth the charges made against the representatives of the Holy Synod of St. Petersburg on this western shore of the United States are true the tyrannies and the infamies practiced by the Romanoffs in far away Russia have been repeated here in San Francisco under the eyes of the police.

It is openly charged that murder and arson have been committed by church officials, and yet no one has been brought to justice. For eighteen years past the church has been torn by dissension and held up to the world as a perfect sink of iniquity.

In order to fully understand the manner in which the orthodox church is conducted it becomes necessary to describe the government briefly.

Alexander Romanoff, Czar of all the Russians, is the nominal head of the Church. It is governed by a body known as the Holy Synod, which sits at St. Petersburg. The direct representative of the Czar is a minister occupying the position similar to one of the President’s Cabinet. The person now holding that office is a Mr. Pob Jedonostzeff. He carries out the will of the Holy Synod, recalling the officers of the church from their posts and assigning them to more elevated places if they are in favor, or to the monasteries if they are condemned.

THE FIRST BISHOP.

The power of a bishop appointed by the synod is unlimited. He is endowed with the power of life and death. Even Alexander himself must bend his knee and kiss the sacred hand. The Czar may, however, after kissing the hand rise and consign the representative of his religion to the mines of Siberia.

The first bishop of the Diocese of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands was Bishop Johann, who took up his station in San Francisco eighteen years ago. He made frequent voyages to the far northern land, and pushed the work of the church among the Alaskans. All who knew him say that he was a good man, who endeavored to do his duty to God and the church. He was finally recalled to Russia.

An archpriest named Kedrolivansky succeeded the Bishop in charge of the diocese. His reputation was that of a good and holy man, and he was received by the Russian colony with high honors. He was a man of some learning, and undertook the task of managing church affairs with great will. Soon after his arrival, however, another priest, named Kovrigin, made his appearance in San Francisco, coming from the icefields of Alaska.

From the first the priests differed, and it was charged that Kovrigin, who was of a lower grade than Kedrolivansky, desired to ruin the latter in order that he might secure his high position.

KEDROLIVANSKY’S DEATH.

Little conspiracies were frequently being formed and papers were forwarded to St. Petersburg, which charged in effect that the archpriest was an improper person to fill the holy and exalted office.

In the very midst of his administration Kedrolivansky parted from his wife. This was used to his disadvantage with the home authorities. He was called upon to make a statement in his own defense, and spent many weeks drawing up papers to prove that all his troubles were the result of Kovrigin’s machinations.

On the night of June 9, 1880, Kedrolivansky visited the tobacco house of Barnet Rosenthal on Washington street, near Montgomery. To Rosenthal he confided all his secrets and troubles. He informed the tobacco dealer that he was fully prepared to refute Kovrigin’s charges and expose him to the Holy Synod as a wicked conspirator willing to injure the church if he could but elevate himself.

Taking from his breast pocket a bundle of papers he said, "Here are the proofs. They go forward to St. Petersburg to-morrow."

At midnight he bade the Rosenthals a cheerful good-by and started for his lodgings. An hour later he was found on Webb street, just around the corner of California, in a dying condition. He had been terribly sandbagged and could not answer any questions.

KOVRIGIN’S FATE.

The name of his assailant never passed his lips, and he died the next afternoon in the City Receiving Hospital. The papers denouncing his brother priest, which he intended forwarding to St. Petersburg, were missing from his person, although all his other property was intact.

It was plainly a case of murder, and created a tremendous sensation in the Russian colony at the time.

Several friends of the dead men endeavored to prove that after leaving the Rosenthals he met a man named Amosov. This person, it was claimed, was in the employ of Kovrigin, and was with the murdered man a few minutes before his death.

The autopsy showed a fracture on the left side of the skull, commencing in the temporal bone running upward and slightly backward to the parietal bone, being three inches in length.

The Coroner’s jury believed that the priest had been murdered. His assassin was never brought to justice.

Those of the Russian race here who are opposed to the Government say that when Kedrolivansky’s murder was reported to the Czar by cable the Holy Synod at once replied, asking that the fearful scandal which would arise from any prosecution be suppressed at all hazards. The church was the Czar and anything that would reflect on the former would affect the autocrat of all the Russians.

It is significant that Kovrigin was immediately recalled to St. Petersburg and sent into confinement in a monastery. He is now living a wretched life, stripped of all his glory.

The place thus made vacant was soon after filled by the appointment of an archpriest named Vechtomov. He was an intelligent, honest gentleman, evidently with the interests of the church at his heart, and remained quite a length of time in charge of the diocese without creating any scandal or disturbance.

NESTOR THE NEXT VICTIM.

But the growing importance of the great Western district induced the Synod to appoint Bishop Nestor to take charge. He was of the highest standing in the church and had been appointed a nobleman by the Czar some years before his departure from Russia for California.

Each dignitary succeeding to the charge of a diocese first examines the books of the church. Bishop Nestor followed the usual course, and it is understood made discoveries which convinced him that certain of the church officials were dishonest. He worried very much, but being a men of kind heart did not report his discoveries to the Synod.

Then the manner in which affairs were conducted did not suit him. He soon learned that the natives in Alaska were being robbed by the priests. The congregation, too, was split in twain.

The Bishop finally took passage for Alaska, accompanied by the usual complements of sort [...?] the church.

He went to his death.

One night, just as the vessel lay to off Unalaska, Bishop Nestor went on deck. The next day his dead body was found on the beach. He had either jumped over or been pushed overboard.

It was openly asserted that he had been murdered, but no proof of this could be gathered. Many of his warmest friends contended that there was no reason for him to put an end to his life, being in the highest position in the gift of the Synod, with a glorious future before him. They intimated that there were, on the other hand, potent reasons for his being put out of the way.

The higher class of Russians believed that he had become disgusted with the condition of the church, and to save himself the pain of writing a report that would bring many persons to disgrace, committed suicide in a fit of despondency.

Bishop Nestor’s body was brought down with all the pomp and ceremony of the orthodox church and transported to Russia. The mystery surrounding his tragic end has never been pierced, and it takes its place in the dark annals of the holy institution.

VLADIMIR’S INCUMBENCY.

Then came the present Bishop Vladimir, against whom the most horrible charges are now pending. He arrived here three years ago. At present he is visiting the Aleutian islands.

Previous to his appointment as Bishop he was a priest in Japan, but rendered such services as warranted his promotion.

Bishop Vladimir had been here but a short time when the most bitter attacks were made upon him. He was denounced as a tyrant of the worst description, cruel and relentless to those unfortunate enough to be in his power. It was charged that he robbed the priests under him of half their salary and swindled the natives on the Aleutian islands by selling them 3-cent candles for $3.

Bishop Vladimir defended himself by saying that men who were attempting to cover up their misdeeds were spreading the stories about him, and that it was all a conspiracy to besmirch him.

Then came the first real sensation of Vladimir’s administration.

The Russian Church at 1713 Powell street was discovered to be in fumes early on the morning of May 21, 1889. The fire was extinguished after some little damage had been done. The Archimandrite, Father George, was badly burned. There was no doubt that the fire was of incendiary origin.

Bishop Vladimir intimated that hoodlums might have attempted to destroy the church. This opinion, however, was so far-fetched that it met with but little consideration.

A STUDENT’S STATEMENT.

B. M. Gopchevich, a Slavonian, said that the building was fired from the inside and was an attempt to destroy records that would convict prominent members of the Greek Slavonian Benevolent Society of embezzlement. No charge was made against the Bishop himself. But Boris Levin, one of the boys whom Vladimir brought from Russia, now accuses Vladimir of having a hand in the incendiarism.

"I always had charge of the church," he said. "I was the trusty and held the only key with the exception of the one in the possession of the Bishop. On the night of the fire I was in my room when I heard steps in the church. Just after I had made my rounds I looked and saw the Bishop near the altar. Then a little while after the fire broke out I couldn’t understand how it started, and I went all around looking at everything. I noticed that most of the charcoal kept in a box was gone. I told the Bishop, and he said, ‘You mustn’t tell any one. Keep quiet for the sake of God and the church. If you speak you will be ruined. The church needs repairs and we will get the insurance.’ So I didn’t say anything."

His story was not accepted generally, but at any rate it was never ascertained just how the fire started. It was recorded as another mystery of the mysterious church.

A few nights later B. M. Gopchevich, an adherent of the Bishop, was waylaid on Stockton street, near California, and badly beaten.

RUSSEL’S EXCOMMUNICATION.

Dr. N. Russel, a physician, who had always been a devoted adherent of the church, denounced the Bishop as tyrant and a brute, and was excommunicated by the Bishop.

Father Joseph Levin, an under priest, was next to leave. He declared that Vladimir’s practices were improper and his avarice unbounded. He could not remain in association with such a man. What he meant by his declarations has only lately been developed.

This, in brief, is the dark history of the Orthodox Eastern church in San Francisco.

A glimpse at the practices in the far-away island where the unfortunate natives cannot be heard is furnished by a story given publicity two years ago, which finally coming under cognizance of the Holy Synod, resulted in the recall and disgrace of a priest named Mitropolsky.

THE ALASKAN SCANDALS.

This worthy was stationed in Alaska and lived at a very fast rate. His salary would not meet his demands and he mortgaged his church for $3,200. A brother of the priest, who was a monk, was sent out to arrange matters and it was finally agreed that a certain amount should be deducted from his salary to pay off the mortgage.

Mitropolsky was allowed $30 a month to live on in Alaska, while $50 per month was paid to the wife of the priest residing in this city.

Another priest by the name of Solomatoff taught his Aleutian parishioners that it was their duty to make offerings not only to the saints but to him. While in San Francisco he obtained an immense lithograph of Michael Strogoff, Jules Verne’s hero, and took it to Alaska. There he set it up in the church and surrounded it with candles. The natives were taught that it was a new saint lately blessed and imported from Russia. The ignorant Alaskans worshipped the theatre poster and presented it with $800 worth of sealskins, which Solomatoff promptly sold. The wily priest at one time drew his check in San Francisco for $10.000 as the profits of his impositions. The rules of the church prohibited him from leaving his Alaskan post, but to enjoy a good time in civilization it was his habit to secure a physician’s certificate testifying that it was absolutely necessary that he come to this city for medical treatment.

There are other stories of a like character told. All are discreditable to the church authorities. But for their escapades many of the priests who once held sway in this diocese are now suffering in their mother country.

Alexander’s arm has been long enough and strong enough to reach out and drag them back.

IN THE POLICE COURT.

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Alexine and Ligda’s Cases Transferred to Judge’ Wesley’s Department.

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E. P. Alexine, Superintendent of the Graeco-Russian Seminary on Montgomery avenue, and Paul Ligda, his assistant, intend making a technical fight when they are brought to trial. The warrants on which they were arrested were issued from Judge Joachimsen’s court and it was supposed they would be tried there. Such was not the case, however, for the defendants were not content to have Judge Joachimsen pass on the case.

The names of Alexine and Ligda were on the calendar in Judge Joachimsen’s court yesterday morning and quite a crowd of worshipers at the Russian Church were in attendance to hear the latest developments in the scandal. They were doomed to meet with disappointment, however, for when the case was called Fisher Ames, who has been retained to defend Alexine and Ligda, asked that it be transferred to Judge Worley’s court for hearing.

"On what ground?" asked Judge Joachimsen.

"My clients object," said Ames, "to being tried before your Honor."

"They must have some reason."

"They have," replied the attorney.

"Make it known, then," said the Judge.

"Well, the truth is," replied Ames, "they object to being tried before you on the grounds of your religious belief."

"If that is the case," answered the Judge, "I do not desire to try them. If you can arrange it so as to have the case transferred to either of the other courts I will be satisfied and pleased."

Ames then left the courtroom and was gone about fifteen minutes, and when he returned he stated that Worley had consented to hear the cases.

An order transferring them to Judge Worley’s court was then entered on the records.

The cases will appear to-day on Judge Worley’s calendar, but they will not be tried. Secretary Holbrook of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who caused the arrest of Alexine and Ligda, will be ready to proceed, but the defense will ask for a continuance. It is also probable that a jury trial will be demanded in each case. As Judge Worley intends taking a vacation next week the trials will not go on for some time if juries are demanded.

The twelve boys taken from the school to be detained as witnesses are enjoying themselves hugely. The City Prison, where they were detained until yesterday noon, proved to them a source of great enjoyment. The sights witnesses by them there, they say, almost repaid them for the sufferings they endured in the seminary. In order to prevent any one being able to see them and tell them how to testify, and also to relieve the municipality of the burden of supporting them, they were taken in charge yesterday by Superintendent Kane of the Youths’ Directory, on Howard street, near Seventeenth. They will be given shelter there until other provisions are made for their keeping.

 

Illustrations:

Bishop Vladimir

The Russian Church

The Examiner, San Francisco, Saturday Morning, June 13, 1891, p. 3:1

Reprinted in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol. 4, No. 7, March 1997