At the Sources of Orthodoxy in America

In Honor of the 85th Anniversary of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco

Since 1953 is the 85th year of the existence of this parish, every celebration at Holy Trinity Cathedral acquires a special significance. With respect to this event it would be appropriate to cite several milestones in the history of the parish, which are in equal measure milestones in the history of Orthodoxy in America.

In 1868 from the city of Sitka in Alaska the first Russian Orthodox priest, Father Nikolai Kovrigin, arrived in San Francisco and opened the first Orthodox parish at the request of the "Slavonic-Greek Society" then in existence here. Since that time the parish has more than once changed both its location and the name of its heavenly patrons, nevertheless preserving its inner unity. At first the temple was located at 504 Greenwich Street, then on 911 Jackson Street, where it was housed in two rooms and from which it relocated into a more comfortable lodging on Pierce Street. All that time the temple bore the name of the Holy Prince Alexander Nevsky.

In 1881 the parish built a new temple at 1715 Powell Street. The large two story high church, made even larger in 1888, was consecrated in the name of the holy enlightener Nicholas. But in 1889 the church burned. The following year the parish rebuilt its temple, which was consecrated in the name of Saint Basil the Great.

During the tenure of Archbishop Nicholas (1891-1898) the temple was renovated, reconstructed, enlarged and consecrated in the name of the Holy Trinity. The terrible earthquake of 1906 destroyed the church building on Powell Street with all its furnishings and part of the church archives. After that disaster the parish made use of several different locations for the celebration of divine services, including the Serbian Club meeting hall, which at that time was located at 925 Golden Gate Avenue.

On January 11, 1909 the consecration of ground for the construction of a new church took place at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Green Street. The cornerstone of the new cathedral was laid at that site on February 15, and the solemn consecration took place on June 28 (July 11) of that same year.

Thus the parish, which is presently located at the Cathedral and, as may be seen from this short chronological summary, traces its genealogy back to 1868, is the oldest Russian parish in North America. The torch of Orthodoxy, lit by the Russian Church in Alaska, was carried from there to San Francisco, and from here its light has spread across the vastness of America.

Up until the first decade of the twentieth century the parish united not only Russians, but all the Orthodox of various nationalities who lived in San Francisco and its most distant outskirts. At the present time in the archives of Trinity Cathedral are preserved metric books, dating from the 1880's. The entries for baptisms, weddings and burials reveal a multitude of not only Russian, but also Greek, Serbian and Syrian names. These names may be found in the entries of later years, right up to the time after the First World War. Even now many Orthodox Greeks, Serbs and Syrians apply to the Cathedral for baptismal and wedding certificates. A few days ago an Orthodox Serb came to the Cathedral with a request that his son be married here. When asked why he had not inquired at the local Serbian parish, he replied, "Father Theodore Pashkovsky (later Metropolitan Theophilus) married me and my wife, and Father Vladimir Sakovich baptized my children here. Since we are tied to this Cathedral by family tradition, I would like my son's wedding to take place here also."

The ecclesiastical and historical tasks which lay before the parish founded in 1868 by Father Nikolai Kovrigin were of greater breadth than those of a simple parochial community. Even before the construction of the new church on Powell Street in 1881 the parish became the seat of the ruling bishops "of the Aleuts and North America," the first episcopal see in America. The progenitor of this see was Bishop Nestor, who perished at sea in 1881 during an archpastoral visitation of the Alaskan parishes. After Bishop Nestor's death the see remained eight years without a bishop. In 1888 Bishop Vladimir was named to this see and presided until 1891. Holy Trinity Cathedral's "godfather" was Archbishop Nikolai, who headed the see from 1891 to 1898 and consecrated the cathedral in the name of the Holy Trinity.

The forth prelate to occupy the bishop's throne at Holy Trinity Cathedral was Archbishop Tikhon (Belavin), later elected Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. Even now Holy Trinity Cathedral preserves not only the spiritual inheritance of this great hierarch, but also material memorials of his presence at the Cathedral. Among these memorials are: a full set of episcopal vestments of gold brocade in a remarkable state of preservation, used even now on especially solemn occasions (Bishop Tikhon presented these vestments to the Cathedral), a holy antimins blessed by him for the Cathedral and bearing his signature, an episcopal award certificate expressing thanks to "the Orthodox Women's Society of San Francisco, California, for their generous gift to the building fund for a new church in San Francisco," signed in Bishop Tikhon's own hand and dated March 2, 1907, the deceased Patriarch's own prayer rope and other artifacts.

Archbishop Tikhon remained as head of the see in San Francisco until 1905, when the see of the ruling bishop of the Aleuts and North America was transferred by him to New York. Since that time the episcopal see of San Francisco has become a diocese, but even now at the Diocesan Council of the ruling bishop of San Francisco the traditional title of "Spiritual Administrator of North America" has been preserved.

A long line of successors to Archbishop Tikhon of blessèd memory, who died as Patriarch of Moscow and is glorified as an unshakable confessor of the purity of Orthodoxy, ends with his beatitude Metropolitan Theophilus and his grace Bishop John. Metropolitan Theophilus journeyed far as pastor of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco, part of which he spent under the direct spiritual guidance of Archbishop Tikhon. Even when he was named to the primacy of all America and Canada, the late Metropolitan Theophilus retained the title of Archbishop of San Francisco.

The latest successor to the most holy Patriarch Tikhon in San Francisco is his grace Bishop John of San Francisco, the rector of Holy Trinity Cathedral.

In the years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Holy Trinity Cathedral played a great role in the fate of the Russian emigration to America. From that time the Cathedral became the real center of all the spiritual life the Russian colony in San Francisco. Very few old inhabitants do not remember with gratitude the excellent names of the deans of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Fathers Alexander Vyacheslavov and Vladimir Sakovich, who by their prayers, efforts, advice, words and deeds embellished the first difficult steps of many Russians in a new land. Very few Russian patriotic or social organizations in San Francisco do not have the roots of their "family tree" in the Cathedral's school or library facilities. Many Russians who were housed in the refugee camps of Europe in the years after the Second World War remember with gratitude the Cathedral Sisterhood, whose name they read for the first time on parcels of food and goods sent from "far off San Francisco".

The Cathedral bells, invisible to the uninitiated eye, yet gladdening the ears and hearts of worshippers, are a magnificent symbol of the fidelity to the tradition of preserving the purity of Orthodoxy, of the confession of God's glory, of the proclamation of the word of truth ‹ of the foundations of the spiritual life of our Holy Trinity Cathedral. The largest bell, which weighs 145 poods (5, 236 lbs.), is decorated with images of the saints, medals and coins from the time of its manufacture, and the following inscriptions, cast into the bell in Slavonic ornamental script: "A Helper and a Protector is become my Salvation. He is my God; I will glorify Him. The God of my fathers, I will extol Him, for in glory is He glorified."

"This bell was cast for the Cathedral Church of the City of San Francisco of the Orthodox American Mission in commemoration of the miraculous deliverance of the Russian Emperor Alexander III and his most august family on the 17th of October during the episcopacy of Vladimir, Bishop of Alaska, through the intercession of Hieromonk Joel, 1888. N. D. Finlyandsky Bell Foundry, Moscow."

Many various adverse and stormy times have afflicted Orthodox life in San Francisco during the last 85 years. Natural disasters ‹ fires, the earthquake of 1906 ‹ have left Holy Trinity parish without a house of prayer. Through vicissitudes of life, political upheavals, and ecclesiastical disorders the forces of evil attempted to introduce discord and strife into the life of the parish. But like the metal of the old bell that withstood the earthquake and fire, the parish remains hardened and steadfast, bearing the blessing of the great bishop of Russia and fervent enlightener of the New World ‹ the ever-memorable Holy Patriarch Tikhon. It has in no way gone astray, but has preserved unshaken its Christian unity. And like the old bell, covered with the patina of the years, whose dark metal contains not a little pure silver, rings out in strong and clear tones, calling all to prayer, to God, to eternity, to repentance, so the ecclesiastical conscience of the parish, attacking no one, defending itself from no one, preserves and nurtures that Eternal Truth of Orthodoxy, which itself repels all attacks and has no need of any defense on the part of mortals.

The blessing of God, through the prayers of the departed Holy Patriarch Tikhon and of the assembly of most worthy bishops and pastors who have served and prayed in Holy Trinity Cathedral, abides on the life and activity of the parish. This is attested to by not only its 85 year existence, but also by the growth, strengthening and deepening of parish spiritual and social life at the present time.

--Mitred Archpriest George Benigsen (+Aug 6 1993)

This article first appeared in 1953 in Russian in the diocesan monthly, "Following the Steps of Christ," edited by the late Mitred Archpriest Nikolajs Vieglais. The Mitred Archpriest George Benigsen was dean of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1950-59 and in 1981.

Translated from Russian by Robert Parent

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Modified 7/17/97-