In the late 1800’s, composed overwhelmingly of young men in their mid-twenties, many of whom were emigrants from Greece, Russia, Serbia and the Near East, mostly loggers, fishermen, cooks and waiters, Saint Spiridon’s Cathedral was the heir to both the longing for the faith and culture of the members’ countries of origin and an amazing missionary strategy on the part of Russian churchmen half a world away.
Life was relatively bleak for many of the first Orthodox in these parts and they jumped at the chance to form a church when it was offered to them by the Russian bishop in San Francisco via an itinerant missionary, Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, a multi-talented Serbian-American priest-monk fluent in English, Russian and Greek. A building was hastily constructed by young men whose eager piety exceeded their engineering skills. As the lot at 817 Lakeview Avenue on the west side of Capitol Hill, donated by George and Mary Nicholas, a Greek-American couple, was mostly a twenty-foot deep hole, the church had to be built up on trestles. Since Orthodox church tradition prescribes that the altar should be in the east end of a church building, the result was that congregation had to enter the church from the west end which hung out over the ravine. Access to the front door, therefore, was by way of a rickety cat-walk running along the south side of the structure.
Structural anomalies, however, did not dim the spirit of the first parishioners who turned out in force for vespers on September 18, 1895 when Fr. Sebastian returned and held the first recorded service. His presence was sufficiently note-worthy that a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was assigned to cover the service and wrote a lengthy precis of Fr. Sebastian’s sermon in English which was an eloquent presentation of the claims of the Orthodox faith and its church. According to the newspaper account, the church counted over 100 members “about half of whom are native-born Americans.” Fr. Sebastian stayed for a while, conducting services every Saturday until the first priest to be permanently assigned, Fr. Amvrosius Vretta, arrived that November. On November 19, 1895 the first recorded Liturgy was held in the new church.
The structure of the church building, did, however, prove to be something of a problem. The wooden trestles had been placed directly into the ground without stone or concrete footings and had begun to rot, causing the building to settle. The building was in such poor shape that Bishop Nicholas, visiting Seattle October 20, 1896 declined to consecrate it, merely performing a lesser blessing of a church instead.
Spiritually, however, the parish received the assignment of Fr. Dimitry Kamnev (1897-98) and Fr. Vladimir Alexandrov (1898-1905), missionaries who not only ministered to our congregation, but, using it as a base, tirelessly served Orthodox communities in Cle Elum, Wilkeson, Portland and in various parts of Canada, often serving the Liturgy for several thousand people at a time. It is a matter of record that the first Orthodox services in Canada were celebrated by Fr. Kamnev, then rector of St. Spiridon’s.
Since a large proportion of the congregation spoke Greek as their native language, the Russian mission saw to it that most of the early rectors were proficient in that language as well as Russian and English. One of the resources open to the Russian Church was the number of priests who came from Greek-Russian families in the Crimea. Fr. Michael Andreades was one of those and ministered to St. Spiridon’s from 1905 to 1916. Trilingual and comfortable in both Russian and Greek cultures, Fr. Michael was an ideal pastor for our community at the time. His talents were nearly irreplaceable, however, and it is not surprising that when this much-loved priest left in 1916, the rapidly-growing Greek community of St. Spiridon’s set about making plans to form their own parish. Indeed, the number Greek-Americans in Seattle had swollen during Fr. Michael’s tenure, to number around 2,000 by 1915 and were mostly young men under the age of 25. In 1918 they got the use of an Episcopal church at the corner of Yale Avenue N. and John Street, and in 1921 St. Demetrios’ Church was completed on the corner of Yale and Thomas at the then enormous cost of $50,000. Old timers remember that the parting of the two congregations was an occasion for rejoicing, not sorrow, because “now there were enough Orthodox in Seattle for two churches.”
The Russian Revolution was to play a major role in the further history of St. Spiridon’s, for over a million Russians left their homeland, migrating either west to Europe, south through the Crimea and Constantinople to Eastern Europe or east to the Russian-Chinese city of Harbin in Manchuria. Seattle was the destination of many of the latter group. It was to be Fr. Alexander Vyacheslavov’s task to minister to the floodtide of this immigration. Beginning in 1920, but especially in 1923-24, waves of new Russian emigres passed through Seattle, six thousand in 1923 alone. The newcomers, like the original core of Saint Spiridon’s were largely young people in their early to mid twenties, many of whom joined the little church on Lakeview Boulevard. Fr. Alexander was a familiar figure at the docks, meeting boats as they arrived from ports in the Russia Far East or China, finding jobs for many, providing others with shelter and seeing to it that qualified students were placed at the University of Washington.
When the much-beloved Fr. Alexander was transferred to Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco in 1923 he was replaced by Fr. Nicholas Mitropolsky, who faithfully ministered here until 1930. Fr. Nicholas was sent from Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, and was very experienced in the process of helping to settle refugees. Fully bi-lingual, Fr. Nicholas had been an interpreter on Ellis Island prior to his ordination to the priesthood. Fr. Nicholas was faced with the beginnings of what would be both St. Spiridon’s greatest curse and greatest blessing, for Fr. Vladimir Alexandrov, now styling himself an “Archbishop,” had been sent back to the United States to claim St. Spiridon’s property for the “Living Church,” the largest of several Russian Church splinter groups spawned by the Revolution and backed by the Bolsheviks who used it to sow discord among Russian Christians at home and abroad.
Meeting the full effect of this threat, however, was the task of Fr. Vasily Kuvshinoff, Rector from 1930-1944. A diligent pastor, he was beset by “Archbishop” Vladimir’s lawsuit in King County Superior court. As the latter well knew, the Russian government under the Tsars had contributed substantially to the remodeling and renovation of the church in 1901 and had provided stipends for priest and choirmaster until the Revolution in 1917. As his group was backed by the new (communist) Russian government, the court at length gave him the ownership of the property. The decision, however, was but a pyrrhic victory for him as the congregation took everything movable out of the building before giving it up to him.
St. Spiridon’s was fortunate to receive the use of a small chapel at 1932 Federal Avenue belonging to St. Mark’s Cathedral and resettled there. The joy at a new home, however, was tempered by a split in the congregation for some of the younger emigres from Harbin had been meeting in a storefront at Twelfth and Madison and were soon joined by a group of parishioners from St. Spiridon’s to form St. Nicholas’ Church in 1935.
As both churches were under the jursidication of Archbishop Tikhon of San Francisco who counseled cooperation to the communities and to their pastors. So much for the curse, the blessing was that St. Spiridon’s in short order built a sturdy structure quite unlike their abandoned predecessor on Lakeview Avenue. While the old St. Spiridon’s was designed in what might be called a modified New England meeting house style, the new St. Spiridon’s was built in the splendid traditional Russian Church style, resembling churches in northern Russia and was designated a Cathedral church on December 13, 1941.
Fr. Vasily presided over the parish during both the events detailed above as well as the Great Depression and World War II. Worn out by his pastoral labors, he fell ill and had to retire in in1944. After several short-time pastors, Fr. Paul Jeromsky was assigned to St. Spiridon’s in 1947, serving the parish until his retirement in 1980. Fr. Paul was part of a new wave of emigres who lent substantially to the size and strength of the parish. During his time as pastor the Rectory (now the education and office building) was erected and a new kind of outreach begun.
Up to this point, the saga of St. Spiridon’s is very largely about the trials and tribulations of a congregation largely composed of first-generation immigrant Orthodox, first largely Greek and then primarily Russian. At this point the church squarely faced the age-old problem of bringing children and grand-children up in a faith which had been formed in a culture different than that of the United States. Deacon Nicholas Sanin and others did this by being simultaneously proud of their ethnic “roots,” and grounded in modern America. Fr. Deacon Nicholas, as choirmaster, introduced English in the church services, encouraged the growth of an English language Sunday School and supported the formation of chapter 169 of the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs (FROC). He encouraged the “O” Club (as it was known) to focus on service to the church as well as mission and witness to others. Although the “O” Club no longer exists at St. Spiridon’s, its heritage of service does, as does one of its innovations, the coffee hour after church on Sundays.
In 1980, Fr. Vadim Pogrebniak was assigned to St. Spiridon’s Cathedral and has guided it through the difficult but important transition to being an American Orthodox parish which celebrates its Slavic Orthodox heritage. The parish is now larg
ely financed through pledges; there is an active outreach to Kursk Theological Seminary in Russia through the Adopt-a-Seminarian P
rogram; the former rectory next to the church building has been turned into space for the burgeoning Sunday School and for parish offices; our Bazaar has become inclusive of the foods of our Alaskan parishioners; there is training for church Readers and other adult education events; a large bookstore is located in the basement with educational materials and devotional items for sale; many new icons have been written, including some with relics, and many beautiful historic icons remain including one icon that is miraculously self-restoring; there is a conscious policy of welcome for newcomers, and a general tone of cooperation among the membership.
St. Spiridon’s Cathedral was born and has developed amid, and to some extent as a part of, dramatic events in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As we stand on the brink of the twenty first century we can only say of the future what could be said of the past: let all be done for the glory of God!