In 1863, San Francisco was a bustling city boasting an international citizenry who hailed from a multitude of countries around the globe. Within that population were a number of Slavic people, many who arrived during the Gold Rush, including a family group who were the first recorded Serbian immigrants to come to America – Ilija Dabovich, his wife Jelena (Radovich), Ilija’s two older brothers, and his paternal uncle Nikolai. They arrived in 1853. Ilija went into the merchant business opening a store and partnered with one of his brothers in a fruit business. On June 21, 1863, a son was born to Ilija and Jelena. The fourth of seven children, he was the first male Serbian child to be born in America. They named him Jovan. As he grew to manhood, he became a devout Orthodox who worked assiduously to spread his faith, taking his message to a number of places around the world. He baptized more people than any other Serbian minister in the Western Hemisphere and founded the first Serbian churches in America, including St. Sava in Jackson, California. The story of this remarkable man, who came to be known as Fr. Sebastian, is the heartbeat of the history of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America.
Jovan’s devoutness was apparent from an early age. He would, in later years, say that his calling to become a priest and serve the God and the church was manifest in him as a youth and that it was all he could think about. As a young child he attended Orthodox services at the home of Peter Sekulovich, the devout not yet having a church building to worship in. Until 1868, when a priest was officially assigned to San Francisco, the needs of the Orthodox community consisting of Greeks, Serbs, and Russians, was addressed by chaplains on board Russian Navy ships off the coast. That year, Fr. Nickolai Kovrygin arrived in the city and began to hold services at the Sekulovich home. This would change in 1872 with the arrival of Bishop John Mitropolsky from Alaska and the relocation of the Orthodox American diocesan administration to San Francisco. Bishop John had a church built on Pierce Street and opened a school. The young Jovan began attendance at the Graeco-Russian Seminary mission school where he learned the Catechism, some Russian, church Slavonic, mathematics, and studied the scriptures. It was evident to his teachers and the Bishop that he loved the church, was selfless, and was devoted to the poor and dispossessed. Upon his graduation, Jovan became a reader in the church and taught classes. He was then assigned to service at St. Michael’s in Sitka, Alaska. After a year there, he made the decision to travel to Russia and study for the priesthood. There, he was tonsured a monk upon completion of two years study and given the name Sebastian. After being ordained as a deacon, he returned to San Francisco in 1889. Under the newly assigned Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky, Fr. Sebastian was given the task of delivering services to the English speaking parishioners, Bishop Vladimir having only limited skill with the language. This was the first attempt by the Orthodox clergy to translate the liturgy into English. The church had since moved to a new location on Powell Street, where English services attracted such large crowds that the church overflowed.
In 1891 Bishop Nicholas Ziorov replaced Bishop Vladimir. The following year he ordained Fr. Sebastian a priest who then began to deliver sermons as such. At that time there were approximately 1,500 Orthodox followers along the west coast of the United States. It was Fr. Sebastian’s desire to see that the spiritual needs of them were met. After submitting a proposal to Bishop Nicholas, Sebastian was appointed Missionary Priest for California and the Pacific Northwest. On his first mission trip, he covered over 3,000 miles from San Francisco to Vancouver, British Columbia. His parishioners included Bulgarians, Greeks, Russians, Serbians, and Syrians. In 1893, while still on his mission, Bishop Nickolas reassigned him to St. Mary’s Church in Minneapolis to replace Fr. Alexis who went to preach to Uniates in Willkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Fr. Alexis would be granted sainthood in 1994 for his work there. While serving his mission in Minneapolis, Sebastian traveled to Chicago where he celebrated the first Diving Liturgy for a group of Orthodox Serbs. Fr. Sebastian served in Pennsylvania less than a year before he was recalled to San Francisco, arriving in December 1893, where resumed his duties as Missionary Priest to the west coast.
One of the first missionary duties of Fr. Sebastian upon his return to San Francisco was a call to baptize a Serbian infant in Jackson, Dajrs (Danilo or Daniel), the son of immigrants from Austria and Serbia, Milosh and Sophia (Kosich) Dragolovich. The baptism may have been held in a home in Jackson as the Orthodox community was without a church. Here, Fr. Sebastian found a substantial Serbian community and recognizing the need for a place of worship, counseled church followers to work towards a goal of constructing one. Upon his return to San Francisco, he addressed the issue with Bishop Nicholas. In January 1894, Bishop Nicholas authorized the purchase of a one-acre parcel of land in Jackson from Samuel Bright on which a church could be built. In February, the bishop, accompanied by Fr. Sebastian, traveled to the site to bless the property on which the church would stand and the cemetery property surrounding it. Sebastian returned to Jackson in about a month with plans and specifications for the church, established the building contracts for materials, and hired a superintendent to oversee the project. A newspaper article carrying the announcement called it the Russian Oxford Greek Catholic Church. A few months later, Jackson brick mason William Fortner began work on the building. He set up a kiln on a lot south of Jackson and had the needed brick fired by July. Within a month, the brick walls were in place and the work began on the wooden sections of the building. The building was complete by mid-September but it would be two months before the structure was painted by local contractor George Luse.
A dedication was planned for December 9th; however, when it was announced that Bishop Nicholas would not be able to attend, it was rescheduled for December 16th. In the interim, the 29” diameter, 22” tall church bell, weighting 425 pounds, arrived from Alaska and was installed in the steeple. It bears the engraving - “With the blessing of his eminence Rt. Rev. Nicholas of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, this bell cast for the Orthodox Church of St. Sava, of Jackson, Amador County, Cal, AD 22 Aug 1894.” The day of the dedication arrived. A large crowd gathered under stormy skies with Bishop Nicholas, Fr. Sebastian, and two other church officials in attendance. While the bishop conducted the ceremony in Slavic, Sebastian translated his words into English. Members of the Slavonian Benevolent Society turned out in a large body adorned in their societal regalia, marching to the site led by the Jackson band. The Amador Dispatch recorded the event, noting that there were about 40 members of the Orthodox faith in the vicinity of Jackson, most of them natives of Austria. To honor the dedication, Sebastian would conduct services at the new church every morning at 8:00 a.m. for a short time and then weekly on Sunday morning and evening. Fr. Sebastian continued to serve Jackson’s Orthodox congregation while attending to his duties as a missionary in the western states and founded a number of Serbian churches in west coast Orthodox communities. In 1895, he was awarded the gold cross for his missionary work. The following year he traveled to Serbia where he continued his religious studies for a short time and then returned to San Francisco where he was appointed to serve as pastor at St. Basil and taught in the Orthodox school.
When it later was granted parish status, Fr. Sebastian sided with the parishioners of St. Sava to have their charter read as Serbian Orthodox, although the church would be administrated by the Russian bishop. Then in 1897, both men sent correspondence to the Metropolitan Mahailo Jovanović of Serbia requesting that they provide money to support Serbian churches in America. They received a reply that the Serbian church did not have the funds. That same year Sebastian was recognized by Prince Nicholas of Montenegro for his missionary work to Serbians immigrants in America and awarded him the Order of Daniel. Two years later the Tsar of Russia awarded him the Order of St. Anne. Under the leadership of Bishop Tikhon Bellavin, who was pointed by church to head the American diocese in 1898, the Orthodox church was restructured. In 1904, Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweenny was consecrated as vicar bishop for the Syro-Arab Orthodox in America, followed by Fr. Sebastian being appointed as the head of the newly established Serbian Orthodox Mission in America in 1905. That same year, Sebastian was elevated to the rank of archimandrite while serving the Serbian Orthodox community Chicago. He continued his work in the church, traveling often between the United States and Serbia, also making visits to Japan, until 1912 when he entered his retirement Serbia. He died there on November 30, 1940 and was buried in the cemetery at Zhicha Monastery. In 2007, Archimandrite Sebastian’s remains were brought back to Jackson and interred at St. Sava, the first Serbian Orthodox Church he founded in America.