At the turn of the 19th century, Russian fur traders from long-established settlements along the coast of Alaska moved south to the coast of California hoping to cash in on hunting sea otters. In 1809, the Russian-American Company laid claim to coastal lands at Bodega Bay. Within three years they had completed the construction of Fortress Ross and established several small support communities a few miles distant from the fort. Living under desperate conditions due to the declining fur trade in the north, Russian settlers and Native Alaskans followed the fur traders south hoping to establish a farming and manufacturing base to support those who remained along the Alaskan coast. With them they brought the Eastern Orthodox Church. Shortly after their arrival a small chapel was built at the fort. This was the first of the Orthodox faith built in California. The next would be in San Francisco.
In 1806, when Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov sailed from Alaska to San Francisco to garner supplies for starving residents of the Russian-American settlements in the north, he was met with a wary welcome. At that time, Spain had forbidden California from trading with foreign nations and were averse to settlement by foreigners. A fast-moving romance between Rezanov and Concepción, the daughter of San Francisco comandante Don José Darío Argüello, led to the opening of diplomatic relations between the two nations. According to a 1923 article in the San Francisco Examiner, the first Russian colonists in San Francisco were two sailors on Rezanov’s voyage who jumped ship and went to live on a nearby island. They were eventually captured by the Spanish and sent back to Alaska.
New Spain’s concern with Russia invading their territory led them to establish the northern Las Californias Province presidios and missions. In 1821, when Mexico became independent from Spain, they followed suit building the El Presidio Real de Sonoma (Sonoma Barracks) in 1836 to prevent Russian encroachment south of Fort Ross. However, despite their attempts to halt the Russians from establishing themselves in the territory, and for that matter, any other ethnic groups, their efforts came to a complete halt in 1846 with the Bear Flag Revolt and the subsequent claiming of California for the United States on July 9th of that year. With the independence from Mexico came freedom of religion and the influx of people from many nations.
Within a decade, a modest Orthodox community consisting of Greeks, Russians, Serbs and Syrians was established in San Francisco. Many came during the first years of the Gold Rush. In 1857, they established the Greek-Russian Slavonian Eastern Church and Benevolent Society to serve the needs of Orthodox followers. However, the community had not yet been recognized by the church and was not assigned a priest. The spiritual needs of the devout were attended to by chaplains on board Russian navy ships docked in San Francisco while on land the Orthodox community supported each other, gathering to celebrate church feasts and saint days.
Fr. Sebastian Dabovich would recall in later writings – “the Russian ships weighed their anchors. And there were no more priests here. It would seem that, left without a church or a priest, the Orthodox community should have disappeared from the face of the earth, especially in the rush for gold, for wealth. Through the mercy of God, however, this did not happen. The Orthodox – Serves, Greeks, and Russians – lived at that time in concord, and supported each other in a brotherly manner. On all major feasts they gathered together with those who had families and sang religious and folk songs.”
It would be another decade, after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, before the San Francisco Orthodox community would be assigned a priest. In 1868, Fr. Nikolai Kovrygin and his assistant, Reader Vasily Shishkin, were sent from Sitka, Alaska to San Francisco to celebrate Holy Week. They arrived near the end of March. Fr. Nickolai delivered the Divine Liturgy for Pascha (Passover) in four languages – English, Greek, Russian, and Slavonic. The gathering was held in the modest home of Peter Sekulovich on Mission Street, which was known as the ‘Prayer House of the orthodox Oriental Church’.
It was the first Liturgy celebrated on land in San Francisco. The following day he delivered another Liturgy to the Greek population of the city and then traveled to Sacramento to perform another Liturgy for Pascha. Kovrygin’s stay in San Francisco was short. He delivered is last liturgy on May 19, 1868 and then returned to Alaska. He would again return to San Francisco where he became the first permanent Orthodox priest in the city until his return to Russian in 1879. This was the beginning of a permanent Orthodox church in San Francisco.
In 1872, Bishop John Mitropolsky of the Aleutians moved the Orthodox see from Alaska to San Francisco. Upon his rising to the rank of archimandrite and consecration as a bishop in 1868, Mitropolsky felt the necessity of bringing the church to the continental United States which was most probably motivated by the fact that many Russians had departed Alaska and the Aleutians, many of which settled in California.
Historian Fr. Thomas E. Fitzgerald in his book The Orthodox Church suggests that this move signaled canonical irregularities which afflicted the Orthodox Church in America for nearly three decades. Upon his arrival in San Francisco he began the construction of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Pierce Street. Mitropolsky would remain in San Francisco but five years. In April 1877 he was sent to the Holy Synod in Moscow where he served on the staff for just over twelve years after which he was appointed Bishop of Aksaisk. He retired serving as a Bishop in 1910 and then served as the director of the Protection Monastery in Astrakhan until shortly before his death in 1914.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the seed he planted for the Orthodox Church continued to grow. Prior to the construction of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Orthodox church parishioners worshipped at various locations in San Francisco. One of which included a chapel owned by the German Lutheran Church that was used after the Pierce Street location. While the church’s home bounced around, gentry-born Baron Nikolai Pavlovich Zass, who was elevated to Bishop Nestor Zass of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in December 1878, took his place as the See in San Francisco upon the departure of Bishop Mitropolsky.
In 1881, the church found a home on Powell Street which they used until the 1889 when it was nearly destroyed in what was suspected to be an arson fire. Building around what was left of the structure, the renovation resulted in a building that was much larger and contained many traditional Russian architectural elements. This location served as the home of the church until 1906 when it was destroyed in the earthquake that devastated the city.
The assignment of Bishop Zass to the Orthodox church in America included protecting their interests in Alaska since it was then held by the United States. He spent much of his time traveling to the north to visit communities and assess their condition and that of the church. Just one year after the new cathedral was completed in San Francisco, Bishop Zass lost his life on one such trip. On June 30, 1882, he was on board the Western Fur Company ship, the St. Paul, when he fell overboard and drowned in the Bering Sea. Once again, the Orthodox Church in America was without a bishop until 1887 when Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky-Avtonomov took over the position.
Bishop Vladimir is recognized as a man of culture, known for being gifted in music and linguistics. He put these talents to work, creating melodious compositions to compliment liturgical texts which were sang by the church choir. One biographer states that his talents embellished liturgical life which drew many to attend church which in turn prompted the construction of a larger cathedral. It was during Bishop Vladimir’s tenure that a young Hierodeacon Sebastian Dabovich returned to his hometown of San Francisco to serve as a deacon under the bishop.
Fr. Sebastian greatly admired the bishop for preaching in English even though his skills with the language were limited. Likewise, the bishop appreciated Sebastian’s intellect and his command of English, having been born in San Francisco, and called upon the young man to deliver sermons in English at the San Francisco cathedral. Dabovich’s return home would be the beginning of a devout life dedicated to Orthodox Church in California and serving the needs of the Serbian community.
When Fr. Sebastian began his church work in San Francisco, the city had a substantial Serbian population. It was one of the first locations of Serbian immigration to North America. Most of the early Serbian settlers in California arrived from the Bay of Kotor in what is now Montenegro. They were followed by others from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Hercegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia. Many were drawn to the west coast during the California Gold Rush, settling in mining towns where they would establish strong bonds centered around their Serbian heritage. It would be the needs of a Serbian community in Chicago that would eventually lead Fr. Sebastian to establish a Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson.
To be continued…