St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Manhattan

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas, at 15 East 97th Street, was built in 1902 and soon became an American battleground for conflicts between czarist and Soviet Russians. Now, a decade after the fall of communism and the end of the officially atheistic Soviet state, a new bishop, fresh from Moscow, is planning renovations and modernization.

The Church of St. Nicholas was established in the early 1890´s in rented rooms on lower second avenue to serve an increasing number of russian immigrants. By 1899 it had had 300 members, and a movement began to build a new church. The congregation chose an inexpensive uptown location at 97th street off fifth avenue, in an area that was beginning to emerge as a neighborhood of modest flats.

Czar Nicholas II made the first donation to the building fund, 5,000 rubles, then about $2,500. in may 1901, when the cornerstone was laid, it bore a silver plaque praising him. "long live the Emperor of Russia and the President of the United States," proclaimed the rev. Alexander Hotovitsky, the minister.

The building was designed according to the characteristic russian model, with seven domes above a dark red brick facade trimmed with limestone and glazed tile in green, blue and yellow. The curving ribs of the domes were of gilt bronze, contrasting with the green painted galvanized iron surface. The building was designed by John Bergesen, who was often referred to as being of russian birth. but on census returns he listed his birthplace sometimes as Finland and other times as Sweden.

In 1904, the crowd outside the church was so huge when bishop Tikhon dedicated a new iconostasis, or altar screen, that the police had to hold them back. At that time a New York Times reporter marveled at the exotic, incense-laden atmosphere: "the air was heavy with perfume, and the multitude of sacred candles shedding a dim light throughout the church ombined with the solemn chant of choristers and the psalm singers to produce a quaint splendor seldom surpassed in this city." But Montgomery Schuyler, the critic for the architectural record, was not similarly moved, calling the church building "ugly and freakish."

The next year the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church moved from San Francisco to New York, and St. Nicholas became the Cathedral of the American Church. That same year, amid rising civil strife. Grand Duke Sergius was assassinated by a bomb in Moscow, rumors of a bombing plot against the cathedral were circulating, and the Czar granted some powers to the duma, a new legislative body.

Czar Nicholas abdicated in 1917 and was murdered the next year. After the communists came to power they began remaking the russian church to fit the goals of an atheist state. Priests and bishops were persecuted and fled Russia, replaced by clerics who were willing to accommodate themselves to the party line. Early in 1920 bolshevik sympathizers disrupted a communion service at St. Nicholas, but were thrown out by the faithful.

In 1923 the rev. John. F. Kedrovsky was sent by Moscow to take over the Cathedral of St. Nicholas - and the $3 million in property controlled by the Russian Orthodox Church. Newspaper accounts indicate that the congregation was generally anti-communist. Father Kedrovsky was carried out of the building and down the steps onto 97th street, kicking and screaming. He later took his case to court.

The police helped the communists enter the rectory in July 1925 and take over St. Nicholas, but it was reoccupied by the anti-communists in August, and pictures of the late Czar were still being sold in the church in December of that year. The police came back in April 1926 when the new nork state appellate court ruled in favor of the communists, and father Kedrovsky was installed again - although he had to send to hartford for robes, because those in the church had been removed by the losing faction.

In the following decades St. Nicholas had an uneasy time as the official church of an officially atheistic country that was to many americans the enemy of the United States.
In the 1920´s, a non-Communist church, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, was set up; it now has headquarters in the old George F. Baker mansion at 75 East 93rd Street.

Last April, Aleksy II, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow, sent Bishop Mercurius to take over St. Nicholas. "He asked me if I had ever been to America," Bishop Mercurius said through an interpreter. " And I said, " No," and he said, "OK., go."

The bishop is working on a restoration for the cathedral´s centennial; with the architect Stephen Papadatos he is planning decorative work on the interior, a facade cleaning, gilding of the domes and a two-story setback addition to the rectory, to the left of the cathedral. The building was designated a landmark in 1973, and Landmarks Preservation Commission approval is required for any exterior work, Mr. Papadatos said.

based on the Official website
Contact info:
15 East 97th Street,
New York, New York 10029
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