The Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, formerly known as Trinity Chapel, (Trinity church on Downtown, Wall Street) was purchased from the Episcopal Diocese in New York in 1943 and consecrated in 1944. Trinity Chapel, built to serve the “uptown” Episcopal community and designed in 1850 by celebrated architect Richard M. Upjohn in the Gothic Revival style, was consecrated by Trinity Church (Wall Street) in 1855.
Trinity Chapel was an active Episcopal Church community for a number of decades until 1915, when the area became commercial and parishioners began to relocate farther north. In 1942, the Trinity Corporation opted to sell Trinity Chapel, the Parish Hall, designed by J. Wrey Mould as Trinity Chapel School, and adjoining rectory. It should be noted that an extraordinary event took place at Trinity Chapel in 1865, when for the very first time an Orthodox liturgy was held in an Episcopal church in America – an event the New York Times referred to as an “un-usual historic happening,” the “Inauguration of the Russian-Greek Church in America.” Celebrated American writer Edith Wharton (Jones) married socialite Edward Wharton in 1885 in Trinity Chapel; she was later to immortalize the church in her famous novel of Victorian New York, The Age of Innocence.
The genesis for the first Serbian Orthodox Church in metropolitan New York originated in 1937 and was officially registered in 1940 as “The Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Sava, New York.” A small and humble Serbian community, with Fr. Vojislav Gacinovic, held its first liturgy in the offices of “The Serb Benevolent Society” (founded in 1896), in Hartley House on 46th Street. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a fire-damaged building on 22nd Street, with plans to build a church.
With the arrival in early January, 1942 of Rev. Fr. Dusan Shukletovic, the Serbian community actively began the organization of their social and religious life in New York City. Episcopal Bishop William Manning of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 116th Street, offered the Serbian people space in the Cathedral, rather than their having to repair the fire-damaged building, where services were held until the purchase of Trinity Chapel.
Trinity Chapel was offered to the Serbs as well as to the Russian and Greek Orthodox communities. It was decided to sell the property to the Serbs for several reasons: 1) the Serbian people had no church on the east coast of America; 2) the project had the support of Yugoslav King Peter II; 3) the long-standing relationship of St. Bishop Nikolai with the Anglican Church in England and his particularly close connections with Bishop Manning and Canon Edward West.
The entire church complex with furnishings was purchased in 1942 for $30,000. The Deed, signed on March 15, 1943, did not include a park on the southwest side of the church (present-day parking lot), speculated to have been sold at a later date. The church has a very clear contract and maps signed by Trinity Church and the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of America and Canada. The Diocese was formulated in December 1942 with its Headquarters on 116th Street in Manhattan.
Following the official completion of the purchase of the church on June 11, 1944, Serbian Bishop Dionisije, with Greek Bishop Polizoides and Russian Bishop Makarije and a number of clergy, formally consecrated the church. Joining in the festivities were representatives from various churches, notably the Episcopals, great friends of the Serbs: Bishop Manning, Canon West, Fr.. Frederick Fleming, the last priest to serve in Trinity Chapel, in addition to Yugoslav Ambassador in Exile, Constantin Fotic.
With the consecration of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in New York, there was now a Serbian Orthodox Mission Center, which as a magnet attracts not only Serbs in America, but those from around the world.
Beside its religious mission, the Cathedral also organizes various cultural, educational and social events. The Cathedral works tirelessly to preserve Serbian culture, tradition and language. The Circle of Serbian Sisters, St. Petka, was formed, in addition to a very active Church Choir, a “Youth” organization, and various sports clubs. Church membership reached 700.
Following the end of World War II, the Cathedral reached out to huge waves of refugees and immigrants from Yugoslavia. It was the only place where Serbs could meet, where they could preserve their faith and national identity, simultaneously a place to learn English and enter into their new, alien society and culture. As then, so today the Cathedral relentlessly continues its holy, patriotic and human mission.
The Cathedral was led by eminent clergy. In addition to Very Rev. Shoukletovich were Very Rev. Dusan Klipa, future Bishop Fr. Firmilijan Ocokoljic, and others. The most prominent was St. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, who spent approximately seven years in New York City, serving God and His people and teaching at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Toward the end of his life he resided at St. Tihon Monastery, where he died on March 18, 1956. His Majesty King Peter II and the entire Karadjordjevic royal family frequently attended services at St. Sava Cathedral.
In addition to the Cathedral’s spiritual and humanitarian mission, much work has been done to the building’s structure. In 1962, the Byzantine, hand-carved Iconostasis, brought from the Monastery of St. Naum in Ohrid, Yugoslavia, was placed in the Cathedral and blessed. The Icons on the Iconostasis were written by Russian iconographer, Ivan Meljinkov. In the same year the floors in the Parish Hall were reinforced. Later in the 1960’s, a powerful explosion from across 26th Street destroyed the original stained glass altar windows, which were subsequently replaced with stained glass windows in a Byzantine style motif.
The Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava was declared a national landmark building by the National Register of Historic Places, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On April 18, 1968, the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission stated that the Cathedral’s “striking appearance commands special attention,” and that “its special character, historic significance, and aesthetic interest and value of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York make it irreplaceable”.
His Holiness Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle visited St. Sava Cathedral in October 1992. This was the first time the New York Church community was visited by a Patriarch.
During its long and colorful history the Cathedral of St. Sava has witnessed some very beautiful and also very difficult times. However, with God’s help, the work and prayers of St. Sava and the Serbian Orthodox Saints, we know and have seen that all problems can be overcome.
By Very Rev. Fr. Djokan contributor