Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection: News and Announcements
2nd Street Cathedral
59 East Second Street
(Between First & Second Avenue)
New York, NY 10003
212-677-4664 info@nycathedral.org

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October 1, 2014

On the Cathedral:
How'd We Get Here?

I was a student at St. Vladimir's Seminary in 1979, when I made my first visit to the Cathedral on 2nd Street. The neighborhood of the East Village, once called "Little Odessa" because of the large number of Slavic immigrants who settled here at the beginning of the 20th century, was then best described as a jungle, its streets filled with the poor, homeless, mentally ill, addicts and alcoholics, many of its deserted buildings were communes of artists and fringe musicians, and dens for drug peddlers and users.

In the city on a Saturday, I and another student decided to attend Vigil at the Cathedral. It was a clear, cool autumn day, but the vestibule was dark, smelling of years of dirt, with cracking blueish grey walls. Besides us, were only two other people in the church. An elderly man, very tall, sitting in the back of a side chapel with a chair in front of him and a large notebook open on it, and a petite and aristocratic-looking woman standing next to an electrical box. The church was dark. The floors, dusty. Old metal buckets were stacked along the back wall (for rain?) inside the church. Green metal folding chairs were leaning precariously against the dark brown and chipping wall.

The curtain was drawn back, and the Holy Doors were opened. The aristocratic looking woman loudly clicked on two switches illuminating a large chandelier, its crystals covered in decades of city grime. It crackled with the sound of electrical shorts, and there were numerous bulbs which had burnt out. The tall man remained seated intently looking at the open book on the chair in front of him.

The hieromonk, an octogenarian, fumbled to retrieve the censer and began chanting with a weak, barely audible voice: "Slava svatiy, yedinoschusny, zivotvoraschy, i nerazdenie troytse" (Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-giving and undivided Trinity...). The still seated, tall man responded in a guttural growl, of a gravelly, basso-profundo voice that startled me, "AH-MIN." The celebrant began to make an incensation of the temple and it's icons, as the basso-profundo continued to growl, singing only the bass notes of Psalm 104. "How very strange," I thought. At the back of the temple, the elderly hieromonk, looking disoriented and lost, had stopped censing. In a second the aristocratic looking woman approached him, gently put her hand on his arm and gave him a slight push forward, and he resumed censing the church, having recovered himself for the moment.

Surely we thought more people would arrive late, as so many Orthodox people do for divine services, but no. By Svete Tichi (Gladsome light) it was still just the four of us. We left the church after vespers. It was a forlorn, deserted and forgotten place. What was once the headquarters of the American Metropolia, the Pro-Cathedral for the Church in America, consecrated by bishops of the Metropolia and the Church Abroad during a brief thaw in relations, the site of numerous All-American Church Councils, the place were from the 1940's until the mid-1970's all episcopal consecrations, and nearly all priestly ordinations took place, was abandoned. "What happened?" we asked each other. "What a shame." We returned to the Seminary without giving it much more thought.

My next visit was 1981, when the seminary choir and students were asked to participate in the funeral of the Primate of the Church, Metropolitan Ireney (Bekish). If not for the students and clergy, the church would have been woefully empty. I served as subdeacon, holding a liturgical fan over the head of the departed Metropolitan as he lay in state during the Funeral Service. Afterward, while unvesting the bishops in the altar, one of the priests spoke disparagingly about the Cathedral, and to my utter amazement, was giving away various items to the visiting clergy and seminarians: small icons, a cross, an incomplete set of vestments, saying, "we don't need this here anymore, this place is going to be closed and sold soon." I was utterly bewildered by this.

Years later I would find an old issue of "The Orthodox Church", the official organ of the Church in America, with an excerpt from a 1970 meeting of the Metropolitan Council concerning the Cathedral that read: "regarding the Cathedral building on 2nd Street: it was decided by the Council not to make any capital improvements to the building, and only keep it at a minimum level of functionality, the idea being not to put any more money into an old building." The results of that decision were painfully obvious and deeply disturbing. The building showed signs of neglect and poor management.

A year after that funeral, a decision was made to move the Primatial See from New York to Washington DC where a new Church had recently been built in a upscale neighborhood. Title to "2nd Street" was signed over to its dwindling congregation for $1, until it could be sold and the parish disbanded. This seemed like another death.

In 1986, no longer at the seminary, I was trying to make my way in New York. A friend invited me accompany him to 2nd Street for a Saturday night Vespers. "What," I said, "that old dump? I thought that they closed it and sold it." "No," he said. "No one wants to buy it." I reluctantly agreed to accompany him. Things looked even worse than before, doors to some rooms were now chain-locked, however, the service was in English and there were about 6 or 7 people present.

After the service, as I was nosing around this huge, old building, a priest approached me and told me of the plans to close the cathedral and sell the building.
"Typical lack of vision," I muttered.
"Oh," he said, "do you see any alternatives for us?"
"There's plenty that could be done, but it doesn't matter since there seems to be no desire here for change, and no vision for the future. Sell it already, before it falls down from neglect. Let someone else buy this building who will value it for its potential... Uhm, what is behind these doors anyway?"
"Why do you want to know?" he asked, a bit peeved from my comments.
"Just curious." I said. "I like old buildings and architecture."
"OK," he said. "Come next week and I'll show you what's behind these doors."

The following Saturday they drafted me to sing in the choir. After Vespers the priest approached me holding a huge chain cutter, smiling widely and said, "I'll make you a deal. I'll open all the chained doors and rooms so you can see what's inside, but only if you promise to help us repair and paint just one room to make it usable again."

Caught up in the moment, I half-hardheartedly agreed. With a snap and a clack the rusted chain and lock fell to the floor further breaking the already cracked vinyl tiles. As he pulled open the double doors, dust and paint chips fell on us, and to my horror I saw a huge room with large leaded windows, some broken, many missing pieces. Most of the ceiling plaster had fallen out in large chunks which were piled on the floor. Battleship grey paint was pealing from it's walls. A rodent scurried across the floor and hid in the debris. I stood in shock at the site. "Now, you promised," he said.

...

That was 1986. I was 25, working in publishing. Now I'm over 50. I have been Dean of the Cathedral for nearly 20 years. Now when I look out inside the warm, homey church on a typical Sunday morning, I see a large and dynamic community: old time members still, but also new immigrants from Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Romania, converts from other faiths, and many children. The church building has been renovated from top to bottom, beautified and lovingly adorned with a new iconostas, and new icons next to those that were carried out from our original church on East 97th Street when in 1926, that building was lost in a lawsuit to the Bolshevik-sponsored and controlled "Living Church" (but that's a whole other story!). We are proof that God does not abandon those who put their trust in Him. That in the face of death and despair, we find new life.

The Cathedral is also home to the first English language chapel in America, founded by one of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the 20th century, Archpriest Georges Florovsky, and dedicated to Missionary Sts. Innocent of Irkutsk and Innocent of Alaska. It was the small membership of that English chapel that raised the meager funds that kept the Cathedral doors open when no one else cared. We lovingly preserve and have renovated that chapel, and continue use it for weekday services. In addition to birthing other parish communities, it also served as the first parish for Georgian immigrants here in the 1990s.

If you visit us for a Sunday Liturgy you can expect to hear predominantly English, but also some Slavonic, Georgian, Romanian and Greek are used in the divine services. We have good relations with other Orthodox churches, but also with local religious leaders of all faiths: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu, and we support each other, and hold joint events for the good of the local community.

A sense of openness to new realities saved the 2nd Street Cathedral, and it in turn is here saving others, including me, from the non-existent existence of a self-serving routine of desperate striving for illusive happiness, bereft of the Kingdom of God. We embrace all who pass through the doors with God's compassion and love, and thereby throw open the doors to heavenly realms on earth. It was only in dying to our old self, over and over, that God saved us from extinction. He showed us that our life is found only in embracing our death. Now we have been given new life in His, and in our, resurrection.

Archimandrite Christopher (Calin)
Cathedral Dean

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