St. Sava Cathedral (New York, New York)

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St. Sava Cathedral in New York City (Serbian: Саборна црква Светог Саве у Њујорку/Saborna Crkva Svetog Save u Njujorku) is a Cathedral parish of the Diocese of Eastern America of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America. The parish began to organize in the late 1930s, and was officially recognized as a parish in 1940. In 1943, the parish purchased the historic Holy Trinity Chapel, a sattelite parish of New York's Holy Trinity (Episcopal) Church, from the Episcopalian Church, becoming the first Serbian Orthodox Church on the East Coast of the United States. St. Sava Cathedral remains the only Serbian Orthodox Church in New York City. The Holy Trinity Chapel building, built in 1855, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In January 1865, it became the first location of the service of a (documented) Orthodox Divine Liturgy in New York City and the first in an Episcopal Church building, which was a notable enough occasion as to garner press from around the world. On May 1, 2016, after the celebration of all Pascha services, a fire broke out in the building, completely destroying the church.


Although a Serbian Benevolent Society existed in New York City as early as 1896. It was in the offices of this Benevolent Society that the first Serbian Orthodox services were held. In 1940, an official Serbian Orthodox parish was organized, and they bought a piece of land with a fire-damaged building on it with the aim to repair the building and transform it into a church. Owing to ongoing good relations between the New York City Orthodox and Episcopalian Churches in New York city, the Episcopalian Bishop, William Manning, allowed the Serbian parish to use space in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 116th Street.

In 1942, the Episcopal Church decided to sell a church by the name of Holy Trinity Chapel, whose members had primarily moved north, due to the increasing commercialization of the area. The Episcopal Church offered Holy Trinity Chapel for sale to Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Serbian Orthodox congregations. Although it seems that all three had interest in the property, this church building was sold to the Serbian Orthodox congregation due, in large part, to the following factors: The Serbians had no church of their own in New York City; the project had the support of King Paul II of Yugoslavia; and the future St. Nikolai (Velimirovic) was on very good terms with the Anglican Church in England as well as very close connections to Bishop Manning and Canon Edward West. Coincidentally enough, Holy Trinity Chapel is the site of the first known Divine Liturgy to have taken place in New York City as well as the first one known to have taken place in an Episcopalian Church. The celebrant was a priest by the name of Agapius Honcharenko, who served these Liturgies on January 6 (Old Calendar Christmas) and March 2, 1865.

The completion of the sale of the church occurred in 1944, and on June 11 of that year, St. Sava was consecrated. As the church grew, various groups were formed for the spiritual, cultural, and educational needs of the parishioners. After the conclusion of World War II, many new Serbian immigrants came to the United States and New York City, and St. Sava became a major point for them to connect with their spiritual and cultural heritage.

In the 1960s, many changes to the building were made in order to make the space more in line with an Orthodox Church. An iconostasis from the Monastery of St. Naum in Ohrid, Yugoslavia was installed and blessed in 1962. The parish hall floors were reinforced. After a nearby explosion, the stained glass altar windows shattered to bits, and new ones, in a more Byzantine style, were installed.

Among the clergy who were involved with the life of St. Sava Cathedral were Very Rev. Shoukletovich, Very Rev. Dusan Klipa, future Bishop Firmilijan (Ocokoljic), and Fr. Nikolai Velimirović.

Maintaining a church building of such age is no easy task, and the parish of St. Sava was constantly faced with trying to keep up with the building's needs. In 1991, building conservator William Stivale prepared a master plan for the grouping which identified critical structural needs and presented a phased work program totaling almost $6,000,000 at that time. Over the past two decades, the Church has raised millions of dollars in grants and donations from its congregants and has borrowed a total of $725,000 in loans from the Historic Properties Fund to implement this plan. In 2014, the Cathedral was sued by a firm called Madison Equities after their purchase of the Cathedral's air rights fell through. A judge threw out the suit in January of 2016, but Madison Equities is appealing the ruling.

Relationship with the Episcopal Church

The relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Orthodox Church has always been strong in this particular place. Not only was Holy Trinity Chapel the site of the first Orthodox Liturgy in New York - and the first known to have been performed in an Episcopal Church - but when Holy Trinity Chapel came up for sale in 1942, it was Orthodox congregations who were given preference for this sale. Furthermore, in the years before the Serbian Orthodox group had their own church, the Serbian congregation was allowed use of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine . Not only that, but when two of their notable members - Michael Pupin (1858-1935) and Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) - died, their funerals were held here, and the Episcopal Bishop Manning (mentioned above) took part in both[1][2][3]. (Busts of Pupin and Tesla were erected in front of St. Sava once the Serbian congregation moved into the former Holy Trinity Chapel.) After the 2016 fire, the first Divine Liturgy the congregation of St. Sava held was in the Episcopalian Calvary Church (located on Park Avenue) , the second in St. George Episcopal Church (connected to Calvary Church) on East 16th Street, who had also offered the congregation space for the time being, and continuing Sunday Divine Liturgies are being held at the Good Shepherd Chapel of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (while weekday services are being held at St. Eleftherios Greek Orthodox Church).

Holy Trinity Chapel Church

Holy Trinity Chapel was originally a satellite church of the famed Holy Trinity (Episcopal) Church. Built at 20 West 26th Street in New York City, alternately described as being in the Flatiron District or in Chelsea, the building was designed by the well-known architect Richard Upjohn in a Gothic Revival style. Upjohn had also designed Holy Trinity Church, and his commission here was due, in part, to provide some continuity between the two structures. The church's design would change during construction, causing cost overruns. The original budget was $40,000 - the final cost ended up being about $230,000. (St. Sava purchased the church furnishings, and property for $30,000 in 1944). Among Upjohn's other contributions that made this building unique were the (remaining) stained glass windows, including the rosette window, intricately designed and carved wooden fretwork, and a beautiful inlaid tile floor.

Edith Wharton, the author, was married here and immortalized the church and her time in her book "The Age of Innocence".

The parish house, also with the property, is the only remaining building in New York of architect Jacob Wrey Mould.

Holy Trinity Church had looked into selling Holy Trinity Chapel as early as 1915 along with other satellite chapels of theirs, but the parish, along with their new priest, resisted these efforts and struggled on for nearly another 30 years. In 1940, a series of fourteen murals created by artist Rachel M. Richardson were dedicated. She had spent ten years creating the set; the church was put up for sale a scant two years later.

Despite alterations to the original building, St. Sava was placed on the list of New York Landmarks in 1968 and on National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

2016 Fire

On Pascha Sunday, May 1, 2016, a fire was seen burning in St. Sava Cathedral. The blaze quickly grew to a 4-alarm fire, and over 170 firefighters were dispatched to the scene to battle it. Initial reports from May 2 indicated that the exterior walls may still be structurally stable, but the interior and roof were completely gutted. Because the cause of the fire was not immediately clear, the Fire Department of New York initially treated this fire as 'suspicious', although this does not necessarily mean that they suspected arson. Subsequently, FDNY has stated that they suspect a box containing partially-burned candles may have ignited if they were not all extinguished completely. (Because of the sheer number of candles in most Orthodox Churches, candles are very often looked to as the cause of fires. While this is sometimes the case, in others, such as the fire at St. Nikola Church in Cudahy, Wisconsin candles were initially thought to have ignited it, but it turned out to have been an electrical fire.) The last people to leave St. Sava Cathedral are said to have left about 3pm; the fire was reported at 6:50pm; for their own safety firefighters were only able to go to the interior for a few minutes, seeing that the choir platform was already engulfed in flame. This led investigators to conclude that the fire had been burning, unnoticed, for some time despite the fact that a flea market had taken place next door in the hours between 3pm and when FDNY were called and there had been no reports of smoke or fire while that event was taking place.

As of the morning of May 2, 2016, even as the fire department was still pouring water on the remains of St. Sava Cathedral, New York City Councilmember Corey Johnson reported that he already knew of expressed interest by a developer to use the land (and that of the remains of the adjacent Chelsea Flea Market) to build an 850-foot tower.

The Cathedral has requested via their Facebook page that any one wishing to make an online donation do so via PayPal on their official church website and that any other online campaigns for funds sprouting up are frauds. A "GoFundMe" campaign was added later in the week.

On May 9, 2016, the New York Post reported that the Fire Department of New York had served a subpoena to Twitter to a user who seemed to be rejoicing in the destruction of the Cathedral - roughly an hour before the fire department was called. Google also deemed the cathedral "permanently closed" approximately an hour after the fire department arrived on the scene, causing people who were using Google to find the website of St. Sava Cathedral to receive the message that their website may have been hacked.

Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church confirmed that he was receiving information from the Serbian Embassy in New York as to information about the fire. The Serbian Embassy in Washington has requested through the United States State Department that all findings of the Fire Department of New York be available for review by the consulate. Patriarch Irinej has also stated that he would like the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to take over the investigation of the fire, since, despite the speculation about candles, no FDNY investigator had come to inspect the site of the blaze in the first eight days. According to reports, the first site investigators may not arrive until at least two weeks after the fire. An update posted to the St. Sava Cathedral webpage dated May 24 indicated that at that time, the onsite investigation was underway[4]. A later bulletin from the Cathedral indicates that the investigation was completed on June 8, and that the report will be released in the weeks to come[5]. However, the New York Post reported on June 3 that the NYFD spokesperson Frank Gribbon announced that unextinguished candles were the definitive cause of the fire[6].

An icon of St. Sava, located in the priest's office, was one of the very few items in the building not to be damaged or destroyed by fire, smoke, or water.

Outgoing Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic toured the St. Sava site in mid-May, and indicated that not only will the Serbian government help St. Sava rebuild, but that Serbia would be asking New York City through diplomatic channels for help as well[7]

In the update provided by the Cathedral on its website on June 12, 2016[5], it was stated that since it was previously ascertained via engineering reports that the remaining walls of the church structure are not structurally stable in inclement weather or in wind exceeding 25mph[8], the New York Department of Buildings has reached the decision that the remainder of what stands of St. Sava Cathedral must come down, either by dismantling or demolishing the building.

St. Sava Cathedral was not the only Orthodox Church to burn on Pascha 2016. In Australia, the Church of the Resurrection - a parish of the Macedonian Orthodox Diocese of Australia and New Zealand - in the Rockdale area of Sydney, New South Wales was destroyed, and in Melbourne, Victoria, the Greek Orthodox Holy Church of the Annunciation of our Lady sustained heavy fire damage. Furthermore, a massive fire broke out in a hotel next to the main chapel at the Valaam Monastery in northern Russia. All of the buildings involved are historic structures.



For Further Reading