Eastern Orthodox churches facing a new schism
Published Wed, Jan 06, 2010 08:15 AM
Modified Wed, Jan 06, 2010 08:16 AM
Eastern Orthodox churches facing a new schism
PHILADELPHIA In the resurgent Philadelphia neighborhood of Northern
Liberties, among the smoked glass condos, hipper-than-thou restaurants,
swank salons, and teeming cafes and bohemian tea shops, Old World holiness
still flickers to life on Sunday mornings.
Hardly anyone notices.
The ages-old glow of Christendom's most elaborate, enigmatic liturgy no
longer is a guiding light for the community. But inside St. Andrew's Russian
Orthodox Cathedral, beneath four blue onion domes, the sanctuary is as
luminous as the day it opened in 1902, if not nearly as brimful of youth and
The Rev. Mark Shinn, bearded and gold-caped, appears through the "royal
door" before the altar, an ornate chalice in each hand. Murmuring a prayer,
he raises the goblets toward the worshipers, who bow and make the sign of
the cross under the wide-eyed gaze of saintly icons. In a gesture of
humility, some sweep their fingertips across the oak floor. A few prostrate
themselves to kiss it.
They do not retake their seats. There aren't any. The congregants stand for
a candlelit service lasting at least two hours and celebrated almost wholly
in Old Church Slavonic, an archaic Eastern European tongue.
On a typical Sunday, about 80 people attend. For that, the archpriest is
"We keep no rolls and collect no dues," Shinn said. "If you come, you're a
If you come.
Therein lies the challenge for the five historic Eastern Orthodox churches
in Northern Liberties, some hanging on for dear life on this
one-third-square-mile patch north of Old City. Their very reason for
existence - the Eastern European immigrant wave of the early 20th century -
has come and gone from a neighborhood transformed into Philadelphia's
trendiest avant-garde niche, population about 5,000 and climbing.
"I don't see much interest in religion in these people," said the Rev.
Vincent Saverino of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church, which marked
its 100th anniversary last month.
Attendance may swell to nearly 300 on holy days - including the Orthodox
Christmas on Thursday - but on routine Sundays it is about 60. As in the
other Orthodox churches, not one member is from the neighborhood.
"They come from all over, just not here," Saverino said, twirling a finger
to indicate Northern Liberties.
Stop newcomers on busy streets and chances are they will say they aren't
religious so much as spiritual. The faith described is free-form, unfettered
"It just manifests itself in different ways than attending church," said
Chris Clark, 33, who works in public relations for a pharmaceutical giant.
"I try to be a good person. I try to treat others as I'd like to be
Youth's increasing disconnection from organized religion has been
well-documented among the urban educated nationwide. But the pastors of
Northern Liberties have their own telling numbers.
The area also is home to a handful of Catholic churches that, like the
Orthodox, took root in Old World ethnicities. The massive gold dome of the
1,810-seat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a
beacon on the city skyline - to about 40 people on a typical Sunday.
"We are barely surviving," lamented Msgr. Peter Waslo.
St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church is an anomaly, for it holds the body
of St. John Neumann. Its six Sunday Masses pull more than 1,000 from all
over the region, but the Rev. Bob Harrison said the church wasn't having a
magnetic effect on Northern Liberties, where it was founded in 1842 for
Bohemians (now Czechs).
Harrison and fellow clergy sometimes lunch at the voguish complex Piazza at
Schmidt's. They dress in priestly blacks "so we can be a visible presence,
so people know we're walking-distance away," he said, and joked, "We'd
probably do better if we had a doggy day care."
The renaissance has inspired a few micro-efforts to reach souls. A start-up
evangelical congregation, Restoration and Redemption Ministries, moved into
a rowhouse. And Chabad-Lubavitch, an international Hasidic Jewish movement,
began renting space four years ago in the old Ortlieb's bottling plant.
The Jewish Center's Shabbat services there draw 25 people from Northern
Liberties and vicinity - once home to a dozen small synagogues and now just
"Nowadays, people like to be different from their parents, (who) wanted to
be members and belong to things," said the center's Rabbi Gedaliah
Lowenstein. "Young people want to plug in and plug out."
Not that they lack a higher calling, observed Anne Waginger, a volunteer at
the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.
They are zealots for the environment, she noted. "Green Northern Liberties -
that's the current religion."
Indeed, most neighbors "would rather go to a meeting about how to make the
park better" than attend church, allowed Jennifer Slater, 25, who works for
a jewelry designer.
She was passing by Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Church on a Sunday
morning. Had Slater slipped inside, she would have heard the Rev. Nicolai
Buga explain to three dozen worshipers, in Romanian, how the bread and wine
are prepared for consecration. Liberty Lands park was not on the agenda.
Two years ago, St. Michael's got a new next-door neighbor, the Random Tea
Room. Over the tea bar hangs a picture of Indian deities, including Ganesh
and Krishna, though the proprietress is not Hindu.
"Not that I don't believe in God," said Rebecca Goldschmidt, 30, who was
raised in a Jewish-Methodist household. But "church is kind of out of
fashion in its structure. People in our generation tend to make our own
paths rather than follow someone else's."
A Russian commission
More than a century ago, the young residents of Northern Liberties also were
making their own path, out of Eastern Europe to the "colonia," bounded west
and east by Seventh Street and the Delaware River, south and north by Spring
Garden Street and Girard Avenue.
In no time, Northern Liberties became "Slavic Europe in microcosm," as
Shinn, of St. Andrew's, describes it.
Orthodoxy, which holds to be the most authentic Christian tradition and
Roman Catholicism its offshoot, established a bailiwick after the Russian
government commissioned two ships, the Retvizan and the Varyag, from the
William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Kensington.
In 1897, 1,200 naval officers and crew were dispatched to Philadelphia to
oversee construction. They invited the local Russian Orthodox community,
heretofore without a priest, to join them May 9 for the city's first divine
(The celebrant, Father Alexander Hotovitsky, later returned to Moscow, was
ordered executed by Stalin in 1937, and ascended into the vast firmament of
Before the Russian sailors steamed down the Delaware, they gave icons,
candlesticks, and bells to their American friends, who in 1902 started St.
Andrew's at 707 N. Fifth St.
It would not be Orthodoxy's lone outpost for long.
A major point of debarkation for immigrants, the Philadelphia port took in
more than 600,000 from 1890 to 1914. Censuses gleaned only murky information
on their origins, but the bulk appeared to have been from Eastern and
Many older Jewish newcomers settled below South Street; the younger crowd
gravitated toward Northern Liberties, as did non-Jewish skilled laborers.
Those with rural roots in the Old World headed deep into Pennsylvania, to
mines and steel mills.
"Austrian" was a census catchall for a host of nationalities and
ethnicities. But the houses of faith in Northern Liberties knew their finely
In Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Albanian, Romanian, and other
dialects, they welcomed the immigrants, blessed their homes, sang their
songs, cooked their foods, found them jobs, married them, and baptized their
children - all the while making them into Americans.
Those were the days, 90-year-old Helen Karnick recalled, when her family's
rowhouse at 332 Brown St. was fragrant with cabbage and garlic sausages
On a recent morning, in a mink coat and heels, she showed the way down Brown
past $400,000-plus condos. Back when, it was a cobblestone alley, and she
was Helen Kachmarchik, one of five children of a blacksmith. Packed tightly
around them were Slovaks, Galician Poles, and, like the Kachmarchiks,
Pointing toward St. Michael's, she recalled "climbing the 1/8church3/8 fence
when I was 4 or 5 to go to the Russian school" to learn Old Slavonic.
In the early 1930s, as her father prospered in his job at Baldwin Locomotive
Works, he began moving his family away from the poor rowhouse enclave into
the more expansive neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. Everyone around
them, it seemed, was leaving, too, typically taking the beaten path of
Germans drifting north through the city since the Civil War.
By the 1960s, the migration - largely to Elkins Park and Jenkintown in lower
Montgomery County and into Northeast Philadelphia - had become a diaspora.
Synagogues, often in storefronts and homes, had little choice but to follow,
for many members were compelled to walk to services. So, along Old York
Road, seeds were planted for such present-day giants as Keneseth Israel and
The grand edifices of Orthodoxy were a knottier matter.
St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church, which had grown to 5,000 members by
World War I, broke into four congregations. One stayed; the others moved to
Marlton, Bristol, and Gradyville in Delaware County.
"There was no anger," said the Rev. John Bohush, pastor of the Northern
Liberties parish. "They felt it was time to put a church where the people
Things were not so amiable at St. Michael's, where a Cold War-era dispute
over its continued ties to the Moscow mother church led to flying fists and
police visits. In 1968, most of the flock departed for the Northeast.
By then, a majority of the Romanian parish, Descent of the Holy Ghost, had
picked up and gone - along with the priest, the parish records, the
endowment, and select icons - to Elkins Park.
Those who stayed renamed themselves Holy Trinity. They "had to start all
over," said Buga, the current pastor. "They so loved the church they did not
want to move, but it was so difficult."
Remarkably, a new gilded dome appeared in 1966 just outside North Liberties,
in the area known as East Poplar.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church - Orthodoxlike in its traditions and liturgies
- poured $6.5 million into constructing the Cathedral of the Immaculate
Conception. The Philadelphia archeparchy's council of priests had voted
against the locale, already in serious decline, and lobbied for Montgomery
County. Their archbishop overruled them, insisting the neighborhood was the
"center of Ukrainian life" for the region.
So up it went, 106 feet tall and modeled on the sixth-century Hagia Sophia
in Istanbul, a jewel of Byzantine architecture. Philadelphia's version was
the largest Ukrainian Catholic church building in use in the world - and
doomed to become over decades one of the emptiest.
By the mid-1970s, Northern Liberties was a "bruised and battered
neighborhood of run-down houses and boarded-up warehouses," a newspaper
reported. Once alive with theaters, shops, and "oyster saloons," Second
Street was so empty "you can shoot a cannon" down it, a barkeep observed.
The area was 50 percent white, 30 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic. The
typical family made $6,000 a year.
The words urban renewal were always in the air, recalled Bohush, who came to
St. Nicholas in 1976. He found himself in a near-constant, and ultimately
successful, battle to beat back city plans for a prison, a bar, a drug
program, and Section 8 subsidized housing around his stately Greek Revival
When the resurrection of Northern Liberties finally began in earnest about
the turn of this century, it brought a wave of like-minded settlers.
The churches had seen something like it before - and nothing like it.
'Engaging the neighbors'
Rick Schroder moved to Northern Liberties two years ago, drawn by its "very
cool bohemian" ambience. That includes the autumn Russian Festival at St.
Michael's, in which his interest is "more cultural than religious."
Raised Lutheran, he doesn't attend church. "It's not that I don't have a
spiritual dimension in my life," said Schroder, 49, a human-resources
manager. But "organized religion isn't doing it for me."
Still, he said, he would "love to have a conversation with the Orthodox, but
I'm not sure how to start it."
Religious leaders could "do a better job of engaging" the neighbors, he
said. "That's the missing piece, the engaging piece ... reaching out to the
community, saying what you're about, and the community reaching back."
Chabad-Lubavitch seems to have gotten a bead on the new "NoLibs." One of the
hottest nightspots is North Bowl, a bowling alley with two bars, Italian
sofas in the lounge, an arcade - and now a Jewish bowling league.
The league, Chutz Bowl, "is just as important as the religious thing for
creating community," said Lowenstein, the rabbi, adding that the Jewish
Center's bonfire marking the minor religious holiday Lag b'Omer draws 600 to
a vacant lot each May. "Not everybody likes praying."
The Orthodox churches have been far more circumspect in their concessions to
modernity, if they care to make any at all.
The Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas is leaving.
"This used to be the nucleus of the Serbian community," the Rev. Milorad
Orlic said as he awaited worshipers on the Feast of the Dormition, one of
the holiest days.
Three people went to the Wednesday-evening liturgy, celebrated mostly in Old
Slavonic. One was Orlic's wife.
The 60-member congregation has acquired a new site in Elkins Park.
Some pastors contend that hewing to tradition is the key to their future.
Holy Trinity Romanian Church, Buga assures, is "the church for the poor
immigrants" of the 21st century, who typically grew up under communism and
must be schooled in the faith.
Maintaining the landmark building, designed by William Strickland in 1815
for Episcopalians, is a "great strain," Buga said. "But we are very proud to
be home for the newcomers."
At St. Andrew's, the highlight of 2009 was the elaborate reception Dec. 13
for a newly acquired relic: a bone fragment from the skull of the apostle
Andrew, its patron saint. The sanctuary was a sea of babushkas.
The two other Russian Orthodox churches, St. Nicholas and St. Michael, tried
to widen their appeal decades ago by switching to English liturgies. "We
wouldn't have survived otherwise," said the latter's pastor, Saverino.
Both also dropped Russian from their names.
But an infusion of young ecospiritual neighbors is not necessarily what they
At St. Nicholas, membership was 1,000 when Bohush arrived 33 years ago. Now
it is 100, and the nearest congregant lives in King of Prussia. They are
generous enough to keep the church alive, he said, and he would not want
high-powered newcomers threatening "their authority, their prestige."
St. Michael's also endures, thanks largely to people like Helen Karnick.
Widowed and living in a Jenkintown retirement village, she and her sisters -
Anna, 91, and Olga, 88 - go to church nearly every Sunday. Catching a ride
from the suburbs with relatives is easy, for four generations of
Kachmarchiks are members.
She was baptized and married there, and for 77 years sang in the choir as
lead soprano. She and her husband commissioned two icons. She helped make
7,000 pierogi (served with 150 pounds of kielbasa) for St. Michael's most
recent Russian Festival. And last month, she celebrated her 90th birthday
with a big carrot cake at coffee hour.
"I would never go anywhere else," she said. "This is my life."
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