All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
On a Saturday, as the sun begins to set over McCarren Park, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration’s exotic onion domes start spilling their distinctive shadows across the patch of greenery at the corner of North 12th and Driggs Avenue. At this time, the Cathedral’s weekly Vespers service begins with the spontaneity of a music box that has just had its crank released. Within seconds, the interior of the Cathedral goes from dimly lit tranquility to enrapturing sensuality. Light starts to refract out of the cathedral’s chandelier, its crystal shell bathing the walls with a warm golden glow. The religious art includes numerous icons of Christ, all illumined, and the myriad of intricately painted pairs of eyes now seem to gaze down upon the congregation with an enigmatic stare. The air hangs heavy with a combination of angelic choral sounds and the smoky, aromatic fragrance of burning incense.
The service is so spiritually enchanting that it’s as if the Cathedral’s yellow brick walls demarcate a sacred space, untainted by this otherwise profane world. But actually the beginning of the Cathedral’s history was intertwined with a particularly dark chapter in 20th century history, according to Reverend Wiaczeslaw Krawczuk, its current rector.
That’s because the genesis of the Transfiguration parish coincided with the Russian Revolution. Those tumultuous years, caused by the international fallout of the Tsarist upheaval, nearly prevented an onion dome from ever adding its shape to the North Brooklyn skyline. It also threw the particular household of one of the Cathedral’s original rectors into a state of utter emotional disarray.
In the year 1915, the future splendor of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration remained merely a figment of the collective imagination of its earliest parishioners. At this time, Brooklyn’s Orthodox community had begun to outgrow its previous residence: a small converted United Methodist Church built in 1859 at 124 North 5th Street. As immigrants from Eastern Europe continued to stream into the United States and settle among their brethren in cultural enclaves, the religious requirements of such burgeoning communities needed to be met.
So to help the church’s growing flock flourish, the North American diocese provided the local parish with the funds to purchase a suitably sized plot of land on which to build a fitting house of worship and for $16,000 bought five contiguous empty building lots found seven blocks north of the old Methodist Church that had belonged to the estate of Zachary Taylor, an Irish-born iron foundry owner from Greenpoint, who famously provided his iron casting service to the great inventor Thomas Edison. The parish commissioned Louis Allmendiger as architect, instructing him to base his design on the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow. Considered to be a feat of Russian religious architecture, the Orthodox mother church towers over Kremlin Square – its golden cupolas adorned with Byzantine crosses were known to shine in even the dimmest light. At last, hands were shaken with the M.R. Schneider Company to construct the cathedral for the sum of $117,000.
A rousing spiritual optimism invigorated the parishioners. They looked forward to the time when their American home would include a Cathedral whose majesty matched the depth of their religious commitment.
One such hopeful was John Savva Kedrovsky, the sixth rector of the work in progress that was the Transfiguration parish. In 1916, he lived with his wife Priscilla in a small apartment located at 728 Driggs Avenue, just down the road from the Cathedral’s construction site. The Kedrovsky family had settled into a happy, if slightly inconstant, life since they had arrived in the United States 13 years prior.
In 1903, shortly after graduating from a seminary in Odessa, Ukraine, the young and newlywed Kedrovsky was assigned to put his pastoral skills to practice in the New World. He refused his first assignment, a stable seat at an Alaskan parish, arguing that his wife’s health was too poor to withstand the harsh tundra. So he began a series of stops beginning with Pittsburg (the city only received the H in its name after 1911) where he was assigned to help build the local Orthodox communities in the various towns and villages between Springfield, Pennsylvania, and Chicago. Priscilla was a good wife to John, by his side through each and every move right up to the brain hemorrhage that killed him during the Easter of 1934. (One moment John was reprimanding the Cathedral choir for the speed of its tempo, the next he had collapsed.) But around 30 years before this happened, the couple’s commitment to one another was rewarded. Priscilla bore John his “two blessings,” as he called them, a boy and a girl named Nicholas and Valentine.
About 10 years later, in 1914, when the siblings were almost adolescents, Kedrovsky decided Nicholas was to follow in his father’s ecclesiastical footsteps. Not wanting to split the pair up, both were sent to Russia – Nicholas was to attend a seminary and Valentine, a conservatory. As Kedrovsky saw them onto the ship that would transport them to Europe, knowing that the children’s aunt and uncle would be caring for them ameliorated Kedovsky’s instinctively protective pang. Priscilla’s sister Constantine, who was childless, lived with her wealthy husband in the center of Petrograd. Thus, when World War I broke out later that year and communication between parent and child was severed, Kedrovsky reminded himself that in Petrograd, far from the front lines, Nicholas and Valentine were out of harm’s way.
But across the Atlantic Ocean, a deep-rooted sense of animosity was brewing in the minds of the Russian working class. Their ruler, Tsar Nicholas Romanov II, seemed completely oblivious to the daily struggle the Russian war effort had made of their lives. To compensate the military’s heavy losses, the Tsar ordered the printing of millions of rubles to pump into the Russian economy. The result was that in 1917, a loaf of bread cost four times as much as it had a few years earlier yet the average wage of a worker had not budged. The incendiary combination made the Russian people as angry as they were hungry.
“Down with the Tsar! Down with the Tsar!” — the impassioned chant of a sea of industrial and white-collar workers, students and teachers reverberated around Petrograd on March 7, 1917. An amorphous mass of people, dotted with the flashes of red from Bolshevik banners, swamped the streets to demand that they be fed. The Tsar’s troops sent to quell the rioting failed; they too shared the everyday living conditions of the average Russian. They mutinied and joined the protesters. The tidal wave of discontent was unstoppable, forcing the Tsar to abandon his military position and address the chaos at home. But because anarchy continued to rule the capital, the Tsar realized his only option was to abdicate. The New York Times described the development as “the most sudden and greatest downfall in history.”
When Kedrovsky read the words “Extremists Rise to Power in Russia” in the Times on the morning of November 9, 1917, he became truly anxious.
The marital name of Priscilla’s sister was Romanov, a twist of fate that made her by marriage a distant relative of the exiled Tsar. The words of the Bolshevik manifesto, printed in the Times, stood out menacingly on the page:
The people of Russia were forced into the war to achieve the ambitions of Czardom. The revolution has revealed what those ambitions were. The Russian people are not in sympathy with them.
Despite desperate attempts at establishing contact, the parents’ efforts were fruitless. However story after story of Bolshevik destruction continued to reach American shores. It now seemed there was no chance that the Kedrovsky children had survived.
But Kedrovsky, exacerbating his already profound grief, had a more pressing issue. The future of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration, and hence his job, was now anything but certain. The Tsar had been the financial benefactor of Orthodox activity throughout the world so royal money was crucial to the continued existence of the Orthodox Church in America. He donated almost a million dollars a year to missionary activity and expansion, money that paid church salaries as well as funded the seminaries, orphanages and monasteries that kept Church life intact. The Tsar kept the fabric of the Church’s existence un-frayed. If the Transfiguration Cathedral was ever going to be built, the money would have to come from its parishioners. Not to mention, the Church itself had amassed a debt of $100,000 of its own.
Meanwhile, the violence of the revolutionists continued to rage throughout Petrograd, and in late 1917, it came home to Constantine Romanov and her husband. A group of Bolsheviks smashed their front door open, putting the guardians of Nicholas and Valentine to death for their association with the fallen Tsar. As the marauders ransacked the apartment, they found, to their surprise, a pair of small and cowering “Bourggeoisie.” Sparing them the fate of their aunt and uncle, the Bolsheviks dragged the teenagers to a train teeming with others the revolution had displaced. “Proceed anywhere in Russia away from Petrograd,” grunted the leader of the rabble to the train driver, who was now also a refugee.
Inside the train, the siblings traversed 1,050 miles of Russian countryside. They ate whatever scrap of food was thrown their way, and wore the soiled remains of what had once been expensive clothes. The train stopped at countless rural villages in an attempt to unload its cargo, but in these difficult times, the burden of a trainload full of starving refugees was a self-imposed death wish. When the train rolled into the province of Bessarabia, Romania, the shivering and emaciated teenagers abandoned the train and continued their journey on foot. Together they wandered in search of help, their diet now a mixture of grass and leaves. Nicholas and Valentine were close to death.
Back in New York, the man charged with delivering the Church back to financial health felt increasing pressure. Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky was not an economist – his life had been spent tending to the spiritual needs of impoverished Eastern European immigrants. The economic complexity of the situation hence dwarfed his financial understanding.
Adding to the stress of the moment was the Bolshevik revolutionary spirit, which had spread to some of the more reform-minded of the Orthodox clergymen in America. They saw a window of opportunity in the Tsar’s fall from grace. The Church was forced to abandon its reliance on royal regimes, so why not disband its reliance on hierarchy altogether? This was their chance to introduce a more egalitarian, apostolic form of Church life.
In our interview, Reverend Krawczuk hesitates when I bring up this reform movement, known as the“Living Church.” The historical memory is a dark one because in the decades to come, the established atheistic Bolshevik government would manipulate members of the Living Church to weaken and divide the Russian Orthodox Church from within.“Those that don’t understand democracy think they should only receive, when instead they are supposed to give” is all the Reverend will say on the matter.
At the start of 1918, John Kedrovsky got caught up in the Living Church movement. Why has been the subject of some conjecture.
I spoke with Reverend John Matusiak, the current rector of St. Joseph’s Russian Orthodox Church in Chicago. He wrote his Master of Divinity thesis on the tenure of Alexander Nemolovsky as Archbishop of the American diocese. He suggests Kedrovsky’s motives were political, for the ideology of the Living Church enabled a married man to ascend to the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy. I posed the same question to Rev. Michael Dahulich of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin’s Protection on Second Street in the East Village. He theorizes that the positive aspects of the reform movement inspired Kedrovsky, such as the use of Russian instead of Slavonic in church services.
But neither priest was aware of the peculiar set of circumstances in which Kedrovsky was soon to find himself. In February of 1918, a few blocks from the construction site that was the unfinished Transfiguration Cathedral, Kedrovsky opened his door and picked up two battered-looking postcards from the doorstep. There was no return address and nothing on the card except on each, a scrawled English sentence.
“Priscillaaa!” Kedrovsky screamed for his wife.
With trembling hands, he passed her the first card, which she began to read out loud: “Papa save us from hunger and death.”
Her voice quivered as she was handed the second: “If you have anything to spare, save it and send us food. All the people are starving.”
Through the whirlwind of questions that bombarded their minds, one thing was known immediately. This was the handwriting of their missing children. Nicholas and Valentine were still alive.
And yet, Kedrovsky’s troubles were not over. Archbishop Nemolovsky made the poor decision to mortgage and sell parish property in an attempt to alleviate the Church’s debt. The short-term influx of cash actually increased the money owed because parishes that had once been profitable were no longer in Orthodox hands. Kedrovsky was infuriated and was relentless in his condemnation of the mistakes of his superior. Nemolovsky, the priest declared, “had compromised himself in the eyes of the believers by his scandalous living and by the dissipating of the Russian people’s wealth.” In his eyes, the Archbishop was squandering the material wealth and spiritual health of the Church just to maintain his excessively comfortable lifestyle in the head seat of the North American diocese. Only a few months later, the archbishop suspended Kedrovsky from all ecclesiastical activity.
Despite his suspension, Kedrovsky continued to espouse the ideology of the Living Church. He channeled the discordant atmosphere that Nemolovsky’s wayward decision-making had fueled, and garnered support from other malcontents within the Orthodox community. Schism seemed imminent.
In these divisive times, the future of not only the Transfiguration parish but the entirety of the Orthodox Church in America hung precariously in the air.
But on the other side of world, in the small village of Bessarabia, Romania, were the two bedraggled teenagers who a couple of months earlier had wandered into town. Since they had arrived, the children had barely spoken a word, but at one point the boy handed two scruffy postcards to a townsmen. Noting the U.S. address, the townsman sent word to the city of Galatz (now known as Galati) where the American Red Cross was stationed.
On July 19, 1919, Priscilla Kedrovsky was summoned to the Manhattan Red Cross office located on Fourth Avenue. When the description was read out to her and she heard the words “not permanently harmed,” tears streamed down her face as she joyfully proclaimed the children as her own.
“We wrote and wrote but nothing came from Russia but silence, and from Russia no news is bad news. Bring them home to us as quickly as possible and spare no cost,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported her as saying.
Meanwhile, across the East River, John Kromalney, the man who had replaced the suspended Kedrovsky as rector of the Transfiguration parish, looked determinedly upon the unfinished Cathedral. As Revered Krawczuk explained, a truly egalitarian, apostolic church can only be established on the basic principle that one should give wholeheartedly to the community of believers rather than expect to receive. Under the rousing and charismatic command of Kromalney, it was this collective mentality of the parishioners that led to the Cathedral’s independent completion.
First, the old converted Methodist Church was sold. The funds that this move freed enabled the M.R. Schneider Company to complete the building’s construction. With this done, the parishioner’s took to the empty shell of the Cathedral like bees around a hive. Piece by piece, the iconostasis in their previous residence was dismantled and transported by hand to the nave of the empty building where the wall of religious art was assembled. The parish soon found itself in possession of a gargantuan 1,002 pound tone “A” bell, a donation to the burgeoning Cathedral from the Holy Trinity Brotherhood, the Orthodox monastery located upstate in Jordansville. Soon after, a pair of seminaries presented the Cathedral with its stained glass: the societies of St. Michael and of St. Peter and Paul filled the empty window panes with colorful imagery of their patron saints. Further detail of the Cathedral’s construction as well as the rest of its history can be read here.
Two mornings, about a year apart, conclude this story.
On May 30, 1920, a ship called La Savoie, arriving from the French port of Le Havre, dropped its anchor in Kings County. When it had docked, a boy and a girl ran down the gangplank into the arms of two ecstatic parents. After six years of separation, Kedrovsky finally retrieved his two blessings. The rest of Kedrovsky’s controversial life is another story entirely. A brief overview of what happens next can be read here.
About a year later, in the Spring of 1921, a group of resolute parishioners clambered onto the roof of their new cathedral. To save money they had decided to sheath the currently naked cupolas themselves. Together they wrapped a copper lining around each onion dome. The work was arduous, their rudimentary application of the metal riddled with uneven bumps, and the glean of the copper certainly did not match the golden shine of Moscow’s Dormition Cathedral. However, none of the parishioners cared, for the Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration was, against all odds, finished.
The bright sound of the “A” tone bounces out of the Cathedral as the Vespers service ends and I leave with today’s parishioners. The oscillating chime of the bell recalls the resounding success of the North Brooklyn Orthodox community around a hundred years ago.