If you stand before the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan, the representation church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church in America, you will see an old and ornate cross perched behind the altar table. First placed there nearly 120 years ago, it is an artifact of another moment in which the diplomatic and foreign policy goals of the Russian state were intertwined with the transnational reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The cross was first obtained for the chapel of the Retvizan, a Russian battleship built in a Philadelphia shipyard between 1899 and 1902. During its construction, Orthodox clergy in nearby New York came to know the ship’s personnel. When the cornerstone was blessed for the new St. Nicholas church in early 1901, the officers and sailors of the Retvizan formed a choir under the direction of the parish sacristan, Father Ilia Zotikov, and sang the liturgical responses. They also donated funds to the building project. Several months later, Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) returned the favor, traveling to Philadelphia to consecrate the ship’s chapel. In 1904, when the Retvizan was damaged at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, the ties that bound the ship and its crew to Orthodox leaders in North America proved as strong as ever. Responding to a telegram from Tikhon expressing concern for the ship’s crew, their commander wrote to request “the prayers of your Grace to God to grant us strength to be of comfort to our country.”Continue reading