St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church was founded in 1917 through the donations of 782 hardworking immigrant families. Almost 5,000 people attended the Church’s dedication.* St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church has survived -- and thrived -- amidst a changing neighborhood, changing social and moral values, changing church bureaucracy and changing financial circumstances. That we can celebrate 100 years of steadfast faith and dedication in 2017 is inspiring – and joyous!
The Very Beginning: The Land
In 1833, Joshua Fisher and his wife Elisha purchased property which is now the site of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1840, John Davis and his wife Sarah bought the land adjoining to the south. These properties were situated on the east side of 7th Street, a rural area at the time in the County of Philadelphia.
In 1845, Mr. Davis sold his property to Joseph Sharpless for $5,916.66. The property consisted of six brick buildings and one frame building which was a barn. Mr. Sharpless, dissatisfied with the small size of his farm, purchased his neighbor’s – Mr. Fisher’s -- lot in 1847 for $2,083.34. Acquiring Mr. Fisher’s land made the property 100'x100'.
In 1852, the Second Dutch Reformed Church was looking for ground to build a church and it ultimately bought Mr. Sharpless’ property for $5,000. The architecture of the church was a popular classical revival design. It took two years to complete the temple-like church for the newly-formed congregation, and on March 5, 1854, the building was dedicated by the Rev. Joseph F. Berg, the parish’s original pastor. This was the first parish to establish itself in the Northern Liberties area of the county, not a fashionable neighborhood at that time as it was still an area with unpaved muddy streets jammed with one- and two-story workers’ houses, workshops and factories. So the building of the church, with its imposing size and grand columns, distinguished architecture, and majestic appearance was impressive. As time passed, the countryside of Philadelphia County became less rural, and in the 1880s, the Northern Liberties neighborhood became part of the city. The demographics changed, too. The once primarily German area became predominantly Slavic when Philadelphia experienced a wave of post-Russian Revolution immigration. This led to dwindling membership in the Second Dutch Reformed Church and ultimately to the sale of the church building to Russian immigrants.
Our First Congregation: Prior to 1917
The very first congregation was a group of parishioners who separated from nearby St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral for various reasons (arguments over legal ownership of the St. Andrew’s church building; confusion created by the 1917 Russian Revolution; the small church could not accommodate the huge congregation). Before the Second Dutch Reformed Church building was purchased in 1917, some sources say our first members met for a short time in the back room of a Methodist chapel located at 509 North Fifth Street and/or at the 4th Baptist Church, also on North Fifth Street, pictured below. (The Baptist Church was torn down in the 1960s in an urban renewal project.)
Our Church: 1917-2017
On November 22, 1917, Peter Solovay and his wife Ludmilla, bought the church building formerly occupied by the Second Dutch Reformed Church for $22,700. Soon after, a Board of Trustees was organized, and the property was transferred from the Solovays to the Trustees. The Russian Orthodox Independent Congregation and Church of St. Nicholas was chartered on December 20, 1918. On that day, an Orthodox cross was lifted by members of St. Nicholas Church and fixed to the roof of the church.
Prior thereto, the plain interior of the Second Dutch Reformed Church had been remodeled and redecorated to make it suitable for Orthodox liturgical services. An iconostas was constructed after the upholstered mahogany pews and large pipe organ were removed. The interior walls were designed and painted by iconographer George Novikoff, all of which took less than 2 years to complete. At the official dedication, under the pastorship of Fr. Vasile Kravstsoff, approximately 5,000 people took part in a procession, led by a cross bearer, banner bearers and flags. The new congregation consisted of 782 married families. The spiritual and material state of the new parish was high. Income in the first year surpassed $21,000.
Through the decades of the next century, as the church building aged and the congregation matured, necessary upgrades were made to the building structure and many amenities were added to the church. Various clergy and starostas commenced projects to improve the church and its environs. But always, it was the faithful – and generous -- parishioners who dug deep into their pockets to fund the many massive and impressive projects
In 1931, under Protopresbyter N. Uspenski, the Sisterhood of the Protection of the Theotokos was organized, and is still an integral part of the parish to this day. In 1939, the Sisterhood purchased from Europe a beautiful gold-plated cross for $600 that still stands in the center of the church. In 1945, the Sisterhood also donated the magnificent chandelier that illuminates our church. The Sisterhood reaches out to the sick and infirmed and those members unable to come to church. The members do good works and nurture strong bonds within the church family.
During the Great Depression, in 1935 Fr. Alexis Gougnin was assigned to St. Nicholas. The financial condition of the parish was very poor during the Depression years. In 1937, a special commission was established to manage the payment of the $22,000 debt on the Parish home to the Integrity Trust Company. Through the efforts of the lawyer Charles Harding and his relationship with the bank, an agreement was reached whereby the sum of $1,000 was paid in cash, and the debt was reduced to $14,000. Payments were $2,000 per year. Under this plan, the debt was liquidated.
The 25th Anniversary of the parish was in 1942. The interior of the church was again restored by the original iconographer George Novikoff, and the faux marble created by Simeon Filipovich Frederick – all at a cost of $8,075. Other accomplishments were the reconstruction of the east wall, a new ambo, the Church front was redone with white stone stairwells, new railings installed, and the rectory remodeled which totaled $22,096. The parishioners immediately donated $12,177.20 to help liquidate this debt.
St. Nicholas Church was rededicated on October 28, 1945, and the church was blessed by His Eminence, Metropolitan Theophilus with holy water and oils. The Hon. Bernard Samuel, Mayor of Philadelphia, delivered an impressive address. After the Liturgy, a banquet was held in the church hall with a capacity crowd in attendance. Prayers were sung for the continued health of all parishioners, and Memory Eternal for all deceased parishioners.
Fr. Paul Zlatkovsky was pastor from 1956-58, and during his tenure the Sunday School program was revitalized and sparked with enthusiasm.
Fr. Vladimir Borichevsky arrived in 1958, and at the same time, the surrounding neighborhood began its urban renewal. Starosta Alexander Leon and
Fr. Borichevsky encouraged the purchase of the properties surrounding the Church, and the new rectory on Hoffman Place and the choir director's home on Brown Street were purchased soon thereafter.
In 1967, with Peter Kavchok as Starosta, new doors and windows were installed in the church, and a wrought iron fence was erected around the entire church property, without indebtedness. In 1967, St. Nicholas celebrated its 50th Anniversary, with the Most Rev. Ireney, Archbishop of New York, Metropolitan of All America and Canada, and His Grace, Rt. Rev. Kiprian, Bishop of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, officiating. After the 50th Anniversary, a new roof was installed and the cornices were replaced.
In 1971, Fr. Borichevsky left for an assignment at St. Tikhon's Seminary. For the next two years, the parish was served by several monks from St. Tikhon's. From 1972 to 1974, Fr. Paul Borick was assigned as permanent pastor. During his pastorate, the church hall was remodeled, and the exterior of the church was completely refurbished. New stained glass windows designed by iconographer Matthias Von Reutlinger were installed. In 1974, the parish was serviced by Hieromonk Sebastian Gyza and other clergy from St. Tikhon's.
In April 1976, Fr. John Bohush was assigned as permanent pastor after serving as a Chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. When Fr. Bohush arrived, the rectory was entirely refurbished andrestoration specialist Harry Niblock began work on the interior of the church. It took seven years to complete at the cost of 7 cents per square inch. Prior to the 60th Anniversary in 1977, the altar table was restored and consecrated to conform to Orthodox tradition with the placing of a relic of a saint into the altar table. The church was rededicated at its 60th Anniversary by Metropolitan Theodosius and Bishop Herman. Under the leadership of Starosta George Sinitsky,
St. Nicholas was made handicapped accessible, including the installation of an elevator to meet federal standards. The entire electrical system of the church was upgraded. The parking lot was expanded, the exterior lighting modernized, an alarm system was installed, two storage containers were purchased, sidewalks were replaced and repaired, and the sub-basement walls and pillars were reinforced because the modern-day traffic weakened the structure. A new asphalt roof was installed, and the paintable exterior portions of the church, including the columns, were painted. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, St. Nicholas sponsored five restoration specialists from Ukraine to complete another more intense restoration of the iconography and interior back to the original design of 1917. A great portion of the interior was gold-leafed to enhance the striking beauty of the church.
William Simpson became Starosta in 1997, and under his leadership many significant projects were accomplished. An engineering survey prompted the first $65,000 reinforcement of sub-supports and replacement of damaged 150-year-old sewer lines. When that was completed, another structural problem arose which necessitated new supports for the church floor and choir loft at a cost of $85,000. The church hall was modernized, including the installation of central air-conditioning and upgraded restrooms. A new Plaschanitsa was constructed, and an antique icon of
St. Nicholas was donated to the church. High intensity lights were installed in our parking lot for security. Upholstered oak church chairs replaced the metal folding chairs in the sanctuary. Mr. Simpson also took the church into the 21st Century by launching an informative church website, communicating with parishioners via email and distributing weekly church bulletins online to make them accessible to active and extended members of our congregation.
Fr. Bohush retired in 2014 and for almost three years thereafter,
St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church conducted lay services in anticipation of a spiritual leader.
And then on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, in Kiev, Ukraine, St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church made history. Father Bohdan Zhoba, President William Simpson, Vice President Thomas Hanney, Sunday School Director Judy Hanney and senior Sisterhood member Ellen Hanavin met with His Holiness Patriarch Philaret in Kiev who proclaimed our church a Stavropigia of the Patriarchate of Kyiv and All Rus-Ukraine. In addition, Very Reverend Bohdan Zhoba was officially assigned as permanent Rector of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church.
Undeniably, anyone entering St. Nicholas is immediately struck with awe and amazement because of its size and incredible beauty. St. Nicholas Church is an inspiring place to pray, and the remarkable acoustics enhance the beautiful voices of our choir.
Although the days are gone when most parishioners could wake up to the sound of our church bells, leisurely stroll to the church and attend liturgy, we remain a vibrant urban parish. We are a spiritual magnet to members who live within a 75-mile radius of the church. Our hope for the next 100 years is to turn the reigns of our church over to a well-prepared leadership. To keep our parishioners, and attract new members, our goal has always been to make St. Nicholas Church a fulfilling spiritual environment and an essential part of its members’ lives. Indeed, generations have joyously celebrated marriages, baptisms, church anniversaries and milestone life events within our walls.
All of our services are in English, but we have retained the traditions and customs of our parish incorporators. We have also retained their passion and independence! Our history is evidence of the selfless giving and dedication ofour parishioners.
Our history also confirms that with such a passionate faithful congregation, our beloved St. Nicholas Church will continue to thrive for centuries to come.
* “Historic Sacred Places of Philadelphia” by Roger W. Moss, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p. 94.