By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
From the ashes of a May 1 inferno that destroyed the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Lower Manhattan, a new Episcopal-Orthodox relationship blossoms at General Theological Seminary.
St. Sava began holding weekly Sunday services May 22 in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at GTS. The rent-free arrangement provides a Sabbath sanctuary for 100 to 200 congregants, who do not know what caused the blaze.
“It’s really a joy to have them,” said the Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, dean and president of General Seminary. “It’s never a sacrifice to extend hospitality.”
St. Sava’s was destroyed in a spectacular blaze that evoked prayers across the world. It occurred the night of Orthodox Easter celebrations.
Now the congregation faces myriad questions: What caused the fire? How much of the loss will be covered by insurance? What reconstruction will be possible? Among the certainties, however, is that Episcopal institutions in New York City are eager to help during the transition.
“It is our promise to St. Sava’s that we will do everything that we possibly can as a diocese,” wrote the Rt. Rev. Andrew M.L. Dietsche, Bishop of New York, in an open letter dated May 9. He said he expects St. Sava’s will need a multi-year commitment, and several Episcopal institutions have offered to be involved.
The situation recalls the long history of partnership among Episcopalians and Serbian Orthodox in New York. The building that St. Sava’s called home was originally built by Trinity Wall Street in 1855. For nearly a century, it served as Trinity Chapel. The Serbian Orthodox community bought it in 1943 and consecrated St. Sava’s the next year.
The first Sunday after the fire, the St. Sava congregation worshiped at Calvary Church (part of the Episcopal Parish of Calvary-St. George) at Park Avenue and 21st Street. Lidija Nikolic, a member of St. Sava’s executive board, addressed the shaken flock.
“Today as we mourn the loss of our beloved cathedral, we also rejoice in our love for each other,” Nikolic said. “And we thank God Almighty and St. Sava for sparing our lives. Not a single person was hurt or killed last Sunday when our precious cathedral burned to the ground.”
The Parish of Calvary-St. George’s hosted St. Sava’s again the next week at its St. George’s location at Rutherford Place. Then GTS offered an extended welcome.
A 2013 renovation of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd changed the space by removing one section of pews. That space now gives St. Sava’s priests and congregants room to operate as they are used to doing in an open, unfurnished area.
After worship, the St. Sava’s community adjourns outside for fellowship on the seminary’s lawn. Before the flock scatters, leaders stow three icons from St. Sava’s in a storage area.
“The use of visual aids, like stained glass or icons, is something that Episcopalians and Orthodox can agree on readily,” Dunkle said.
By worshiping at GTS, St. Sava’s is taking advantage of an underused facility. While the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is busy on weekdays during the academic year, it’s normally empty on Sundays as GTS students fan out across the city to worship in parishes. Now with St. Sava’s presence, God’s praises are sung in the chapel on Sundays, too. GTS community members who happen to be on campus have a standing opportunity to experience Orthodox worship on their home turf.
“I hope we can accommodate them for as many years as they need,” Dunkle said.
The St. Sava congregation plans to renew and develop its cathedral complex. With parish-hall renovation under consideration, the plan is to return to the West 25th Street site as soon as safety permits.
Those wishing to help the displaced congregation may send a check payable to the Episcopal Diocese of New York (and designated to St. Sava’s) to: Diocesan Controller, Episcopal Diocese of New York, 1047 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10025.