The History of the Russian Church in Grand Rapids

Orthodox Belorussians, Carpatho Russians, Galicians, Russians and Ukrainians began arriving in the area around Grand Rapids and Grand Haven, Michigan in the early 1900′s. Many of them were fleeing the war torn countries of Eastern Europe which were devastated by the conflicts surrounding World War I.  As their numbers increased, they sought a center for religious, cultural and mutual welfare reasons.  It was commonplace in their home countries for Orthodox Christians to form local Brotherhoods to promote Orthodoxy, so under the protection of St. Nicholas, the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myria in Lycia, 10 men joined together and formed the “Russian Orthodox Religious Brotherhood of Saint John the Goldenlipped” of Grand Rapids, Michigan on October 12, 1915.  The Articles of Association for the Brotherhood were recorded by the State of Michigan on January 10, 1916, and the By-laws were adopted on April 5, 1916.

In February of 1916, the Brotherhood began soliciting funds from local businessmen, and with their help, the 20 families which now comprised the Brotherhood purchased a building from the Norwegian (Norsk) Evangelical Lutheran Church on April 3, 1916.  They bought all of the West 48 feet of Lot 9, West Broadway, in Scribner’s Addition to the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In more recognizable names, this is the North East Corner of Veto and West Broadway (now renamed as National) on the West side of the city. The Brotherhood purchased the building land contract for less than $1000 and made the final payment in January of 1921.  The Lutheran’s themselves had originally purchased the building in 1891, which was not in the best of shape when the Brotherhood took ownership of it.  Prior to 1891, property records show the lot changed hands 15 times since being added to the City of Grand Rapids in 1854.

The exact date that the church building was constructed is unknown, but it has long been believed that the church was once a house that was moved from another site.  Credibility to the idea of the church being a converted home can be drawn from the earliest church records, where the building is usually referred to as a “home” or “house.”  It was discover during the installation of a new floor in 1998 that the building was used as a church prior to our purchasing it in 1916.  Additional construction work done in 2007 revealed that the building could not have been where it now sits prior to 1889.  Was it moved from one location to the present?  “Quite possibly”, says one notable Grand Rapids historian, Rev. Fr. Dennis Morrow, “it was very common in those days for buildings to be moved using logs.  But they would not have moved it very far.”  This could suggest that the building was on another part of the lot.”  Given this information, it is most likely that either the Lutherans moved the church to its present site or it was done immediately prior to their purchasing it. 

Immediately after its purchase, remodeling of the church began.  The parishioners did not find this process difficult as many of them were highly skilled craftsman who worked among the numerous furniture manufactures in and around Grand Rapids.  Part of this remodeling included building the iconostasis.  The icons used on the iconostasis were imported from Odessa, Russia and originally meant only to be used temporarily; however they remain on the iconostasis to this day.  Consequently, there is very little difference when comparing a modern photo with the earliest known photo of the interior of the church taken in 1919.  The only major difference is that it has been moved several feet into the nave and away from the Eastern wall to make for more room around the altar.

According to Raisa Bolbat, a former parishioner, “The second phase, the basement was a different story!  It took strong backs to dig it out for almost a two-year period.  My father, John Bolbat, and other parishioners gave their free time to dig it all out.  Just getting to the church was a problem in itself due to limited transportation, so the men walked many miles to get there.  When it was finally finished, it served as a church hall for Russian School on Saturdays and for social activities.  Parishioners also held dinners, picnics, raffles, and performed plays to keep their cultural memory alive.” Activities that required larger venues were held on farms or at halls close to the church.  According to church records, there was an “extraordinary abundance of dramatic, instrumental, artistic, and vocal talent.”

The windows in the church were stenciled glass with a border of different colored 2 inch square glass.  These stenciled glass windows were commonly used in churches until funds became available for them to be replaced by stained glass.  Funds for stained glass never became available, so the original windows of the church were gradually replaced over the years for various reasons and by 2000 only one original pane remained.  The current windows were all installed in a renovation project done in 2000. During this renovation, the windows were replaced by newly stenciled ones based on a pattern taken from a scan of the priest’s vestments.  It was also during this renovation that the church’s one current stained glass window was installed.  The company which did the renovation, Pristine Glass, donated the windows which portrays Our Lady of the Sign, which occupies the port hole on the church’s Eastern wall high above the alter.

In the early days of the church, the priests came from Europe and were educated there. Father Kedrovsky, came from Gary, Indiana, Grand Rapids a few times in 1916 to celebrate Divine Liturgy at St. John Chrysostom Church.  He was born in Vologda, Russia, on August 28, 1888, and died on November 25, 1968. Fr. Kedrovsky was responsible for founding many Orthodox churches in Indiana and the Mid-west.  His entire family was involved in the church and his three brothers were missionary priests in Alaska.

Father Mikhall Vishigorodzeff (d. November 25, 1968) served the parish for a few months in 1916. He performed the first wedding ceremony in St. John Chrysostom Church in May, 1916 between Michael and Antonina Mikita. In the fall of that year, Father Mikhail Vishigorodzeff became the first resident priest at Holy Ascension of Christ Russian Orthodox Church, Albion, Michigan which was consecrated on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 30, 1916, four days after St. John Chrysostom’s consecration.

One of the attendees of the first wedding was Fr. Anthony Diachenko, who shortly thereafter became the first permanent priest. Fr. Tony, as he was called, was born in January 15, 1890 in Kiev, Russia and was dedicated to the church by his parents.  He received his formal education under the tutelage of his foster-father Metropolitan Platon, Dean of the Theological Seminary in Kiev.  He met Vera Lensky, a local Grand Rapids girl, on a trip to Chicago making arrangements for a local wedding and they were married on February 12, 1914, at St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids (now renamed St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church) as St. John Chrysostom Church did not exist at that time.  He completed his training, and was ordained by Metropolitan Platon on March 14, 1915.

It was while Fr. Tony was pastor that St. John Chrysostom was consecrated on the feast of St. John Chrysostom, Sunday, November 26, 1916. The attending clergy were Father Tony, Father Benjamin Kedrovsky from Gary, Indiana, and Father V. Oranovsky from Detroit, Michigan.

Father Tony was an accomplished musician with a beautiful tenor voice who also directed choirs and wrote liturgical music.  He was Pastor of St. John Chrysostom from May, 1916 to his transfer in the following year. Fr. Tony’s church records in Grand Rapids still exist today are very detailed, well organized and clearly written in Russian. He became an American Citizen in 1928. Before his retirement in 1960, he returned to Michigan to serve at Holy Ascension of Christ Church, Albion, from 1955-1959. Fr. Anthony died on August 12, 1970, and was buried at St. Tikhon’s Monastery cemetery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.

In 1917, Father G. Palamarchuk became the next resident priest and served at St. John Chrysostom until he returned to Russia in 1919. His son, Nikolai, died at the age of 2 under sad circumstances and was buried at Washington Park Cemetery, Grand Rapids. Many other early church members are also buried here as well as in Greenwood Cemetery in Grand Rapids.

In 1919, Fr. John Tertichny became the Parish Priest and remained until 1928. He was born on February 9, 1891 and later served as Parish Priest of St. Michael’s, St. Louis, Missouri, from 1932-1974.  By this time, St. John’s church was not only a community of Russian immigrants, but also a base for other ethnic groups as well: Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Austrians, Serbians, Macedonians, Syrians, and especially Greeks.   Later, many of these groups gradually dropped away as they build their own churches in and around Grand Rapids.  Fr. John died in St. Louis in January of 1980.

It was while Fr. John was priest that the church changed its name for the first time.  Shortly after paying off the mortgage, a new association was formed, “The Orthodox Church Association of St. John the Golden Mouth.” On April 14, 1924 the Brotherhood of Saint John transferred ownership to the new association for $1. Since this transaction, the church has had several additional name changes.  In 1927, the name was changed to “The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of St. John the Golden Mouth.”  In 1950 it was yet again changed to “St. John’s Russian Orthodox Church”.  The church received its fifth and current name of “St. John Chrysostom Russian Orthodox Church” in 1997.

In 1925 the church received a visit from Metropolitan Platon, the same bishop who 10 years earlier had ordained Fr. Anthony Diachenko.  This is the earliest known visit of a hierarch to the church.  There may have been earlier visits, but like many of the church’s records, the details have been lost to time.

From 1928 to 1938, Fr. Nickolai Bellavin served as priest at St. John Chrysostom. These were difficult years during the Depression. There was a scarcity of jobs and money. Fr. Nickolai Bellavin taught Russian School on Saturdays and during the summers. Fr. Nickolai made his calls on his bicycle, travelling many miles.  He passes away in 1969 and both he and his Matushka are buried at St. Tikhon’s Monastery cemetery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.

Fr. Dimitri Polischuk arrived in 1940 and served at St. John’s during three different intervals.  The first ended in 1942, being suspended due to World War II.  With the war on, the parish supported the Red Cross and the Kent County War Chest campaigns buying as many war bonds as they could. The parishioners worked hard on scrap metal drives and had a scrap pile in the church garden. It was because of this scrap that the church was able to obtain a church bell, as they were able to arrange an exchange of the high value scrap metal for a bell. On Sunday November 29, 1942, Fr. Dimitri and the parishioners celebrated the church’s anniversary with a service dedicating a new Russian-style belfry, bell tower and bells. The whole exterior was renovated and the interior repainted. Alterations then added a schoolroom and a stage. New vestments were also purchased. Fr. Dimitri resumed his position as priest in 1947 and served just over a year until 1948.

In mid-1948 a new parish priest, Fr. Alexander Shportun arrived.  It was in the following year that the church purchased a rectory located at 25 Straight Avenue, just over a block from the church.  Sometime prior to 1992 this property was sold.  Unfortunately, as the church’s records are so fragmentary, the exact date and circumstances of the sale are unknown.

Fr. Shportun remained as priest until 1952 when he was replaced by Fr. Basil Karpelenia.  Fr. Basil was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1926, served in the US Navy during World War II, and was a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodoxy Seminary.  He served in St. John’s from October 4, 1952 until December of 1954 when he moved to Houston, Texas to become the priest of St. George Orthodox Church.  He eventually retired to Tampa, Florida where he reposed there on December 3, 2006.

In the fall of 1952, one of the two known fires occurred in the church.  Though there was not extensive damage, repairs to the iconostasis as well as one exterior wall were required, plus the cleanup of the water damage created while putting out the fire.  On November 22 of that year, a special Building Fund Banquet in Commemoration of St. John Chrysostom, the church’s patron saint, was held to raise funds for repairs.

After Fr. Basil’s departure, the parish has suffered through many years without having a full time priest.  During this period, the parish used part time and visiting priests, mostly from St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in East Lansing, St. Elias’s Church in Battle Creek, and the Detroit area.  This was partially caused by a shortage of priests, as well as a shortage of funds required to maintain a resident priest.  The lack of regular services caused many parishioners to leave the parish and join other Orthodox and even Protestant churches further worsening the financial situation of the parish.

Also contributing to the decline in the number of parishioners was generation and cultural differences that had emerged in the church.  The older members were mostly immigrants who conversed in English only as a second language, if at all, with strong ties to the traditions of their homelands.  This was in contrast to the younger members who were born in this country and spoke fluent English.  This required that any priest who was to be considered for a permanent position to be bilingual, a requirement which further reduced the pool of potential priests. These factors combined to create a downward spiral in membership which then further hampered the church’s ability to attract and pay for a priest. 

A break in this cyclical routine came in February of 1967 when Mitered Archpriest John Ball was transferred from St. Demetrius Orthodox Church in Jackson.  Fr. John was quite busy while at St John’s.  While serving as parish priest, he lived in Holland, Michigan and also held a secular job, which greatly reduced the financial burden on the parish.   On September 11, 1970, Fr. John was dually assigned to St. Elias Church in Battle Creek and shepherded both St. John Chrysostom and St. Elias until 1972.  In August, 1974, he was reassigned back to St. Demetrius. 

Over the years, St. John Chrysostom has tried to retain its Russian identity partially by using Church Slavonic in its services. Church Slavonic was retained up until the late 1970′s when it was supplanted by English due to it being forgotten by members of the church and because of the presence of non-Russian speaking priests.  This is a somewhat ironic situation as less than 20 years previously it was impossible for the parish to find a priest who spoke English.

One custom that has remained to this day is that St. John’s still uses the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the secular Gregorian calendar, which was established in 1582.  St. John’s is the only Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids that still follows the Julian calendar as well as the only parish in the Moscow Patriarchal Church’s Central States Deanery which has not switched.  Because of this, the only common feast days shared with these other parishes are those that revolve around Pascha.  The topic of switching to the Gregorian (aka “new calendar” in Orthodox Churches) calendar has been discussed many times over its history, but the parish has always decided against changing.

The routine of having temporary priests and irregular liturgies finally came to an end in July of 1987 when Fr. Dimitrie Bodale came out of retirement to serve as priest.  Fr. Bodale originally came to this country as a missionary priest at the request of the Romanian Bishop in Detroit in 1971. Before arriving in this country, he served as a professor of Theology in Bucharest, Romania.  After arriving, he began learning English and served at parishes in Detroit and Philadelphia before serving in Grand Rapids.  Fr. Bodale was given a farewell reception at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church when he decided to retired for a second time in May of 1992.  Subsequently, he returned to his home country of Romania were he reposed at the age of 90 in 2002.

Fr. Michael St. Andrew became parish priest the Sunday after Fr. Bodale’s departure.  Fr. St. Andrew was quite familiar with St. John Chrysostom as he had served as a visiting priest since at least 1978.  Though assigned to St John’s, Fr. St. Andrew retained his residence in Battle Creek where he was previously assigned to St Elias Orthodox Church.  He still occasionally served liturgy at St. Elias and eventually decided to return to St. Elias in December of 1994.

One condition placed on Fr. St. Andrew’s transfer was that Fr. Andrew James would become the permanent rector.  Fr. James occasionally served liturgy until his transferred from the OCA was formalized.  He formally became rector in March of 1995.  Fr. James served as pastor less than a year and was released in February of 1996.

Without any available priests, Bishop Paul, the then Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes, sent Deacon Andrew Keith Lowe, a seminarian at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, to ensure that the parish had full divine services during Holy Week, Pascha and Bright Week of 1996.  Subsequently, the parish requested Bishop Paul to assign Deacon Andrew Lowe permanently to the parish after he graduated with his Master of Divinity degree and after his ordination to the priesthood.  He was ordained by Bishop Paul at All Saints of Russia Church, Pine Bush, New York on June 16 and was immediately appointed as the rector of St. John Chrysostom.  Fr. Andrew would go on to become the longest serving pastor in the church’s history, serving precisely 17 years before being reassigned to St. John the Baptist Church in Little Falls, New Jersey on June 17, 2013.

In the period following Father Andrew’s arrival, many changes were made to the church.   A new furnace was installed in March of 1997.  In that same year, the church’s first water heater was installed, finally providing the church with running hot water.  Other capital improvements soon followed, such as a redesigned kitchen, new roof and electrical improvements.  During 1998, the carpet in the church was removed and replaced with the currently installed Oak Parquet tile floor and the kitchen was remodeled.  In 1999, the church’s first air conditioner was installed and the bell tower was extensively renovated.  In 2000 the aforementioned windows were replace with ones more energy efficient and the siding on the church was replaced.  Then in 2007 the church kitchen was again completely redesigned after a flood in the basement.  A new vinyl floor was also laid down in the basement replacing the carpeting that was installed in 1997.

Another major project was undertaken to comply with the newly revised Grand Rapids City Fire Code in 2008.  The church excavated its garden area and put in a second entrance to the basement.  Coinciding with this work, the front steps that were originally constructed around 1918 were replaced.  Work began on these projects immediately after Pascha in 2008 and were finally completed in November when a memorial brick pathway leading to the street was laid.

The alterations were not limited to construction projects.  In January of 2005, a new solid oak table of oblations which was constructed in Moscow was installed in the sanctuary.  Shortly thereafter, a new alter made out of lime wood and also made in Russia arrived at the church just in time for Pascha on Great and Holy Friday, 2006.  The altar was later consecrated when Bishop Mercuris, Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes, visited the church in October of 2007. 

Since this time, the church has struggled to exist in the collapse of the economy in 2008.  In 2009, the choir put out a nativity CD with the help of St. George’s Antiochian Church, who provided the venue for the recording.  The project was a success, as the first order of CDs sold out in a mere 10 days.

St. John Chrysostom’s current priest, Father James Anthony, was ordained on April 20, 2013 by Archbishop Justinian at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Bayonne, New  Jersey.   He became rector on June 17, 2013 when Fr. Andrew Lowe was reassigned.  Between the time of his ordination and being assigned rector, Fr. James served alongside of Fr. Andrew at St. John’s altar.  Previous to his ordination, Fr. James served as a deacon at St John’s after his reception from the Ukrainian Catholic Church in February of 2007.   

Author’s Note:  This is the third known version of St. John Chrysostom’s history compiled in 2013.  It draws heavily from the first version, compiled in 1991 by deceased parishioner Marie Ogaeko.  An expanded second version was written by Fr. Andrew Lowe in 2009.  Other sources included the fragmentary documents retained by the church as well as third party sources most notably clippings from The Grand Rapids Press, obituaries, and other area church histories.