Shadows of the Motherland
Russian Orthodoxy in downstate Illinois
T he trained eye rarely misses them: three-barred crosses and primitive, colorful icons, occasionally spotted in roadside cemeteries and out-of-the-way chapels from Chicago to Carbondale. Onion-shaped domes, curious spires and cupolas — the international symbols of Eastern Orthodoxy — still adorn churches in small, former mining communities where Baptists, Methodists and Evangelicals now abound. The Russian Orthodox Church, once the faith community and cultural center for thousands of first- and second-generation Eastern European immigrants, is today a shadow of its former self in downstate Illinois. Its symbolic presence, however, remains a visual reminder of the forces, communities and personalities that still shape our prairie psyche.
The Russian Orthodox Church in Illinois began with a gift and a blessing. The
gift came from Czar Alexander III, Emperor of Russia from 1881-1894. In 1892,
Alexander commissioned his favorite architect, Petrovo Ropette, to design the
Russian Pavilion for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Alexander wanted to memorialize his father,
Czar Alexander II, who had been assassinated by revolutionaries in 1881.
Ropette, known as the “Father of Russian Revival Architecture,” was the logical choice. He previously had designed pavilions for the Paris
(1878) and Copenhagen (1888) world expositions. The Russian Pavilion for the
Columbian Exposition, described as a “massive architectural structure, executed in dark wood” and built in the 17th-century Muscovite style, was said to be similar in design
to the palace where Peter the Great was born. The pavilion was constructed in
Moscow, disassembled, shipped to Chicago, and rebuilt in the Manufacturers
Building at the Columbian Exposition, where it was seen by thousands in the
glistening White City.
The blessing came on two legs from St. Petersburg, a Russian-born priest named
John Alexandrovich Kochurov. Father John was born in the village of
Bigildino-Surka in the Ryazan region of western Russia in 1871, son of
Alexander Kochurov, an Orthodox priest, and his wife, Anna, who bore him
several children. (The Orthodox church ordains married men to the priesthood.)
Alexander’s example was imprinted on his son, for John went on to study at Danky
Theological School, Ryazan Theological Seminary and later at St. Petersburg
Theological Academy. At the time of his graduation in 1895, Father John had his
heart set on service as a parish priest and missionary in the Diocese of the
Aleutians and Alaska, which in the Russo-centric universe of the day included
Chicago, “a huge city with a heterodox population torn asunder by wild beasts.”
In 1895, Chicago’s Orthodox parish included two churches, St. Vladimir’s in Chicago and the Church of the Three Hierarchs in Streator, a growing
industrial community 94 miles southwest of Chicago in LaSalle County. Father
John, by then married and with his own growing family, spoke little or no
English but possessed a missionary’s zeal to serve God and his diaspora. He conducted services at both
congregations. St. Vladimir’s included Russians, Galicians, Hungarian Slavs, Arabs, Bulgarians and Aravians,
mostly poor immigrants who worked in the factories and stockyards. The Streator
church community was comprised of Poles and Slovaks, most of who worked in the
coal mines. Few were Orthodox faithful by birth. Many were Uniates — Ukrainians and Belarusians who had spiritual ties to the Roman Catholic Church
but retained their own Eastern liturgy. In Streator, Poles and Slovaks did not
assimilate into the Irish, Italian and German Catholic parishes. Father John
saw their need and made it his mission to convert them to Orthodoxy.
After the Columbian Exposition closed, the resourceful Father John arranged for the façade, tower and traditional ornamentation of the Russian Pavilion to be shipped to Streator, where all were reassembled as the new sanctuary for the Three Hierarchs Church, officially listed in the 1901 Streator city directory as the Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Church. Though the church’s sanctuary was of simple construction, its ornate façade turned heads in Streator. Unfortunately, the structure has not survived. After Father John left America in 1907, the church passed into the hands of a fringe Baptist congregation, which sold the structure in 1916 to the Polish Catholic community in Streator, who renamed it St. Casimir’s. The church was demolished in the 1960s and a new modern building erected in its place. It has since closed.
As rector of St. Vladimir’s in Chicago, Father John was tasked with raising money to build a new church. After a brief fundraising trip to Russia in May 1900, he helped raise more than $50,000 for construction of Chicago’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, today one of the most remarkable Orthodox churches in America. Father John enlisted famed architect Louis Sullivan to design the cathedral, which was completed and consecrated in 1903.
Father John was the only priest to serve the Chicago/Streator parish from
1895-1905. During that time he also organized Orthodox churches in Joliet and
officiated in the blessing of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church
in Madison, Ill., near Granite City in 1900. Father John’s reach extended to fledgling Orthodox communities in the southern Illinois
mining towns of Benld, Buckner, Grand Tower, Royalton and Muddy, where large
populations of Russians and Eastern Europeans settled during the mining booms
of the early 20th century. In 1903, for his “inspiring labors,” Father John received the Order of St. Anna from Bishop Tikhon, future Patriarch
of the Orthodox Church in Moscow, and, on the occasion of his 10th anniversary
in America, the Chicago priest was given a cherished pectoral crucifix for his
devotion to the church.
In May 1906, Father John was appointed “Dean of the New York Area of the Eastern States.” The following year, expressing a desire to be near his wife’s aging parents, Father John returned to Russia and St. Petersburg, where he started a new career as a teacher of divine law in the schools of Narva. He taught there until November 1916, when he was assigned as a parish priest to St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo.
Then came the Russian Revolution. On Oct. 31, 1917, the Bolshevik army,
believing that the local priesthood was praying for its defeat, arrested Father
John and several other clerics. Father John, taking a leadership role, tried to
mediate. According to newspaper accounts, he was struck several times in the
face, and dragged into an open arena, where “[S]everal rifles were raised against the defenseless pastor. A shot thundered
out, then another, after which the priest fell to the ground, and blood spilled
upon his cassock. Death did not come to him immediately…. He was pulled by the hair, and somebody suggested, ‘Finish him like a dog.’ The next morning the body was brought into the former palace hospital.”
Those who saw the priest’s bullet-riddled corpse reported that, “[H]is pectoral cross was already gone.” Father John was buried in the cemetery at St. Catherine’s Cathedral. In 1994, he was declared a saint by the Moscow Patriarchate, which
declared him the “First Clergy Martyr of the Russian Revolution.”
Orthodoxy comes to Russia
The word “Orthodox” derives from the Greek words “Ortho,” meaning “straight” or “right,” and “Doxa,” meaning “opinion.” The historic Orthodox Church evolved from the Apostolic Church founded at the
first Pentecost (A.D. 33), when tradition says that Jesus gave his “great commission” to “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
The Apostolic churches — those established by the original apostles — were founded in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome.
Missionaries then took the church to Sinai, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania and
Russia, where Christianity arrived in 988. It thrived there, and was unimpeded
for nearly 1,000 years. In 1917, an estimated 80 million people in European
Russia were Orthodox Christians. Then came the Revolution. “In a relatively short time,” writes historian Vera Shevzov, “the home of the largest Christian culture of modern times became an officially
Between 1917 and 1939, more than 80,000 clerics, priests and nuns were executed by the Bolsheviks, who systematically sought to eradicate the church from Soviet Russia.
Orthodoxy comes to Illinois
In the decade after Father John left America, the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church thrived in the communities where he helped plant it. The congregation in Benld, south of Carlinville in Macoupin County, was established on March 3, 1907, as St. Mary’s Church and is officially known today as the Holy Dormition of the Theotokos Catholicon of the Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church. St. Mary’s celebrated its centennial in 2007 and last October received an Illinois Centennial Parish award from the Illinois State Historical Society at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield.
St. Mary’s original 40 parishioners, including many first-generation Russian and Eastern European families, raised $950 to build their first church, a frame structure. The church enjoyed the blessing of Czar Nicholas II and the Patriarch of Moscow, who gave the parish holy relics of the saints and icons from the Motherland. Unfortunately, on July 27, 1915, the feast day of St. Vladimir, the church and all its contents were destroyed by fire. The parish rebuilt the church — this time of brick — and the Central Diocese in Russia promised to help by paying half of the wages for a full-time parish priest.
The Russian Revolution ended that congenial relationship. During the 1920s, many Russian Orthodox Churches in the United States reluctantly broke off with the Patriarchate in Moscow, setting up their own hierarchy in America, “the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile Outside of Russia,” later shortened to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Since the fall of communism and the resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, ROCOR has reconciled and re-established ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. American Orthodox churches that remained affiliated with the Moscow church throughout the revolution and Cold War (Father John’s Illinois parishes, for example), eventually sought independence from the Patriarchate and were granted full autonomy in 1970. They belong to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), the foundation of most Orthodox communities in the U.S.
Holy Protection Church, Royalton
St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Cemetery on the eastern edge of Royalton in Franklin County is as well maintained as a country club golf course, its manicured lawn and polished monuments a visual reminder of the disciplined souls that sleep beneath them. A mining boomtown established by the Royal Coal Company in 1907, Royalton was settled by Eastern European families, several from Belarus, a fertile land between Russia and Poland. Lured from their farms to the lucrative coalfields of southern Illinois, the Orthodox faithful in Royalton received sacraments through a priest from St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church in St. Louis until 1914. That year parishioners mounted a campaign to build their own church. Each family was asked to give $25 at the start of the building and another $25 when the building was completed. The parish raised $2,200 and started construction.
But as the church walls were going up, disaster struck. On Oct. 27, 1914, an explosion at the Franklin County Coal Mine #7 killed 52 men, including 13 members of the parish. The mining company donated land to bury the miners, and that plot of ground became St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Cemetery.
The Royalton Orthodox church, Protection of the Holy Virgin Mary, was finished the following year and dedicated to the dead miners. Every year on the anniversary of the mine explosion, the church conducts a solemn requiem service in their memory, and flowers are placed on their graves.
Although the Orthodox parish in Royalton has declined in recent years, the church and grounds — just like the cemetery — are meticulously maintained. Father Nicholas Finley, the new parish priest who was raised in St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church in St. Louis and ordained in the Madison, Ill., Orthodox parish, is enthusiastic and optimistic his church will continue to inspire and serve the faithful. According to the church’s Web site, the bells of Holy Protection Church ring out every day, inviting all to take a moment to be with God.
St. Iosaph’s Church
Fifty miles east of Royalton is the tiny village of Muddy, population 78, according to the 2000 U.S. census. The sign at the city limits rounds the number up to 100. Chicago speculators discovered coal near Robinson’s Ford on the Middle Fork of the Saline River, and sunk a mine there in 1903. The Big Muddy Coal Company eventually changed the name of the hamlet to “Muddy,” which stuck. The mine, however, didn’t last, leaving behind a massive concrete tipple on the local landscape.
St. Iosaph’s Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church was organized soon after the Muddy mine was sunk, probably by the same immigrants who later migrated to Royalton. St. Ioasaph (the Muddy church modified the spelling) was a 17th century bishop of Belgorod whose name was — and still is — revered by the Orthodox faithful, especially those from the Ukraine.
Madeline Kertesz Pisani, now of St. Louis, grew up in Muddy and lived next to St. Iosaph’s Church on property owned by her grandmother. The church, she says, served a significant population of Orthodox Christians who worked in the Muddy mine until the Royalton and Ziegler mines opened. That coal, she says, was easier to get out of the ground, so many of the miners moved to Franklin County. Those who remained behind, however, were faithful to the church. A priest from Royalton came over to perform services and sacraments — first weekly, then monthly, then occasionally. Eventually, the parish faded away.
The plans used to construct St. Iosaph’s Church later served to build Holy Protection Church in Royalton; their footprints are nearly identical. St. Iosaph’s onion-dome cupola was destroyed by a tornado in the 1930s, but the one on Royalton’s roofline remembers for both. Pisani recalls as a child playing with St. Iosaph’s dome on the ground of her front yard after the storm blew through Muddy.
Aside from its cornerstone and three-barred cross on the steeple, St. Iosaph’s exterior could easily be mistaken for a primitive Baptist or Cumberland Presbyterian church. But its soul is undeniably Orthodox. Though services are no longer conducted there, every Sept. 17, the Feast Day of St. Ioasaph, the church doors are open, and pilgrims from Royalton, St. Louis, Des Plaines, Knoxville, Tenn., and other towns near and far return to Muddy to bless the old church.
Today St. Iosaph’s, although structurally sound and intact, has seen better days. The church and
grounds sit in the shadow of an AMEREN power substation off a gravel road on
the outskirts of town. Pisani and her brother now own the church and the old
rectory, and have taken pains to maintain and restore them. “We put a new roof on the church last year and we’re working on restoring the bell tower now,” she says. “We can’t stand to see it fall to nothing.”
Although the Orthodox Church in southern Illinois’ mining belt has declined significantly in the last 50 years, the church is on
the rise again in urban communities. Father John Matusiak, rector of St. Joseph’s Church in Wheaton, reports that the Orthodox Church in America is strong,
vital, and, since the fall of the USSR, has strengthened its ties with the
church in Russia. While OCA enjoys a “sister church” relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate, says Father John, it in no way sees
itself as “the U.S. branch of the Russian church.”
“Over the past 20 years OCA has planted nearly 300 new parishes in the U.S., including several in the Chicago area — Wheaton, Palos Hills, Hyde Park — as well as in Quincy and Bloomington.
“None of these churches,” Father John continues, “considers itself in any way Russian Orthodox, serving as they do people of all
backgrounds and each having a substantial number of recent converts.”
New converts and parishes in northern Illinois would please Father John
Kochurov, founder of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in Illinois and
martyr saint of Chicago and St. Petersburg. And while the decline of the church
in rural and southern Illinois would distress him, he would look for signs of
life and growth and hope. He understood that the shadow of the Motherland may
fade in America, but the Orthodox Church has much deeper roots. That tradition,
and the faith it clings to, will never change.
William Furry is executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society and editor of Illinois Heritage magazine, where this article first appeared.