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St Catherine's: Representing American Orthodoxy in Moscow
Along the principal street of the Zamoskvorechie neighbourhood south of the Kremlin and the Moscow River, stand 7 Russian Orthodox churches. This street of churches, Bolshaya Ordynka Ulitsa, is colourful and imposing at the same time. And towards the south end of the street at #60, is situated a truly unusual church of the Orthodox faith. St. Catherine the Great Martyr Church-in-the- Fields has just celebrated thirteen years as the home of the representation the Orthodox Church of America in Moscow.
By Linda Lippner
Photo courtesy of St Catherine

Churches such as this were unheard of during the Cold War. But today, there are six other international branches of Russian Orthodoxy in Moscow. Local representations from Jerusalem, Antioch, Serbia, Bulgaria, Alexandria and the Czech-lands were represented in Moscow before the American Church (which includes Canada, U.S. and Mexico) was given the Church of St. Catherine in 1994. This was two years after the first American Archpriest, Daniel Hubiak, arrived here to celebrate services with a small group of believers who considered themselves part of the Representation of the Orthodox Church in America.

St. Catherine’s own history spans a century and a half, when Catherine the Great commissioned a baroque and rococo style church to be built on the ground of a cosmetics guild. Zamoskvorechye had long been a craftsmen and workingman’s neighbourhood, and there has been churches on this site since the early 1600’s, most likely a wooden one first, then a stone structure. Because Soviet urban planners largely ignored the area in their massive re-development schemes for Moscow, one gets a sense of re-entering a centuries-old neighbourhood as you walk the streets.

This sense of being in another time and place continues as you enter the very spacious and well-kept grounds of St. Catherine’s, named after the Empress. The fencing around the church was brought here from the Kremlin’s church complex at Catherine’s behest. The remnants of stone double-headed eagles sit atop metal railings that have, surprisingly, survived the elements of weather and time and neglect plus the sometimes violent encroachments of early and mid 20th century Soviet attacks on Russian Orthodoxy. If one sees photos of the church in the early 20th century, there was a grand bell tower in the “trapeznaya” area which links the large domed sanctuary – for winter use – with the smaller summer one.

In 1931 the bell tower was pulled down and the building converted for use as a machine equipment institute and communal flats. By the 1980’s, the building was occupied by the I.Grabar State Restoration Centre. Grabar reduced its staff and working space after St. Catherine’s was formally handed over to the Orthodox Church in America by the Moscow Patriarchate. Finally, in September 2006, they completely vacated the complex so that it is all now dedicated to religious use.

Restoration is in progress both inside and outside St. Catherine’s, and the grounds are being landscaped. Two small monuments catch your attention. In the yard, there is a memorial bell tower which commemorates the tragic events of the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 (a duplicate is housed at the temporary quarters of St. Nicholas Church in New York City which was destroyed in the attack). Also a lovely carved cross donated by the Grabar Institute sits in the yard near the entrance. Grabar was also involved in the restoration of the dome of the winter sanctuary. They replaced the gold cross at the top, and performed out partial demolition and restoration of the former communal apartments.

Nearer to the entrance to the church, approximately below where the bell tower once soared, is a small wooden “bell tower” where bells are rung for services. One of these bells was bought with finds donated from the peoples of the State of Illinois. In the years to come, the bell tower atop the trapeznaya will house the several of the bells that now ring out from this small wooden tower.

Archimandrite Zacchaeus is Dean of the Church and Representative of the Orthodox Church in America to the Moscow Patriarchate. Father Zacchaeus is from New York State and was appointed Dean in 2002 by the blessing of Metropolitan Herman, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America. Father Zacchaeus feels that his time in Moscow has been a unique privilege, and has enjoyed the challenge of managing a parish that is more than a parish: in some ways also an “embassy” from the Americas to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Father Zacchaeus has the assistance of bi-lingual clergy, including two permanent priests and two non-assigned priests, along with a deacon and other very involved volunteer church staff. Father Zacchaeus and his priests can conduct weddings, baptisms and funerals in English. A special service has been conducted in English every September 11th to commemorate the tragic events in the United States. People from many embassies in Moscow attend who wish to express their sympathy and their resolve to combat terrorism.

In general, however, since St. Catherine’s has a primarily Russian-speaking congregation, the traditional cycle of liturgical witness is conducted in Church Slavonic. Father Zacchaeus says that he can look out over his congregation, which numbers anywhere from 180 to over 250, and if he spots a visitor that might be an English speaker, he is happy to add English to the proceedings. He also says that he and his staff can provide a unique service for couples or families who might be a blend of Orthodoxy, other religions and other nationalities. Counselling mixed religion couples in English, or in preparation for joining the Church, is a pleasurable task for Father Zacchaeus. With many expats temporarily or permanently living in Moscow, he sees this service to his parish community as becoming ever more popular. An expat considering joining the Orthodox Church has the comfort of studying with a native English-speaking priest right here in Moscow.

The local congregation is typical of the neighbourhood where St. Catherine’s is situated, and is growing constantly. Father Zacchaeus ascribes this primarily to young people with families because St. Catherine’s has an active children’s program, including a children’s choir and Sunday school. Also, his church is the only one in Moscow dedicated to St. Catherine the Great Martyr of Sinai, and many women named for this Saint attend services, especially on her name day, December 7. But overall, Father Zacchaeus notes that his Russian congregation is evolving in a tolerance of the “other.” When a congregant comes to St. Catherine’s he or she may find people of colour worshiping there, important visitors from abroad or newly arrived expats looking for a church home in Moscow. While this might be upsetting or disruptive to a more typical congregation in a Russian Orthodox Church, St. Catherine’s offers a flexible and welcoming face from the expanding parish. In the early 20th century, St. Catherine’s was one of the wealthiest parishes in the area. In the early 21st century, this unique church looks forward to offering Orthodox worshipers a spiritual wealth related to its position of Representation of the Orthodox Church in America to the Moscow Patriarchate.

There are many outreach activities that a congregate of St. Catherine’s can become involved in. There is a Sunday school and children’s choir, along with an adult Sunday school. Restoration work is an on-going project and volunteers are welcome. Also, an active community outreach programme at St. Catherine’s includes a soup kitchen based at the Kurskaya railway and Metro station, a collection centre for clothing donations from the Warm the Children Foundation based in New Jersey, a medical diagnostics center and an AIDS awareness and information program. It is sincerely hoped that AA meetings will resume in the fall or early winter, in Russian and English. Annual pilgrimages for parishioners and parish clergy are conducted to holy places around Russia and the world. Recently, they have included trips to Italy, the Sinai desert to St Catherine Monastery, and Constantinople (Istanbul). An extensive theological library is open to the public with books in English and Russian. Also on the grounds of the church is a liturgical vestments shop, an icon studio school and a wood-working and carving studio. Those interested in learning more about possible educational resources at the workshops are encouraged to contact the church.

Donations are always needed for the critical need for restoration of frescos and icons within the church and restoration of the bell tower on the outside, along with extensive restorations of the summer church recently returned to the Parish. Perhaps the most typically “American” activity is one of the most simple at St. Catherine’s: This is the after service “coffee hour” on Sundays where you can meet and socialize with other parishioners. All are welcome!

Contact information:
Bolshaya Ordynka 60/2, 119017, Moscow, Russia
Tel/Fax: +7 (495) 959-1296

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