It was ugly, an ugly pile of dirty brownstone pierced by a round beautiful stained glass window surrounded by dozens of stores selling second hand sewing machines from the sidewalk. I first saw that homely church, later to be the Cathedral of St Sava on my first day in America. It was my personal landmark that remained constant for 65 years until destroyed by fire last week.
We came as refugees one cold November morning aboard the USS General Taylor, a navy Liberty ship. Our short journey from a Hudson River pier on West 23rd Street to the Arlington Hotel on 25th Street was in the back of a tan Studebaker convertible courtesy of one of my father’s pre-war friends. The top was down so that the five us and all our worldly belongings would fit.
The Arlington welcomed refugees. It was dirt cheap and it solicited guests from UNRRA and other religious relief organizations. It was directly across the street from St Sava which acted as our sponsor to our new country. It was a Serbian speaking safe port in a foreign land.
In the 1880’s Madison Square was a fashionable and upscale neighborhood. Wall Street’s Trinity Church built a Chapel on 25th Street to give parishioners who had moved uptown a place to worship. By the 1940’s it was a frayed adjunct to Manhattan’s booming garment and fur districts and the Chapel had been abandoned by its wealthy congregants who has moved further uptown; it was a moribund parish ready to expire.
Before the war New York’s Serbian community was one of recent immigrants, laborers, blue collar workers, barbers and butchers with the occasional stellar genius, a Nikola Tesla or a Mihajlo Pupin mixed in. The community struggled to establish a church and the best it could do was to hold services in a rented second floor social hall with plans to fix up a burned out tenement for their parish church.
The Second World War changed all that. The Yugoslav Information Center, really the Embassy of the Royal Yugoslav Government-in-Exile, opened at 812 Fifth Avenue. Important visitors Yugoslavia’s elite who had fled including King Peter II came to call. The New York establishment woke up to the fact that there was a Serbia and Serbians worth knowing. When Nikola Tesla died in 1943 his funeral was held at the Cathedral of St John the Divine with Bishop William Manning participating.
In 1944 the Episcopal Diocese of New York unloaded the Trinity Chapel complex, an expensive liability, on a grateful Serbian parish for only $30,000 and that’s how a chapel for rich Protestants became a cathedral for poor Orthodox Serbs.