Russian Navy donates bells to Philadelphia cathedral

December 2002— In 1897, William Cramp & Sons, one of Philadelphia’s largest shipbuilding companies, received a contract from the Russian government to build two battleships: the Varjag, a first-rank cruiser, and the Retvizan, an armor-clad battleship. Russian naval officers and sailors who arrived in Philadelphia to oversee the ships’ construction naturally became active members of the local Russian community.

The Varjag The Retvizan

The community had already organized itself as St. Andrew’s Brotherhood, to provide economic and spiritual assistance to Philadelphia’s Slavic immigrants during the latter part of the 19th century. The newly arrived Russian navy personnel contributed generously to the brotherhood, donated beautiful icons, and helped the locals to found the Cathedral of St. Andrew the First Called. “The Cathedral wasn't built just by the immigrants,” says Fr. Mark Shinn, the cathedral’s dean. “In fact it was made possible by the Russian Navy.”

The Varjag was the most famous ship of the Navy and of Russian history. It fought a courageous and fatal battle in 1904 against a Japanese fleet which remains the stuff of legend in both countries even today. Refusing a Japanese order to surrender on Feb. 9, 1904, at Chemulpo Bay in Korea during the Russo-Japanese War, it attacked the enemy fleet at full speed. Severely damaged in the battle, it limped away and was scuttled by its crew to keep it from falling into enemy hands. About 140 Russian sailors died. In recognition of this extraordinary heroism, the captain of the ship was later decorated by Russia— and by the emperor of Japan. The Japanese eventually managed to raise the Varjag from its watery grave and recommissioned it as the Hizen— and in raising it, they recovered its St. Andrew's flag, which they still treat with great honor.

St. Andrew's Cathedral

The Cathedral of St Andrew is the oldest Orthodox church in Philadelphia. It was consecrated on December 8, 1902 by St. Tikhon, Bishop of San Francisco, who was destined to become the Patriarch of Moscow and a martyr. The parish’s first Divine Liturgy was served by Protopriest Alexander Khotovitsky, who also was martyred under Stalin. Its royal doors and altar are still adorned with Icons donated by the Retvizan crew.

The cathedral celebrated its 100th anniversary on December 15th, 2002. Festivities opened with a hierarchical Divine liturgy presided over by Bishop Mercury of Zaraisk, the Administrator of the Moscow Patriarchate’s US parishes. Y.V. Ushakov, Russian ambassador to the US, N.N. Pashchenko, Russian consul in New York, and high-level representatives of the Russian Navy came for the occasion, including the Admiral and former Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Vladimirovich Kasatonov.

The admiral and his entourage were on hand for the specific purpose of presenting the cathedral, on behalf of the Russian Navy, with a magnificent set of seven bells. The cathedral previously had four bells, and the new set was selected to match them. Two of the earlier set were about as large as the largest of the new ones, and two were larger. So the church now has eleven bells, making it one of the biggest sets in America.

Bishop Mercury blesses the new bells donated by the Russian Navy at the 100th Anniversary of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Philadelphia.

After the Divine Liturgy, Bishop Mercury greeted the guests and read an address by the Patriarch of Moscow. The officials and clerics then proceeded to a newly founded museum next to the cathedral, which celebrates the history of the cathedral and the ships “Varyag” and “Retvizan”, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Honored Artist of Russia Vladimir Surovtsev then presented seven bells to the cathedral from the Russian Navy.

Getting hold of the authentic tradition.

The bells were cast by the Perfect Cast foundry of Minsk, Belarus, which has several other (much smaller) sets of bells in the United States, thanks to the work of Blagovest Bells of San Anselmo, California. They bells weigh 8, 16, 32, 42, 63, 88, and 109 kg respectively. The bells have no iconography, but the largest feature the following inscriptions:

  • "Remember O Lord the souls of the sailors who perished on board the Varjag and the Retvizan”;

  • “Give rest, O Lord, to the souls of those who died in the Atomic Submarine Kursk”;

  • “Holy Apostle Andrew the First Called, Pray to God for Us”; and

  • “Righteous Warrior Feodor Ushakov , Admiral of the Russian Fleet”.

After thanking the admiral and Mr. Surovtsev for the Navy's generous gift to the Cathedral, Bishop Mercury expressed hope that with God’s help and support of the Russian and foreign benefactors the bells will soon be in their place in the new bell-tower of the Cathedral.

In addition to seven new bells, the Cathedral received an icon and a portion of the relics of St. Feodor Ushakov, recently canonized by the Russian Church. St. Admiral Ushakov began his career in the Baltic Fleet and was founder and first commander of the Black Sea Fleet. He prevailed in all his battles without ever losing a single ship, and after retirement spent his life in prayer and generosity to the poor.

Also during their stay in the city, the admiral and Surovtsev presented a bell to the City of Philadelphia to commemorate the military alliance of the two countries during World War II. This bell weighs 88 kg and its inscription reads, "In memory of the military and technical cooperation between the Russian and American peoples during the Second World War."