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Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign

Synod of Bishops of ROCOR and the Cathedral

The Synod of Bishops of ROCOR – its administration building with 2 churches inside: the Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign (Kursk-Root Icon) and St Sergius church - is situated in the East Side of Manhattan at the intersection of East 93rd Street and Park Avenue. It is also called Semenenko Memorial as it was presented to the Synod by a banker of Russian origin Serge Semenenko more than 50 years ago. The mansion built by famous architect William A. Delano has become a part of Russian culture of New York. 

The History of the Mansion 

From the mid-19th century, the land on which the headquarters of the Synod of Bishops now stands was occupied by a porticoed wooden mansion, built in the then dominant Greek Revival style, and at one time owned by General Winfield Scott (1786-1866), the Commander in Chief of the United American Army during Civil War of 1861.

After his death the mansion belonged to an Ursuline catholic convent, whose sisters were engaged in girls’ education. But the construction of the subway near Park Avenue urged them to sell the building.

Since 1913 the mansion belonged to the widow of the owner of one of the New York’s Steamer company Robert B. Minturn – Susane (Shaw) Minturn. In three years she sold the building to a well-known banker Francis Palmer. To reconstruct the mansion he invited a prominent American architect William Adams Delano from the firm of Delano & Aldrich, who worked for elite clients in New York City and Long Island, building townhouses, country houses, clubs and banks, often in the neo-Georgian and Federal styles, combining brick and limestone.

Delano chose to design a mansion for Mr. Palmer in the eclectic Georgian-Federal style which was his firm's hallmark, and which he used to such great affect in other imposing New York landmark buildings (e.g., the Colony Club, the Union Club, the Knickerbocker Club, the Willard Straight House).

Construction of the new mansion, at 75 East 93rd Street / 1180 Park Avenue,  began in 1916 and was completed in 1918. It is built of red brink, set in an English-bond pattern, with white Tuscan marble ornamental features, and consists of five stories, with low basement and subbasement. The mansion is very nearly square (five windows wide on Park Avenue, four windows wide on  East 93rd Street).  The roof is steeply pitched, in the Mansard style, and, unlike those of the stories below it, its bulls-eye windows are not symmetrically placed, (The roof was originally of slate, but this was replaced with copper in later years.)

After his death his widow sold the house to George F. Baker, Jr, the only son of one of the richest bankers – George F. Baker, Sr. At the same time George F. Baker, Jr. bought 3 adjusting buildings. They had been demolished and on the plot there was built a house, facing Park Avenue, with ball hall and the main dining room. The rooms inside the mansion were reconstructed too. Nowadays these are the main Church hall and the banquet hall. In 1937 George Baker died while cruising near Hawaiian Islands and the mansion was inherited by his wife Edith Baker (nee Crane). 

Synod of Bishops. Prince Serge Belosselsly-Belozersky and Serge Semenenko 

The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is an offshoot of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church. Forged in the crucible of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, the Russian Civil War, the administration of the Church was organized aboard a battleship moored in Constantinople's Golden Horn, in 1920. Soon after, King Alexander of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats & Slovenes and Patriarch Dimitrije of the Serbian Orthodox Church invited the bishops to move their administration to their country, providing them with a residence in the city of Sremski-Karlovci. Here the church administration, the Synod of Bishops, remained until, at the end of World War II, Stalin's armies were approaching Yugoslavia. The Synod then relocated, briefly, to Czechoslovakia, and then to Munich, which was safely within the American Zone.

By the late 1940s, however, with most of its flock, perhaps a majority of whom were "Displaced Persons" ("D.P.s") - Russians and Ukrainians who had been removed from their native lands by the Nazis and forced to labor as slaves in Germany - had found refuge in the United States and other countries of the Western Hemisphere. The Primate and Synod thus decided that it would be best for them to move also. This decision was also prompted no doubt by Stalin's continued predatory attempts (often sinister and underhanded) to have the refugees seized and forcibly returned to his "Worker's Paradise", where they were either summarily executed, or, more likely, shipped off to labor and die in his hellish system of detention camps (known to history as the GuLag).

When the Synod and Primate arrived in the United States in 1951, a prominent member of the flock, Prince Sergei Sergeievich Beloselsky-Belozersky (1895-1978), presented them with a country property in Mahopac, New York, north of New York City, to serve as residence and headquarters. The Prince had married an heiress to the Crane Co. plumbing fortune, and he and members of his family have been generous supporters and donors to the Church over the years. But while the Mahopac property was pleasingly bucolic, it was deemed to be too far removed from most of the flock, who, for economic reasons, settled in New York City and its suburbs. Accordingly, the Prince generously donated a brownstone residence, situated on West 77th Street, in Manhattan, and the administration relocated once again. It was while occupying the West 77th Street premises that His Eminence, Metropolitan Anastasy, the Primate of the Church, received what would prove to be a fateful visit. 

Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky) (1873-1965) had been a prominent bishop in pre-Revolutionary Russia. So highly regarded was he for his piety, intelligence and organizational abilities, that, even though a junior bishop of the Diocese of Moscow, he was entrusted with the responsibility of organizing all the church services attendant upon the Moscow celebration of the Tricentennial Anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, in 1913, which included, among many other services, the canonization of Saint Germogen, Patriarch of Moscow (+1612).

After the restoration of the Patriarchate at the Great Pan-Russia Council of 1917-1918, Bishop Anastasy was elevated to the rank of Archbishop and assigned to head the Diocese of Kishinev (in what is now the Republic of Moldova). He was able to occupy his see for only a short time before Bolshevik advances drove him from the country, but during his brief tenure he made the acquaintance of the merchant Iakov Semenenko and his family. Ultimately, he not only assisted them in their own escape from the Bolsheviks, but he afforded them invaluable personal assistance when they found themselves as refugees in Constantinople.

The means were also found to help Iakov's young son, Sergei, to matriculate on scholarship at Harvard University, where he eventually completed a graduate degree in the School of Business Administration (ironically, built and endowed by George F. Baker, Sr.), and began a career in finance which led to his eventually becoming president of the First Bank of Boston and a major (and controversial) figure in American finance. Meanwhile, after serving brilliantly as Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem during the diplomatically sensitive period of the British Mandate, Archbishop Anastasy was chosen, in 1936, to become the second Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a post which he held until his retirement in 1964.

At the height of his power and wealth, in the 1950s, Sergei Semenenko resided in an elegant suite at the grand Hotel Pierre, in New York City, and so before long learned that the man he had known in his boyhood as Archbishop Anastasy, and to whom he and his family owed so great a debt personally, had also established his residence in the City. Accordingly, he made an appointment to meet the aged prelate for tea and become reacquainted. To Sergei Semenenko's eye, the brownstone residence on the West 77th Street was not commensurate with the dignity and prestige of the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and, in gratitude for the help he had received at a critical period in his life, he vowed that he would acquire fit premises for the Metropolitan and the Synodal Administration. He then began to search the City for suitable properties, and in this task enjoyed the valuable assistance of Mr. Mikhail Grigorievich Shcherbinin, a Russian émigré who had entrée into the upper echelons of New York Society. The search was eventually narrowed down to the Palmer-Baker Mansion, and Mikhail Shcherbinin was able to obtain an introduction to Edith Kane Baker for Sergei Semenenko.

From the outbreak of World War II, Mrs. Baker had closed the main wings of the mansion, renovating the chauffeur's and servants' quarters located above the garage in the "dower house" wing to serve as her New York pied-à-terre. She made very few changes in the Palmer-Baker wings, other than to donate to the White House the two antique chandeliers from the ballroom, each hung with about eighty prisms carved of rock crystal, when the nation's executive mansion was being renovated during the Truman administration (replica chandeliers were later installed in the ballroom, but hung, alas, with cut-glass prisms).

When Edith Baker heard of the Church's plight and Mr. Semenenko made his offer, she expressed herself willing to part with the other two wings. And so, through some creative financing and the application of considerable funds of his own, Sergei Semenenko acquired the Palmer-Baker Mansion for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia as its permanent headquarters.

The main hall was turned into the Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign (consecrated in 1959) and the former main dining-room – into the Chapel of St Sergius of Radonezh. In the latter the services are daily conducted both in Slavonic and English.

The icons for the Cathedral were painted by Archimandrite Cyprian (Pyzhov). 

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