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Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich - The Beginning of His Apostolic Labor

Article Index

3. The Beginning of His Apostolic Labor

Bishop Vladimir was replaced by BishopNicholas (Ziorov) in 1891. On the day after the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in  1892,[25] BishopNicholas ordained Fr. Sebastian to the holy priesthood in the St. Basil Cathedral. On the following Sunday Fr. Sebastian gave his first sermon as a priest, on the theme "Love according to ChristianDoctrine."[26]

Before his ordination, Fr. Sebastian had submitted a report to Bishop Nicholas in which he estimated that there were some 1,500 Orthodox Christians residing in the states of California and Oregon, and in the then-territory of Washington. He asked that he be assigned to minister to these believers; and Bishop Nicholas, recognizing his rare apostolic zeal, granted his request.[27] Thus, the newly ordained Hieromonk Sebastian was appointed as missionary priest for California and the Pacific Northwest. Losing no time in fulfilling the task given him, within a week after his ordination he left on a missionary tour of the West Coast of North America. He traveled as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, and as far south as San Diego, eventually covering over 3,000 miles.[28]

On this missionary journey Fr. Sebastian found poor Orthodox immigrants of many ethnic backgrounds who lived far from Orthodox churches and clergy. As he wrote in a letter to Bishop Nicholas, some of these believers had come under the influence of Protestant churches, and yet they welcomed the opportunity to return to the Church of their youth. He also found many Uniates who, although they called themselves Orthodox, had acquired what he termed questionable practices resulting from their ecclesiastical ties to Roman Catholicism.[29]

While in the Northwest Fr. Sebastian performed baptisms, both of children and adults, and offered the otherMysteries and services of the Church to the isolated Orthodox Christians. Extremely grateful to the missionary priest, these believers began to cherish hopes that Orthodox churches would be founded in their region.

In Oregon Fr. Sebastian decided that Portland was the best site for a chapel. While he regretted that there were few Orthodox in the city itself, Portland was a central location for believers in the area. For example, a population of Greek fishermen had settled along the Columbia river and in the port city of Astoria.

In Seattle Fr. Sebastian saw even more possibilities, for there he found a core group of dedicated Orthodox Christians who were eager to form a parish. Seattle, he wrote to Bishop Nicholas, "promises to be the center of a lively parish." He also found Orthodox Christians in the communities of Tacoma, Gig Harbor, and Wilkeson, Washington, and in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. In Gig Harbor he baptized the American Indian wife of a pious Serbian man from Herzegovina; this couple and their large extended family later became founding members of the first Orthodox church in Seattle.[30]

Although he was of Serbian ancestry, Fr. Sebastian knew his task was to minister to Orthodox Christians of all ethnic backgrounds, and to minister and reach out to the non-Orthodox as well. Being fluent in English, Serbian, and Russian, and knowing some Greek as well, Fr. Sebastian was a bridge between the New World and the ancient Faith of traditional Orthodox lands. In the words of Bishop Irinej: "By every report Sebastian Dabovich was not one to ask about jurisdictional or national affiliation before setting out on long journeys to minister to Orthodox Christians in mining communities, lumber camps, or far-distant towns or villages. He offered his pastoral services with a free hand to anyone who was in need. Just as he gave no thought to his own comforts as a youth, caring more for the needs of others than for his own concerns, Fr. Sebastian denied himself all worldly comforts of home, family, or earthly possessions, so that he could provide for the spiritual needs of the Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, Syrian, or Arab Orthodox Christians who required his aid."[31]

While Fr. Sebastian was serving as a missionary in the PacificNorthwest, the above-mentioned Fr. Alexis Toth was traveling from his former Uniate parish in Minneapolis to Uniate communities in Wilkes-Barre andMayfield, Pennsylvania. Soon he succeeded in bringing these communities into the Orthodox Church as well. An outstanding missionary through whose influence and example nearly thirty thousand Uniates were eventually united to the true Church of Christ, Fr. Alexis was canonized by the Orthodox Church in America in 1994 as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

In 1893, St. Alexis wrote to Bishop Nicholas requesting an assistant priest for St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, so that he could return to Pennsylvania and complete his work of bringing the Wilkes-Barre community more fully into the Orthodox ethos and way of life. Granting this request, Bishop Nicholas sent Fr. Sebastian to serve at St. Mary's Church in Minneapolis. While at St. Mary's, Fr. Sebastian continued the work of St. Alexis, striving to help formerUniates enter more deeply into the life of the Orthodox Church. He preached eloquent sermons and taught at the parish's missionary school. The choir director of the parish and the music director of the school, Paul Zaichenko, has provided for us this valuable portrait of Fr. Sebastian in the early days of his priestly ministry:

"Fr. Sebastian Dabovich succeeded Fr. A. Toth as parish priest. He was a quiet and pensive monk, always considerate, conscientious, modest. He performed his duties sincerely, and taught the Bible class of the parish school with enthusiasm. He was a tireless and unselfish worker, a humble and a just man before his Lord. He was one of the most worthy workers in the Mission. I knew him back in San Francisco. At that time he sang in the cathedral choir, of which I was a choirmaster. His aim was his betterment in religious life. As in San Francisco, so too in Minneapolis, he was the example of virtuous living; he always considered it his duty to avoid an evil step. Leading a quiet monastic life, he found great happiness in reading religious books and in teaching students the Holy Bible. He loved children and was always considerate of his parishioners. Notwithstanding his short stay in Minneapolis, he was loved by his flock. He was a bright torch of love, kindness, and sincerity."[32]

While serving at the parish in Minneapolis, Fr. Sebastian made his first visit to Chicago, where he spent ten days helping Bishop Nicholas to organize an exhibit of Orthodox Christianity at theWorld's Columbian Exposition (also known as the ChicagoWorld's Fair). While in Chicago, he gathered local Orthodox Serbs and celebrated the Divine Liturgy for them. Although he was only able to meet about twenty Serbs at that time, years later he would build upon the foundation he had laid for a Serbian Orthodox church in Chicago.[33]

After less than a year of serving in Minneapolis, Fr. Sebastian was recalled to the West Coast to resume his missionary work there. He arrived back in San Francisco in December of 1893. Shortly thereafter he went to baptize a Serbian infant in Jackson, California, a gold-mining community near the "mother lode." Seeing that many Serbian miners had settled with their families in Jackson and in neighboring towns, Fr. Sebastian immediately recognized the need to build an Orthodox church there, and he urged the local Serbs to begin planning one. The Serbs agreed and began pooling their resources. Fr. Sebastian asked for and received a contribution from the "Kennedy Mining and Milling Company," which owned the main gold mine in Jackson. Soon the Serbs purchased land for both a cemetery and a church.[34]

In February of 1894, Bishop Nicholas came to Jackson to bless the church property; in May of the same year the first burial in the cemetery occurred; and by December the church was completed. It was a small but beautiful church, situated prominently atop the tallest hill in the town, and surrounded by the cemetery.

Bishop Nicholas had bells for the church sent down from Alaska. He also donated a chandelier, together with an icon of the Mother of God which had been painted at St. Panteleimon's Monastery on Mount Athos. In time the Mother of God would perform miracles through this icon, which would come to be known as the "Jackson Icon of the Mother of God."[35]

On December 16, Bishop Nicholas, assisted by Fr. Sebastian, consecrated the new church, dedicating it to St. Sava of Serbia. Although the service of consecration was in the Slavonic language, Fr. Sebastian—always the missionary—translated portions of the service for the non-Serbian locals in attendance.[36] The new church in Jackson, founded by the first Orthodox priest ordained in the United States, became the first Serbian Orthodox church consecrated in the Western Hemisphere. (Today the building itself has the further distinction of being the oldest standing Orthodox church in the western contiguous United States.)[37]

While remaining based in San Francisco, Fr. Sebastian regularly went to Jackson to serve at the new parish. He also continued his missionary travels throughout the western United States. In August 1894 he visited Portland and Seattle, where he had helped to organize Orthodox communities two years before. In Portland he spent a few weeks raising funds to erect a church on land donated for that purpose by Lavrenti Chernoff, an Alaskan of mixed Native-Russian ancestry. By the time Fr. Sebastian left Portland, he had succeeded in raising the needed money, and work on the new church was already in progress. In Seattle he also arranged for the erecting of a church.[38]

Fr. Sebastian's next trip northward was in February 1895. The church in Portland had by this time been completed, and Fr. Sebastian served the first Divine Liturgy there, dedicating it in the name of the "Holy and Life-giving Trinity." At that time, the small congregation consisted of six Syrians, four Serbs, and two Russians. (By 1907, the community had grown to about eighty believers.) The Orthodox church in Seattle, meanwhile, was in the process of being built, and was soon to receive its first priest, Fr. Amvrosios Vretta.[39]

In his travels, Fr. Sebastian again visited the Orthodox community in Wilkeson, Washington, helping to found a parish there which later, in 1900, would build a church also dedicated to theHoly Trinity.[40] Further south, he met with groups of Serbs in Angels Camp (near Jackson), California; in Fresno, California (and in the nearby towns of Visalia and Hanford); and in Bisbee, Arizona. These visits bore fruit as well, for in all of these places Serbian Orthodox churches were eventually built.[41]

Fr. Sebastian also visited isolated Orthodox Christians who had recently settled in the mining boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada.[42] When the famed Comstock silver lode was exhausted in 1898, however, the city's population declined drastically, and it is probable that the small Orthodox community moved elsewhere.

In recognition of Fr. Sebastian's missionary labors, in 1895 Bishop Nicholas awarded him with a gold cross. Although this award was normally given in the Russian Church only after ten years of priestly ministry, Fr. Sebastian received it not even a full three years after his ordination to the priesthood. The reason for this was explained by Bishop Nicholas in his address to Fr. Sebastian: "With the blessing of the Most-holy Ruling Synod of All Russia and by the assent of the Most-pious Emperor, this high sign of distinction is now bestowed upon you, my beloved brother in the Lord. It is granted to you not only as a reward for your devout ministry in the lower ecclesiastical ranks, but even more so as an encouragement in the ever greater labors and heroic tasks which you will continue to face in your missionary ministry... You were not forced to pick up the cross of a monk and a missionary, but did it of your own free will, for your and others' salvation. This made you not your own but Christ's (cf. Gal. 3:29); now you should seek not your own (cf. I Cor. 13:5) but the things which are Jesus Christ's (cf. Phil. 2:21).[43]

In 1896 Fr. Sebastian made a trip to his ancestral land of Serbia, where he studied theology for several months. When he returned to San Francisco in November of the same year, he was assigned as pastor of St. Basil Cathedral and as a teacher in the church school.[44] This new position did not prevent him from carrying on his missionary work throughout the western United States. He continued to visit the new communities he had formed and organized, tending to their spiritual needs, making the Holy Mysteries available to them, and ensuring their survival.

When the St. Sava Church in Jackson, California, had received full parish status, Bishop Nicholas had wanted it to be chartered as Russian Orthodox, since it was under the Russian diocese. Fr. Sebastian defended the desire of the parishioners to have their charter read "Serbian Orthodox," but also indicated that the parish would still be under the omophorion of the Russian bishop for the American mission.[45] Thus Fr. Sebastian defended the right of the Serbian community to retain its ethnic identity, and at the same time upheld the authority of the local diocesan bishop.

Interestingly, Bishop Nicholas was not against the idea of having Serbian priests and parishes in the United States subordinate to the Orthodox Church in Serbia, as long as the Serbian Church could support these priests and parishes. In 1897 both Bishop Nicholas and Fr. Sebastian wrote to Metropolitan Mihailo (Jovanovich) of Serbia, asking if this was possible. Metropolitan Mihailo replied to Fr. Sebastian:

"His Grace Bishop Nicholas has written to Us and asked if We could allocate money for churches, schools, priests and teachers; and if We could, he would have nothing against there being separate Serbian priests subordinate to the Serbian Metropolitanate. And I answered that We could not do this because We could not support so many churches and priests, schools and teachers there. I think that You should agree to this and listen to Your Bishop, and he will help You and protect the Serbs and Orthodoxy, and will not destroy Serbian national customs."[46]

In reply, Fr. Sebastian wrote to Metropolitan Mihailo:

"I have received Your well-intentioned letter and I completely understand. I bow before You and thank You sincerely. I shall be guided by Your advice. Orthodoxy progresses in America. Serbs are found in various states, they are being revived spiritually and communicate with our organization."[47]

In August of 1897, Fr. Sebastian traveled to Butte, Montana. At that time the center of the nation's copper-mining industry, the western boomtown of Butte was the home of a large number of Serbs who had come to work in the mines. On the Feast of the Dormition Fr. Sebastian celebrated the first Divine Liturgy in the history of Butte, and afterwards he met with the thirty-one Serbs in attendance in order to organize a parish there. He followed up on this visit by traveling to Butte four to six times a year to serve the Divine Liturgy and observe the progress of the parish.[48]

At the end of October in 1897, Fr. Sebastian and Fr. Alexander Hotovitsky—a Russian priest from New York, later canonized as a New Martyr of Russia—accompanied BishopNicholas on a trip toWashington, D.C. Fathers Sebastian and Alexander served as translators when Bishop Nicholas met with President William McKinley. This was the second meeting in the history of the United States between an Orthodox bishop and a U.S. president (the first having been a meeting between Bishop Vladimir and President Grover Cleveland in 1889).[49] In his audience with President McKinley, Bishop Nicholas expressed his concern over the treatment of Orthodox Christians in Alaska, particularly over the fact that American trading companies were compelling the faithful to work on Sundays and feast days and had unlawfully taken possession of Church properties. The president promised to bring the matter before Congress.[50]

On November 9, 1897, soon after returning to his post at the San Francisco cathedral, Fr. Sebastian officiated at the wedding of his niece, Ella, to a young Russian immigrant, Theodore Pashkovsky.[51] His new son-in-law was ordained to the priesthood less than a month afterward. Many years later, following the repose of Ella, Fr. Theodore Pashkovksy would be tonsured a monk with the name Theophilus, consecrated a bishop, and eventually (in 1934) elected as the Metropolitan of All America and Canada for the American Metropolia.[52]

[25] August 16/28, 1892. See note 21 above.
[26] "An Ordination Service," p. 2.
[27] Brigit Farley, "Circuit Riders to the Slavs and Greeks:Missionary Priests and the Establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church in the American West, 1890–1910," Occasional Paper 276 (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2000), p. 1.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., referring to the letter of Fr. Sebastian Dabovich to Bishop Nicholas, November 17, 1892, Alaskan-Russian Church Archives, Records of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America—Diocese of Alaska (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, 1984), container D511/13, reel 520.
[30] Ibid., pp. 2, 4–5, and the letter of Fr. Sebastian Dabovich to Bishop Nicholas, November 17, 1892.
[31] Mirko Dobrijevic (Bishop Irinej), p. 15.
[32] Golden Jubilee Album, St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church (Minneapolis, 1937), p. 44. In Tarasar and Erickson, p. 96.
[33] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich to Protopresbyter Petar Stajchich, Ravanica Monastery in Srem, 1935. Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, 1905–2005 (Chicago, 2005), p. 48.
[34] Bishop Nicholai (Velimirovich), "Father Sebastian Dabovich."
[35] The icon's feast has been appointed to be celebrated on July 12/25.
[36] Leslie McLaughlin, "St. Sava Celebrates 110 Years in Amador," Ledger Dispatch (October 28, 2004).
[37] The original church building still serves an active parish. The parishioners are currently compiling accounts of miracles performed through the above-mentioned "Jackson Icon of the Mother of God."
[38] "A New Greek Church," Morning Oregonian, August 15, 1894, p. 10.
[39] Tarasar and Erickson, p. 35.
[40] This church was consecrated by Bishop Tikhon (later canonized as a saint; see below) in 1902. In 1996 the parish in Wilkeson, having outgrown its church building, moved to a nearby location in Tacoma. The original church in Wilkeson remains in pristine condition, and is used for occasional services. After the church in Jackson, it is the oldest surviving Orthodox church building in the western contiguous United States.
[41] Farley, p. 2.
[42] Gray, p. 78.
[43] Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov), "A Message to Hieromonk Sebastian (Dabovich) as He Is Awarded a Gold Pectoral Cross from the Office of His Majesty." Translated from Russian. First published in English in Holy Trinity Cathedral Life, December 20, 1992.
[44] Orthodox American Messenger, no. 5, December 27, 1896, p. 143.
[45] Bishop Nicholai (Velimirovich), "Father Sebastian Dabovich."
[46] Serbian Metropolitan Mihailo to Hieromonk Sebastian. Written in Belgrade, October 24, 1897. Quoted in Bishop Sava, p. 23.
[47] Hieromonk Sebastian to Metropolitan Mihailo of Serbia. Written in San Francisco, December 14, 1897. Quoted in Bishop Sava, pp. 23–24.
[48] Reader Alexander Vallens, "Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich: The First American Serbian Orthodox Apostle" (2005), p. 5. http://www.transfigcathedral.org/faith/corner/Dabovich.pdf.
[49] Tserkovniye Vedomosti (Church Gazette), 1889, no. 10, p. 262. During his meeting with President Cleveland, Bishop Vladimir reported on the condition of his flock in Alaska. See Bishop Gregory (Afonsky), A History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska (1794–1917) (Kodiak, Alaska: St. Herman's Theological Seminary Press, 1977), pp. 82–83.
[50] "Bishop Nicholas' Complaint," Washington Post, November 5, 1897. In Tarasar and Erickson, p. 73.
[51] "An Orthodox Ceremony," The San Francisco Call, Tuesday, November 9, 1897.
[52] Tarasar and Erickson, p. 200.



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“This book on Serbia’s Christian Heritage in Kosovo and Metohija, its heartland in medieval times and through Ottoman domination, is intended to introduce to a wide reading public the oldest and richest treasury of Serbian medieval history and culture. Its authors are leading specialists in the fields in which they write, so readers may place complete reliance on the factual accuracy of the material.”

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