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Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovich - Preparation for Apostolic Ministry

Article Index

2. Preparation for Apostolic Ministry

Fr. Sebastian was born in San Francisco on June 21 (new style), 1863. His parents, Ilija and Jelena Dabovich, were the first recorded Serbian immigrants to the West Coast of America. In the company of his two older siblings and his father's brother Nikolai, his parents had originally come from the village of Sasovici nearHercegNovi, at the entrance of the Bay of Kotor,Montenegro. After a long voyage (including crossing the isthmus of Panama on donkeys), they arrived in San Francisco in 1853.[7] Ilija Dabovich opened a store there, and he and his brother Nikolai established a wholesale fruit business. Fr. Sebastian was the fourth of seven children born to Ilija and Jelena, and was given the name Jovan (John). In his later years he would write to a friend: "I am the first male child born of Serbian parents in America. Before me two of my cousins (female) were born to my uncle."[8] An Orthodox community had formed in San Francisco six years prior to Fr. Sebastian's birth, called the "Greek-Russian Slavonian Eastern Church and Benevolent Society." The community consisted of Russians, Serbs,Greeks, and Syrians who had come to California in the first years of theGold Rush. Since this community was not yet chartered as a parish and a priest had not yet been assigned to it, the spiritual needs of the Orthodox faithful in San Francisco were served by chaplains of the Russian Imperial Navy. In 1863 one of these chaplains, Hieromonk Kyrill from the Tikhvin Monastery in Russia, baptized the infant Jovan—the future Fr. Sebastian—in a chapel on the Russian warship Bogatyr, which was then anchored in the San Francisco Bay. "Eventually," Fr. Sebastian wrote many years later, "the Russian ships weighed their anchors. And there were no more priests here. It would seem that, left without a church or a priest, this Orthodox community should have disappeared from the face of the earth, especially in the rush for gold, for wealth. Through the mercy of God, however, this did not happen. The Orthodox—Serbs, Greeks, and Russians—lived at that time in concord, and supported each other in a brotherly manner. On all major feasts, they gathered together with those who had families, and sang religious and folk songs."[9]

In 1868, a year after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, a Russian priest was assigned to the San Francisco Orthodox community. The new pastor, Fr.NikolaiKovrigin, had been transferred from the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Sitka, Alaska, along with an assistant, Reader Vasily Shishkin. The community in San Francisco now began to hold church services in the home of a local Serb, Peter Sekulovich, located on Mission Street, which was at that time considered to be outside of town. The Dabovich family attended services regularly in this house chapel, known as the "Prayer House of the Orthodox Oriental Church."

Jovan Dabovich was a serious, quiet, and somewhat frail child, whose piety was manifest from an early age. He later recalled the first Divine Liturgy that Fr. Nikolai celebrated at the Sekulovich home, which was evidently the first Liturgy celebrated on land (not on a ship) in San Francisco. At the time he would have been four or five years old: "I remember that first service, to which I went with my mother. We had to walk a long way along unpaved streets. Furthermore we were mercilessly drenched by rain. At last we reached a small house; we crossed over a ditch (or temporarily excavated gutter) on a plank and entered the church. The "church" was set up in a divided room. At the end, opposite the entrance, the Holy Antimension lay on a covered table. A little table in a corner served as the table of oblation. I remember two icons on the walls: the Savior and the Mother of God. There were approximately twenty communicants at that Liturgy."[10]

In 1872, when Jovan was nine years old, the newly consecrated Russian bishop of Alaska and the Aleutians, John (Mitropolsky), transferred his residence from Sitka, Alaska, to San Francisco. Since he was the only Orthodox bishop for the American continent, this move marked the transfer of the entire American diocesan administration to California.

Bishop John was proficient in the English language, and came from Russia to America with the intention not only of serving the needs of the Orthodox Native Americans and Russians in Alaska, but also of bringing the Orthodox Faith to the heterodox on the North American continent. This was the primary reason why he moved the diocesan residence to California. In the midst of the large American population in San Francisco, he believed, the Orthodox Church would be able to reveal her truth to the non-Orthodox Christian confessions and to American society in general with greater effect and impact.[11] It is likely that Bishop John's desire to bring Americans from other Christian confessions into the Orthodox Church was passed on to Jovan Dabovich even at that early period of his life, for it became Jovan's lifelong desire, also.

In coming to San Francisco, Bishop John erected a church on Pierce Street and consecrated it as the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. As often as there was a service at the cathedral, young Jovan was there. Having become wholly dedicated to the Church, he deeply loved the beauty and solemnity of Orthodox worship, and desired with all his heart to serve God and his fellow man at the holy altar. As he later affirmed, it was his intention from childhood to become a priest, and he never thought of anything else.[12]

With this in mind Jovan attended the Saturday church school and the "Graeco-Russian Seminary" (also known as the Mission School) that Bishop John had transferred from Sitka to San Francisco. At the small seminary he studied alongside Aleut natives who had come from Alaska. There he became proficient in Russian and Church Slavonic, and also gained a fair knowledge of Greek. Recalling those days in San Francisco, Fr. Sebastian wrote: "From the time of the arrival of the Right Reverend John, priests, after his example, began to proclaim the word of truth to the flock in San Francisco. A Saturday school for the children of parishioners was opened where they were taught the Catechism and the Russian language... Michael Vladimirov was choir director and singing teacher. He also taught mathematics at the [Mission] school. Besides the clergymen that taught at the school, Vladyka himself also had seven classes a week, in Holy Scripture and the Slavonic language. A native Greek, Dimitrios Frankiades, from the University of Athens, was teacher of the Greek and English languages. At the time of the Right Reverend John as many as sixteen pupils studied at the bishop's school in San Francisco. Of that number five are now serving in various positions of the local diocese. The Right Reverend John loved his school, one might say, with a singular love."[13]

As he grew to manhood, Jovan Dabovich became known not only for his love for the Church but also for his selflessness and abstinence. As Bishop Irinej writes: "Those who knew him best invariably tell of his lack of ostentation and his disdain for personal wealth or possessions. A modern St. Nicholas, Jovan felt deeply the plight of the poor and helpless, identifying so readily with them that he preferred to wear only modest apparel and eat the simplest of meals—often nothing more than milk or a little cheese—rather than to eat expensive meals and dress lavishly while others did without. Frequently he simply gave his possessions away to those in need—a pattern that persisted throughout his life."[14]

After graduating from high school, Jovan served at the San Francisco cathedral as a reader and chanter of church services, and as a teacher. In 1884 he was assigned to work in the same capacity at St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka, which had been established in 1848 by the great enlightener of Alaska, St. Innocent.

Amidst his far-reaching missionary endeavors, St. Innocent had converted the Tlingit (Kolosh) natives in the Sitka area to the Orthodox Faith. Jovan Dabovich, when assisting at the Sitka cathedral, became acquainted with native families that St. Innocent had originally evangelized. As a result, the twenty-one-year-old Jovan began some missionary work of his own, manifesting the evangelical zeal that would become the hallmark of his life. Learning from the Orthodox Tlingits in Sitka that there was another Tlingit population to the northeast that had not yet converted to Orthodox Christianity, Jovan initiated their evangelization. As the catechist of the Sitka cathedral, he organized a mission of Tlingit parishioners to bring the Orthodox Faith to the non-Christian Tlingits in the area around present-day Juneau, over a hundred miles away.

Several years later he recorded: "My assistants among the Indians—the Kolosh natives Ivan Hlyantich, Pavel Katlyeyan and others—set out for what was then a very small place, now the sizable town of Juneau, and following special instructions from me, they (and other parishioners) spread the Word and Orthodoxy—and the result of that is—the present Church of St. Nicholas in Juneau.[15]

So it happened: Within six years of the Orthodox Tlingits of Sitka beginning to evangelize the Tlingits of Juneau under Jovan Dabovich's guidance, the Juneau natives began coming to Sitka for baptism. Three years later, in 1893, an Orthodox church was built in Juneau by the local natives together with Serbian gold miners who were then living in the area.[16] Today it is the oldest continually functioning church in Alaska.[17]

During his stay in Alaska, Jovan decided to further his theological education in preparation for the holy priesthood. Thus, in 1885 he traveled to Russia, where he spent three years studying at the St. Petersburg and Kiev Theological Academies. Upon his graduation in 1888, he was recommended for ordination to the ranks of clergy by Metropolitan Isidore (Nikolsky) of Novgorod, St. Petersburg and Finland.[18]

Metropolitan Isidore was a major figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, and a major support of the Orthodox Church in the New World. When Jovan Dabovich was studying in St. Petersburg, Metropolitan Isidore was crowning fifty years of episcopal service, having participated in the consecration of over one hundred bishops, including all the bishops of the American mission in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As Jovan (then Fr. Sebastian) later wrote, the metropolitan "was the most faithful friend, spiritual advisor, and material support, under God, of the young Church in North America in her many serious trials, temptations, and persecutions." Recalling his own association with the great hierarch, Fr. Sebastian wrote: "[I] had the good fortune of obtaining [my] first official appointment to service in the ranks of the clergy from theMost Reverend Isidore...and furthermore had the spiritual consolation and privilege to obtain his personal blessing, and to kiss the hand of the greatest Prelate of the day."[19]

Jovan Dabovich returned to San Francisco in 1888 with his approval for ordination. During the same year, Bishop John returned to Russia, and in his place the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church appointed Bishop Vladimir (Sokolovsky-Avtonomov) as Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutians.

On December 30, 1888, Bishop Vladimir tonsured Jovan a monk at the St. Nicholas Church in San Francisco, giving him the name Sebastian.[20] A week later, on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ,[21] he ordained Fr. Sebastian to the diaconate.[22]

Bishop Vladimir had previously served in the Japanese Orthodox Mission under St.Nicholas of Japan. Fluent in Japanese, he brought his Japanese cell-attendant with him to San Francisco. It is likely that this connection with the Orthodox Church in Japan planted the idea in Fr. Sebastian of visiting Japan, which he did later in life. 

Bishop Vladimir had learned from St. Nicholas of Japan that, when the Orthodox Faith is brought to new territories, it must be made available in the local languages. He became the first Orthodox hierarch in the New World to preach and serve in English; and he required his priests to learn and serve in this language as well. As Fr. Sebastian recalled: "The bishop paid special attention in the temple to preaching the word of God in English, which was the language commonly understood. To this end the bishop himself, although not completely familiar with the English language, improvised talks in English, which the people readily heard."[23] Bishop Vladimir also assigned Fr. Sebastian, as a native English speaker, to be the English-language preacher at the San Francisco cathedral.

Musically talented,Bishop Vladimir formed a superb choir at the cathedral, which he instructed to sing English translations of Orthodox services set to traditional Russian melodies. His efforts attracted many people to the cathedral, which by that time had moved to Powell Street, so that it soon became filled beyond capacity.[24] In 1888 he enlarged, remodeled, and magnificently adorned the cathedral and dedicated it to St. Nicholas. When, in 1889, this cathedral was destroyed by fire, Bishop Vladimir had a new cathedral built in honor of St. Basil the Great. Fr. Sebastian served as deacon in the consecration of the new cathedral.

Fr. Sebastian had great admiration for Bishop Vladimir, seeing in him a true shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (cf. John 10:11). The bishop was a man of refined, gentle character who had no regard for his personal needs, living a highly ascetical life and observing a sparse monastic diet. A missionary-minded hierarch like his predecessor Bishop John, he was the first Orthodox bishop to traverse the American continent, which he did three times in search of Orthodox communities and of non-Orthodox people to bring into the Faith. In 1891 he traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota in order to receive a Uniate (Eastern-rite Roman Catholic) priest, Fr. Alexis Toth, and his parish of 350 believers into the Orthodox Church. In this way he began the return of American Uniates to Orthodoxy, a movement which would bring forth an abundant harvest in the years to come.

Fr. Sebastian, in serving under Bishop Vladimir during his formative years as a deacon, was undoubtedly influenced by the bishop's evangelical spirit, just as he had been formed earlier by the missionary vision of Bishop John.

[7] Larry Cenotto, Logan's Alley, vol. 4: Amador County Yesterdays in Picture and Prose (Jackson, Calif.: Cenotto Publications, 2003), p. 126.
[8] Letter of Fr. Sebastian Dabovich to Archimandrite Georgije Kodzhich. Quoted in Mirko Dobrijevic (Bishop Irinej), pp. 13–14. Bishop Irinej notes: "Fr. Sebastian ... was known as the 'first Serbian child,' as he was considered to be the firstborn male of Serbian ancestry in America.... (This may not be strictly true; however, the term is used as one of endearment.)"
[9] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, "Pravoslavnaya Tserkov v Kaliforniye" (The Orthodox Church in California), Amerikanskii Pravoslavnii Vestnik (American Orthodox Herald), nos. 15–16 (April 1898). Written by Fr. Sebastian in San Francisco, February 12, 1897. Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Constance J. Tarasar and John H. Erickson, eds., Orthodox America 1794–1976: Development of the Orthodox Church in America (Syosset, New York: The Orthodox Church in America, 1975), p. 29.
[12] "An Ordination Service Held at the Greek-Russian Church YesterdayMorning," The [San Francisco] Morning Call, Monday, August 29, 1892, p. 2. Reprinted in Holy Trinity Cathedral Life, vol. 1, no. 6 (February 1994).
[13] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, "The Orthodox Church in California."
[14] Mirko Dobrijevic (Bishop Irinej), p. 14.
[15] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich to the Religious Council of the Diocese of North America in New York.Written in Los Angeles, December 2, 1915. Quoted in Bishop Sava of Shumadija, History of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America and Canada 1891–1941 (Kragujevac, Serbia: Kalenich, 1998), p. 256.
[16] The church was consecrated on June 24, 1894, by the hierarch of Alaska at that time, Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov), who had first visited Juneau two years before.
[17] "The History of St. Nicholas Church," http://www.stnicholasjuneau.org/history.html. See also, http://dioceseofalaska.org/html/Juneaubelltower07.html.
[18] Tarasar and Erickson, p. 96; [Fr.] George A. Gray, ed., Portraits of American Saints (Los Angeles, 1994), p. 77.
[19] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, The Lives of the Saints, and Several Lectures and Sermons (San Francisco: TheMurdock Press, 1898), p. 3. Fr. Sebastian dedicated this, his second book, to Metropolitan Isidore, who reposed in 1892. The above quotations are taken from Fr. Sebastian's dedication.
[20] San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, vol. 67, no. 72, December 31, 1888.
[21] December 25, 1888/January 6, 1889. At that time there was a difference of twelve days between the old-style and new-style calendars.
[22] San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, vol. 67, no. 77, January 7, 1889.
[23] Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, "The Orthodox Church in California."
[24] Tarasar and Erickson, p. 30.



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