An Orthodox bishop once offered the opinion that Orthodox Christianity was “America’s best kept secret.” Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America — and National War Memorial Shrine — at 3500 Massachusetts Ave. NW, considered by many to be both a national and a Washington treasure, is something of a secret as well.
A striking building from the outside, the cathedral is even more so inside, where it attains that ideal but often rare quality of spiritual and artistic majesty, linked to human beings gathered in prayer as children of God.
You can see its domed white towers with crosses at the top and the smaller bell tower at the side fairly easily from Massachusetts Avenue, in the shadow of the nearby expanse of the National Cathedral.
Still, even though the cathedral is full of icons and iconographic works of art, it hasn’t quite achieved the status of Washington icon. Sometimes that idea frustrates and puzzles Father George Kokhno, archpriest at St. Nicholas since 2012. “It is frustrating sometimes that many people don’t know about this place,” he says. “It is first of all such a beautiful place. It has so much history. It is special to the people that do come here.
“We welcome everyone here for our services,” he says. “There are two Sunday services, one in English, the other in Slovakian. We have tours. We conduct our mission, and of course there is the annual fall bazaar with rummage sale.”
The bazaar — with foods flavored with nostalgia for all things Russian and Eastern European — will be held this year on Oct. 15 and 16 on the grounds of the cathedral, with opportunities to tour the interior.
Father Kokhno himself is from Ukraine. A graduate of the Moscow Theological Institute, he first arrived in Washington on a student visit. “It is in the family, really,” he said. “My father was a priest, and I think he was better.”
Father Kokhno has a way about him. It’s plain that he is a knowledgeable student of history, a devout and devoted man, carrying with him a self-deprecating humor, a love of stories. We look at the paintings on the walls, part of a major 35-year project: the icons, the paintings, the portraits in the Byzantine style of saints and martyrs and the Holy Mother and Jesus suffering on the cross.
The cathedral itself sprang out of the suffering history of the 20th century, especially in Russia. It was founded by Russian immigrants and refugees who survived the travails and horrors of World War I and the Russian Revolution, settling in Washington in the 1920s.
According to a history of the cathedral, the original congregation was incorporated in 1930 and became “The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of St. Nicholas.” Services were held at 1768 Church St. NW in a small first-floor chapel for about 35 worshippers. In the post-war 1940s, a second generation of immigrants from Russia made their way here and increased the congregation, so much so that a site was purchased on Massachusetts Avenue in 1951.
The space inside is compressed and, for want of a better word, rich: rich in art, rich in emotion, rich in the possibilities offered by light both natural and manufactured — sun, candles, electricity.
The space itself, as a spiritual place, creates a sense of awe. It is a wonder: belief and faith made beautiful.