The First Fifty Years
St. Nicholas Church in Stratford, Connecticut, was founded twelve years after the 1917 Communist Revolution which started decades of persecution against Russian Christians, many of whom eventually immigrated to America.
One such immigrant was aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, whose aircraft factory moved to Stratford in 1929. It would be incorrect to say that Sikorsky built St. Nicholas Church himself (as some assume), but he was certainly among the founders, and his family were indeed devoted parishioners. Further, it seems reasonable to assume that Sikorsky Aviation—which would come to be the town's largest employer—helped to attract other Russians to Stratford. Also counted among the church's founders are Boris Sergievsky (a Sikorsky test pilot), and Nikolai Alexandrov (an engineering professor).
Services were first held in December 1929. The church originally gathered in a house on Lake Street. In those days, most of the parish families lived in the surrounding neighborhood, and people remember that the church door was never locked. For the first year, its priest was archimandrite Panteleimon (Nizhnik), who worked in the Sikorsky factory to raise funds for a new monastery: namely, Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York—which would become one of the most important institutions in the Russian Church Abroad, home to its first seminary and a religious publishing house.
In 1930, priest Stephan Antonuk arrived as the church's new rector, a post that he would hold for almost four decades, overseeing the firm establishment of the community, including the construction of a proper temple. A plot was secured on Honeyspot Road, just a couple blocks away from the house-church, and the grounds were consecrated on the parish's tenth anniversary in 1939, by Archbishop Vitaly (Maximenko) of the Eastern American diocese. The building, designed by architect Alexis Boldakoff after twelfth-century Novgorod examples, was completed and consecrated in 1942. Trees around the church have grown considerably in the last eighty years, but its golden cupolas can still be seen from the nearby highway. In 1968, after thirty-eight years in Stratford, Fr. Stephan was elevated to the episcopacy as Bishop Ioasaph of Edmonton (Canada).
Reaffirming Roots, Overcoming Challenges
The organization of Orthodox churches in this country is complicated by numerous overlapping jurisdictions, varying not only by ethnic origin, but also in fidelity to Holy Tradition. At the time of St. Nicholas Church's "golden jubilee" in 1979, it was part of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), descendent of the Russian-American "Metropolia." But five years later, under the leadership of priest Stavros Rousos and starosta Vladimir Brockert, the parish "overwhelmingly" voted to return to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR, which documents indicated was its original jurisdiction). The reasons were many, but could be summarized: only ROCOR would allow St. Nicholas Church to preserve its distinctly Russian Orthodox religious & cultural heritage.
With prudent planning, the transition was accomplished relatively smoothly, without the legal challenges faced by some other churches making the same move. With its return to ROCOR, St. Nicholas Church was spiritually reunited with the Church of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, a ROCOR parish previously established by former St. Nicholas parishioners just a few miles away in Stratford.
Jumping ahead: in 2007, sixteen years after fall of the Soviet regime, ROCOR was canonically reunited with Moscow—and implicitly with the OCA. Since then, St. Nicholas Church has helped to foster friendly relations with OCA and other Orthodox churches in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas.
Check back next week for more info & photos!