Holy Dormition Parish Historical Sketch

The congregation of the Holy Dormition Orthodox Church, Cumberland, RI continues worshipping God in the very same temple its immigrant founders built with their own hands in 1908. Crowning a hilltop at the end of Fountain Street off Manville Hill Road, known as "Russian Hill" in the early years of the twentieth century, it came into being under the guidance Fr. Alexander Hotovitsky, a missionary from the Russian Empire, who inspired the founding many Orthodox parishes in the North Atlantic and New England States, and in Canada's Ontario and Quebec Provinces. He returned to his homeland in 1914, where he died as a Christian martyr during Stalin’s purges in 1938. He was canonized a saint by the Church of Russia in 1994. The Cumberland parish was serviced at the start by Archpriest Jacob Grigorieff who travelled for pastoral visits from Salam. MA, until Priest Joseph Dankevich, newly-ordained for the parish by Archbishop Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Volhynia and Zhitomir, arrived from Russia in December 1907.

The Holy Dormition Parish was founded as an initiative of the North American Ecclesiastical Mission established in Alaska in 1794 by Empress Catherine the Great. Initially, the Mission ministered to workers of the Russian-American Fur Trading Company in Alaska, but it was continued by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Russia to generate an indigenous Orthodox Church in North America. The Mission flourished throughout Alaska and expanded down the North American west coast into California, but waned, as Russian clergy withdrew from the North American Continent after Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States of America in 1867. The Mission revived in the late 1890’s as Orthodox Slavs from western parts of the Russian and eastern parts of Austro-Hungarian Empires began immigrating into North America through the east coast, seeking better living standards and political security. It was at this time, that the founding members of Cumberland Hill’s Orthodox parish, about eighteen families and some thirty individuals from Galicia and Volhynia Provinces of the Russian Empire settled in Manville, Rhode Island in the early 1900’s. They formed a brotherhood in order to gather and enlist members to start a parish. They purchased land in Manville for an Orthodox cemetery and began collecting funds to build a church. On July 4, 1907 the community began gathering in private homes for Divine Services, and it was officially chartered in the State of Rhode Island as a Russian Orthodox Church, on November 29 that same year. The community rented an apartment as living quarters for the young Fr. Dankevich and his family, and as a gathering place for Divine Services.

The revival of the North American Mission continued until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. With the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and the fall of the Russian Empire, the Church in Russia could no longer support the Mission with clergy and funding. The Mission was cut-off also from her central leadership in Russia, when Patriarch Tikhon of Russia was put under house arrest and bishops were being imprisoned and executed by Russia’s new atheist government. The Mission's pastoral school for training clergy in Tenafly, New Jersey was closed. The Russian Orthodox Churches throughout Europe and North America were fragmented into three different groups, centered around ruling bishops in Paris, Belgrade and, New York. Patriarch Tikhon, once ruling bishop in North America from 1898 to 1907, issued a declaration to the three Russian Church groups, that the political situation in Russia was irreversible and that the churches need to establish autonomous normal church life abroad, exhorting them not to be involved in politics, since the church’s purpose is to witness to “a kingdom not of this world”. The Cumberland Hill parish like all parishes of the North American Mission felt the devastating effects of these chaotic and dark years, including bearing ambivalent sentiments for a political system, from which they fled as immigrants and refugees. It was during these years that Fr. Afanassy Bezsmertniuk advocated for hundreds of post-war Russian immigrants and refugees in Rhode Island, by helping them settle into jobs and secure living quarters.

In 1970, the former North American Ecclesiastical Mission, called the Russian Orthodox Church of North America after 1917, officially received the status of autocephaly from its mother church in Russia. This indicated that it was no longer a dependency but a self-sustaining ecclesiastical body with its own governing mechanism and theological schools. The Cumberland parish, like the other parishes in the Mission, grew and lived despite adversity, being faithful all along to the vision of the early missionaries who brought the Orthodox Faith to North America. The Orthodox Church drew thousands of Americans into its fold from various ethnic and religious traditions. The Holy Dormition Parish is a multi-cultural and ethnic body of almost 150 members. For thirty years now its Divine Services are in the English language, but the use of other languages is not excluded as a means for proclaiming the Gospel. The parish became what its missionary founders envisioned it to be. For more than a century Holy Dormition Parish continues to be conduit between heaven and earth, fostering, maintaining and increasing a relationship with God through the beauty of its liturgical celebrations, the grace of its sacramental life, and spiritual and moral support of its adherents. Almost forty percent of the parish’s current membership comes from several religious and ethnic traditions, while sixty percent is of Russian and Slavic Orthodox ancestry. In the last decade, a new wave of immigration from the former Soviet Empire and from the new Russian Federation has significantly augmented the parish’s life in all respects.

Throughout the 1900's, the parish was popularly known and remembered by Cumberland Hill residents, for its religious celebrations and ethnic festivals. Retired Cumberland High School teacher and life-long Cumberland citizen Eugene Conway recalls from his childhood years in the early 1900's that the Russian population in Cumberland Hill, was sizeable enough for the local old school house at the corner of Mendon and West Wrentham Roads not to have classes on Orthodox Holy Days. The parish continues calling attention to its presence in the midnight and early morning hours of Orthodox Easter Day, with the joyful music of its Russian bell ringing from midnight until four o’clock in the morning, announcing Christ’s Radiant Resurrection.
The humble and majestic Holy Dormition Church which still adorns the same hilltop in Cumberland Hill for more than a century, together with all the parishes of the Orthodox Church in America, is committed to the original vision of its saintly founding Orthodox missionaries of many ethnic backgrounds, who brought Orthodox Christianity to the North American continent. The significance of its centennial of enduring witness and longevity is that it has endured according to this vision for the past one hundred years, in faith and in love, demonstrating the words of Christ "I will build my church and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it". (Matthew 16:18).

Following the Divine Liturgy on Holy Theophany morning 1908, the apartment and its chapel were badly damaged by a fire of unknown cause. Feeling defeated and despondent at first, the parishioners soon rallied under the encouragement of Archbishop Platon (Rozhdestvensky) and a $500 donation he gave them to realize their desire to build a church. In March 1908 the parishioners began building a church themselves with remnant bricks they were given by the old Manville-Jenks Mill on the Blackstone River, and with other building materials they were able to purchase with an $850 loan they received from a prominent Cumberland Hill resident, John McClaughlin. Construction was completed in August and the church was consecrated on September 3, by Archbishop Platon of the Aleutian Islands and North America, assisted by Archpriests Jacob Grigorieff and Alexander Hotovitsky, Priest Joseph Dankevich and Deacon Alexander Kalneff. After a year of service to the parish, Fr. Dankevich was sent to help establish more mission parishes that were being organized in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. A succession of temporary priests served the Cumberland parish for varying time intervals, until the arrival of Fr. Afanassy Bezsmertnuk in 1935, who served the parish without interruption until 1976.

Archpriest Alexander Hotovitzky

The Orthodox Churches in America and Russia officially acknowledged archpriest Alexander Hotovitzky, an Orthodox missionary priest from Russia, as a saint, during canonization services at Moscow’s ancient Dormition of the Virgin Cathedral in the Kremlin on December 1994. From 1896 to 1914, Father Hotovitzky was a key figure in the organization of several thousand East European, Greek, Arab and Russian immigrants into at least 12 Orthodox parishes in the New England and North Atlantic states. Renowned among his contemporaries in America and Russia as a zealous missionary, splendid preacher, brilliant man-of-letters and watchful pastor, he succeeded in gathering the support of Orthodox Christians in America and Russia for the unique missionary opportunities of the young North American Orthodox Church. He was instrumental in the founding of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Cumberland, and participated in its consecration on September 3, 1908. After returning to his native Russia in 1914, Father Hotovitzky was pastor of the famous Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, which was dismantled and destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s. He was also a most trusted adviser to Patriarch Tikhon, then leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia and former Archbishop of the North American Mission, who perished in 1925 under house arrest at the hands of the Soviets. As result of giving religious instruction to children and preaching the Word of God, Father Hotovitzky was sentenced to exile and harsh labor in an infamous concentration camp on the Solovetzky Islands above the Arctic Circle in the White Sea. He perished anonymously as a Christian martyr, among the camp’s many thousands of victims.

Most Reverend
Platon (Rozhdestvensky)
Archbishop of North America
and the Aleutian Islands

Archpriest Alexander Hotovitzky

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