By Jane Knoerle
Epiphany, January 19, 2013, was an important day for members of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, a Russian Orthodox church in Menlo Park.
Bishop Benjamin, bishop of San Francisco and the West, joined visiting priests and deacons and the church's pastor, Father Hermogen Holste, in the two-hour service commemorating Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.
Afterward, parishioners and clergy gathered for an elegant champagne reception and luncheon at the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club. They were entertained by the Russian children's Cossack choir, Sivka- Burka, directed by Janna Wilson.
The parish was celebrating its 60th anniversary and near-completion of a three-year renovation of the little church, thanks to the generosity of benefactor and parish member Vladimir Ermakoff of Atherton and his wife, Natalie.
History and renovation
The church was built in 1886 as the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. When members of the Episcopalian parish decided to build a bigger church in 1957, they offered the chapel to the fledgling Russian Orthodox parish, provided they would move it. The little building was moved from a few blocks east of the railroad tracks to the northwest edge of downtown, at 1220 Crane St., where it remains today.
The quaint white chapel was the first permanent home to the parish, which was formally incorporated in 1952, back when the nearest Orthodox church was in San Francisco. Prince Vasili Romanov, nephew of the last tsar of Russia, and his wife, Natasha, of Woodside, were among the founding members.
After 127 years, the little church hasn't changed much on the outside, but inside renovations have been a three-year process, requiring special permits and reviews by the city. Al Landi of Menlo Park has been the contractor.
"Since it was a historic building, we couldn't touch the exterior. So we literally cut off the front of the church, like a slice of bread, lifted it off with a 60-ton crane, and put in a new foundation," he says.
Behind the facade is a large new foyer and a choir loft on the second story. Elaborate sprinkler systems were installed in the church, rectory and social hall, and a wheelchair-accessible bathroom was included.
The richly decorated interior of the church has also been enhanced. Former plain blue walls now feature paintings of the 12 great feast days of the church created by iconographer Vladimir Krassovsky. The artist has been working on the murals for several years.
The interior has been embellished with an elaborate brass chandelier imported from Moscow and tall brass candleholders from Kiev.
Mr. Ermakoff says giving to the church is a tradition learned from his mother, a major benefactor to the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tokyo, where the family lived. The Ermakoffs have been members of Nativity of the Holy Virgin since moving to Atherton in 1990.
The church today
While a core of 40 or 50 "old-timers" are the backbone of the little church, many of the 80 or so people who attend Sunday services at the Russian Orthodox church are those who came to work in Silicon Valley after the Soviet Union was dissolved and computer-wise workers were in demand.
Church warden Alexander Richter came to the Bay Area 12 years ago to work in Silicon Valley. He and his wife, Anna, now live in Redwood City with their seven children.
Longtime members who recall the day the church was moved to Crane Street include George and Galina Voronin and Eroveda Luck. "I'm the Last of the Mohicans," says Ms. Luck with a laugh.
The parish is one of a minority of those in the Orthodox church in America that still has Russian services. About 70 percent of the Divine Liturgy is in Slavonic or "old Russian," says Father Holste.
Pastor Holste comes from a different background than his congregation, most of whom are of Russian descent. His parents were Southern Baptists. He converted to the orthodox faith while attending the University of Alabama, where he studied Russian. His wife, Mary, whom he met in college, also speaks Russian. They live in the rectory behind the church with their two young sons.
Tatiana Diedovitch is president of the St. Elizabeth Sisterhood, a group of women parishioners that raises money for the church through events, such as the Christmas Bazaar, annual rummage sale, and after-service Sunday lunch.
In November, members of the sisterhood start cooking and stocking the freezers with Russian treats, including 1,500 cocktail-size filled pastries known as "pirozhki."
For many Menlo Park residents, the Christmas Bazaar creates a little bit of Mother Russia on the first Saturday of December with Russian music, crafts, and a lunch of old-world favorites.
Nativity of the Holy Virgin Church is at 1220 Crane St. in Menlo Park. Call 326-5622.