(New York Times)
Olga Komenko’s girlhood memories live within the walls of the domed and cupolaed Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity at Pennsylvania and Glenmore Avenues in East New York. There, she danced Thursday evenings away with other young parishioners at weekly socials, wrote letters to servicemen during World War II and was married in 1944.
Now 90, Mrs. Komenko sees the church playing one more major role in her life.
“In my time, I hope it’s there,” said Mrs. Komenko, a lifelong resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn. “I’ll be buried out of there.”
For years it seemed unlikely that the church would survive long enough to fulfill Mrs. Komenko’s wish.
The churchgoers who helped to sustain the parish in the first half of the century were Russian immigrants and their families, once a sizable presence in the neighborhood. Now most have dispersed.
Mrs. Komenko recalls weekend services, in her youth, when the building was filled with worshipers. But by the turn of the century, she and a few elderly friends were often the only parishioners standing for the two-hour Russian-language service beneath the church’s high ceiling, the iconography on its walls darkened with age and neglect.
New York’s history is recorded in its desolate churches, where once-packed pews have given way to eerie silence after the children of immigrants followed opportunity beyond the neighborhoods that had defined their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. But the Church of the Holy Trinity may be one that has a happy ending, as its congregation, like the city itself, is refreshed by a new generation of immigrants looking for a new start.
The Russian immigrants — many of whom were raised without religion, under a Communist regime — have been enticed back to the old church by a priest who has seen in Holy Trinity a chance to bring both Russian Orthodoxy and a community back to life.
“Of course I wanted this parish to be revived,” the priest, the Rev. Vladimir Alexeev, said. “Because of the history.”
In 1930, there were 28,798 Russian-born residents, 16 percent of the population, in the area roughly coinciding with what is now Community District 5, which includes East New York. In 1950, that number had been cut virtually in half. By 2000, only 1,042 native Russians were in the area.
As the church declined, a succession of priests came and went. But in 2001, the Orthodox Church of America assigned Father Alexeev, a Siberian-born priest who was in New York for six months to study English at Columbia University, to the church. His placement was temporary — until his bishop told him that Holy Trinity would be closed if he left.
Father Alexeev turned down a professorship at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland, where he had earned a doctorate in theology, to stay in East New York.
He had a plan: repopulate the congregation by reaching out to the new wave of Russian immigrants in the city.
“I thought, ‘What do people need?’ ” he recalled. “They feel lost in a new country with a foreign language and foreign law. They are looking for warmth.” He promoted the church on Russian-language television and radio programs. He made himself available to parishioners, answering their phone calls in the middle of the night.
One of his young recruits, Gleb Ivanov, a well-known concert pianist, can be seen during Sunday services in the choir balcony, singing hymns in his deep baritone. Sometimes, after a service, he plays the grand piano, a recent gift from a wealthy parishioner.
“It is very difficult to find the priest who gives all the time he can give to the church,” said Mr. Ivanov, who moved to the United States five years ago. “If a family is broke, he goes up there and puts it together. If there is some divorce, he goes there and puts it together. I’ve just never seen it before.”
Through Father Alexeev, the church has become a place where many recent immigrants who were raised in the forced secularism of the Soviet era can connect to a past they never knew.
Svetlana Klimuk, who was born in what is now Belarus, was baptized secretly at home. Konstantin Radchenko went to a church for the first time in his 20s, after the Soviet Union’s fall.
Now, almost every Sunday, Ms. Klimuk and Mr. Radchenko cook for the 40 or 50 people who stay for lunch after the service. Ms. Klimuk baptized her daughter in Holy Trinity. Mr. Radchenko’s daughter sings in the children’s choir.
“I’m kind of jealous of my kids that they have such a childhood,” Mr. Radchenko said. “But my life is my life. I’m not complaining about my life.”
Father Alexeev, too, lived a secular life until he reached college in what was then Leningrad. There, studying the literature of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, he found religion.
“I lived in a Soviet country,” he said. “I had to confront it somehow, but I couldn’t confront it politically, because I’d be thrown in jail. I confronted it spiritually.”
He is certainly determined. One woman recalled a Russian holiday a few years ago on which she and her son were the only worshipers. Father Alexeev performed the service anyway.
Building improvements are a work in progress. The walls were cleaned, windows were replaced and water damage to an icon of the Virgin Mary was repaired.
But the domed roof still needs waterproofing. Paint peels behind the choir balcony. And the church treasurer, Victor Shlychkov, admits that the coffers are nearly bare.
Still, the voices of the choir singers again reverberate off the now-pristine walls. And Mrs. Komenko still comes every Sunday when she can get a ride, as she did most of her life.
“Sometimes I think about it, I didn’t do important things with my life,” Father Alexeev said. “I didn’t write a book. I didn’t become a great scholar. But I did a very important job, the most important job in life that exists in the world: to bring people comfort.”