San Francisco Treasure #13: Holy Virgin Cathedral, Joy of All Who Sorrow

Russian icon-style paintings cover the high-vaulted interior, and the body of the founding saint lies in a glass reliquary. On holidays, Russian Orthodox services with shaggy priests, brocade robes, and magnificent chanting transpire.” – Rebecca Solnit in an Infinite City: An Atlas of San Francisco.

Holy Virgin Cathedral

When first perusing the list in Rebecca Sonit’s wonderful book and treasure map (#21), which is now my inspiration for my own treasure hunt as way to “travel” in my own city, I was hit with the idea of visiting this cathedral (#13) on a holiday – the Easter holiday.

My upbringing was Catholic, the traditions reduced to just Christmas Eve mass with our family as a precursor to visiting Grandpa’s basement bar and getting the party started over Polish sausage and brandy old-fashioneds. This Russian Orthodox mass meant getting back to an Easter tradition and all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the most important day in Christianity.  My vision of visiting this treasure on Easter was akin to arriving on a desert island and have friendly natives show us to the jewels. Plus, this trek was a perfect way for my newly arrived sister E to get to know more of the city with a holiday spent far from our family.

The Preparation

Searching for instruction on how to best experience this treasure, I visited the Holy Virgin web site.  It was “Passion Week” and “Pashcha” services all week. There were services several times a day including those going late into the night. The true Easter vigil was actually on the “Great and Holy Saturday” – and started at eight p.m. I looked for something closer to what we knew – Sunday morning mass.

The calendar showed a 12 p.m. “Pascha Vespers” service. Wikipedia mentioned that the “Sunday afternoon there is a special, Paschal Vespers, at which the Gospel (i.e., John 20:19-25) is chanted in many languages (called “Vespers of Love” in some traditions).” That sounded lovely, I thought, and pictured us in our Easter garb listening to the harmonious melodies. The experience seemed a little nicer than the gore and doom of the crucified Jesus that hangs in every Catholic Church.

On Sunday morning, we dressed in our Easter best with a few additions and subtractions. A veil each would cover each of our heads – the reason supplied by the “Fun, Facts, and Answers” web site on Easter services.  The site stated that this was so our scarves were necessary during the service for women to “hide their beauty, so as not to distract others from the service.”  We would not, however, be wearing any lipstick because, per the FAQs section of the cathedral’s web site “it leaves marks on the icons.”

Not wanting to risk late buses or missed connections, I arranged a taxi that morning. The driver wished us a happy Easter and took us three miles through the “Richmonds” – inner at first on the other side of Golden Gate park and then the outer – the far Asian suburb and home to the Holy Virgin Cathedral. The sun began to kiss us shyly and first and then full on in spring bliss.

Holy Virgin Cathedral

On the corner of 26th and Geary, a blinding square white structure with five gold turrets like divine Hershey kisses on top of the spires. There were no crowds to mar the pristine structure that rose high above the rolling hills neighborhood. A striking gold door was open slightly into an interior where everything seemed subdued compared to the building’s outside.

Holy virgin cathedral

Once inside, a volunteer informed that pictures could be taken before and after the service, but not during. The women of the church were wearing scarves, so I pulled up my very wrinkly silk one over my head with a prayer for future ironing and walked around the church clockwise.

The Treasure

Inside, there were no pews, only stations and murals, all in gold.  It was the inside of a castle, one of St. Ludwig’s in Bavaria with gold filigree and opulence across the entire expanse. Arches pointed upward to three great chandeliers that were fireflies to the light let in by the impressive dome. The alter was hidden behind ornate and elegant screens that rose about fifteen feet high.

Holy Virgin Cathedral

Murals showcased the typical resurrection biblical scenes: Jesus being judged, Jesus carrying the cross, Jesus dying on the cross. One caught our eye – Jesus seated with his hands in a Mudra – the typical Yogic pose. Was Jesus a Yogi?

Holy Virgin Cathedral

Natural light streamed in from a high dome, where Jesus was depicted as close to heaven. His image rested on drawn angels, making the Biblical scenes bright and gold accents sparkle. It was a monotone feel – except instead of black and white it was gold and blue. The blue was the sky and color of heaven and the gold the obvious riches of the church.  It was a religious and architectural treasure, a gold ceremonial treasure in this quiet edge of the city.

Holy Virgin Cathedral

On the right side were the “incorruptible relics of St. John—the Miracle-worker of Shanghai and San Francisco and the twentieth century’s great ascetic, archpastor and man of prayer.” It was not the actual bones in the alter, but a mummified saint lying peaceful in the church. His wrinkly raisin hands peaking out through white robes. The sight was shockingly human among the ethereal and divine.

The Service

At about five minutes to noon, only about 30 people were present mostly older parishioners, and casually at that. Getting close to service, some families began to arrive. There were different levels of attire among the women in their Easter finery.  The older women wore translucent scarves or hats, conservative suits, and high heels. The younger women wore homages to labels with Chanel flats, Gucci bags, and stilettos revealed under stylish trenches. It was constant activity with no one not settling in to standing spaces. Each parishioner walked to a floral covered stand at the center of the rectangular space, kissed the imagery, bowed and crossed three times before standing to the side. Hopefully, I thought, none of the women were wearing lipstick.

Without ceremony, a priest burst through the door shouting, “Xristos Anesti” (Christ is risen!) and the attendees responded loudly,Alithos Anesti” (Truly He is risen!). It was celebratory and cheerful. The annunciation repeated every time a priest arrived with a quick sail of his robes flowing past and a shock of long gray beards. In the back of the church, the priests gathered around the partially hidden alter preparing for the service like grandmothers preparing the Easter meal behind the closed doors of a kitchen. We were the guests and observers to their Easter rituals.

At 12:05, the singing and chanting began above us, in the choir box that started on the second floor and reached the ceiling, right below the mural of Jesus riding a chariot pulled by four horses running through blazing flames. It was truly voices on high.

The priests appeared from behind the screen wearing different white brocade gowns with floral and cross emblems decorating the men like quilts as ornate as the decor. What appeared to be the main priest wore a crown and a vertical scroll with Jesus’ face embroidered on the back. When his back was to us, we could see Jesus’ face, watching the more and more parishioners filing in and crowding the space around the center of the church.

The priests walked to a platform in the center of the church, the other priests leading the way. “It’s like they are saying the mass to him,” E remarked as the priests circled the platform and chanted the mass to the background music to the master priest.  He swung the vesper continuously and spicy-scented mist covered the congregation.

The music and song rose in peaks and valleys, with each crescendo I felt chills and the energy rise. I started to pray. Not understanding any words, I brought my own words to the vibrations and offered gratitude and requested forgiveness. Anything seemed possible in this short time, in this decorated setting surrounded by families and ritual.

It was a formal and casual service. Everyone stood, including children, in dress up and watched the service and priests moving back and forth between the alter and the central platform. Newcomers arrived and filtered in during the service and nervous elder ushers directed the flow from the entrance to the decreasing open spaces.

Soon the church was full – the alter boys and other parishioners maneuvered around the crowds by entering side large gold doors on the church sides. There was no silence, no inner reflection time, only more chanting, more procession, and a slowed incoming flux of visitors.  The priests circled the church and it felt like singers at rock concert coming into the crowd. “He looked right at me!” I whispered to Erika when the priests past and I got a whiff and blessing of the vesper.

After 45 minutes, our feet sore from standing and the chanting beginning to sound the same, we exited through the crowds, a feat we would not have tried in the stoic  Catholic Church for fear of breaking the silence. There was no silence in this church, only families gathering for religious ritual, a choir chanting the vespers of love, and priests walking us through it all.

E and I left the gold-sheen interior and went into the sunshine. We agreed that this church and this experience was a treasure in San Francisco. Where else in the world can two Midwestern Catholic girls find Russia and gold religious temples to Jesus and some family on Easter Sunday? The traveler vibe was back as I observed this foreign and familiar ceremony. Amen!

How to Visit This Treasure

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