His Eminence, Archbishop Benjamin led clergy and faithful from all over the Bay Area in the annual Fourth of July pilgrimage to historic Fort Ross. A choir of young women led the singing of the responses at the hierarchical divine liturgy. Following the reading of the Holy Gospel, His Eminence preached on the power of daily prayer to impact our ability to forgive individuals that we might struggle with. After the Divine Liturgy, clergy and faithful went in procession to the cemetary and prayed for those buried there from the 19th century Russian settlement. Afterwards, all enjoyed a picnic lunch and the singing of patriotic songs led by campers from St. Eugene’s Camp.
Fort Ross was a settlement of the Russian-American Company in the early 19th century and was the southernmost outpost of the Russian Empire on this continent. The Fort’s chapel is the oldest Orthodox house of prayer in what is now the lower forty-eight. The settlement is now a popular State park. Initial interest in preserving this historic site came from the hierarchs of our diocese. During his visit, probably in 1891, Bishop Vladimir made a proposal to owner George Call to purchase the old chapel and the cemetery with the intent of safeguarding them from deterioration. Nothing came of this offer. During his pilgrimage in March, 1897 Bishop Nikolai also tried to obtain the chapel and cemetery of Fort Ross, but his efforts, too, came to naught. But citizen, church, and governmental initiatives eventually bore fruit to preserve this important place in our state and church history.
The State of California began restoring buildings in the early 20th century. The local Sebastopol chapter of the Native Sons took an interest in the maintenance of the chapel. For several years they celebrated the Fourth of July at Fort Ross, picnicking and taking care of the chapel and grounds. In 1925 they invited the congregation of Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco to their Fourth of July celebration. Our Diocese has been making this pilgrimage every Fourth of July since then. During the time of the Soviet yoke, the annual pilgrimage was a way to connect to a lost homeland. Now, it is a beautiful way to celebrate our freedom to offer God praise and thanksgiving together in this land. This Fourth of July tradition is a precious moment for fellowship with people from all parishes and is a family-friendly setting.
Photographs of the joyful day can be found here (no sign-in required). Courtesy of Matushka Sophia Sokolov and Gregory Tylawsky.