St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral /1911/

The Rev. Jason R. Kappanadze stood at the rail of a freighter, watching his homeland, the Republic of Georgia, disappear. He was dressed in his cassock, the long garment of an Orthodox priest. He had taken a risk by wearing it.

It was 1922, a year after the Soviet Army had invaded Georgia, imposing communist rule. The regime was persecuting the church, imposing atheism on Georgia. It had taken a year for Kappanadze and his wife and sons to get the papers to leave, and he still feared being stopped at the border.

Two men stood next to Kappanadze at the rail. The boat stopped near the three-mile territorial limit. One of the men spoke to him.

"Father, where are you going?" he asked.

"I'm going to America," Kappanadze replied.

"And where will you go," the man asked, "when we come there?"

Then the two men, both Soviet agents, walked away. They got off the boat, leaving Kappanadze to sail on.

He was leaving home but returning to his second home. He'd spent 13 years in the U.S. As a missionary in Alaska, he'd married a priest's daughter and been ordained. He'd arrived in Cleveland in 1902 to lead St. Theodosius, a small Orthodox parish worshipping in a Literary Avenue storefront. When the congregation swelled with Eastern European immigrant families, Kappanadze purchased 12 acres along Starkweather Avenue, sold lots to parishioners and set the rest aside for a new church.

He didn't stay to see it built. Homesick, he resigned as pastor in 1908 and returned to Georgia.

Now, after 14 years away, the Orthodox Church sent Kappanadze back to Cleveland. He found a brilliant cathedral standing on the land he'd bought. Its 13 copper onion domes, symbolizing Christ and the 12 apostles, reached toward the sky above the Cuyahoga River Valley.

For 35 years, Kappanadze led the growing church. A reporter visited on Christmas 1930 and captured the scene: Kappanadze descended the altar's steps accompanied by two altar boys holding long, lit candles. His long white hair and thick beard matched his white robes, embroidered with gold. Swinging an incense-filled censer, he bowed to the north, south, east and west. The a capella choir sang hymns from the balcony. Kappanadze responded in a booming voice, chanting the words of the Christmas service.

"When he was at the altar, that was where he was — he was in another world," says his grandson, also named Jason Kappanadze, who served as St. Theodosius' priest in the 1990s. "When he was in the church, this was life and death, the kingdom of heaven."

St. Theodosius took in a new wave of immigrants, refugees who'd also fled the Russian Revolution. The priest found them homes in Tremont and jobs in the factories down the hill. But the Soviet agents' warning proved true: the regime found a way to follow them. The Living Church movement, created by the Soviet government to undermine the Russian Orthodox Church, sent representatives to the U.S. to sow discord in parishes. The movement even laid claim to American church buildings whose construction had been subsidized by the czar's government — including St. Theodosius. Kappanadze and the parish fought off the Living Church's legal claim, and once, after a long argument, the priest physically threw Living Church representatives off the rectory's front porch.

Slowly, as the congregation grew to 1,300 members, Kappanadze adapted the church's Old World ways to America. He installed pews in 1941, contrary to Orthodox tradition, realizing parishioners were too tired from hard workweeks to stand for the entire service. He delivered services in Church Slavonic, even after an associate priest started leading late-morning services in English.

As his long tenure as priest neared its end, Kappanadze commissioned a renovation that made St. Theodosius even more stunning under the domes than on the skyline. He hired Russian exile Andrei Bicenko, who had decorated many Eastern European churches in a modern neo-Byzantine style, to paint frescoes of Biblical scenes on nearly every inch of the cathedral's walls.

Today, a visit to St. Theodosius almost overwhelms the senses. The scent of incense greets worshippers in the vestibule at the moment they see a vibrant painting of Adam and Eve standing in the Garden of Eden amid a menagerie of animals, including a lion and peacock. More than 100 religious figures populate the cathedral's walls. Huge icons of the Sermon on the Mount and Christ's entry into Jerusalem gather around the north and south walls' stained-glass windows. High above, inside the tallest of the 13 cupolas, Christ reigns in a glowing golden circle, holding the Bible open to the words, "I Am the Light of the World."

In 1957, five years after Kappanadze helped Bicenko choose the scenes he painted, the elderly priest retired. "It's time now to think about something more than this world," he said. He passed away in 1962, at age 87.

"He was a very large man in stature and in personality," says Susan Lentz, 63, who grew up in the church and remembers him from Sunday school. "He was like a gentle giant in my eyes."

Today, English has replaced Church Slavonic on St. Theodosius' murals and in all of its services. The a capella choir's repertoire now includes a Byzantine chant and music from other Orthodox traditions. The parish has about 200 adult members, down from 1,300 people in Kappanadze's day. They're from many nationalities now, including many converts from other Christian churches. The word "Russian" has been removed from the cathedral's name, to make clear it's open to all.

The 13 cupolas are now lit up every night, making the cathedral a more conspicuous landmark than ever. They're a permanent monument to the Eastern European immigrants who built much of the city, and they also remind Clevelanders of the church's starring role hosting a Russian Orthodox wedding in the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter.

Kappanadze is still present at every service — Bicenko painted him into the bottom left corner of the Sermon on the Mount mural. In photographs in the parish hall, he's walking toward the camera on Easter Eve, carrying a paschal cross and posing with the choir in 1932, his black robes stark against the women's blue, yellow and salmon dresses. For St. Theodosius' congregation, he's a reminder of their home here, their home across the sea and their home above.

Formal Blessing

St. Michael the Archangel Church / 1892 / Its 232-foot Gothic spire rises as sharp and narrow as a lance. Its rock-faced stone has turned coal black with age. Often considered Cleveland's most artistically significant Catholic church, it's now a center of the city's Latino community. 3114 Scranton Road, Cleveland

Old Stone Church / 1855 / Louis Comfort Tiffany designed some of the stained-glass windows in this landmark, Public Square's oldest building. Legend says the front pews were saved from an 1884 fire because President Lincoln's family mourned in them after his death. 91 Public Square, Cleveland

Temple-Tifereth Israel / 1924 / The synagogue's gold-tiled dome cuts a dramatic figure above University Circle. It's echoed inside with circular seating for 2,000 below a huge, single arch. The temple is also home to the Temple Museum of Religious Art. East 105th Street at Ansel Road, Cleveland

Share this story: