St. George Serbian Orthodox

St. George Serbian Orthodox Church ca. 1924, photographer unknown. [Image: St. George Church]

216 104th Avenue West | Architects: Giliuson & Ellingson | Built: 1924 | Extant

Serbs, many from the Balkan Peninsula, began emigrating to Duluth in the early twentieth century, most had been recruited to work on the Great Northern Power Company’s Thomson Dam along the St. Louis River near Carlton, Minnesota, which began generating electricity for the Zenith City and surrounding communities in 1905. The majority of Serbs settled in New Duluth and took a special train to work until the dam was complete. More came a few years later to build and work at the Minnesota Steel Plant in the northern portion of New Duluth that had been renamed Gary.

During this time, Serbian Orthodox services were provided by visiting priests from other communities. A Serbian Orthodox congregation finally organized in 1920, choosing to name themselves after St. George. Called “the Great Martyr,” George was a third-century Roman soldier born to Christian parents, killed because he would not renounce his Christianity; he is often depicted on horseback, slaying a dragon. In 1923 the congregation began raising funds to build their own church under the leadership of newly arrived Father Vladimir Probich. Donations came from not only Serbs, but also from Orthodox Russian and Romanian families as well. On September 20, 1923, they laid the cornerstone for their new church before they even had blueprints for one.

The congregation hired architects Ephraim Giliuson and Willeik Ellingson, who designed a building described in a publication celebrating the church’s fiftieth anniversary as “a combination of Serbian, Roman, and Byzantine styles.” Faced in red and dark brown brick trimmed with limestone, the modestly sized building’s large central bell tower makes the structure feel much bigger than it is. The tower is capped with an octagonal dome, as are octagonal turrets at each corner of the building and four more along the base of the tower’s belfry. This follows an Orthodox tradition, described in the church’s seventy-fifth anniversary publication: “Western churches have spires reaching up to the ceiling; man is reaching for God. [With Orthodox churches] Christ is the traditional icon in the dome, looking down on the people.” Each of the domes (painted a rusty red to match the roof tiles) of the gable at the building’s eastern end and the main entrance are topped with crosses covered in gold leaf. The recessed entryway and windows have Roman arches, and brickwork near the roofline feature more arches and diamond stone detailing while tower buttresses separate the window piers.

Inside, the sanctuary sits 150 people. It is adorned with Iconasta, twenty-four altar screens depicting Orthodox icons painted by noted Duluth artist David Ericson shortly before his death in 1946 and considered his final work. Its altar, as is traditional, faces east. A parish house was added in 1948, and a new social center in 1972. In the early 1960s, three stained-glass windows were added to the church. Today the congregation consists of ninety families, and about fifty people attend Sunday services.