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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Whole New Kind of Holy Water

Joint ventures are a tricky business, but California entrepreneur John King is feeling pretty confident right now. For his bottled-water business, King found a partner who could tip the scales of fortune in his favor: the Russian Orthodox Church. Saint Springs bottled water -- which hit the shelves at upscale Moscow and St. Petersburg supermarkets last week -- is the first cooperative venture between the Patriarchate and a foreign investor. A percentage of the profits will flow into the church's treasury, marking a new initiative for a cash-strapped church struggling to rebuild its infrastructure. The water bubbles out of a pure spring owned by the Kostroma diocese, and will be sold in bottles -- shaped like onion domes -- produced by a church-owned plant. The company's executive headquarters are on church grounds, and Patriarch Alexy II blessed the spring and signed the contract. That's where the laity takes over. Inspired by Alexander, the bishop of Kostroma and Gallich, King spent two years scoping out a viable market for locally produced spring water. He rounded up a group of investors to back the project with "a multimillion-dollar" sum, and has come to tentative agreements with hotels and tourist agencies. As a partner, the church offers "political stability and tremendous strength," King said. "We were fortunate to develop a relationship." However, Saint Springs "is not a religious venture," and distributors will not capitalize on the product's link with the church, King said. "This is not being marketed as a novelty. This is a serious product." The proceeds, eventually, will be split between the investors' group and the Kostroma diocese. "It's too early to talk about profits now, but the profit will go to help the Kostroma area," said archbishop Alexander. Because the church stands to gain so much from the project, the Patriarchate embraced it with no reservations, he said. "Nobody was against it, because it was a very noble thing. It wasn't like getting a profit," he said. "The whole project has a humanitarian quality." The venture began with a Volga cruise and a sightseeing stop at the riverside town of Kostroma. As King tells it, the archbishop was poised for a capital venture, and cataloged church resources that could be exploited for profit. One resource he mentioned was a spring of extraordinary purity, located about 25 kilometers from Kostroma. From the archbishop's point of view, the venture is purely charitable, and will help reconstruct more than 1,000 churches that were used as warehouses for 75 years, archbishop Alexander said. To face this massive expense, the church has no choice aside from aggressive fund-raising, said archbishop Alexander, 37, who serves as head of the church's youth movement. "Donations are not enough," he said. "The church needs a good material basis for its schools and its charity work." Although he has no immediate plans to initiate more businesses, Alexander said he would consider taking part in new commercial ventures. Meanwhile, Saint Springs is highlighting local production -- which circumvents import restrictions and customs duties -- to recruit customers. Interest in the product has been strong in St. Petersburg so far, said Michael Hall Murray, president of Bronze Lion, an American joint venture that is distributing Saint Springs there. "My point of view is that there is a certain synergy -- there is the novelty aspect, and it is Russian water, and it's here," he said. "This has all the makings of a success story."