The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Orthodox Church in America

Orthodoxy arrived in North America when a band of Russian Orthodox missionaries from Valaam monastery reached Alaska in 1794. At that time, Alaska was a Russian imperial territory. A first church was built on Kodiak Island, and a number of Alaskan natives were baptized. In 1840 a diocese was erected for Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, with its see at Sitka. The first bishop was Innocent Veniaminov, who was later to become the Metropolitan of Moscow. By 1867, when Alaska was sold to the United States, the Russian mission was flourishing among the natives, and the Bible and the Orthodox liturgy had been translated into several Alaskan native languages.

The headquarters of the diocese was transferred from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872. By the time Bishop Tikhon (Belavin) was appointed to North America in 1898, there had been much growth of the Orthodox population on the East Coast due to the arrival of new immigrants. Given this new situation, the diocesan see was moved to New York in 1905. Tikhon had consecrated an auxiliary bishop for Alaska in 1903 and an auxiliary for the Arab parishes in 1904 with residence in Brooklyn, New York. In 1905 Bishop Tikhon was elevated to the rank of Archbishop. After leaving America in 1907, he served several dioceses in Russia before being elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 1917. He died under house arrest in Moscow in 1925 and was canonized as a confessor by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989.

A significant number of Eastern Catholics joined the Russian Orthodox Church in America in the late 19th century. This in part was the result of the disapproval of the presence of married Greek Catholic priests in their dioceses by some Roman Catholic bishops. Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, for instance, refused to accept Fr. Alexis Tóth (1854-1909) as pastor of the Ruthenian Catholic parish in Minneapolis because he was a widower. As a result, Tóth and his parishioners entered into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1891. He eventually founded 17 Orthodox parishes in the USA for erstwhile Ruthenian Catholics. Tóth would be canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church in America in 1994.

A separate Greek Orthodox Archdiocese dependent on the church of Greece was established in North America in 1921. It was later transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This marked the end of Orthodox unity on the continent, and the way was cleared for the subsequent foundation of other American Orthodox jurisdictions for various ethnic groups dependent on their mother churches overseas.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, there was a large influx of Russian immigrants into America. Many of these Russian Orthodox were intensely aware of the persecution of their mother church by the communist regime. For this reason, in April 1924 the North American Diocese declared itself a temporarily self-governing church while retaining spiritual communion with the Church of Russia.

Meanwhile, the synod of bishops of the break-away Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) was attempting to unite all the Russian jurisdictions outside the Soviet Union. (ROCOR has since reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate). The North American Diocese, now called “the Metropolia,” cooperated with ROCOR for a time, until it ended in 1926 to protest what it saw as the ROCOR synod’s inflated claims of authority. Another uneasy period of cooperation between the two groups began in 1935. This ended in 1946, when the Metropolia broke all relations with ROCOR after it started founding its own parishes in America.

In 1968 intensive negotiations began between the Metropolia and the Moscow Patriarchate in an attempt to overcome their differences. These discussions were successful and in 1970, during a brief period of US-Soviet détente, the Moscow Patriarchate granted autocephalous status to the Metropolia. It then changed its name to the Orthodox Church in America, often known simply as “the OCA.” Those parishes in America that wished to remain directly under Moscow’s supervision were allowed to do so. This action provoked an angry exchange of letters between Moscow and Constantinople in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate challenged Moscow’s authority to grant autocephalous status to its daughter church. The autocephaly of the OCA was subsequently recognized, however, by the Orthodox churches of Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

Although this dispute has still not been resolved, there have been direct contacts between the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. OCA delegations visited Istanbul in 1990 and 1991, and another encounter took place during Patriarch Dimitrios’ visit to the United States in July 1991. Metropolitan Theodosius (the OCA primate) himself led a delegation to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in December 1992. It was received by Patriarch Bartholomew and had meetings with the Synodical Commission for Inter-Orthodox Affairs. Both sides expressed a commitment to Orthodox canonical unity and order in America. A further step in this direction was taken when almost all the Orthodox bishops in the United States and Canada met in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from November 30 to December 2, 1994. The assembled bishops rejected the use of the word diaspora to describe the centuries-long Orthodox presence in America, and resolved to take concrete steps towards coordinating their activities and working in favor of Orthodox unity on the continent. Subsequently, the Ecumenical Patriarchate rejected the Ligonier statement.

In practice, the OCA is in communion with the rest of the Orthodox churches, and its bishops are members of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States of America. But the OCA has not been able to participate in pan-Orthodox activities such as the international theological dialogues with other Christian communions because it lacks the necessary unanimous recognition of its status as autocephalous or autonomous by the other Orthodox churches.

Three Orthodox jurisdictions of different ethnic backgrounds have come into full canonical union with the OCA, giving it a multi-ethnic character. These are an Albanian Archdiocese, a Bulgarian Diocese, and a Romanian Episcopate. In total, there were more than 500 OCA parishes in the United States in 2010. In addition to the three ethnic dioceses that cover the United States and Canada, there are eight OCA dioceses in the United States and an Archdiocese in Canada, led by Archbishop Irénée (3441 15th Avenue, Rawdon, Quebec J0K 1S0). It also has a Mexican diocese with 15 parishes and missionary stations.

There are six monastic communities under the direct jurisdiction of the Primate. The largest of these are the monks of New Skete and the affiliated nuns of New Skete in Cambridge, New York, and St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. Some 20 other OCA monastic communities and sketes in North America fall under the jurisdiction of the local dioceses.

At present the OCA administers three theological schools. St. Herman’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska, was founded in 1973 for the training of Alaska Native clergy and church workers. St. Tikhon’s Seminary at South Canaan, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1937 and is affiliated with St. Tikhon’s Monastery. The largest and best known school is St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, established in 1938. In December 1994 the Orthodox Church in America was given use of the Church of St. Catherine in Moscow as its official representation to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Jonah, who had served as Primate of the Orthodox Church in America since 2008, tendered his resignation to the OCA’s Holy Synod on July 6, 2012. On July 9, the Holy Synod appointed Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate as the Locum Tenens of the OCA, and Bishop Michael of New York as the church’s temporary Administrator. Bishop Alexander of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese was appointed Locum Tenens of the Archdiocese of Washington. This temporary arrangement concluded on November 17, 2012, at a special All-American Council held in Parma, Ohio, with the election of Archbishop Tikhon of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania (born Marc Mollard into an Episcopalian family in Boston) as new Metropolitan.

Location: North America
Head: Metropolitan Tikhon (born 1966, elected 2012)
Title: Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada
Residence: Syosset, New York, USA
Membership: 100,000

Last Modified: 04 May 2021

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