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The Orthodox Church in America

North America is a mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority — about 0.65 percent — and include no more than three million of an estimated 459 million people living in Canada, Mexico and the United States. What they may lack in volume, however, North American Orthodox Christians make up in variety. They comprise immigrants and their descendants from Asia Minor, the Balkans, Europe and the Middle East, as well as Alaska Natives and recent converts, especially from the reformed churches.

The ancient rites of the church of Byzantium unite these Orthodox Christians. Rooted in the New World for more than a century, these North American churches retain strong bonds with the Old World, are divided into a number of ethnic jurisdictions — Albanian, Arab, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian and Ukrainian — and typically celebrate the divine mysteries in their respective liturgical languages.

One body has attempted to transcend these cultural differences. Originally a jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America was established in 1970 and is led by a primate with the title of archbishop of Washington, metropolitan of all America and Canada.

Supreme canonical authority in the Orthodox Church in America rests with a synod of bishops from the 14 jurisdictions that compose this autocephalous, or independent, church. In addition, the Orthodox Church in America includes ethnic Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian eparchies and jurisdictions in Canada and Mexico.

In English-speaking Canada and the United States, English is the norm in most liturgical services. Yet other languages may be used depending on the pastoral needs of the parish.

Orthodoxy arrives. Orthodox Christianity first appeared in North America later than Catholicism or Protestantism. A handful of Alaska Natives became Orthodox after the Russian discovery of Alaska in the 17th century. A century later, a few hundred Orthodox Greeks, mostly from Asia Minor, settled in the British colony of Florida in 1768. Their settlement of New Smyrna broke up after a number of promises, including the services of an Orthodox priest, failed to materialize.

Orthodoxy officially arrived in North America on 24 September 1794, when a group of Russian monks arrived in Russian Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Led by one Father Herman, a starets (meaning “spiritual father” in Russian) from the island monastery of Valaam, the monks worked closely with the indigenous population.

Exploitation coupled with disease eliminated some 80 percent of Alaska Natives during the first four decades of Russian control. Yet, Father Herman and his companions were revered by the survivors for their advocacy and acts of prayer and service.

After the starets’s death in 1837, his tomb on Spruce Island became a holy place for Alaskans and a chapel was built over the grave. The Orthodox Church in America canonized Herman in 1970, and the chapel has become an important shrine for Orthodox pilgrims throughout the world.

Another Russian priest, Ivan Veniaminov, arrived in Alaska in 1824. A tireless pastor, he traveled throughout the region to bring the sacraments to his scattered flock. Father Veniaminov worked among the Alaska Natives and learned their languages. Using Cyrillic letters, the priest devised an alphabet for the most common language, Unagan, and translated biblical and liturgical texts for the burgeoning Alaskan church.

After the death of his wife, Father Veniaminov took monastic vows and the name Innokentii. Promptly consecrated a bishop, Innokentii organized North America’s first Orthodox eparchy in the Alaskan town of Sitka. Working with Russian fur traders and Alaska Natives, the bishop founded more parishes and pressed for the extension of Russian citizenship to Alaska’s indigenous peoples.

Orthodox Alaska’s golden age ended after the Russian tsar sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. That same year, Innokentii was appointed metropolitan archbishop of Moscow, the most important see in the Orthodox Church of Russia. A few years later, the seat of the Russian Orthodox eparchy in North America was moved from Sitka to San Francisco. Meanwhile, evangelical Protestant missionaries flooded the new U.S. territory of Alaska, displacing Orthodox priests from their positions of prominence. Today, more than a third of Alaska Natives remain Orthodox Christian.

Mass immigration. In the 19th century, Orthodox laborers, merchants and sailors settled in port cities throughout the Americas. Since at first no particular ethnic group dominated, individuals banded together, setting up multiethnic benevolent societies to care for disadvantaged co-religionists and arranging for the occasional celebration of the sacraments. As these immigrants put down roots, the need for parishes and priests became acute.

Eventually, multiethnic Orthodox parishes were founded, the first in Galveston, Texas, in 1862. Typically, the liturgy was conducted in the language in which the celebrant was most comfortable, which in many cases was Church Slavonic; most priests were of Russian origin: The Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco considered all Orthodox in North America, regardless of ethnic origins, under his pastoral care.

This canonical unity did not last long. A critical mass of Orthodox Albanians, Arabs, Greeks, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians settled in the northeastern United States and established their own parishes in the early 20th century. Anxious to preserve their particular identities, Orthodox parishes became cultural, ethnic and linguistic hubs as well as spiritual centers.

Large numbers of Eastern Catholics, mostly from the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, also settled in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As with most agrarian peoples, these immigrants centered their lives on the church even as they settled in cities and mill towns in the New World. At first, they worshiped in Polish, Slovak or German Catholic parishes. As their numbers increased, they petitioned their home eparchies for priests to celebrate the liturgy according to their tradition.

The Greek Catholic Union, a fraternal organization founded in 1892 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, provided economic and moral support to this emerging church. Contrary to Latin Catholic custom in the United States, the Greek Catholic laity (with the backing of the Greek Catholic Union) built and owned their houses of worship. And the priests these parishes recruited were (in keeping with the norms of the Byzantine tradition) usually married.

Some Latin Catholic bishops, unfamiliar with the traditions of Greek Catholics, would not allow married priests to function. In 1890, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul suspended Father Alexis G. Toth, a widower and pastor of the Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic parish of St. Mary in Minneapolis. A few months later, Father Toth and his entire parish of 360 people were received into the Orthodox Church by the Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco.

This began a large-scale pro-Orthodox movement among Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the United States and Canada that continued unabated until World War II. It is estimated that some 400,000 Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian Greek Catholics entered Orthodoxy, comprising the core of what is today the Orthodox Church in America.

Russian chaos. In 1905, Bishop Tikhon Bellavin moved the seat of North America’s Russian Orthodox eparchy from San Francisco to Manhattan. While some non-Russian parishes voted to remain under the spiritual care of the sainted bishop — especially Arab Orthodox parishes — most feared Russian hegemony. As a result, lay-dominated parish boards independent of any hierarchical control sought civil corporate status. This North American solution seemed absolutely prescient after the events in Russia in 1917 unleashed decades of turmoil in the Russian Orthodox Church in North America.

The Russian Revolution was actually a series of events in 1917 that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. It included the abdication of the tsar in March, the subsequent creation of a provisional government and the Bolshevik coup d’état in October, all of which culminated in a civil war that would end in 1921. The turmoil, coupled with the Bolshevik persecution of the Orthodox Church, devastated the North American Orthodox community. The Manhattan-based church lost financial support, suffered setbacks in personnel, endured ideological confusion and hosted a huge influx of anti-Bolshevik refugees already worn down by years of war.

In 1924, a sobor (Church Slavonic for “assembly”) of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America severed ties with the mother church in Soviet Russia and supported a group of Russian Orthodox bishops living in exile in Yugoslavia. Two years later, the North American church voted to sever ties with the exiled bishops — who had styled themselves the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad — and proclaimed itself “temporarily self-governing.” This newly formed church called itself the “Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America,” but it was commonly called the Metropolia.

Though beset with property suits and controversial claims by nefarious Soviet agents, the Metropolia carried on its pastoral work, built churches, formed priests, monks and sisters, erected eparchies, welcomed former Greek Catholics, catechized parishes and united exiles from Bolshevik-dominated Russia.

St. Vladimir Seminary near New York City played an enormous role in helping the Metropolia to mature. Its distinguished scholars and researchers — many of them linked to the early 20th-century renaissance of Russian culture and thought — provided the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the church and extended its influence throughout the North American Orthodox community.

A new church. After World War II, calls to unite all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America led to the establishment in 1960 of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA). This body sought to reorganize Orthodoxy in the New World, coordinating various ministries, such as chaplaincies, catechesis, ecumenism, evangelization and social services.

In the late 1960’s, the bishops of the Metropolia sought to regularize their own relationship with the Orthodox Church of Russia, which had been severed during the early years of the Soviet Union. Negotiations with the patriarchate of Moscow were successful and, in 1970, Moscow granted autocephaly to the Metropolia, which quickly changed its name to the Orthodox Church in America.

This unilateral action by Moscow was rejected by the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, which still refuses to recognize the Orthodox Church in America. Negotiations, however, between the two continue. Other churches with historic ties to Moscow — Bulgarian, Czecho-Slovak, Georgian and Polish — recognize the independence of the now Washington-based church. And while the Orthodox Church in America is, in practice, in full communion with the rest of the Orthodox world and participates in SCOBA activities, it lacks the unanimous recognition of its status to participate in pan-Orthodox endeavors, such as ecumenical dialogues with the Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches.

A spate of accountability failures and scandals in the last few decades has crippled the Orthodox Church in America and the size of its membership. Recently, church authorities reported 1,064,000 members. But studies, including one published by the church’s evangelization committee, report much lower figures: no more than 40,000 full members and annual membership losses between 6 and 9 percent in the continental United States since 2000. Fluid definitions of membership may also account for the discrepancy.

Cultural assimilation and the rise of interdenominational marriages have helped North American Orthodox Christians enter fully into the customs and patterns of North American life that is, at its core, Protestant. There have been adverse side effects — primarily the erosion of Orthodox identity and institutional loyalty. Yet, there have been positive benefits as well — principally the evolution of an Orthodox ethos and spirituality freed from ethnic and cultural isolation. This especially has enabled the Orthodox Church in America to attract Christians from other traditions, some of whom now participate in its leadership.

Michael La Civita, CNEWA’s vice president for communications, has written extensively on the Eastern churches.

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