Immigration and church development

The second significant factor to contribute to the foundation of the Orthodox Church in the United States was the waves of Orthodox immigrants entering the country from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Arriving from Greece, Asia Minor, Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East, these immigrants established parishes and constructed church buildings. A number of the earliest parishes began as pan-Orthodox communities containing immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds. Among these parishes were those in New Orleans (1864), San Francisco (1868) and New York City (1870). There, a notable attempt to expose Orthodox Christianity to the wider society in New York was undertaken by Fr. Nicholas Bjerring (1831-84). Between 1879 and 1881, his journal, the Oriental Church Magazine, published essays on Orthodox teachings and liturgical texts in English. As the number of Orthodox immigrants increased, however, these early parishes and most subsequent parishes began to serve particular ethnic groups. Orthodox parishes serving Greek, Carpatho-Russian, Arab, Romanian, Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian immigrants developed in various parts of the country. Since many immigrants intended to return to their homeland some day, the parishes became centres in which not only the faith was preserved but also the language and customs of the old country were maintained. There was little contact between these parishes and little sense of mission beyond the needs of a particular group.

As the centre of their religious and cultural life in a new country, these parishes were usually established with very little direction from church authorities. Most parishes serving Slavic immigrants became associated with the Russian Orthodox diocese in San Francisco. These were joined initially by some parishes serving Arab, Albanian and Romanian immigrants. The Russian Orthodox diocesan see was moved to New York in 1905 under Archbishop Tikhon Bellavin (1865-1925), later Patriarch of Moscow. The move was occasioned by the rapid increase of parishes in the eastern United States. This resulted primarily from the entrance into Orthodoxy of about fifty Carpatho-Russian parishes and their clergy who had been Eastern Catholics. The basis for this movement was the refusal of local Roman Catholic bishops and priests to honour the Eastern Catholic traditions, particularly the married priesthood. This movement to Orthodoxy was led by Fr. Alexis Toth (1853-1909). Archbishop Tikhon subsequently presented a plan to the Church of Russia in 1905 which envisioned a unified Church in America under its jurisdiction.

The largest group of Orthodox immigrants in this period was the Greek. By the year 1920, there were about 300,000 Greek immigrants in the United States, organized into about 135 parishes. With few exceptions, these parishes in the early years sought to maintain some connection with dioceses of the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Many of these early Greek immigrants saw themselves as temporary residents in the United States and kept in close contact with families back home.

From the early decades of the century, the Patriarchate of Constantinople affirmed its responsibility for all Orthodox living in America. However, because of the acute difficulties that the patriarchate experienced throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not in a position to assert its prerogatives or to exercise its ministry adequately in America. So Orthodox ecclesiastical life in the United States developed during this period with very little hierarchical supervision and not always in harmony with accepted practices. Patriarch Meletios (Metaxakis) (1871-1935) envisioned a united Orthodox Church in the United States in his enthronement address in 1922. It was in the same year that the patriarchate established the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America as a canonical province. However, the Greek Orthodox parishes were deeply divided in the 1920s and 1930s because of differences between Royalists and Republicans in Greece. Between 1931 and 1948, Archbishop Athenagoras Spirou (1886-19 72), later Patriarch of Constantinople, did much to heal these divisions and to unify the archdiocese. Faced with the specific pastoral needs of the Greek immigrants and with the divisions among them at this time, however, the Patriarchate of Constantinople and its archdiocese could do little to widen its embrace to include all Orthodox faithful in the Americas.

Further diocesan developments soon took place. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States was thrown into chaos as a result of the political and religious turmoil in Russia. By the year 1933, there were at least four major Russian Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. The largest was the 'Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church' or 'Metropolia', which had declared itself temporarily independent from the Church of Russia in 1924. Its authority was challenged by a small number of clergy and laity associated with the 'Living Church' movement which lasted from 1922 to 1943. By the year 1927, a diocese of the 'Russian Orthodox Church Abroad' was established; it served Russian immigrants with monarchist sympathies who refused to acknowledge the official leadership of the Church of Russia in the period after Patriarch Tikhon. Repudiating both these jurisdictions, the beleaguered Church of Russia, headed by Metropolitan Sergius, established an exarchate in the United States in 1933. Each of these four rival jurisdictions claimed to be the historic continuation of the Alaskan Mission and each expressed very different attitudes toward the Church of Russia and the Communist regime.

In response to the high level of immigration in the early twentieth century, and the unsupervised growth of parishes, other autocephalous Orthodox churches wanted to create dioceses in the United States to serve their faithful. Dioceses were established by the churches of Serbia in 1921, Romania in 1930, Albania in 1932, Antioch in 1936 and Bulgaria in 1938. The Ecumenical Patriarchate also established dioceses for the Ukrainians in 193 7, the Carpatho-Russians in 1938 and the Albanians in 1949. Moreover, the animosities and politics of the immigrants frequently led to the creation of other dioceses which were not under the jurisdiction of any autocephalous church. With each wave of immigration, the disputes of the Old World frequently manifested themselves in the ecclesiastical life of the Orthodox in America. While claiming to be united in faith, the Orthodox were fractured into numerous diocesan jurisdictions. Most had an Old World orientation and served a particular ethnic population. While most were related to a particular Mother Church, others were not. Some followed the revised Julian calendar and others the old Julian calendar. By the year 1933, there were no less than fifteen separate diocesan jurisdictions serving particular ethnic communities and often reflecting political perspectives related to the old homeland. There were at this time about 300 Orthodox parishes in the United States, serving nearly half a million faithful.

From the perspective of Orthodox ecclesiology, the proliferation of parallel and often competing jurisdictions on the same geographical territory was a serious anomaly. The establishment of 'ethnic' and even 'political' dioceses rather than territorial dioceses may have served the short-term needs of the immigrants. However, the ecclesiastical requirements for canonical order, integrity, and the unity of the episcopacy in a given region were sacrificed. This led to an undue emphasis upon a polity of congregationalism at the parish level and encouraged an attitude of phyletism and parochialism in church life. Uncanonical priests and renegade parishes were not uncommon. These harsh facts greatly diminished the mission and message of the Orthodox Church in the United States, especially throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

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