Parish priest stability, 1911-1915

I’ve conducted a little study on parish stability during the 1910s, with some slightly surprising results. I began with a list of the Orthodox parishes that had resident priests in 1911. For each of these, I checked to see whether the same priest was serving the parish four years later, in 1915. My results aren’t perfect; I couldn’t find data for a few parishes, so the percentages for the Greeks and Russians may be off a couple points.

Anyway, 135 American Orthodox parishes had resident priests in 1911:

74 Russian (not counting Alaska)

40 Greek

14 Syrian

7 Serbian

Four years later, in 1915, only 39 of those parishes had the same priest (28.9%). The percentages for each group break down as follows:

20.3% Russian (15/74)

27.5% Greek (11/40)

71.4% Syrian (10/14)

42.9% Serbian (3/7)

A few thoughts. I was somewhat surprised by the high turnover rate (with 7 out of every 10 parishes getting a new priest within four years). I have no idea what the numbers are today, but 70% seems pretty high.

The most striking thing, to me, is the retention percentage for the Syrians, with 10 of the 14 parishes retaining their priests. This is not a fluke: the Syrians under St Raphael were by far the most stable Orthodox ethnic group, by virtually any measure you choose. I’ll unpack that thought in future posts.

Another interesting fact is that the Russian churches were actually the least stable of all. I fully expected the Russians to be the most stable (since they were the most well-established, with a bishop and so forth), with the Greeks the most unstable (because of the trustee control of parishes and the lack of a resident bishop).

In response to this information, Fr John Erickson commented,

I’m not too surprised at the relatively high turnover of Russian priests during the period in question.  I believe that at this point many still “signed on” for a relatively brief “tour of duty” in the North American mission, after which they would return to Russia, where their material circumstances were better.  To determine whether this surmise is correct, one would have to determine whether or not the movement of priests was largely “internal” to the archdiocese.  The greater stability among the other ethnic groups may be attributable, at least in part, to differences in immigration patterns: Once a priest came from the Old World he was more likely to stay permanently in the U.S.

This prompted me to look at the 59 Russian parishes which changed priests from 1911-1915. How many of those priests remained in the U.S., and how many returned to Russia?

I have been able to confirm that 44 of those 59 priests remained in the Russian Mission in America in 1915. That is, about 75% were transferred internally, rather than back to Russia. (The number may actually be higher, but I was only able to confirm those 44.)

That doesn’t mean that the Russian priests weren’t doing “tours of duty.” But with most of them touring the U.S., I have to wonder, why would the bishop bother moving 80% of his priests in a four-year period?

Anyway, much more to come. Stay tuned.