Last month, I did a podcast on the attempt to form a pan-Orthodox parish in Chicago in 1888. (You can also read a post about it here.) That attempt failed, and in 1892, separate Greek and Russian parishes were founded in Chicago. The Greek church was founded in April, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Athens, and with Fr Panagiotis (Peter) Phiambolis as the priest. Then, in May, a second parish was created as a part of the Russian diocese of the Aleutian Islands. It was called “St Nicholas,” and its priest was Fr Ambrose Vretta.
Not long after this, Independence Day was celebrated, and the St Nicholas parish community joined in the festivities. Here is an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on July 5, 1892:
Probably the most unique celebration of the day, as it was one of the most earnest, took place in the Graeco-Slavonian Church, No. 20 North Peoria street, yesterday afternoon. Members of the Greek faith in this city gathered there at 11 o’clock and with a monk of high order in picturesque vestments at the altar the mass or liturgy of Servian freedom was recited and applied to the natal day of American independence. The religious features of the services throughout were the same as those employed in Servia to commemorate the independence of that country, and the vestments worn by the celebrant were white and gold, symbolic in Slavonian churches of freedom won and enjoyed.
The church is known as that of St. Nicholas, but externally has nothing to indicate that it is a sacred edifice. The building is a two-story and high basement frame and the first floor is the church. On the end fronting the street the altar is placed, and in its symbols and decorations, resembles that of a modest Catholic church. When services are not in progress it is hidden by curtained partitions extending some distance from each wall, and in the center, where the altar steps begin, are two swinging doors, surmounted with a golden cross, and over that a silken curtain depending from near the ceiling. Except this altar space or sanctuary, the church is simply furnished, there being nothing to relieve its plainness and lack of suggestiveness but a few religious pictures on the walls.
The pastor of this church, the celebrant of yesterday’s services, which were in the nature of a Te Deum, is Fermillian, an Archmandrite of the Graeco-Slavonian Church, or a monk of high order, of which he was at one time the head or chief. He is a man of about 40 years, with a strong face and high forehead, framed in a heavy head of hair and full black whiskers. His eyes are kindly and his manner dignified and courteous. He speaks several languages fluently, but not English. He was rector of a theological school in Belgrade and had charge of the education of young King Alexander of Servia and resided in the royal palace. Being a monk he is not married. Priests of the Greek Church are permitted to marry, but by doing so are debarred from reaching any higher clerical dignity than that of the priesthood.
After the conclusion of the services, which were in the Slavonian language, the Archmandrite delivered an address, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the freedom of this country and the benefits it confers upon those of his own and other races who were the victims of oppression. He drew a parallel between the struggles of the United States and Servia. This happy land had won its liberties in one war, while Servia had been fighting for over 500 years and yet only a portion of the Slavic race was free. Bosnia, Herzegovinia, Macedonia, Dalmatia, and other States are still the victims of Turkish and Austrian tyranny. Only 3,000,000 Slavs are free in Servia and Montenegro and 4,000,000 are still in bondage. But he had hopes that a united Slavic nation would yet be like the United States, free and independent and happy. It was a glorious privilege, he said, to live in a land of liberty like this.
This Greek church on Peoria street is the first one of that faith established in Chicago, and it has been in existence scarcely two months. The Slavonians and Greeks here organized the Christian Orthodox Association about a year ago and sent a petition to the Metropolitan of Servia for a pastor. He complied with their request and sent them Fermillian the Archmandrite. The church now numbers about 175 members, and every Sunday additions are made to the roll. The intention is to begin the erection of a new and handsome church before long, and the expectation is that, at any rate, it will be completed for the World’s Fair and will be open for the reception and worship of Greek Chrsitians from every quarter.
Given that the Fourth of July has just passed, I thought it appropriate to post this article. But it also raises some questions. The Archimandrite Fermillian mentioned by the Tribune was apparently under the Serbian Church, and was sent to be the pastor of St Nicholas parish in Chicago. But the very same St Nicholas parish had been founded just two months earlier under the Russian Church, under the leadership of the Russian priest Fr Ambrose Vretta. And we know that Fr Vretta continued to serve in Chicago.
So what was a Serbian archimandrite doing in the “Russian” church in Chicago? I can only guess at this point, but here’s my theory. The Orthodox community in Chicago consisted primarily of Greeks and Serbs, with only a minority of Russians. The Greeks formed their own parish and got a priest from Athens. The Serbs seem to have requested a priest from Serbia in 1891. However, they were also in contact with the Russian authorities, and in May 1892, this culminated with the founding of St Nicholas church. But, communication being what it was in those days, the Serbian Church probably still sent Archimandrite Fermillian, who arrived in time to celebrate that distinctive Independence Day service. Since arrangements had already been made with the Russians, he probably returned to Serbia a short time after this.
While I can’t prove all that, what this confusion does demonstrate is the jurisdictionally chaotic nature of early American Orthodoxy. From one Orthodox community came two parishes, involving four ecclesiastical authorities — Russia, Greece, Serbia, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the latter having also been contacted by the Chicago Orthodox in 1891).
But, all that aside, the most interesting thing about the above Tribune article is how the Chicago Orthodox were attempting to embrace American life while retaining their Orthodox faith. They wanted to celebrate Independence Day, but they wanted more than fireworks, speeches, and parades. They wanted something distinctively Orthodox, and their solution was rather ingenious — to adapt a Serbian Independence Day service for use in America. And they were serious about it; the Tribune says that the Orthodox celebration “was one of the most earnest.” I don’t know if this practice continued, but it demonstrates a remarkable fusion of American and Orthodox.
Update: In the comments, “Linnapaw” posted a link to a page on the website of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. It includes the following note:
1892 – Archimandrite Firmilian Drazich, later to become Metropolitan of Skoplje, visits Chicago from April until September. Fr. Drazich has the distinction of being the first Serbian Orthodox priest to serve the Orthodox liturgy in Chicago (in a rented hall). Three Cathedrals in Chicago — Annunciation Greek, Holy Trinity Russian and Holy Resurrection Serbian—herald their beginnings from this common chapel.
As I said in the comments, while there was no formal Orthodox parish (and no resident priest) in Chicago until the Greek church was founded in April 1892, we know that there was a lay Orthodox organization prior to this, and it is certainly possible that they had a chapel. By the time Archimandrite Firmilian came along, the Greeks had already started their own parish, but the rest of the Orthodox community may have continued to use the earlier chapel.
The Serbs didn’t get their own church in Chicago until 1905. But long before that (beginning in 1881), they had an organization called the “Serbian-Montenegrin Charitable Institution,” which was renamed “Jedinstvo” in 1894. When Archimandrite Firmilian visited Chicago in 1892, he gave the group vestments and a chalice, and when the Serbian church was founded in 1905, Jedinstvo donated the holy objects to the new parish. It would be interesting to know whether the Serbian cathedral still has these objects.