In September of 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, a fleet of Russian ships arrived in the New York harbor. Their mission was both diplomatic and strategic, but anyway, that’s not terribly relevant here.[i] More to the point, among the crews of the ships were at least two Orthodox priests serving as chaplains – the first known Orthodox clergy to set foot in the eastern United States.
On September 23, the New York Times reported that a certain Father Nestor, chaplain of the Russian frigate Olisiaba, baptized four Greek children in New York. “The service was of a most impressive character, and created great interest,” the Times said. “The service was read in the Russian dialect, and its forms are peculiar, but very appropriate to such a ceremony. The officers of the Russian frigate were present, and enjoyed at the residence of Mrs. Negroponti, in Nineteenth street, a most magnificent dejeune. The toasts of the Emperor of Russia and the new King of Greece were given in conjunction with our own magnates, and received with appropriate ovations.”[ii]
I don’t know the name of the second Russian priest to visit New York. He was the chaplain of the Russian frigate Alexander Nevsky. “The festival of St. Michael and of all Angels is one of those most reverenced in the Greek Catholic Church,” the Times said, “and the worthy ‘Papa’ saw fit to observe it in an Episcopalian cathedral, which he did with every semblance of intense curiosity, interest and devotion. He was received with distinction and conducted to a conspicuous and comfortable seat near the altar, on the right side of which sat the Rt. Reverend Bishop Southgate, in the ceremonial Chair of the Episcopate.”[iii]
When the Alexander Nevsky left New York, it made a stop in Athens, where it informed the Greek Church leaders that there were a number of Orthodox in America without a priest. This resulted in the arrival in New York, in 1865, of Fr. Agapius Honcharenko.
[i] Cf. Marshall B. Davidson, “A Royal Welcome for the Russian Navy,” American Heritage Magazine 11:4 (June 1960). Also cf. Edward W. Ellsworth, “Sea Birds of Muscovy in Massachusetts,” New England Quarterly 33:1 (March 1960), 3-18.
[ii] “A Greek Christening,” New York Times (September 23, 1863), 8.
[iii] “A Novelty for Michaelmas,” New York Times (September 30, 1863), 5.