The First Churches, State by State
There is an argument, made by many, that the first autocephalous Church to expand into a new territory “gets” that territory. I call it the flag-planting theory, because it reminds me of 15th century European explorers who reached the shores of undiscovered (for them) lands, stuck a flag in the sand, and claimed that piece of earth for their nation.
I don’t mean to denigrate this position; while I personally think the flag-planting theory oversimplifies things, it certainly has its merits, as well as many supporters. A lot of people make an argument along the following lines: “The Russian Orthodox Church was the first Orthodox Church to establish itself in America; therefore, it had jurisdiction over all of America. And since it granted autocephaly to the OCA in 1970, now the OCA has exclusive canonical authority over the entire North American continent.”
It occurred to me that much the same argument could be made on a state-by-state basis. The United States is, after all, a “federal” country, right? (Or at least, we’re supposed to be, according to our Constitution.) Couldn’t you make the argument that while the Russian Church (and, by extension, the OCA) may have flag-planting rights in Alaska and California, the other 48 states are up for grabs?
I don’t actually think this is a viable theory, but I thought it might, at minimum, be interesting to see what exactly such a theory would mean. For instance, the Greeks established the first Orthodox parishes in Georgia, Missouri, Idaho, and twenty other states. The Syrians were the first in Nebraska, the Serbs in Montana. (And, yes, I realize that the Syrians and Serbs were technically a part of the Russian Mission in the early 20th century.)
My research is far from complete; I’m presenting what amounts to partial results thus far. For some states, I’m not yet entirely certain who was the first. I would very much appreciate help from any readers who might have additions or corrections.
With that out of the way, here are the fifty U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia) and their first Orthodox parishes:
Alabama - Greek (Birmingham, 1909). Another possibility is an early Russian parish in Brookside, which began sometime between 1906 and 1911. (For a discussion of the Brookside parish, see the comments below.)
Alaska - Russian (Kodiak, 1794). Of course.
Arizona – Serbian (Globe, by at least 1916).
Arkansas – Russian or Greek (Slovak, ca. 1895-1918?, or Little Rock, 1913). Slovak (or Slovaktown) was a town of Eastern European immigrants to Arkansas, and it was founded in 1894. I’ve heard rumors that a Russian church was founded not long after the town itself, but I can’t find it on the official Russian lists of parishes in 1906, 1911, or 1918. The last service inthe Slovak church took place in 1948. (See the update at the bottom of this article for more information.) The oldest surviving Orthodox church in Arkansas is the Greek parish in Little Rock, founded in 1913. Depending on when the Slovak parish was established, it’s possible that the Little Rock Greek church was the first in Arkansas.
California – Russian (Fort Ross, 1825 or San Francisco, 1868). There was a Russian chapel at Fort Ross from 1825 to 1841. During this period, California was a part of Mexico; it wouldn’t become an American territory until 1847. The first parish in the American period was begun in San Francisco in 1868, and it still exists (after numerous name and building changes) as Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA).
Colorado – Russian (Denver & Pueblo, 1903). Both parishes joined the Russian Mission in 1903. I’m not sure when the Denver Greek cathedral was founded; it’s possible that it predates the Russian churches.
Connecticut – Russian (Bridgeport, 1894).
Delaware – Russian (Wilmington, ca. 1911-1913).
District of Columbia – Greek (Washington, 1904).
Florida – Greek (Tarpon Springs, 1907).
Georgia – Greek (Savannah, 1900).
Hawaii – Russian (Fort Elizabeth, 1815). That’s right, 1815. For a good history of Orthodoxy in Hawaii, check out this Orthodox Wiki article.
Idaho – Greek (Pocatello, 1915).
Illinois – Greek & Russian (Chicago, 1892). We’ve discussed the early Chicago parishes in earlier posts, and we’ll continue to do so in the future.
Indiana - Greek (Indianapolis, 1910).
Iowa – Greek & Syrian (Waterloo & Cedar Rapids, 1914). Both parishes began in 1914, and when the founding dates are in the same year, I’m calling it a tie.
Kansas - Serbian (Kansas City, 1904). Of course, in 1904 the Serbian churches were technically a part of the Russian mission, but many (including Kansas City) functioned almost independently, obtaining their priests directly from Serbia and being run, for all practical purposes, by lay boards of trustees.
Kentucky – Greek (Louisville, 1927). There were Greeks in Kentucky by the turn of the century, and there may have been a parish prior to 1927.
Louisiana - Greek (New Orleans, 1865).
Maine – Greek (Saco, 1909).
Maryland - Greek (Baltimore, 1894 & 1906). A Greek parish was founded in Baltimore in 1894, but it lasted only a few months. The next Orthodox church in Maryland – also Greek, and also in Baltimore — was established in 1906.
Massachusetts – Greek & Syrian (Lowell & Boston, 1900).
Michigan – Russian (Detroit, 1907).
Minnesota – Russian (Minneapolis, 1892). This was the parish of St. Alexis Toth.
Mississippi – Syrian (Vicksburg, 1906). [The founding date was originally listed as 1908. Thanks to Fr. John Morris for the correction.]
Missouri – Greek (St. Louis, 1904).
Montana – Serbian (Butte, 1904).
Nebraska – Syrian (Kearney, 1903).
Nevada – Greek (McGill/Ely, 1910). As I indicated in the 2/24/10 update (below), St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church began in McGill in 1910. Early sources list it as being located in nearby Ely, but it was actually located in McGill. In 1940, a separate church was founded in Ely. Dianna Callaway explains:
The Greek people of Ely had always traveled to McGill for church. St. Barbara’s had decided to build a fellowship hall in Ely around 1940. At the last minute the Ely people decided that they wanted to build their own parish. Hence, the beginning of St. Alexios Greek Orthodox Church in Ely, Nevada.
Both churches are still in operation, though neither has a resident priest.
New Hampshire – Greek (Manchester, 1905).
New Jersey – Russian (Garfield, 1898).
New Mexico – Greek (Albuquerque, 1944).
New York – Russian (New York City, 1870). That parish was really more of an embassy chapel, and it closed in 1883. The oldest surviving parish in New York is Holy Trinity Greek Cathedral, founded in 1892.
North Carolina – Greek (Asheville, 1922). One of the other Greek parishes may predate Asheville. The 1916 Census of Religious Bodies lists no Orthodox churches in the state, so the first parish would have been sometime after that.
North Dakota – Russian (Wilton, ca. 1913-18).
Ohio – Russian (Cleveland, 1896).
Oklahoma - Russian (Hartshorne, by at least 1906). This was founded as a Uniate parish in 1897. I don’t know the precise date when it joined the Russian Mission, but it would have been close to the turn of the century.
Oregon – Russian (Portland, 1895). The Russian chapel in Portland fell into disrepair, and by 1907, the Greeks founded their own church, which is the oldest surviving parish in Oregon.
Pennsylvania – Russian (Wilkes-Barre, 1892).
Rhode Island – Greek (Providence, 1905).
South Carolina – Greek (Charleston & Spartanburg, 1911).
South Dakota – Greek (Sioux Falls, ca. 1959). There might be something earlier, but as of the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies, there were still no Orthodox churches in South Dakota.
Tennessee – Greek (Memphis, ca. 1915-16). The Greeks also started a parish in Nashville in 1917.
Texas – Russian (Galveston, 1895). The Galveston parish, Ss. Constantine and Helen, is now under the Serbian Church.
Utah – Greek (Salt Lake City, 1905).
Vermont – Russian (Springfield, 1906).
Virginia – Greek (Norfolk, 1911).
Washington – Russian (Seattle, 1892).
West Virginia – Syrian (Charleston, 1905).
Wisconsin – Not sure. I know that Greek parishes in Milwaukee and Sheboygan both existed by 1911. According to the OCA website, its parish in Lublin was founded in 1908, though I’m told that the oldest parish in Wisconsin is St. John the Baptist (Russian?) in the small rural town of Huron. The official Russian Archdiocese list of parishes, published in 1911, includes none in Wisconsin. It’s possible that Lublin and/or Huron began as Uniate communities and later became Orthodox, but I can’t confirm this. In any event, by 1916, there were three Russian parishes in Wisconsin. At the moment, who got there first is unclear.
Wyoming – Greek (Cheyenne, 1922). I don’t know when the Greek churches in Rock Springs and Casper were founded, and it’s possible that one of them predates Cheyenne. Regardless, I’m confident that the first Orthodox parish in Wyoming was Greek. In 1916, there were no Orthodox churches in the state. By 1936, there were two — both of them Greek.
Adding it all up, that’s (roughly) 22 states for the Greeks, 18 for the Russians, 3 for the Syrians, and 3 for the Serbs, plus several states with ties (that is, multiple first parishes in the same year).
Another interesting way to look at this is to divide the states into regions – say, East, Midwest, South, and West. In the East, Midwest, and West, the Greeks and Russians are basically even. In the South, the Greeks dominate, with 9 of 13 states. In fact, the Syrians and the Russians are even in the South, with two states apiece.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that one or another jurisdiction has special rights to any given state. I am simply pointing out 1) what the first parishes in each state were, and 2) which jurisdictions might theoretically have claim on which states, if the flag-planting theory were applied to states rather than the entire continent.
As I said earlier, the above list is far from complete. If you have any information at all that would make the list more accurate, please comment below or email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
UPDATE (9/1/09): Isa Almisry points out that I have the wrong date for the Chicago parishes, which were founded in 1892 (not 1894, as originally reported). I’ve corrected the entry above.
Also, thanks to Stephen Smith for sending some interesting articles on the history of Slovak/Slovaktown, Arkansas. One of these articles, from the Stuttgart Daily Leader (May 16, 1980), indicates that Slovak’s first Russian church building was constructed in 1918. A Roman Catholic church (Ss. Cyril & Methodius) was founded in the town’s early years, near the turn of the century, but the Orthodox church seems to have come along later. As I originally noted, the Slovak parish does not appear on the official Russian Mission lists of 1906, 1911, or 1918. I have heard rumors that St. John Kochurov of Chicago visited Slovak; St. John returned to Russia in 1907, so obviously, such a visit must have taken place before then. But the fact that he visited doesn’t necessarily mean there was a parish; it simply means that there were Orthodox Christians present. Given the lack of evidence for a parish in Slovak prior to 1918, I’m inclined to say that the Greek church in Little Rock (founded in 1913) is the first Orthodox parish in Arkansas.
Finally, thanks to Kathleen Barngrover, who, on our Facebook page, made the following comment:
St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in rural Huron, WI is the oldest in WI. The area was settled by Russians, Ukrainians in the logging industry. Holy Assumption in Lublin, WI just celebrated their centenial last year 2008.
The Wisconsin entry has been updated to include this information.
I will post any further updates in this space. Keep the corrections coming in!
UPDATE (2/26/10): I’ve updated the entry for Wyoming. Previously, I had said that the first church was Greek, but I wasn’t sure about the city; now, I’m pretty sure that the first one was Ss. Constantine & Helen Church in Cheyenne, founded in 1922. I also made a minor adjustment to the Wisconsin entry, indicating that there were three Russian parishes in the state by 1916.
UPDATE (3/4/10): I’ve been learning a lot about the Greek parishes in McGill/Ely, Nevada, thanks to Dianna Callaway, and I’ve updated the entry for Nevada to include that new information.
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