Archive for October, 2009
Yesterday, in my article on James Chrystal, I mentioned, “In 1870, there were various reports that the Russian government planned to assign a bishop to New York and offered the job to Chrystal. He declined, citing his opposition to icons.” In the comments, Isa Almisry asked, quite reasonably, if I had documentation for this. Here it is.
On July 19, 1870, a Philadelphia newspaper called the North American and United States Gazette published the following report:
The Russian Ambassador has received instructions from his government that three bishoprics of the Greek Church are to be established forthwith in this country – one at New York, one at New Orleans, and one at San Francisco, in each of which last named places there is already a Greek church and a Russo-Greek priest.
A few days later, the journal Christian Union (7/23/1870) reported on the move of the Russian bishop from Alaska to San Francisco, and on the founding of Bjerring’s chapel in New York City. Citing the Pacific Churchman as its source, the article then stated the following:
New York is expected to be, in time, the seat of a Greek Orthodox Eastern Church arch-diocesan, and of the cathedral church of that hierarchy on the American continent, while New Orleans and San Francisco are to be episcopal seats. It is further stated that Mr. N.L. BJERRING, of Baltimore, a recent convert from the Roman Church, has been selected as one of the Orthodox bishops for this country, and that he has been invited by telegraph, from St. Petersburg, to proceed thither, to be baptized, ordained into the ministry, and be consecrated a bishop.
It’s interesting to read about a plan calling for New York to be the headquarters of an archdiocese; it would be more than three decades before this would actually happen. Also, Bjerring, being married, could not have become a bishop. It’s possible that the Russian Church wasn’t initially aware of this, and did at some early stage consider him a candidate for the episcopacy. It’s also possible that the newspaper reporter misunderstood something.
Anyway, within a few more days, the New York Sun had run a piece on all this. I don’t have the original Sun account, but it was picked up by various papers, including the Cleveland Herald (7/30/1870), the Chicago Tribune (8/1), and Flake’s Bulletin of Galveston, Texas (8/20). This is from the Cleveland Herald‘s version:
The Russian Government has decided to establish a Bishopric of the Greek Church in New York. The fact was made known to a number of Episcopal clergymen by Count Catacazy, the Russian Minister, and the Count recently offered the position of Prelate of the proposed See to the Rev. Samos [the other versions say "James"] Christal, an Episcopal minister, who is understood to have favored the plan of Dr. (now Bishop) Young of uniting the Episcopal and Greek churches. Mr. Christal has, however, declined to accept the office, on the ground that he could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship, and the new Bishopric has not yet been filled.
Two other Bishoprics are to be established by the Russian Government, one in San Francisco and the other in New Orleans, but the candidates have not yet been named.
On August 27, Christian Union (which had already published a report on July 23 — see above) ran a similar story, but cited Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Banner.
Finally, in October, a correction of sorts began to appear. From the Christian Advocate (10/10/1870; the same appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin on October 29):
The Russian Government does not contemplate sending Bishops of the Greek Church to form dioceses in this country. Greek Church communicants are too few to require them, and these few, it seems, do not desire foreign Bishops.
That is the last thing I’ve found on the plan.
All of these reports were coming during a time of transition for American Orthodoxy. During the same summer of 1870, Bishop John Mitropolsky was assigned to replace Bishop Paul Popov as the Russian hierarch in North America. The diocese itself was restructured, and the new Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska was created. (Previously, Bishop Paul had been merely a vicar in the Diocese of Kamchatka.) Bishop John moved the hierarchical residence from Sitka (or New Archangel) to San Francisco. This move wouldn’t be officially recognized until 1872, but for all practical purposes, it took place with the change in bishops in 1870.
Also, in May of 1870, Nicholas Bjerring went to Russia and was ordained a priest. He returned to the US that summer, and news began to circulate that the Russian Church planned to establish a chapel in New York City.
Is it possible that the Russian Church (and the Russian government) was making initial efforts to implement St. Innocent’s recommendation from a few years earlier? Late in 1867, Innocent recommended, among other things, that
- The diocesan seat be moved from Sitka (New Archangel) to San Francisco,
- The American part of the Diocese of Kamchatka be separated from the Diocese (Innocent recommended that it be formed into a vicariate under St. Petersburg, so creating a separate diocese would have been an even bolder step),
- The former bishop be recalled to Russia, and a new bishop be appointed who is familiar with English, and
- The new bishop be allowed to ordain American converts to the priesthood for service in America.
It’s also interesting to note the apparent resistence of the few Orthodox living in America. The San Francisco community was probably not the source of the problem, since they were the one city that did receive a Russian bishop in 1870. The New Orleans parish may have taken issue with this proposal, though, since they were a mostly independent group connected with the Greek consulate and nominally affiliated with the Church of Greece. But, details being so scarce, it’s hard to know just what the real story is.
There are a couple of avenues one might pursue to get to the bottom of all this. Obviously, the Russian Orthodox Church may have records of this plan (and I would expect them to be in St. Petersburg). There also might be something in the records of the Russian embassy, since the Russian ambassador was the one who approached Chrystal about the proposal. It can’t have just been the imaginings of American newspapermen, and I for one would love to know rationale behind the plan — and the reasons why it was abandoned.
A month ago, I did a podcast and wrote an article about the first two American Orthodox convert priests, James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring. Today, I’m publishing a brief biography I wrote on Chrystal (and which I adapted for use in the podcast).
James Chrystal was born in 1831, ordained an Episcopal deacon in 1859 and a priest shortly thereafter. In 1861, he published a book called A History of the Modes of Christian Baptism. In the Preface, Chrystal himself described the book as “an apology for the belief of the early Church, that Christ enjoined triune immersion.” Chrystal argued that sprinkling – the form of baptism practiced by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans – was insufficient and contrary to Christ’s teaching. The Orthodox Church, he concluded, had alone preserved the correct practice.
Naturally, Chrystal wanted to get one of these authentic baptisms for himself. So at the end of 1868 he traveled to Greece, where he sought out Archbishop Alexander of Syra. The Archbishop examined Chrystal and was impressed with his learning and his sincerity. A local Greek newspaper commented, “He has acquired such accuracy concerning the theoretical parts of theology, as few of the clergy and theologians among us possess.” Satisfied with Chrystal’s Orthodoxy, the Archbishop baptized him on the eve of Theophany “after the evening service, at about 5 P.M., in the Holy Temple of the Transfiguration, Mr. K.G. Drakopoulos, the Nomarch of the Cyclades, standing as his godfather.” Chrystal, being unmarried, had to obtain permission from the Holy Synod of Greece to be ordained. The Synod gave it, and within a few months Chrystal was ordained and then elevated to archimandrite.
The English Orthodox journal Orthodox Catholic Review (Dec/Jan 1868) noted that Chrystal “had for six years studied the Orthodox faith, and was fully convinced that it was the only true Catholic religion. The neophyte recited the Creed both in Greek and English. He intends entering the ministry of the Church, and will in due time become Bishop in Alaska, lately ceded by Russia to the United States. He is anxious to become a lawful medium between the Reunionist party of the Anglo-American Church and the Orthodox Church; and the Greek ecclesiastical authorities hailed his scheme. He is now busy in translating the necessary service-books into English.”
The Greek newspaper quoted earlier opined, “We [...] do not hesitate to believe, that the spread of Orthodox teaching being commenced in those places, we shall in a short time see formed there an Orthodox Church of many thousands, and the light of the East shining bright and clear even in that new world.” It then exclaimed, “What glory then will it be for the Greek Church and for our nation, if by means of this her learned priest she should send out first the shining lamp of Orthodoxy.”
Jonas King, a Protestant missionary in Greece, translated the Greek newspaper article for a Protestant journal in the United States (New York Evangelist, 4/8/1869). In conclusion, he commented sarcastically, “It may be well, perhaps, to give publicity to this novel transaction, so that the people beyond the wide Atlantic may be prepared to see the light, which, it is supposed, will soon break in upon them from the East.”
No such light would come from the East, at least not as a result of Chrystal’s conversion. See, James Chrystal had his own interpretation of Christianity. Fr. David Abramtsov explains, “The erratic Chrystal soon repudiated his ties with the Orthodox Church and, upon his return to America, formed his own Baptist-type sect.” Insofar as the Orthodox Church agreed with him – namely, in baptism – he wanted to be a part of it. But that fact was soon superseded by another. Just a year later, we find the following report: “Mr. Christal [sic] [...] could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship.”
So James Chrystal could not accept the veneration of icons. He was hardly alone among Protestants. What escapes me is how he could have somehow not noticed them covering the walls of the cathedral in which he was baptized and ordained. Did he simply not look up? Was he – clearly a learned man, who had studied Orthodoxy for half a dozen years – unaware of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, or the Protestant objections to icons? Or did his views toward icons change in a matter of months?
In any event, it took the Orthodox some time to figure out that Chrystal was no longer himself Orthodox. In 1870, there were various reports that the Russian government planned to assign a bishop to New York and offered the job to Chrystal. He declined, citing his opposition to icons. Only a few months later, Fr. Nicholas Bjerring opened the doors of Holy Trinity Chapel in New York City.
As for Chrystal, he initially rejoined the Episcopal Church, but it wasn’t long before he was on the move again. In his own words, he left from the Episcopal Church “on account of unchecked and unpunished idolatry and service of creatures in it contrary to the faith of its reformers of blessed memory.” He continued his opposition to icons for the rest of his life. In an 1899 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Chrystal argued against the practice of kissing the Bible. He went on to publish a series of books on the Third Ecumenical Council, which he claimed supported his iconoclastic position. His argument, which he also made in his letter to the Times, was basically that since the Council condemned the division of Christ into two persons, divine and human, and thus condemned the worship of merely Christ’s humanity (rather than the single divine-human person of Christ), it implicitly forbade the veneration of any and all matter. Of this series, The Third World Council, Chrystal dedicated the second volume to the “Greek race” and the third to the “Russian people,” in both cases exhorting them to reject the Seventh Ecumenical Council and return, so said Chrystal, to true orthodoxy.
James Chrystal died in 1908 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was 77.
ONE OTHER THING: Chrystal – who, to my knowledge, never married – donated his personal papers to the New York Public Library upon his death. They’re still there, apparently available for researchers.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Fr. Ambrose Vretta, the first parish priest of the Russian churches in both Chicago and Seattle. Toward the end of the article, I said,
In December of 1896, Vretta was transferred from Seattle… And I’m not sure where he went. He was only 37 years old, so he presumably had a long career ahead of him, but I can’t find him on any later lists of clergy (and I’ve got lists for 1906, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1918).
As it turns out, the answer to the mystery of Vretta’s whereabouts after 1896 was right under my nose all along. In various places on this website, we’ve linked to Brigit Farley’s fascinating article, “Circuit Riders to the Slavs and Greeks: Missionary Priests and the Establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church in the American West, 1890-1910.” Vretta is one of the clergymen discussed in that paper, and in footnote #36, Farley writes, “Fr. Vretta had financial problems that made it necessary for him to return to Russia, where he soon died.”
Unfortunately, Farley doesn’t give a source for this information, and there aren’t any details beyond that one sentence. But it does explain why the 37-year-old priest suddenly vanished from the American Orthodox scene.
On October 19, I wrote about Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis (today’s Nablus), a bishop of the Jerusalem Patriarchate who was active in America in the 1920s. Since then, thanks to help from some readers, I’ve learned more about Abp Panteleimon’s later years in America. Here’s an update.
Abp Panteleimon seems to roughly parallel the Antiochian Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. Both came to America for specific, temporary purposes (Germanos to raise money, Panteleimon to attend an Episcopal Church conference and also to raise money). Both were initially quite popular and well-received. Both developed a liking for America, and decided to stick around indefinitely. Both attracted some parishes to join them. Germanos was opposed by the Syro-Arab leadership under the Russian Mission, as well as the later leadership of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Panteleimon was opposed by the Greek Archdiocese and the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And finally, both ultimately left the US in the early 1930s.
On March 12, 1924, Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory I wrote to Patriarch Damian of Jerusalem, explaining that Abp Panteleimon was meddling in the affairs of the Greek Archdiocese in America. Later that year, on September 5, the Greek Bishop Philaret of Chicago complained to his superior, Abp Alexander, that Panteleimon had come to Chicago and was “trespassing on canonical territory.” Shortly after this, in November, Panteleimon assisted the Antiochian Metropolitan Zacharias of Hauran in consecrating Abp Victor Abo-Assaly to be the first head of the new Antiochian Archdiocese.
For the rest of the 1920s, Panteleimon caused one problem after another for the leaders of the Greek Archdiocese, and successive Ecumenical Patriarchs asked Jerusalem to recall him. At one point, reference was made to a “dependency of the Jerusalem Patriarchate in New York”; this seems to refer to Panteleimon’s metochion (embassy church).
By the late ’20s, Abp Panteleimon was in Canada. On February 23, 1929, leaders of an Episcopal church in Montreal wrote to the Greek Abp Alexander:
We expect to proceed against the emissaries of Panteleimon at any moment, and hope to secure their punishment and deportation. Panteleimon himself will never again be permitted to enter this country, being now known to the Canadian Department of Immigration as an imposter and fraud one, who took part in securing large sums of money in Montreal by false pretenses.
The story wasn’t over, though. In 1930, both Abp Alexander and the Ecumenical Patriarch were trying to arrange for Panteleimon to leave North America. By November, the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate seem to have hit upon a solution: Panteleimon could be assigned to the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s metochion in Constantinople, thus removing him from America and offering him a comfortable alternative. Finally, in January of 1931, the Patriarch of Jerusalem recalled Panteleimon.
But in March, Panteleimon was still in America, apparently requesting funds in order to leave the country. The new Greek Archbishop, Athenagoras, worked with the Greek Ambassador, and they came up with the money: 100 British pounds, a small price to pay to get rid of what by 1931 was quite a migrane for the Greek Archdiocese.
At long last, on August 14, Abp Athenagoras sent a telegram to the Greek Ambassador, informing him that Panteleimon “is immediately departing from the United States.” Panteleimon initially planned to go, not to the Jerusalem Patriarchate, but to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This switch was said to be for “personal reasons.” (Interestingly enough, the Patriarch of Alexandria was none other than former Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis, the founder of the Greek Archdiocese of America.) In the end, Panteleimon doesn’t seem to have actually gone to Egypt; as best I can tell, he returned to the Jerusalem Patriarchate. I can’t find any traces of him after 1931.
Most of this information comes from Paul Manolis’ three-volume collection of primary sources, The History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents. Unfortunately, most of the documents are in Greek, which I can’t read, so I’m relying mainly on the short English summaries provided by Manolis at the beginning of each document. The gist, however, is clear enough: Abp Panteleimon, who came to the US as a sort of religious ambassador / fundraiser, ended up contributing his share to the jurisdictional chaos that was American Orthodoxy in the 1920s.
Officially, of course, the Orthodox Church has never been in communion with the Protestant Episcopal Church. Yes, there’s been some close dialogue over the years, and once upon a time even St. Raphael blessed his people to seek out Episcopal priests in extreme situations (though he soon rescinded that permission). Still, Orthodoxy has never entered into communion with the Episcopalians.
Unofficially, things occasionally get a little fuzzy. Case in point: Archimandrite Arsenios Davis, a Greek priest in the American South during the early 20th century. Davis (or Davids) was an Anglicized name; Fr. Arsenios was an ethnic Greek through-and-through. Born, most likely, in the mid-1860s, Davis held the title “priest of the Holy Orthodox Church of Savannah and Archimandrite of Southern Georgia and Northern Florida.” He was pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Savannah, Georgia from 1909 to 1916. After that, he spent three years as the priest of St. Nicholas in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The last traces I have of Davis are from 1922, when he visited Columbus, Georgia, and baptized some Greek children.
When he was the priest in Savannah, in 1911, Davis visited Brunswick, Georgia, to participate in a cornerstone-laying ceremony at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Brunswick had no Orthodox church, so a lot of the town’s Greeks attended St. Mark’s. From a local newspaper:
It is appropriate to dwell for a moment on the presence of the Greek Archimandrite. There are many Greeks in this city, who, having no church of their own communion, have for many years and especially during the rectorate of Mr. Boykin, sought and received the ministrations of the American [Episcopal] Church. They have been placed by their own clergy under the pastoral care of the rector, and are frequently seen in large numbers at the services of the Church. This has led to very close relations between the clergy and Bishop of our own Church with the Greek clergy, and it is no uncommon thing to see them at the greatest functions of either communion.
At the most recent celebration of Greek Independence Day, the newspaper continues, the Episcopal bishop was invited to “pontificate” at St. Paul’s Greek church in Savannah. Meanwhile, “at the last annual convention of the diocese of Georgia, Father Davis was present in the chancel at the opening service, and received the Blessed Sacrament at the hands of this Bishop.”
At the cornerstone-laying ceremony, reports the paper,
Father Davis was present in his own vestments (as the accompanying photograph shows), and addressed his own people, urging them to more regular attendance at the services of the American Church. At the Holy Eucharist following he occupied a stall on the right hand of the rector, and after the Gospel advanced to the altar and read the Epistle and Gospel in Greek. Thus Georgia seems to be “setting the pace” for intercommunion with the Orthodox Church, not by talking or discussing, but by “doing things” in a quiet matter of course way.
This is the only example I’ve yet seen of an American Orthodox priest openly communing with Episcopalians.