In 1870, the Russian Church founded a chapel in New York City, and the priest was Nicholas Bjerring, a new convert from Roman Catholicism. The chapel served the Russian and Greek officials in New York and Washington, as well as the small Orthodox population living in New York City. It also functioned as a sort of showpiece, a place where interested Americans (especially Episcopalians) could see what Orthodox worship looked like. One thing it did not do was encourage converts; Bjerring had little interest in bringing Americans to the Orthodox faith, saying that he did not want to “add a fresh element of discord” to American religious life.
What I didn’t know, until a few days ago, is that the idea of the New York chapel had its origins prior to Bjerring, and even prior to the sale of Alaska in 1867. From The Congregationalist, a Boston newspaper, August 24, 1866:
A curious article from the St. Petersburg Commercial Gazette of March 24 (April 5), 1866, has fallen into my hands. The writer begins with the remark that “in view of the recent tendencies of the Anglican and American Episcopal churches toward the Orthodox Oriental Greek Church,” it is obivously of the highest importance to give to the former the means of personal acquaintance with the latter, by establishing an Orthodox Greek Church at New York, “the center of social and religious life in the United States.”
This object has occupied the Russian government, and has been earnestly pursued by Mr. Stoeckl, its ambassador at Washington. This gentleman proposes to purchase a house in New York (to rent one would be inexpedient on account of the frequent changes of ownership) at a cost of $15,000 or $16,000, and expend $4,000 to $5,000 in making the necessary alterations, say $20,000 in all. More than $2,000 of this has been obtained by subscription from Greeks and Slavonians residing in New York, and more is hoped for from sympathetic Americans. The rich merchants of Moscow, (who it seems often send agents on business to this country) are next to be applied to, and any deficiency, as well as the salary of priest and choristers, will be supplied by the Russian government. Thus, continues the writer, “we may soon expect to learn the inauguration of a regular orthodox service on the American continent, among a people kindly disposed toward us, and toward the church of our fatherland.”
The article goes on to recommend that this church should be purely ecclesiastical, and not in any way official, or mixed up with political matters, that it may the better “serve as a uniting link of relation and connection between the Russian and the American Episcopal church.” Also that the service be performed not only in the Slavonian, but the Greek language, for the benefit of Greeks residing in New York, and also because that language is more accessible than the Slavonian to those Americans “whose sympathy for the connection of their own with the orthodox church is founded on an acquaintance with the original sources of the history and dogmas of orthodoxy.”
The chief and most difficult problem, however, concludes the writer, is to select, as officiating priest in the proposed ecclesiastical establishment at New York, a suitable “representative of orthodoxy, not only by the excellence of his life and character, but mentally capable, and properly educated and prepared to be a mediator in the closer connection of the churches.” Besides being strong in the faith, and clearly comprehending the truths of orthodoxy, he should, if possible, have a thorough knowledge of the English tongue and of the Episcopal church; while both his character and his convinctions should be such as to furnish a sufficient guarantee that when left to himself at a distance from the center of our church’s life and authority, he will still contend for the true spirit and interests of orthodoxy, and in his relations to those of other faiths, can keep alike distant from the extremes of Popish “non possumus” and of undue concession. Such a man, concludes the writer, will be hard to find.
Between the original Commercial Gazette article and this report in The Congregationalist, another, independent report circulated in the American papers, citing as its source the Berlin correspondent to the Times of London. Early in 1867, a third independent report, from the Atlantic Telegraph, appeared in some US newspapers.
So, a full year before the sale of Alaska to the United States, the Russian Church was planning to establish a chapel in New York City. And while the chapel would obviously serve the small Orthodox population living in the area, its main purpose was clearly what would today be called “ecumenism.” It would be, basically, a Russian Orthodox metochion — a representation church, or an embassy chapel. Normally, one autocephalous Orthodox Church will have such a metochion in the main city of sister Church. For instance, St. Raphael originally went to Russia to serve in the Antiochian metochion in Moscow. What we’re seeing here is a plan for a metochion in New York, connected with the hope that so many had at the time that the Orthodox and Anglican Churches would unite.
It’s easy to forget, when we talk about territorial rights and so forth, the role of the Episcopalians in all this. I’ve long wondered, why, after the sale of Alaska, did the Russian Church create the “Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska,” but move the bishop’s residence to San Francisco — that is, outside of the territory of the diocese? I mean, the move to San Francisco made lots of sense, but why not call the diocese, the “Diocese of Alaska and North America,” or something like that? Why limit its territory to Alaska?
The answer, at least in part, seems to be connected to the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Episcopalians had no claim on Alaska, and they were generally happy to recognize Russian authority there. But if the Russians were to have put a bishop over America, it would have (in the view of the Episcopalians) created an overlapping jurisdiction. Think about it: the Episcopalians saw themselves as the American Orthodox Church. There was a very real hope on both sides that the Orthodox would eventually recognize this. And since the actual Orthodox presence in America (outside of Alaska) was negligible, why bother ruffling the feathers of the Anglicans by claiming territory that (theoretically) belonged to the Episcopal Church?
Presumably, the Russians couldn’t find an adequate priest in 1866. So imagine their joy when, four years later, Nicholas Bjerring came to them seeking conversion! He was (so they thought) perfect — literate, cultured, zealous, and already living in the US. Unfortunately, he was not nearly as firm in his Orthodox faith as they obviously assumed, but it’s easy to see why they ordained him so quickly and sent him to start a chapel in New York. And it’s also easy to see why Bjerring would go on to discourage conversions. He wasn’t there to be a missionary; he was there to be an ecumenical representative, a religious amabassador.
This 1866 proposal also suggests that the Russian Church did not plan to “penetrate the United States,” as St. Innocent wanted. (Incidentally, it would be a year and a half before St. Innocent would write his letter to the Ober Procurator of the Holy Synod, outlining his advice for America.) The Russians were focused, it seems, on ecumenical relations, and on establishing communion with the Episcopal Church. They do not seem to have been thinking about converting Americans, and of course they couldn’t have foreseen the great immigration that would begin a quarter century later.