Recently, there has been an interesting and lengthy discussion in the comments section on our website, regarding the extent of the territory of the Russian Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska in the 19th century. Let me try to briefly outline my position in this debate.
Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. However, under the terms of the treaty, the Russian Church retained its property in Alaska, and there continued to be an Orthodox presence. At the time of the sale, Alaska was a part of the “Diocese of Kamchatka and the Kurile and Aleutian Islands.” This included Siberia, where the diocesan bishop lived. An auxiliary bishop (at the time, Bp Paul Popov) was based in Sitka (then called “New Archangel”) and administered the Alaskan part of the diocese.
In the wake of the 1867 sale, several significant things happened. Bp Paul was recalled to Russia, and he was replaced with Bp John Mitropolsky. The diocesan structure itself was reorganized; the American part of the diocese was lopped off and turned into its own diocese, the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. This would remain the name of the diocese until the 20th century. Also, a church was established in San Francisco — the first Russian Orthodox church in the contiguous United States — and the bishop’s residence was moved there.
Another important development in this period was the establishment of the chapel in New York City, with Fr. Nicholas Bjerring assigned as priest. This chapel primarily served the Russian and Greek embassies and the few Orthodox in the city. It also functioned as a sort of showpiece, displaying Orthodox ritual to Americans. As we’ve discussed, many hoped that the Orthodox and Episcopal Churches would unite, and Bjerring’s chapel was very much like a metochion (representation church, or embassy church), aimed at fostering ecumenical dialogue.
Significantly, the New York chapel was not a part of the Aleutian Diocese. In the 1879 and 1880 reports on the state of the diocese, nine parishes are listed. Both lists include San Francisco, but neither include New York. Bjerring only dealt with the Aleutian Diocese bishops on rare occasions, when they happened to be passing through New York, traveling between Russia and San Francisco. Bjerring and his chapel appear to have been directly under the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, and Bjerring made regular visits to the Russian capital during his career in the church.
From an official standpoint, the territory of the Aleutian Diocese included only the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, as the name suggested. This is what also appeared on the Bishop’s certification of Bp Nestor Zass (1879-82), and it actually caused problems when he tried to purchase property in California (see this letter).
Obviously, the diocese claimed some jurisdiction outside its official territory, since it had the cathedral in San Francisco. But it didn’t extend from sea to shining sea; if it did, the New York chapel probably would have been included. And even if you ignore the issue of the New York chapel, there’s the simple fact that the diocese included no parishes east of California until the 1890s.
When did things change? Officially, the diocese became the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America in 1905, under St. Tikhon. But there’s evidence that the name change predates 1905. In his “Account of the State of the Diocese of the Aleutians for 1900,” St. Tikhon wrote that the name was changed in 1900, at his suggestion.
That was when the name changed, but I’ve seen references from the time of Bp Nicholas Ziorov (1891-98) which say that the diocese includes all of North America. According to the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies (page 261), the territory was extended sometime during Bp Nicholas’ tenure:
[...] Bishop Nicholas, whose stay was noted for [...] the enlarging of the eparchy to include the Eastern states of the United States, and Canada, opening thus a new period in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States.
Here is what I think happened. In 1867, or 1870, or even 1890, there were hardly any Orthodox Christians in North America, outside of Alaska, and there wasn’t any clear indication that this state of affairs was going to change in the future. The idea of American Orthodoxy, if it existed at all, was focused on union with the Episcopalians, which would make the Episcopal Church the “American Orthodox Church” (which is how lots of Episcopalians already viewed themselves). So the bishop of the Aleutian Diocese tended to his Orthodox flock in Alaska (with a few hundred in California), and didn’t much bother with the rest of the United States. The New York chapel naturally fell under the authority of the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, the highest-ranking bishop in the Russian Church.
Then, in the 1890s, thanks in large part to the convert priest St. Alexis Toth, entire Uniate parishes began joining the Orthodox Church. St. Alexis, when he was in Minneapolis, had sought out the Bp Vladimir in San Francisco, and the bishop quite naturally took responsibility for these new converts. When Toth moved on to Pennsylvania, and then other Northeastern Uniate parishes began to convert, the Russian bishop (by now Bp Nicholas) suddenly had churches stretching across the continent. The New York chapel had long since been closed, so Bp Nicholas opened a new church in the city. Within only a few years, the center of the diocese began to shift from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Apparently, the Russian Holy Synod enlarged the diocese sometime during this period (1891-98), and they made it official in 1900, when St. Tikhon was bishop.
Were the Russians no longer concerned about what the Episcopalians thought? I don’t think it was that. After all, they weren’t inviting Episcopalians to join the Orthodox Church (at least, not until the conversion of Ingram Irvine in 1905). The Uniates were “theirs,” in a way; they were seen as “Russians” who should really be Orthodox, and as such, the Episcopalians would have had no problem with the Russian bishop taking responsibility for them. Until the Uniate conversions, the Russian bishop really had no justification, in the eyes of the Episcopalians, for claiming any sort of jurisdiction in America, but once the Uniates began to convert, he had obvious responsibilities.
Certainly, Bishops Nicholas and Tikhon saw themselves as having jurisdiction over all of America. But before that, America was a sort of Orthodox no-man’s land — say, like Antarctica. The Russian Church was most definitely the first Orthodox Church to stake an explicit claim to all of America, but they staked that claim in the 1890s at the very earliest.