According to some sources, Archimandrite Kallinikos Kanellas was the first ethnic Greek priest to serve in America. And those sources may be right, depending on your definition of “Greek.” The only other candidates would be from the Greek church in New Orleans. Fr. Stephen Andreades was the priest in the late 1860s, and Fr. Gregory Yayas served there from 1872-74; considering their names, both were almost certainly Greeks of one sort or another. Archimandrite Misael Karydis (or Kalitski) was the priest from 1881-1901, but he was reportedly from Bulgaria. In any event, Kanellas was one of the very first Greek priests in America.
I don’t know anything about Kanellas’ early life. I do know that, before he came to the United States, Kanellas had spent some time in India. From 1880 to 1886, he was the rector of the Greek church in Calcutta (the origins of which dated to the 1700s; see this fascinating history for more information). He first shows up in the US in 1889, as one of the priests of the Russian cathedral in San Francisco. He seems to be the first of several non-Russian priests brought over to America to serve in the Russian Diocese — “client clergy,” as Fr. John Erickson has called them. Soon, he would be followed by people like Fr. Ambrose Vretta, Fr. Theoklytos Triantafilides, Fr. Sebastian Dabovich, Fr. Raphael Hawaweeny, and Fr. Michael Andreades. But Kanellas seems to have been the original.
I’m not sure what Kanellas was doing from 1886 to 1889, but I suspect he might have been in Russia. This would explain his connection to the Russian Diocese in America.
Kanellas appears to have been trusted by Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky, who appointed him to serve on the Alaskan Spiritual Consistory, the group of clergy which ran many of the day-to-day affairs of the diocese. He was particularly useful in ministering to ethnic Greeks. In 1891, he made a cross-country missionary trip. He stopped in Savannah, Georgia, and baptized a Greek child. The Columbus Enquirer-Sun (6/24/1891) reported that the child’s father spent $650, which presumably included transportation and lodging costs. The paper said that the amount “includes a handsome fee.” $650 seems outrageous, though. I checked an online inflation calculator, and it estimated that $650 in 1891 is equivalent to over $15,000 in 2008.
From Savannah, Kanellas went to New York City, where he baptized the daughter of Anthony Ralli (who was possibly connected with the well-known Ralli Brothers merchant firm). The New York Sun (6/26/1891) said that Kanellas had a “patriarchal beard and jewelled gown.” According to one account, he actually had to bring his own baptismal font — can you imagine taking one of those on a train?
I’ve seen some references to Kanellas having served in Chicago. That’s a bit of a puzzler… In July 1891, the Chicago Inter Ocean (7/11/1891) reported that a certain Archimandrite Lininas, “who presides over a temple in San Francisco,” was visiting Chicago and holding services for the Orthodox there. I haven’t been able to find evidence of this Fr. Lininas being in San Francisco, and it’s very possible that this was actually Kanellas, on his way back from New York to California. However, the Inter Ocean says that Fr. Lininas “is a finely educated gentleman, speaking German, Russian, and French fluently, but his English is best understood through an interpreter.” So according to the paper, he didn’t speak Greek (which, if true, means he wasn’t Kanellas).
In 1892, amid much turmoil and scandal, Bp Vladimir was recalled to Russia and replaced with Bishop Nicholas Ziorov. On July 1 (June 19 Old Style), the members of the Spiritual Consistory (of which Kanellas was apparently no longer a member) wrote to the new bishop,
Today, the Archimandrite Kallinikos was informed that he has to leave the Mission as of July 1. He replied that he has nowhere to go. In accordance with Your Grace’s will, we deemed it was better to say nothing in reply: Your Grace has ordered not to drive him out.
Obviously, something was up, but I don’t know what. The 1893 San Francisco city directory doesn’t list Kanellas among the cathedral clergy, so he didn’t stick around much longer. And for the next 18 years, I can’t figure out he was. I’m pretty sure he stayed in America, and by at least 1911 (and probably earlier), he was pastor of the Greek church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1913 book Greeks in America, Thomas Burgess, writing about the Birmingham church, said,
Of its former pastor, says the “Greek-American Guide,” “The Rev. Arch. Kallinikos Kanellas is a very sympathetic and reverend old man of whom it is possible to say that of the Greek clergy in America he is the most—shall we say ‘disinterested’? The Greek word is a dandy, (literally, ‘not loving of riches’). Plutarch used to use that word.
In 1913, Kanellas moved to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He spent the rest of his life there. This is from Annunciation’s parish history:
Father Kallinikos Kanellas was brought to Little Rock on a permanent basis in 1913, and services were held in an upstairs meeting hall near 9th and Main Streets for the next eight years. This hall included a small chapel for Liturgies and Sacraments such as weddings, baptisms, etc., as well as a place for social gatherings. Incidentally, research indicates that Father Kanellas probably was the first Orthodox priest of Greek ancestry to come to the United States. When Father Kanellas became seriously ill, young Theo Polychron visited him daily, bringing soup from his little café. Father died in 1921 and is buried at Oakland Cemetery where most of the early Greek immigrants were also interred.
As you can see, Kanellas’ story has a lot of missing pieces. I suspect a lot of the gaps could be closed by a letter Kanellas wrote to Archbishop Meletios Metaxakis on March 16, 1918, in which he gave an account of his career in both the Russian Diocese and the Greek communities in America. That letter appears on page 333 of Paul Manolis’ History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents… unfortunately, though, I can’t read Greek, so for now, I don’t know what the letter says. If any of you out there can read Greek and are interested in Kanellas, email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.