A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Fr. Kallinikos Kanellas, one of the first ethnic Greek priests to serve in America. At the time, I mentioned that Paul Manolis had published a letter — in Greek — written by Kanellas to then-Archbishop Meletios Metaxakis in 1918. I asked for help in translating it, and several people offered their assistance. I ended up getting a translation from Ioannis Fortomas, who has offered to help with other translations from the Greek as well.
Kanellas’ letter, which runs over 900 words, gives a lot of details on his life and ministry. We already know that he was born in 1837. In 1880, while probably just a monk, he was invited to become the priest of the Greek church in Calcutta, India. Bishop Dionysios of Gefthia quickly moved Kanellas through the ranks of the clergy, all the way up to archimandrite.
Apparently, the Calcutta parish had their priests on five-year terms. After his first term ended, Kanellas re-upped for another five years, and the community gave him a raise of 50 British pounds. Kanellas explains (translation by Fortomas):
But unfortunately, becoming sick before the first year ended, I resigned and traveled to Europe for one year for my therapy. Then I went to the United States, not for work, but to visit. Unfortunately, here another illness was made manifest to me, on which I spent my money, and because of this need, I took refuge in being the rector and teacher of the in California Russian Church, with a very small wage, because I was not a member of the Russian Church.
After some years, Hierarch Vladimir was called back, and his replacement, Hierarch Nicholas, came with his entourage, and new staff consisting of six priests and deacons. He let the old staff go, especially me not being Russian.
I then went towards the east, to my friends and countrymen. Then, the Birmingham Association “Lord Byron” invited me to be the regular rector, under the appointment of the Sacred Synod of the Church of Greece, with a wage, which you can see in the letter of invitation, and so I continued for eight whole years, having as my main concern the establishment and advancement of the Church.
Bp Nicholas Ziorov took over the Russian Diocese in 1892, and Kanellas didn’t move to Birmingham until 1902 or 1903, so he must have spent a whole decade roaming around the Eastern US. He served in Birmingham until 1911, and he goes on to note that, at the time, he was one of the only Orthodox priests in the entire American South. In addition to his duties in Alabama, he visited the Greek churches in Atlanta and Memphis (among other places).
Health problems seem to have plagued Kanellas — they drove him out of Calcutta, and, in 1911, he began to have issues with a cataract in his right eye. He resigned his post in Birmingham and had surgery. The Holy Synod of Greece then appointed him to St. Nicholas Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida, but within a year, Kanellas became ill and had to resign yet again. He moved to Arkansas, hoping that the thermal springs would cure his ailment. In Little Rock, he happened to meet a handful of Greeks. He continues:
There I came into religious contacts with a few from the community so that I could be invited to serve here, finally being hired as the regular rector. But unfortunately, right away in the beginning and in the first meeting of the few that I called, it was forbidden for me to take an active part in the establishment and advancement of the Church. Certain members said that the Community would take care of the Church as a whole: I was to only liturgize not as I should have wanted to liturgize, but as they wanted me to, that is at a quick speed because their occupations did not allow them time to allot for prayers and churches.
Take note of this: the Community so far is comprised of 17 families and 150 people, from 4 regions (of Greece). They are Kravarites, Argirites, Maniates, and Peloponisians, who are from different cities. Instead of something happening, it does not happen without much noise.
The Church did not advance from then until today – there is a committee for the collection of funds for the preservation of the so called Church (because I liturgize in some sort of hall, and after the end of the liturgy, I need to quickly transfer the holy vessels, because another organization rents the hall).
By 1918 — when he wrote this letter to Metaxakis – Kanellas had had enough. He was over eighty, and he was tired of dealing with all the drama in Little Rock. He put out the word that he was going to leave, and began to search for a replacement. As it happened, several priests wrote to him about the job, and Kanellas passed these contacts on to the parish trustees. But the trustees didn’t bother to respond, and Kanellas, frustrated, told Metaxakis that he was considering a return to Birmingham. Of the Little Rock parish, he said to the archbishop, “From this Community, do not wait for any show of response, or any written acts.”
And yet, in the end, Kanellas did not leave. He stayed in Little Rock for another three years, dying there in 1921. He had lived through a turbulent period of American Orthodox history, from the scandalous era of Bp Vladimir in San Francisco, through the conversion of the Uniates and the mass immigration of the Greeks, all the way up to the founding of the Greek Archdiocese. He may not have been the very first Greek priest in America, but he was the first important one, and, by all accounts, he was a good man.