Protestant missions among Syrian Orthodox in Boston

Exactly 100 years ago — January 15, 1910 — the following article appeared in the Boston Globe:

GREEKS OBSERVE NEW YEAR.

Services Held in City Churches and Gifts are Exchanged.

The members of the Orthodox Greek church celebrated their new year yesterday. The observation of the day included prayers in the two churches in the city, the exchange of gifts among the members of the faith and jollifications in the evening.

Among the people of the Orthodox Greek faith in Boston are Russians, Syrians and a few Armenians. Services were held at the church of the Annunciation on Winchester st and the Syrian mission on Edinboro st. In the former edifice Rev Nestor Souslides officiated, while Rev P.S. Sailer conducted the services for the Syrians.

When I read that article, I was confused, because I knew that Fr. George Maloof was the priest of Boston’s Syrian church (St. George) from 1900 to 1920. Who, then, was Rev. P.S. Sailer? A bit of digging revealed that this Rev. Sailer was not Orthodox at all, but Protestant. He’s listed in the 1911 Quadrenniel Book and Christian Annual, published by the “Christian Church (American Christian Convention),” which I think is the same thing as (or a predecessor to) the “Disciples of Christ” denomination.

These particular Protestants seem to have been proselytizing among the Syrian Orthodox of Boston. I found this in the September 8, 1910 issue of Herald of Gospel Liberty, a “Christian Church” publication:

The work among the Syrians is a little more than one year old. It began with seven little girls and now has an enrollment of seventy-five. The scarcity of teachers for this work is the greatest handicap.

There is great need of the influence of a Christian home, a Christian family to live in the Syrian belt, the wife to visit in the homes, have classes for women and children and teach home making.

This need has been recently met. Dr. White, a practicing physician among the Syrians, has been associated with our Chinese mission in Boston for some years. She will give at least three hours a day to our work, more if possible, working mainly among the Syrians during the week. She will hold mothers’ meetings on week days, lecturing on hygiene and sanitation, teaching the mothers how to prepare wholesome food for their children, warning them of the dangers of the “little mother” evil, call at their homes to teach them personal home making. She will teach in both the Syrian and Chinese Sunday-school. Her acquaintance with the needs, customs and habits of this portion of the foreign population will make her an invaluable assistant. This will slightly increase the cost of the Boston work.

Two nights each week are devoted to teaching Syrian men to read and write. Twenty-five men attend these classes. Rev. P.S. Sailer, the devoted pastor, is meeting their great needs as fast as it is possible with the care of two churches.

Were these Protestants holding special services for the Julian Calendar New Year? It sure looks that way. Initially, I was confused by the Boston Globe‘s statement that Sailer will be serving at “the Syrian mission on Edinboro st.” This confused me, because the actual Syrian Orthodox church was located at 38 Edinboro. (See the parish history.) Most likely, these Protestants set up their “Syrian mission” in the heart of the Syrian neighborhood, right down the street from the Orthodox church.

On the face of it, these Protestant efforts seem noble — helping immigrants get established in America, teaching them English, etc. But they were usually part of a broader agenda to convert the Orthodox immigrants to Protestantism. After all, Sailer wasn’t just teaching English; he was conducting church services for the Syrians. By setting up shop on Edinboro Street, these particular Protestants were just doors away from their Orthodox “competition.” And you’ll notice that the Syrian Orthodox New Year’s services aren’t mentioned by the Boston Globe — only Sailer’s “Syrian” services are brought up. This little nugget provides a tiny glimpse into one of the many the challenges facing Orthodoxy in America a century ago.