Isabel Hapgood: Syro-Arabians in the United States (1899)

Editor’s note: Regular readers of this website are no doubt familiar with Isabel Hapgood, the Episcopalian translator of the Orthodox service book from Slavonic into English. (For more on Hapgood and her role in early American Orthodox history, check out my recent podcast.) Today, we’re reprinting an article Hapgood wrote on the Syro-Arabs (Syrians/Lebanese) in America at the very end of the 19th century. This piece originally appeared in The Independent on February 16, 1899. I have no idea where Hapgood got those population figures, but based on other sources, I’m inclined to think that the actual number of practicing Syrian Orthodox in America was a fraction of the 20,000 claimed in this article. Also, while the Galveston parish did have a number of “Syro-Arabs,” it had a Greek priest and was directly under the Russian Diocese. But really, that’s all quibbling; this article is valuable as a snapshot of the three main Syro-Arab groups in America early in St. Raphael’s American career, at the turn of the last century.

St. Raphael Hawaweeny

Altogether, there are about 60,000 Syro-Arabians in this country, scattered over the United States and Canada. But they are by no means united In their religious beliefs.

The Orthodox, that is to say, those who belong to the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church of the East, number about 20,000. They have two churches, one In Galveston, Texas, with one priest; the other at No. 77 Washington street, in this city, with two priests. The rector, the Rev. Archimandrite Raphael, was offered the Bishopric of Beirut several years ago, but he prefers his larger sphere in this country, practically a diocese, all parts of which he visits about once in two years. His assistant. Father Afram (Ephraim), has been here but a few months. Father Raphael is a learned and accomplished monk, who was professor of the Oriental languages for nearly eight years in Russia, first at Kieff, afterward at Moscow and Kazan Ecclesiastical Academies. He speaks Russian fluently, and celebrates the Church services in the Old Church Slavonic, when necessary, as well as in his native Arabic, so that there is a close union of sympathy and mutual help between the Syro-Arabian and the Russian Churches in New York. The Orthodox Syro-Arabians are under the jurisdiction of the Russian Bishop — now the Right Reverend Tikhon, Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, whose Episcopal seat is at San Francisco. These Syro-Arabians (whose Liturgy, in Arabic and Greek, is at ten o’clock on Sunday mornings and the mornings of feast days) intend soon to build themselves a church of their own to replace their present inadequate and uncomfortable quarters, temporarily aranged, with church room and dispensary, in one of the ancient dwellinghouses near Rector street.

Next door to thorn, at No. 79 Washington street, is the Church of a second division of the Syro-Arabians — the so-called “Greek Catholics.” They number about 10,000 in this country, and in addition to the church in New York, have one in Chicago, and a priest at each, with two or more who travel about. They depend upon the local Roman Catholic Churches, and are free. Practically, they are Roman Catholics, though the term “Greek Catholic” originally signified those members (or communities) of the Orthodox Eastern Church who were persuaded to recognize the supremacy of the Pope. That was the sole condition required of them, and the compact then made provided for their retaining all their own customs — the Holy Communion in both kinds, the married parish priesthood, and the ancient dogmas without change or alteration. In practice, they have lost nearly everything except their vernacular language in the Church services, and have gradually had imposed upon them the altered and new dogmas of the Roman Church, as is the case with the Uniats In Russia, who stand in the same relation to both the Roman and the Orthodox Eastern Churches. It is to be observed, however, that in the case of the Uniats (who came chiefly from Eastern Austria and Galicia and Southwestern Russia), the effort on the part of the Roman Church to deprive the Uniat congregations in this country of their married priests (it being, obviously, inconvenient to have that striking difference presented to the public to whom explanation of the original compact is not easy) has resulted in the return by the thousand of these Uniats to the bosom of the Holy Orthodox Church of the East. This movement began about eight years ago under the Russian Bishop Vladimir, and has continued, in ever-increasing force, under the recent Bishop, Nikolai, now transferred to the Crimea. The ceremony of reunion with their original Church, the Orthodox, can be quite frequently seen in the Russian Church, 323 Second avenue. It is simple, and consists in renouncing the Pope and the newly-erected dogmas, the repetition of the Creed in the Eastern form, i.e., the Nicene Creed without the filioque clause; confession, swearing allegiance to the Orthodox Church, and participation in the Holy Communion immediately thereafter.

The third division of the Syro-Arabians is the Maronite Church, whose place of worship in New York is at No. 83 Washington street. Their rector here is the Rev. Peter Korkomaz, who has an assistant, and there are three other churches and priests. In this country they number about 30,000. Accounts differ as to their actual number in Syria, and vary from 150,000 (probably a fair average) to 250,000 and 400,000. Owing to a desire to escape from taxation by the Turkish Government, probably, the figures are not easily verified. The Maronites are, at the present day, Roman Catholics, to all intents and purposes. Originally, when the Church of God was one, they, like Rome and the Eastern Church, held the dogmas as stated by the Holy Eastern Church at the present day. But this body of Christians rejected the Sixth Oecumenical Council, and affirmed that there was but one will — the Divine will — in the man Jesus and in Jesus the Son of God; hence their name (with others who held the same view) of Monothelltes. Their Bishop, John Maron (who died in 676 A. D.), became their head when they seceded from the Church, and they derived their name from him, he himself being named after a Saint of the fifth century. After the second Crusade, the Maronites abjured the Monothelite heresy and became formally united to the Roman Church, in the year 1182, but under the same conditions as the Greek Catholics. At the present day, however, they are wholly Roman Catholics, with the exception of, perhaps, two minor particulars: their Church books and services are in the ancient Syriac (Chaldean) language, which the people do not understand—their ordinary language being Arabic; and, legally, their priests are still allowed to marry before ordination, if they so desire, as in the Eastern Church. Practically, very few priests do marry, as the influence of Rome (though not the command, as yet) is exerted against that custom. They have a Patriarch, who resides at Bkirki, about two hours’ journey from Beirut, Syria, and eight Bishops, together with three titular Bishops. About a month ago, the Patriarch, John Peter Hajji, died. The Maronite Bishops assembled at Bkirki to elect another. For three days they passed their time in fervent prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their election. (If, at the expiration of three days, they cannot agree, the Pope has the right to appoint the new Patriarch.) Their choice fell upon Bishop Elijah Huyk, vicar-resident at Rome. On Sunday, January 22d, all the Syrians of the three Churches here mentioned, with their priests, united in a service for the repose of the Maronite Patriarch’s soul, the service being held in the Maronite Church. The title of the Patriarch, in common with five other dignitaries of the Churches, is Patriarch of Antioch, and the Bishops rule over Aleppo, Tripoli, Damascus, Tyre and other cities. As each nation has (or used to have) its favorite Saints, to whom, in particular, prayers are offered (as in Russia, St. Nicholas, the Wonder Worker, Bishop of Myra), so the Maronites offer their petitions, with special devotion, to the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. They, like the Greek Catholics, depend upon the Roman Catholic establishment in the United States.