The first Orthodox place of worship in New York was founded in 1870, when the Russian Church established an embassy chapel under the care of Fr. Nicholas Bjerring. As we’ve discussed before, the idea of a New York chapel originated in 1866, and its purpose was primarily to further relations with the Episcopal Church. A year earlier, in 1865, the renegade priest Agapius Honcharenko served the first Orthodox liturgy in New York. In 1863, two Russian priests visited the city when their naval vessels docked in New York’s harbor. Until recently, I thought that this was as far back as we could trace the presence of Orthodox clergy in New York.
Remarkably, though, there was almost an Orthodox chapel in New York long before all that. The following report appeared in the January 1850 issue of the Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America:
Efforts are now making in New York to form a congregation of Greek Christians. We observe an announcement that a priest of that denomination, with an interpreter, is now in New York, and will doubtless take charge of the movement.
I haven’t been able to find any other reports of this development, and it obviously didn’t lead to an organized parish. But it does indicate that, even in 1849-50, there were enough Orthodox people in New York for somebody to send a priest to visit them, and possibly start a church. Who was the priest? What church sent him — was it Russia, or Greece, or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? And why did this early effort fail? There’s a story here, waiting to be uncovered. The New York Times — the best-archived New York newspaper — didn’t begin publication until 1851. But there were dozens of other papers in that era; surely some of them covered this story. Sooner or later, we’ll track down the details.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]