What is a parish?
In my recent lecture on Orthodoxy in Chicago, given at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, I cautiously addressed the still-controversial issue of the 1897 split in Chicago’s Greek Orthodox community. Let me go over the basic details very briefly, before moving onto the broader question of what constitutes a parish.
In 1892, Fr. Panagiotis Phiambolis came to Chicago and founded the city’s first Greek Orthodox church, Annunciation. This community met in a rented space and existed for at least five years. Of that, there is no dispute. In 1897, for various reasons which I won’t get into right now, the parish divided. The Archbishop of Athens had sent Fr. Theodore Papaconstantine to replace Fr. Phiambolis as priest of Annunciation. Fr. Phiambolis refused to step down, and Fr. Papaconstantine led part of the Annunciation community away to start a separate parish, Holy Trinity. Fr. Phiambolis remained in Chicago for a couple of years, until about 1899, after which he moved to Boston.
This is where things get complicated. Some contend that Annunciation closed when Fr. Phiambolis left in 1899 (or even earlier — some date its closure to 1897). These folks say that there was no Annunciation Church in Chicago from then until 1907, when the current parish of Annunciation (now a cathedral) was established. Thus, according to this narrative, there were two Annunciation parishes — we’ll call them Annunciation 1892 and Annunciation 1907.
Others have a different story. They say that while Annunciation did lack a priest from 1899 (or whatever) until 1907, it continued to exist, serviced by visiting priests. At my lecture, a woman in the audience even said that she had a photo from her grandparents’ wedding, taken on the steps of Annunciation’s building in 1902 or thereabouts. A parish can still exist without a resident priest, and the argument here is that the present Annunciation Cathedral is identical to the original Annunciation Church from 1892.
I should also mention a third, related argument, brought up to me by a gentleman after my talk. This man suggested that, actually, Holy Trinity itself, while technically founded in 1897, may reasonably be dated to 1892. After all, the founders of Holy Trinity were all previously members of Annunciation. Holy Trinity could, according to this interpretation, be considered merely a continuation of Annunciation 1892, under a different name.
All of this caused me to take a step back and ask, “What is a parish?” We can say what is definitely a parish — a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians with a permanent place of worship, a resident priest, and regular church services. But beyond that, there’s a huge gray area. I’ve come up with several factors and sub-factors to help define a parish. The list isn’t exhaustive, and you could have a parish with only a couple of these elements.
An Orthodox community. This is the most essential element. On the OCA website, many former Greek Catholic parishes which converted to Orthodoxy date their foundings to the year they were established as Greek Catholic communities. I don’t do that; I would date their foundings as Orthodox parishes to the year when they converted to Orthodoxy. Before that, they may have been parishes, but they weren’t Orthodox.
A cohesive community. In other words, the Orthodox people must think of themselves as being part of a community. You could have 100 Orthodox in a city, and a priest could occasionally visit them, but if they don’t think of themselves as being a community, it’s hard to argue that a parish is present.
A priest. Most normatively, an Orthodox parish has a resident Orthodox priest. However, this element can be satisfied with something less than that. Many missions are serviced by priests who care for multiple churches, or by priests assigned to other parishes. Throughout history, some communities have relied, at times, on the services of itinerant clergy.
Worship space. Again, the norm here would be a permanent Orthodox temple, owned by the parish. Alternatively, a parish might rent its building. This could be broken down further — the parish could rent the building every day of the week, or only on certain days (e.g. Sundays).
Regular church services. The basic standard is a Sunday liturgy each week, but of course many parishes do a lot more than that. However, you could have a parish that meets less often (only once or twice per month). And while priest-led services are the norm, in theory, regular meetings of the laity for prayers might suffice.
Incorporation. Most parishes are incorporated as legal entities with the state. However, it’s also true that parishes usually predate their incorporation. After all, until you have at least some of the basic elements of a parish, how could you take the steps to incorporate? Incorporation helps us identify a parish, but lack of incorporation doesn’t mean there isn’t a parish.
A parish council or board of trustees. This isn’t absolutely essential, but it’s the norm for Orthodox parishes in America.
Hierarchical oversight. Today, to be an Orthodox parish in America, you pretty much have to be under a bishop. That wasn’t always necessarily the case. I mean, I guess you could argue that some of the early American Orthodox parishes weren’t really Orthodox, because they were established in an ecclesiologically irregular manner, but I don’t take that approach myself. At the very least, there usually was some minimal tie to a bishop or “mother church.”
A common name: Having a common name doesn’t mean a community is a parish, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a parish that didn’t have a name along the lines of “Annunciation,” “Holy Trinity,” or “St. Nicholas.” I’ve heard of fledgling missions called, “Orthodox Mission of [City],” but they usually get a name pretty soon after their establishment.
Self-identity as a parish. This is actually kind of a big one. In Chicago, prior to the 1892 founding of Greek and Russian parishes, the city had a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians. These people had organized themselves into a “society” for the purpose of starting a parish. They elected officers. They seem to have had a name (St. Nicholas), may have rented worship space, and may have had something resembling regular services. Yet, they clearly didn’t consider themselves a parish. In 1888, they met to decide whether to start a parish, and as late as 1892, there was still talk of starting a multiethnic parish. They obviously didn’t consider themselves to be a parish, even though they had a lot of the fundamental elements. In some cases, we might look back with hindsight and say, “That was a parish,” even if the community didn’t say so at the time. But the burden of proof is higher, I think.
In sum, then, we can say for certain that an Orthodox parish exists if there is a cohesive Orthodox community with a common name, self-identifying as a parish, under the jurisdiction of a bishop, incorporated with the state, with a board of trustees, and holding regular church services with a resident priest in a permanent worship space. But lots and lots of parishes don’t have one or more of those elements, and they’re still indisputably parishes.
I think the mimimum to call something a parish has to be a cohesive Orthodox community, but even that may not be enough. Consider: I was once a part of a cohesive Orthodox community which held regular services in a permanent worship space, led by a resident and full-time Orthodox priest. We had a name, a patron saint. We didn’t self-identify as a parish, and while our priest was under an Orthodox bishop, our community was technically an OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry) not under any one hierarch. We didn’t self-identify as a parish; we called ourselves an OCF, even though we had many regular worshippers who weren’t actually OCF members. Later, our priest left his jurisdiction for another, and our community was converted into a mission parish under a specific bishop. At that point, we incorporated ourselves and elected a parish council. Were we a parish at the beginning, when we self-identified as merely an OCF? I don’t think we were, but looking back, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone to say, “Hey, that’s a parish, whether you say it is or not.”
Another interesting question, this one from history, concerns the original Orthodox community in Portland, Oregon. In the 1890s, an Orthodox chapel called Holy Trinity was established in Portland, under the oversight of the Russian Diocese. The community had a permanent building and was served by priests who visited from the larger Orthodox parish in Seattle. The Russian Diocese, and perhaps the local community, referred to it as a “chapel.” Was this a “parish,” or was it something else — to steal a term from others, a “proto-parish”? Later, the Greeks formed their own parish, which was also called “Holy Trinity” and, at the outset, rented the original Holy Trinity chapel building. This raises another question: was Holy Trinity Greek parish a continuation of Holy Trinity Russian chapel? After all, at least some (and perhaps most) of the Holy Trinity Greek founders had previously attended Holy Trinity Russian chapel. It’s a gray area.
Returning to the original issue: did Annunciation parish of Chicago persist during the early 1900s, or did it close? Put another way, was the present Annunciation founded in 1892, or 1907? There is, I’m afraid, no single answer. Let’s do the analysis:
- An Orthodox community: The key question here is whether there were Greek Orthodox people in Chicago who weren’t members of Holy Trinity. I think the answer is yes.
- A cohesive community: Again, I think the non-Holy Trinity Greeks continued to exist as a cohesive community, as evidenced by the existence (or founding) of Annunciation in 1907.
- A priest: No, there was not a resident Greek priest in Chicago apart from Holy Trinity in the gap period.
- Worship space: I think the original Annunciation worship space continued to be maintained. I haven’t verified this, but if true, it is a key argument in favor of Annunciation’s claim.
- Regular church services: I don’t think there were regular services. I’ve heard that visiting priests occasionally held services for the Annunciation survivors.
- Incorporation: I’m not sure, but I don’t think the community was incorporated prior to 1907. I hope readers will correct me if I’m wrong.
- Board of trustees: I don’t know about this. I strongly suspect that there continued to be officers, but I don’t know for sure. This would be another good argument that there was a parish.
- Hierarchical oversight: Bishops had little practical oversight of Greek parishes in America at the turn of the last century, and without a resident priest, I can’t imagine the Annunciation survivors had much contact with a hierarch.
- A common name: The argument here depends a lot on this element. The claim is that Annunciation’s survivors continued to refer to themselves as “Annunciation” during the gap period.
- Self-identity as a parish: This is another critical element, and Annunciation partisans would certainly argue that this self-identity existed.
This leaves us with some basic questions, and perhaps someone in Chicago could look into them:
- Did Annunciation’s building continue to be maintained and used by a Greek Orthodox community?
- Were the members of that community not members of another Orthodox parish (i.e. Holy Trinity)?
- Did that community have a board of trustees?
- How often did the community meet for services? How often did a priest visit them? (One place to start looking would be state marriage records.)
- Did the parishioners in 1907 understand themselves to be (re-)founding the parish, or did they think that the parish had continued to exist during the gap?
We’ll continue to explore the issues of parish identity in the future, but the whole Chicago debate reminds me that we must always ensure that we define our terms. We can’t take for granted that we all know what a “parish” is, because, as I think I’ve demonstrated, there’s a lot more gray area than we might initially assume.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
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