Atlas Excerpt #2: Agapius Honcharenko

Recently, Holy Cross Orthodox Press published the Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches, edited by Alexei D. Krindatch. I contributed several pieces to the Atlas, including the article “Ten Interesting Facts About the History of Orthodox Christianity in the USA.” With Alexei’s permission, we’ll publish excerpts from that article over the next couple of months. To purchase your own copy of the Atlas(for $19.95), click here.

2. The first Orthodox liturgies in New York and New Orleans were celebrated by a controversial Ukrainian who claimed to be hunted by Tsarist agents.

Born in what is now Ukraine in 1832, Agapius Honcharenko attended the Kiev Theological Academy and then became a monk at the renowned Kiev Caves Lavra. He was ordained a deacon at 24, and the following year, he was assigned to the Russian Embassy church in Athens, Greece. From the beginning, there was trouble. Honcharenko was insubordinate, and at one point a young boy accused him of making improper advances. Honcharenko also claimed to have secretly wrote articles in a famous socialist journal. At some point, he may have been ordained to the priesthood by a Greek bishop, although the circumstances surrounding this ordination aren’t clear and our only source for this information is Honcharenko’s own later testimony. In late 1864, Honcharenko set sail for America, where he would be subject to much less oversight. He arrived in New York, and in 1865, he celebrated the first Orthodox liturgy in the city’s history. A choir of Episcopalians sung Slavonic words which had been transliterated into English.

Soon, Honcharenko received word that there were Orthodox people in New Orleans. Arriving in the city just two days after the Civil War ended, Honcharenko celebrated the first Orthodox services in the American South, borrowing an Episcopal church that had, during the recent Union occupation, been used as a stable for horses. Honcharenko spent Holy Week and Pascha in New Orleans before returning to New York. But in his short time away from the city, things had changed. As news of his landmark New York liturgy spread around the world, reports of his more controversial activities began to surface. The Orthodox of New York informed the renegade priest that they no longer had any use for him.

Thus began Honcharenko’s life outside of the Orthodox Church. He traveled across the country – marrying an woman in Philadelphia along the way – and he eventually reached San Francisco. There, in 1867, Honcharenko attempted to set up a “Russo-Greek Methodist Episcopal Church.” San Francisco already had a lot of Orthodox residents, who, motivated by the embarrassing activities of Honcharenko, decided to unite and form an Orthodox parish. Led by the local Russian consul, they asked the Russian Bishop of Alaska to send them a priest. This marked the first-ever presence of a Russian parish in an American state.

Honcharenko purchased land just outside of Oakland, and over the coming decades, reporters would occasionally find their way to the Honcharenko ranch. They wrote articles about the “Apostle of Liberty,” and Honcharenko began to make increasingly outlandish claims – that he had been the Russian ambassador to Greece; that he was Leo Tolstoy’s confessor; that he was the first to discover gold in Alaska;  and that he was hunted by Tsarist assassins. Honcharenko died on his ranch in 1916, at the age of 83.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.