Unsolved mysteries of American Orthodoxy

Yesterday, I published a brief article on Fr. Stephen Andreades, the first resident priest of the first Orthodox parish in the contiguous United States — Holy Trinity in New Orleans. The entire early history of that parish is something of a mystery. We know who the early priests were — Andreades, Fr. Gregory Yiayias, Fr. Misael Karydis — but we don’t know much about them, and we don’t have a clear understanding of the early life of that parish. The hints that we do have are tantalizing. For instance, Holy Trinity used an organ decades before any other American Orthodox church is known to have added one. But we don’t know the story behind it.

Anyway, all this got me to thinking about some of the toughest cases to crack in my research into American Orthodox history. I’ll run through some of them today.

The Ludwell-Paradise story

This is really Nicholas Chapman’s turf, and it’s just loaded with great mysteries. Among them:

  • How exactly did a young Philip Ludwell III decide to convert to Orthodoxy?
  • What was his family’s connection to the Orthodox Church prior to his conversion?
  • Were there any other Orthodox converts in colonial Virginia, aside from the Ludwell family?
  • How long did Ludwell’s descendants remain Orthodox?
  • What — if any — connection existed between the Ludwell-Paradise family, the New Smyrna colony, and the Russian mission to Alaska?
  • Etc.

St. Peter the Aleut

Did he exist? If so, was he martyred? If not, how and why did the story of his martyrdom develop? We’re making progress on this front, but the critical questions remain unanswered. The frustrating thing is that I know that the Russian government contacted the Spanish government about this at the time, and the Spanish did an investigation, and there are records of this investigation in Madrid. But I can’t get anyone there to get back to me.

The aborted New York church of 1850

The January 1850 issue of the Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America reported this:

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.

But the first documented Orthodox congregation in New York wasn’t organized until Fr. Nicholas Bjerring arrived in 1870 — 20 years later. So what was going on in 1850? I haven’t found any other traces of this story.

The phantom Galveston parish of the 1860s

Lots and lots of secondary sources refer to a very early Orthodox parish in Galveston, Texas. This parish was supposedly formed in the 1860s and used the name “Ss. Constantine and Helen.” But the earliest traces I’ve found of organized Orthodoxy in Galveston are from the mid-1890s, when Fr. Theoclitos Triantafilides founded a parish of the same name, which still exists. In fact, according to Triantafilides’ biography by Milivoy Jovan Milosevich, Triantafilides intentionally revived the old parish name. From the bio:

It is known that with the outset of the American Civil War, a group of multi-ethnic Orthodox Christians were having regular prayer meetings in Galveston, as early as 1861, and they called themselves “the Parish of S.S. Constantine and Helen.” [...] [I]t was Arch. Fr. Theoclitos’ decision to use the name S. S. Constantine and Helen Church, because the congregation that started on its own should be remembered.

But was this “congregation” a full-fledged parish, as some have suggested? Was it simply a group of Orthodox laypeople gathering for reader’s services? Was it somehow connected to the New Orleans parish — perhaps the earliest “mission” community (as we now commonly use the term) in the contiguous United States? We just don’t know.

Another tantalizing piece of information: at exactly the time when this congregation was supposedly formed, the descendants of Philip Ludwell III were living in Galveston. Were they still Orthodox? And were they connected to this “parish”?

The mysterious death of Fr. Paul Kedrolivansky

We’ve covered this one before: Kedrolivansky, the dean of the Russian cathedral in San Francisco, died under suspicious circumstances in 1878. I’m pretty sure that Kedrolivansky was murdered, but I don’t know by whom. Was it his rival priest, Fr. Nicholas Kovrigin? Gustave Niebaum and the powerful Alaska Commercial Company? A “nihilist,” as some later speculated? We don’t know, and this is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

The Kodiak Bell

The bell from the first Orthodox church in the New World — Holy Resurrection in Kodiak, AK — currently hangs in a Roman Catholic church in California. And nobody really knows how it got there.

Fr. Raphael Morgan

For a long time, all we knew for sure was that the first black Orthodox priest in America was alive in 1916, and disappeared from the historical record afterwards. Now, we can say with confidence that he was dead by 1924. But 1916-1924 is a pretty big range, and we still don’t know how and where he died, where he’s buried, and whether he remained Orthodox until the end.

This little run-down is just the tip of the iceberg as far as American Orthodox historical mysteries go. If you have any insight into these conundrums, shoot me an email at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

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