Last week, we introduced the first issue of the Journal of American Orthodox Church History (JAOCH), which is available from Prairie Parish Press (PPP). In addition to publishing JAOCH, PPP has begun producing a “Collected Works Series,” featuring the writings of important Eastern Christian figures, with a special emphasis on American authors. The first book in the series is a collection of Nicholas Bjerring’s writings (appropriately titled Nicholas Bjerring: The Collected Works). The e-book is edited by Fr. Oliver Herbel, who has spent years researching Bjerring.
Regular OrthodoxHistory.org readers are probably familiar with Bjerring, a Roman Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy in 1870, was ordained a priest in Russia, and established the first Orthodox chapel in New York City. Bjerring published an English-language Orthodox journal and acted as a sort of embassy priest until 1883, when the Russian government closed the chapel. Rather than accept a teaching position in St. Petersburg, the discouraged Bjerring converted to Presbyterianism before ultimately returning to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death.
Nicholas Bjerring: The Collected Works opens with an introduction by Fr. Oliver, who provides an 11-page biographical sketch of the man. This is followed by two letters by Bjerring in 1870 — one to Pope Pius IX in which Bjerring denounces the dogma of papal infallibility and informs the Pope that he will become Orthodox, and the other to the Russian Holy Synod in which he requests reception into the Orthodox Church. Next come four of Bjerring’s best sermons, all from his days as an Orthodox priest. My favorite, I think, is his 1873 Sermon on Unbelief and Indifference. The last two pieces were written at the end of Bjerring’s life, when he was a Roman Catholic layman, and they are essential in understanding how the once anti-papal Bjerring came to be convinced that Rome was, in fact, his true home.
All told, if you have any interest in Bjerring, 19th century Orthodoxy, or early American Orthodox converts, this book is a must-have. The introductory price is a mere $1.00, and is available until September 1. After that, the price will go up a bit, although it will remain very affordable. I hope you’ll consider buying a copy.
And in case you missed it, here’s a link.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
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.
3. The first two American Orthodox convert priests went to Orthodox countries, were ordained very quickly, and ultimately left the Church.
James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring were exact contemporaries, both born in 1831. Chrystal lived in the New York area, and died in Jersey City. Bjerring was an immigrant from Denmark, but in 1870 he established the first Orthodox chapel in New York, and he lived there the rest of his life.
Both men became Orthodox for ideological reasons. Chrystal was an Episcopalian intellectual obsessed with the history of baptism, and he concluded that Orthodoxy alone had preserved the correct method of baptism. Bjerring was a Roman Catholic intellectual who was scandalized by Rome’s recent declaration of papal infallibility. He, too, came to believe that only the Orthodox Church had preserved the truth.
Both men came to Orthodoxy without having actually attended an Orthodox church, and both traveled to Orthodox countries to seek ordination. Chrystal went to Greece and impressed church leaders with his vast theological knowledge. Bjerring went to Russia and impressed church leaders with his zeal. Both were immediately received into the Church, quickly ordained priests, and sent back to America — specifically, to New York City.
Chrystal was the first to leave. As soon as he returned to America, he repudiated the Orthodoxy, declaring that he could not accept the veneration of icons. He started his own sect, and spent the rest of his life railing against “creature worship.” Bjerring lasted a good bit longer. He was priest of the New York chapel for 13 years, but he didn’t have sufficient training for the priesthood and made errors that any seminary student learns to avoid. Even worse, he didn’t speak Russian or Greek (the primary languages of his small congregation), and he reportedly spoke English with a thick Danish accent. He actively discouraged conversions, viewing himself not as a missionary but as a religious ambassador to America, promoting goodwill between Orthodoxy and Protestantism (especially the Episcopal Church).
Bjerring’s chapel community never grew; in fact, it stagnated. By 1883, the Russian authorities had seen enough, and they closed the chapel. Bjerring was offered a teaching position in Russia, but he wasn’t interested; instead, disgruntled, Bjerring abandoned Orthodoxy and became a Presbyterian minister. By the end of his life, he came full circle, rejoining the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Fr. Boris Burden (+1973) played important roles in American Orthodoxy. It was he and Fr. Michael Gelsinger who rallied behind the attempt in the late 20s and early 30s to unite Orthodoxy and they were the key players, together with George E. Phillies (a Greek attorney) in establishing the Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America, which I’ve discussed on here before. He and Fr. Michael also donated a large number of books to the university in Buffalo, starting their Byzantine collection.
Unfortunately, Fr. Boris also seemed to find his way into the courts. I haven’t had a chance to try to track down this case, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Saturday, April 9, 1932, lists Joseph McKoe v. Boris Burden as a case scheduled for the 8th District Court on April 11th. As I said, I don’t know what drove that case, but in another case, in 1924, Burden was taken to court for getting into a fist fight. Here’s the newspaper article from back then (Brooklyn Eagle, October 14, 1924). By the way, raising a fist against another, if you’re a priest, breaks canon law. Though I am aware of economia being extended when a priest was defending someone else, in this case, that is not the case. It is an old fashioned, immature fist fight. So, sometimes in American Orthodoxy, those who have worked the hardest have also had serious character flaws. I suppose that’s to be expected in a frontier, marginalized religion, but it is worth remembering nonetheless.
PRIEST HOLDS OWN
IN FISTIC BATTLE
Following a violent altercation last midnight between Hugh Yeo, 23 years old. a taxi drlver, living at 2155 65th st., and Boris Burden of 417 8th St., starters for the Yellow Taxi Cab Company,- at their stand at Ave. 1 and the Brighton line, Patrolman John Maxwell took both men to the Parkville station, where they were charged with disorderly conduct.
Yeo spent the night in the cells. Burden obtained bail. When he appeared before Magistrate Eilperln in the Flatbush Court this morning, the taxi starter of the night before, a tall, good-looking young man of 26. with blond, wavy hair. wore the black gown and round clerical collar of a priest. “Yon could have knocked me over with a feather,” said Yeo, when his fellow prisoner explained to the Court that during the day he was the Rev. Father Boris Burden of the Eastern Orthodox Greek Catholic Church. He said that he is attached to the general staff of the cathedral at 15 E. 97th St.. Manhattan, and added that he has been working on a sociological study of immigrants. Fred G. Ritta. counsel for the Yellow Taxi Cnb Company, defended the priest taxi starter against the disorderly conduct charge, to which he pleaded not guilty. The client, at the instigation of his employers, also preferred a charge of assault against Yeo. According to Yeo, the priest-starter gave as good as he took, both in blows and verbal insults.
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.
1. The first American convert to Orthodoxy was an aristocrat in British Virginia who joined the Church in 1738.
Very recently, Orthodox researcher Nicholas Chapman made an astounding discovery: in 1738 – three years before Bering discovered Alaska for the Russian Empire – prominent Virginia aristocrat Philip Ludwell III traveled to London and was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. Ludwell lived in Williamsburg, Virginia; in fact, his home was the first to be restored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. His grandfather had been the first British governor of the Carolinas, and his father a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Ludwell’s relatives include two U.S. Presidents and famed Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was Ludwell who, in 1753, gave a young George Washington his first commission in the British army. Ludwell attended the same Anglican parish as Thomas Jefferson, and his manservant was actually the father-in-law of Jefferson (and the father of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s reputed mistress).
Ludwell became Orthodox when he was just 22 years old, and his reception into the Church was formally authorized by the Russian Holy Synod. Remarkably, the Synod also gave permission for Ludwell to bring a portion of the Eucharist back with him to Virginia. Ludwell was blessed to translate into English the famous “Confession” of Metropolitan Peter Moghila, and later, he made a fresh translation of the liturgy.
Despite living an ocean away from the nearest Orthodox church, Ludwell never left the faith, although he may have hidden his Orthodoxy from British authorities. He traveled to London rather often, and in 1762, he brought his three daughters to be chrismated. One of those daughters, Lucy, went on to marry a man named John Paradise, who was born in Thessaloniki to a Greek mother and an English father (who himself was Orthodox). John Paradise seems almost like a fictional character – a member of the great Royal Society, he hobnobbed with the intellectual elite of London. His friends included American founding fathers Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams. It was Paradise who taught Jefferson to read Greek, and in the middle of the Revolutionary War, Franklin arranged for Paradise to become a U.S. citizen – possibly the first naturalization in American history. Later, Paradise worked as a secret agent for the Russian Empire, administering a pro-Russian propaganda campaign in England. Empress Catherine the Great awarded Paradise a large pension as a reward for his service.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Joseph A. Zuk was the first Ukrainian Orthodox bishop in America, but little has been written about his life. I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.
Zuk was born in Eastern Galicia in the early 1870s. He graduated from the University of Lemberg, and then earned a Doctorate of Divinity at the Theological Seminary at Innesbruck. At 33, he became the seminary rector. Later, he was elevated to the rank of mitred prelate, and Pope Pius X appointed him a papal delegate and administrator in Bosnia.
In 1922, Zuk came to America. Six years later, in 1928, he and other Ukrainian Catholic clergy left Rome to join the Orthodox Church. As a priest, Zuk served in Syracuse, NY; Passaic, NJ; Allentown, PA; and McAdoo, PA. He became affiliated with the American Orthodox Catholic Church of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, and in 1932 Zuk was consecrated a bishop by Ofiesh and Bishop Sophronios Bishara in New York City. According to Fr. Seraphim Surrency in The Quest for Orthodox Unity in America, Zuk had about half a dozen parishes in his jurisdiction.
Zuk presided over the first Ukrainian diocese in America for just 17 months. On February 23, 1934, Zuk died in St. Petersburg, Florida, “after an illness since the time he was consecrated bishop” (Syracuse Herald, 2/28/1934). He was reported to be about 60 years old.
By 1934, Ofiesh had married a young girl and the AOCC was functionally dead. Archbishop Athenagoras Spyrou of the Greek Archdiocese presided at Zuk’s funeral, which took place in Carteret, NJ. Zuk was buried in Perth Amboy, NJ. Two years later, the Ukrainian diocese formally joined the Ecumenical Patriarchate — an affiliation which continues to this day.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.