Fr. Nicola Yanney is one of my favorite priests in the history of Orthodoxy in America. He immigrated to America at age 19, in 1892-93, with his new wife. They immediately settled in, of all places, Nebraska. Nine years later, she gave birth to their fifth child — and died in childbirth, leaving Nicola as a 29-year-old widower with five small children. The new baby died soon thereafter. I am 29 and have three kids, and I cannot fathom how painful and overwhelming this must have been for Nicola.
Two years later, the local Antiochian Orthodox community in Kearney, Nebraska asked that Nicola be ordained to serve as their priest. He traveled to Brooklyn, where the newly consecrated Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny educated and ordained him. Fr. Nicola was the first priest ordained by St. Raphael. He might have been the best, too — while continuing to raise his children as a single parent, he traveled all over the middle of the country, visiting Orthodox people in remote areas and performing baptisms, weddings, and funerals. For example, in 1911, he made at least 35 pastoral visits to at least a dozen different states and performed a total of 85 baptisms. That was in addition to serving his own parish in Kearney, and raising his four surviving children without a wife.
The Spanish flu pandemic hit the United States in 1918, and a number of Fr. Nicola’s Kearney parishioners were infected. That didn’t deter Fr. Nicola, though — he continued to minister to them, bringing them communion and hearing their confessions. You can probably guess where this is going: eventually, he caught the flu himself. It led to pneumonia, and he died on October 29, 1918. The cause of death may have been pneumonia brought on by the flu, but in reality it was a tireless devotion to his people. Few Orthodox priests in America have ever died so well.
Anyway, Fr. Nicola’s parish recently published a wonderful 74-page document on their website. It’s part detailed timeline, part photo gallery, and part sacramental registry. Here is how the Kearney priest, Fr. Christopher Morris, described it to me in a recent email:
We are doing some research into the life of Fr. Nicola Yanney. The research is on-going, but we decided to print the information we have right now in the form of a timeline and a list of dates/places that Fr. Nicola visited during his missionary journeys. The list of dates/places was translated from Fr. Nicola’s sacramental records which are in Arabic and in possession of his family. This work was started quite a while ago by a parishioner from Iraq, Bob Suleiman. Bob and Fr. Nicola’s granddaughter, Minnette Steinbrink, began the translation work. But Minnette was soon diagnosed with cancer and died not long afterward. Bob’s health declined and the work stopped (he has since died), probably 12+ years ago. Recently, Fr. Nicola’s great-grandson discovered the baptismal records, and Bob’s wife, Virginia, completed the translations of the baptisms. While poking around through some old notebooks in our church office, I found a notebook that turned out to be Fr. Nicola’s records for funerals and marriages (the notebook had been recycled by another priest 50 years later, but he left Fr. Nicola’s records intact). Virginia Suleiman translated all of these records, as well.We have also looked through our local newspaper’s archives, two Yanney family histories, and several old church histories written by founding members in order to compile the timeline. We recently found out that there was more than one local paper in Kearney during Fr. Nicola’s time. There is a very detailed description of his account of St. Raphael’s funeral in one of these previously unknown (at least to me) local papers. We will look for archives of this other paper in hopes of finding more about Fr. Nicola. There are also other untranslated materials in possession of the family. And we are hoping to look at some out-of-state local newspapers now that we have a list of dates and times. There you have it!
Things have gotten more, rather than less, chaotic of late, and I apologize for the lack of new material here. I’ve had this article written for a couple of months, and now seems like a good time to run it.
Recently, an article has been circulating among some Orthodox folks on the Internet on a purported Greek Orthodox church in Connecticut, dating to the 5th century. If the article is accurate, it’s an absolute bombshell — it claims that Orthodox monks from North Africa fled persecution in the late 400s and ended up on the east coast of America. That’s centuries before the Orthodox Vikings traveled to the Western Hemisphere, and even before the legend of St. Brendan the Navigator’s voyage to America. (To read the article, click here.)
According to the article, ruins of the church in Connecticut include an altar, a throne (for a bishop?), a baptismal font, and a “candelabra” — all carved from stone. Also (again according to the author), the site features inscriptions in Greek (such as “ICXC”).
I’m not a historian of the Byzantine Empire or ancient “pre-contact” America; my own focus, as you probably know, is on Orthodoxy in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here at SOCHA, the furthest back we can go with much confidence is the 18th century, thanks to the work of Nicholas Chapman. But the fifth century? That’s way, way out of our comfort zone.
That said, I do think I should say something about this case. What can we determine, simply on the basis of what we non-experts know? Looking first at the article itself, it features some pretty unspectacular photos. (Click here to see them.) Three of them, to be precise:
- A photo of the “Main Altar,” which looks like a rock with lines and holes. It’s not a great shot, and it’s not clear exactly what we’re actually looking at.
- A photo of a “flame-shaped Baptismal Font,” which looks like a hole in the ground.
- A photo of an “Overflowing Fountain” sculpture, which looks kind of cool, but doesn’t scream “Byzantine” to me.
Maybe an expert could look at those photos and see something more, but to me, they’re unconvincing. The article also features several drawings by the author, including a map of the site, a sketch of another baptismal font, and reproductions of the Greek letters. In all of this — the article, the photos, the sketches — we’re being asked to trust the author. The article isn’t peer-reviewed; we’re relying on the credibility of the author and, by extension, the magazine that published the article. So let’s look at the author and the magazine.
The author’s name is John Gallager (no “h”), who claims to be a “historical detective” who used to work at the “American Institute of Archaeological Research” in New Hampshire. The problem? I can’t find anything else on this John Gallager, and the American Institute of Archaeological Research appears not to exist. (If it does, Google doesn’t know anything about it — which seems implausible.)
The magazine is called Ancient American. On its website, the magazine describes itself in this way:
Each issue presents such otherwise neglected and even suppressed factual evidence demonstrating the lasting impact made on the Americas by Scandinavian Norsemen, Pharaonic Egyptians, Bronze Age Mediterraneans, Semitic Phoenicians, West Africans, Dynastic Chinese, seafaring Polynesians, and many other culture- bearers. All contributed to the birth and development of numerous and sophisticated civilizations which flourished throughout the American Continents in pre-Columbian times.
The description goes on,
As such, our staff and contributing reporters believe they are writing a New History of our nation by convincingly offering research that, in the coming century, will amount to virtually a total revision of American antiquity. Because of its revolutionary potential, Ancient American, although authoritatively written, is not a scholarly journal. It is a popular science publication specifically aimed at attracting the broadest possible general readership, while refusing to compromise its scientific credibility.
In general, I’m sympathetic to alternative historical views, including the idea that Old World cultures may have come into contact with Native Americans prior to the arrival of Columbus. The problem is, when you start looking at research on that sort of thing, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff: in addition to legitimate historical and archaeological work, there’s all manner of speculative writings out there — spurious “discoveries,” far-out theories, and crazy Atlantis-esque notions that are more fantasy/science fiction than reality.
So we can’t find any traces of John Gallager, and Ancient American has virtually no credibility. But what about the purported site itself? Gallager’s article says that the “church” is in Cockaponset State Forest, near the town of Guilford in southern Connecticut. So I picked up the phone and called Cockaponset State Forest and spoke with an official there. His response? They’d never heard of such a thing, and thought it was kind of funny.
I’m not a professional scholar myself, and a lot of my work isn’t peer-reviewed (although some of it is). But I always try to be transparent about my sources, and my methodology is available for all to see. John Gallager… well, he (whoever he is) just expects us to take him at his word. But on what grounds? He writes this one-off article in a beyond-fringe publication, disappears, and we’re supposed to just believe him? When no one else has written a single word of original research on this supposed 5th century “church,” and the people at the supposed site have never heard of it? That’s asking too much.
So to be very, very clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that 5th century North African Orthodox monks established a Greek church in what is now Connecticut. As they say on Mythbusters, this myth is BUSTED.
One of our advisory board members, Deacon Andrei Psarev of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, operates the excellent church history website ROCORStudies.org. As the name suggests, the site is devoted to studying the history of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Recently, we asked Deacon Andrei to provide a summary of the site for our readers. He offered the following:
Our Website, Historical Studies of the Russian Church Abroad, is a meeting place for people concerned with the past and present of the ROCOR.
- Posted materials are in English and Russian.
LIVES OF BISHOPS
Hitherto unpublished biographies by Michael Woerl and photos of all bishops who served in the ROCOR, however briefly (e.g., Archbishop James Tooms of the American Orthodox Mission)
Serialization of ROCOR history by Dr. Gernot Seide, bios of clergy and laity, canon law issues, relations with non–Orthodox. Your comments are welcome!
Sister Vassa Larin on theology and education, interviews with historians and witnesses to key developments in ROCOR history
Excerpts from liturgical services of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY
Photographs, including archival and rear images, documenting the history of the ROCOR
ARCHBISHOP LEONTII OF CHILE (1904-1971)
Photos and documents pertaining to a man who was a confessor of the faith in the USSR and became a controversial bishop of the ROCOR 1904-1971 in South America
The Web site is updated once a month. Subscribe to our free newsletters!
A variety of opinions is encouraged as long as academic standards are upheld: claims should be supported by evidence and controversial views must be couched in an inoffensive tone.
For those of us historians who work in the early twentieth century, one of the major sources of our work (and indeed a lot of what we’ve done here at SOCHA) are public records. We heavily depend on things like marriage and death certificates, government documents, voter registration lists, and, most especially, census schedules. As mandated by the Constitution, every ten years, the government is required to count its population. What ensues is a series of snapshots of the population at that moment in time, recording names, addresses, places of origin, occupations, literacy and work status, and various other tidbits of information that we as historians can use as launching points for our research.
While the United States Bureau of the Census produces raw statistical data on the findings of the census in the immediate aftermath of the enumeration, specific, personal information (basically, the individual schedules recorded by enumerators) is kept under confidential seal for a period of 72 years. For historians, this means there’s an artificial barrier on how far we can go with this vital information. With the exception of the 1890 census (which was almost entirely destroyed in a fire), we’ve been able to utilize federal census information going all the way back to the first count, in 1790. With the advent of the internet, it’s become easier than ever to conveniently search for detailed, personal information and compile large amounts of material in relatively little time from fifteen of the twenty-three censuses.
Yet for the last ten years, we’ve been stuck at the composite picture of the United States as it was in 1930, in the early throes of the Great Depression, and the immediate aftermath of significant restrictions on immigration. Monday, however, that picture changed quite a bit, as the National Archives released the records for the 1940 census, bringing us past the Depression and to the brink of the Second World War.
The release date was an interesting day, to say the least. The record set covers some 132 million people, 3.8 million pages of records, coming in at about 18 terabytes of digital data (and, if you’re truly interested, it comes out to 4646 reels of microfilm, which would set you back a cool $580,750). This was all released as raw image files, with no indexing done aside from the separation of schedules by their enumeration districts. That’s where the public comes in.
After the unveiling at 9AM EDT, a mad flurry of researchers and volunteers from throughout the country flocked to the official website to begin downloading and indexing millions of pages worth of census schedules, many of them working in conjunction with FamilySearch.org, a rather comprehensive genealogy website operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Immediately, all of the major genealogy sites started a de facto horse race to get files downloaded, indexed, and uploaded to their sites, a process estimated to last well into the summer.
By noon, the website had received almost 23 million hits, and was almost immediately rendered useless. (According to the genealogy blog Ancestry Insider, the NARA’s contract with webhost Archives.com called for accessibility for 10 million hits and 25,000 concurrent users for the release date, with overflow handled by Amazon.com). I spent all day furiously attempting to download several enumeration districts I was interested in perusing, and in several hours of work, somehow managed to download exactly one district, some 29 pages covering several blocks in midtown Manhattan. By the late afternoon, it was impossible to get even a preview image to load. By all accounts, the release was a general failure, with the demand far outweighing the anticipated threshold of interest.
Clearly, the release of the 1940 census was something anticipated by many, and it will be interesting to watch as the millions of schedules are indexed state-by-state in the coming months. Slowly, we will see a more personal picture evolve out of this rich archive, indeed a much more personal picture than we’ve seen out of census documents in quite some time. It is estimated over 20 million people who appear in these documents are still alive today.
For us here at SOCHA, it means we will be able to move a lot of our stories ten years into the future, and opens up a number of new avenues for research. I’m excited to see where these documents will take us, and how we will be able to better tell the story of Orthodoxy in America as a result.
Starting up another potentially regular feature here at OrthodoxHistory.org…
This photo, dated 1905, shows Fr. John Kochurov preaching from the pulpit in the newly-constructed Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago. It’s one of several great shots of Holy Trinity to be found in the Chicago Daily News photo collection, available online via the Library of Congress website. We’ll post more of these Chicago photos in the future.