As we’ve discussed previously, in July of 1920, an all-convert, all-English Orthodox parish was founded in New York City. Called the Church of the Transfiguration, the parish was led by the newly-converted Fr. Patrick Mythen. But it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream of the elderly Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who served as the assistant priest.
The church held its first services on Sunday, July 18, 1920. Six days later, the New York Times ran an article on the parish under the headline, “Americanizing a Church.” The Church of the Transfiguration was, according to the article, part of a broader initiative, supported by Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky, to “Americanize” the Russian Archdiocese. He had apparently commissioned a fresh English translation of the Divine Liturgy. English was the primary language of instruction in the Russian seminary in Tenafly, New Jersey, and Orthodox Christians in America were encouraged to obtain US citizenship.
On Saturday, July 31, someone reportedly broke into the church. Mythen told the Times (8/16/1920) that, oddly enough, nothing at all was taken. This was surprising — the burglars could have stolen the holy vessels made of gold and silver, and expensive clergy vestments, but they didn’t. From the Times:
The priests were puzzled by the objectless burglary, but on the following day, when he drank the sacramental wine from the chalice at the end of the service, Canon Ingram N.W. Irvine became conscious of an agonizing pain in his mouth, throat and stomach. Believing that in some manner the chalice had been filled with acid instead of wine, he acted immediately to save his own life. By his promptness he escaped without serious injury, though he was very sick for a day or more. Canon Irvine is 70 years old.
Immediately after this incident an investigation was made of the receptacle containing the wine intended for sacramental purposes, but not yet consecrated. The wine there was found to be perfectly pure and fresh.
The priests then considered they had found the explanation of the burglary. One or more persons, who hated the Orthodox Church, had forced an entrance into the church in order to put poison in the chalice in the hope of killing a priest.
Fr. Patrick Mythen connected this alleged poisoning to other recent incidents. He told the Times, “In addition to this certain other churches have been attacked and broken into within the last few weeks, and other priests assaulted. One Roman Catholic priest of Greek nationality was bound and beaten. An Orthodox priest in Bayonne was also attacked by three men, but the priest being of very powerful physique, seized the man with the revolver so quickly that when the weapon was discharged, the assassin shot himself. The man was taken into custody by the United States Secret Service and found to be an anarchist.”
The Orthodox leaders, and the Times, thought that all this was connected to the Americanization program that the Russian Archdiocese was instituting. Bolshevik sympathizers, who hated both America and Orthodoxy, supposedly found the mingling of the two to be intolerable. The Times article from which I’ve been quoting is actually all about another incident, which took place on August 15 (and which I’ll discuss in another post).
Now, about the Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine poisoning — They checked the container that held the unconsecrated wine, and it was clean. So, the poison was presumably put in the chalice itself. But if that were the case, wouldn’t someone else have gotten sick, too? Then again, it was pretty common then for people to take communion only a few times a year. Combine that with the fact that the Church of the Transfiguration was a tiny, new place, and it’s entirely possible that there were no lay communicants that day. On the other hand, the church had several attached priests who probably would have partaken. Why would Irvine have been the only one affected? There are two possibilities: one, Irvine may have been the only celebrant that day, and thus the only one to partake of the Eucharist. Two, it’s possible that the poison would only cause problems if consumed in large quantities. If the other priests only took a few sips, and Irvine finished the whole chalice, it may well have only affected Irvine.
So, was Irvine really poisoned? We will probably never know for sure. I’m confident that he wasn’t a liar, but I’m just as confident that he could be a bit melodramatic at times. I’m inclined to believe him when he says he was poisoned, but the circumstances are rather odd. It would be great to see the police report of the incident, but I don’t know if one has survived.
Another thing — note the statement that Irvine “acted immediately to save his own life.” It sure sounds like he forced himself to expel — vomit — what he had just consumed. That is, he intentionally threw up the Eucharist. I realize that he thought it was filled with acid, and that he was protecting his life. And he probably took measures to ensure that what he had just expelled was disposed of in a proper manner. But still, while I fully understand his actions, I find them rather shocking as well.
Irvine was back in church on August 19, preaching a sermon on the Feast of the Transfiguration. He died the following January — 5 1/2 months after being poisoned. That said, I don’t think there was any connection between the poisoning and his death. He regained his health pretty quickly after the poisoning incident, and, according to his obituary, he died of heart disease.
For a while now, I have been meaning to write about the first all-English Orthodox parish in America, founded in New York City in 1920. Today, I’m going to give a brief introduction to that parish, and the main characters involved. This is hardly the whole story; it really is just an introduction.
To start — well, you know about Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who converted to Orthodoxy in 1905. (If you don’t know about Irvine, you can read our earlier posts about him, or listen to two podcasts I did on Ancient Faith Radio.)
So Irvine converted in 1905, and he remained an Orthodox priest until his death, in January 1921. During that time, in both the Russian and Syrian Missions, he was a strong advocate of the use of English in American Orthodox worship. He felt that, for Orthodoxy to survive and thrive in America, it was imperative that it, to some extent, “Americanize.” (This is the term that was used at the time.)
For most of Irvine’s Orthodox career, there were not many converts. Irvine spent a lot of his time working with Orthodox young people, and interacting with Episcopalians, but he didn’t actually bring a lot of people into the Church. Late in his life, however, things started to change. An Episcopal priest named James Grattan Mythen converted to Orthodoxy in 1920. He was immediately ordained a priest by Abp Alexander Nemolovsky, and he took the name, “Fr. Patrick.”
Mythen would prove to be the first of a surprisingly large number of convert priests to enter the Russian Archdiocese in the early 1920s. Irvine was quite old by this point, in his early 70s at a time when most people didn’t live past 60. He was not really capable, physically, of running his own church. But Mythen was young — just 37 at the time of his conversion — and he became the leader of a group of convert clergy.
Within a very short period of time, Mythen was joined by the following men:
- Dr. Geoffrey A. Lang, ordained Fr. Stephen
- Robert F. Hill, ordained Fr. Antony
- Fr. Paul Ihmsen
- Dr. George Gelsinger, ordained Fr. Michael
- Royce M. Burden, ordained Fr. Boris
- Arthur W. Johnson, ordained Fr. Kyrill
- Sgt. William H. Schneider, ordained Fr. A. (not sure what it stood for)
Irvine didn’t know all of these men; several of them came along after he had already died. And Irvine doesn’t seem to have been the main person driving this enterprise; Mythen was. Abp Alexander put an enormous amount of trust in Mythen. For a while, in the early 1920s and before Metropolitan Platon took over the Russian Archdiocese, Mythen basically ran the whole Archdiocesan operation, even signing ordination certificates (a task properly done by a bishop). Needless to say, Mythen supplanted the aging (and then deceased) Irvine as the leader of the English Department of the Russian Archdiocese.
And in 1920, the newly-converted-and-ordained Mythen became the rector of the “American Orthodox Catholic Church of the Transfiguration,” the first all-English, all-convert parish in history. The church was located at St. Vladimir’s Immigrant Home, 233 East 17th Street in New York City. The first services were held on July 18, 1920. This is part of an article from the New York Times (7/17/1920):
In the establishment of this English-speaking church by the Russian hierarchy the efforts of fifteen years of the Rev. Dr. Ingram N.W. Irvine, a canon of the local Russian Cathedral, have been realized.
Archbishop Tikhon, who was head of the Russian Church in America for several years, favored such a move, but he was recalled to Russia before he could organize such a branch. Appeal was then made to Archbishop Nemoloski, who agreed that an English mission would fill a need. Abbot Patrick (James Gratton Mithen), who came here from England three months ago, was designated as rector of the new branch. Dr. Irvine will be the associate rector. He and Abbot Patrick are major canons.
The other two members of the staff are minor canons. The first vicar is Canon Stephen, who came to America with Canon Patrick, and the second vicar is Canon Paul, who was ordained a priest of the Russian Church in Pittsburgh by Bishop Stephen of the Uno-Russian Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is a brother of Max Ihmsen, a newspaper editor. Dr. Irvine is Professor of the English Department in the Russian Seminary, Tenafly, N.J., and Canon Paul is his assistant.
A few things… One, I find the whole “canon,” “vicar,” language to be slightly amusing, borrowed as it is from the Episcopal Church. Is a “major canon” supposed to be an archpriest, in this context? I don’t know. I’m not aware of Irvine having ever been raised to archpriest, but it is possible.
Two, while Mythen did travel from England to the US, he was only in England for a few months. We’ll talk about his life in a separate post in the future, but he was born in Baltimore and was an American citizen. Like Irvine, Mythen was of Irish ancestry, but was an Anglican clergyman. He was very involved in politics and art — he was a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage and of Irish independence, and he moonlighted as a playwright. One of his allies in the Irish independence movement was Geoffrey Lang (aka Fr. Stephen), who, along with Mythen, helped run a group called Protestant Friends of Irish Freedom.
Fr. Paul Ihmsen — I’m not certain, but I think his given name was Charles. His brother Max, the newspaper editor, was a major figure in the newspaper industry of the early 20th century. He was a protégé of William Randolph Hearst, with titles ranging from “political manager” to “henchman.” He then went to California and ran the Los Angeles Examiner, and on the side, he became a pioneering apple farmer. The Ihmsens came from an old, prominent German family from Pittsburgh.
Another priest in these early years was Fr. Antony (Robert) Hill, who happens to be the second black priest in American Orthodox history, after Fr. Raphael Morgan. Hill was Orthodox for a very short time; he soon joined the upstart “African Orthodox Church,” about which, more in the future.
The other clergy I mentioned above — Gelsinger, Burden, etc. — came along later, after the Church of the Transfiguration had closed. And close it did, very soon — the New York Times has advertisements for the church through November 1920, but nothing afterwards. The church’s few months of existence were eventful, though. Two prominent literary figures, T. Everett Harre and Reginald Wright Kauffman (both, apparently, friends of Mythen), converted to Orthodoxy. In August, Irvine was apparently poisoned, allegedly by Bolshevik sympathizers. And in September, Abp Alexander raised Mythen (who was unmarried) to the rank of archimandrite. We will discuss all of these events, and the history of the broader English-speaking mission, in future articles.
I’ve been looking through a borrowed copy of Fr. Michael Gelsinger’s Orthodox Hymns in English, published by the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1939. This is a significant work, and Gelsinger’s hymns are still used to this day. I’ll write more about this book in the future, but I found the following paragraph, from the Introduction, to be especially interesting:
Other religions in America have hymnbooks containing six hundred or more melodies; Orthodoxy in English, though rightfully heir to the grandest and richest score of music in existence, would only with difficulty command as many as fifty melodies. Our lack of Orthodox hymns that can be sung in English has already encouraged the use of substitutes: rumor tells of Parishes that use Protestant hymnbooks, — in one case, at least, the Billy Sunday collection; and in another a book of “Pentecostal Hymns.” Can we calmly face a future which might add “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” and “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” to the treasures of Orthodox devotion?
No, Gelsinger answers: “It is, of course, as unthinkable as it is unnecessary that we should permit any such development.” His answer? Translate Orthodox music from all the traditions — Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Romanian, etc. — into the English language.
Every tradition of our Orthodox music should find a home in every Parish in America; for American Orthodoxy inherits the music of every national Orthodox Church abroad. It is usual to say that our children will all be Americans together; but that is only one face of the truth. It is equally true that each of our children as an Orthodox Christian is as much Russian as he is Greek, as much Greek as he is Syrian, as much Syrian as he is Bulgarian or Rumanian: for he is the rightful heir of everything Orthodox that has ever entered this country.
Here, Gelsinger sounds a lot like Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine and Fr. Leonid Turkevich before him, and like countless people today. But back in 1939, Gelsinger’s views were pretty cutting-edge. They had a substantial influence on the development of American Orthodoxy in the decades that followed.
Last week, I wrote about the introduction of organs into Greek churches in America, but I didn’t really know why they were introduced. Thanks to David Mastroberte, we now have a plausible explanation: someone specifically set out to popularize organ music.
That man was George Anastassiou. Courtesy of Mr. Mastroberte, here are Anastasiou’s own words, from a Greek hymnal called Αρμονικη Λειτουργικη Υμνωδια (published 1944, reprinted 1960):
I am convinced that I first introduced the organ in our Churches in America with the musical cooperation of ever-memorable artist and musical [sic] Spyridon Saphrides upon my arrival in America and my appointment as precentor-choir leader of the Greek Church of St. Sophia in Washington at the time of the progress and reformatory presidency of Mr. T. H. Theotokatos, lawyer and at that time teacher of this community in the year 1921. Later I introduced it also in New York and in other places by special musical-historic lectures, descriptions in our Greek press, and by special teaching in the choirs of our communities, which I formed, and lately in the beloved Greek city of Florida, Tarpon Springs, where there is played today, in that very beautiful cathedral church of America (as it is called today by all the Greeks and Americans by reason of the Pan-American celebration of Theophany services every year) an organ of great value electrically, microphonically, megaphonically, and with chimes, on the great singing tower, the bell tower of about 100 feet in height of this Greek Church of St. Nicholas in Florida, called the Greek singing Tower of America.
And thus, and in time, the organ of Greek invention became the valuable leader and coadjutor of our choirs and in America for the elevation of the Divine Worship and for our reunion through our choirs (which, I am convinced, I first introduced in America), with the ancient Greek Byzantine greatness of our church.
This makes sense. Anastassiou mentions the musician Spyridon Safridis, who, according to Nicholas Prevas, was hired to be the first musical director of Annunciation Church in Baltimore and introduced “European music” into that church.
The Anastassiou story suggests that parishes weren’t necessarily trying to just Americanize by adding an organ — they were also trying to be more “Byzantine,” at least according to Anastassiou’s interpretation of history. David Mastroberte writes, “In earlier paragraphs, Anastassiou claims that the organ was invented by Greeks at Alexandria, was used in the ‘Hebrew church’ and was even employed by such great saints as Athanasius and Basil the Great. He also mentions its use in the narthex of Hagia Sophia, and its subsequent introduction into the West via Byzantium.”
I’d love to learn more about Anastassiou, Safridis, and their efforts to spread organ music in Greek churches. All this was taking place during the 1920s — the era of the Royalist / Venizelist and Old / New Calendarist schisms among Greek Americans. If I may hazard a guess, I’d say that the Venizelists were more inclined to adopt the organ, and the Royalists were more likely to resist it. But I don’t know for sure. It would also be interesting to know whether there was any connection between Anastasiou’s efforts in 1920s America and Abp Athenagoras’ introduction of organ music on Corfu at the same time — that is, did Anastassiou inspire Athenagoras in Corfu, or were the two unconnected until Athenagoras came to America?
Many, many thanks to Mr. Mastroberte for providing this information.
To our New Calendar readers: Christ is born!
The following article was originally published on August 21, 2009. If you’re interested, you might check out the comments to that original posting. We’ll be back with brand-new material on Monday, December 28.
As you might expect, most American Orthodox parishes in 1916 used foreign languages. From that year’s Census of Religious Bodies, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, we find the following unsurprising information:
- Both of the Albanian parishes used exclusively Albanian.
- The four Bulgarian parishes used Bulgarian and Slavonic.
- The 87 Greek parishes used exclusively Greek.
- Both of the Romanian parishes used exclusively Romanian and Slavonic.
- 166 of the 169 Russian parishes used exclusively Slavonic. Of the other three, two used a combination of Slavonic and English, and one used exclusively English.
- 11 of the 12 Serbian parishes used exclusively Slavonic and/or Serbian. One Serbian parish used exclusively English.
In total, there were 276 parishes in the United States in 1916, not counting the Syrians. 272 of those 276 (98.55%) worshipped entirely in foreign languages, and just two used English only.
None of this should come as a surprise. The vast majority of American Orthodox Christians in 1916 were either immigrants, or the children of immigrants. And the vast majority of American Orthodox clergy were also immigrants, most of whom had been educated and ordained in the Old World.
Now we come to the Syrians… and as we’ve seen before, the Syrians are an outlier. This is what the 1916 Census has to say:
Of the 25 organizations, 13, with 4,361 members, reported services conducted in English only; and 12, with 7,230 members, reported services conducted in foreign languages alone or with English. Of these, 4 organizations, with 1,230 members, reported the use of Arabic alone or with English; 5, with 2,900 members, Arabic, Greek, and English; and 3, with 3,100 members, Arabic, Greek, Russian, and English. In 1906 all the organizations then represented reported the Syro-Arabic language only.
This is stunning. Ten years earlier, in 1906, the Syrians were like everybody else, worshipping exclusively in their native tongue. In 1916, everybody else was pretty much the same — 98.55% foreign. But in just a decade, the Syrians had changed dramatically. By 1916, at least 21 of the 25 Syrian parishes (84%) used at least some English in their church services, and over half (13 of 25) were entirely in English.
How on earth did this happen? I don’t have a clear answer; however, there is one clue. In 1905, an Episcopal priest named Ingram Irvine converted to Orthodoxy. He was ordained by Ss. Tikhon and Raphael, took the name “Fr. Nathaniel,” and for about two years, he served in the Russian Mission. His purpose was “English work.” He wrote articles in English, published a couple of small books, and conducted an English-language Vespers service on Sunday nights. He also helped St. Tikhon with English-language administrative work, and advised him on Anglican-Orthodox relations.
Irvine is one of my favorite figures in American Orthodox history, and we’ll talk about him in great detail in the future, but for now, it’s enough to know that he transferred to St. Raphael’s jurisdiction after St. Tikhon returned to Russia in 1907. And Irvine’s transfer also meant the transfer of the “English work.” Now, his English articles appeared in the otherwise all-Arabic Al Kalimat (The Word). He made it his special mission to reach out to the English-speaking children of Arabic immigrants to America. He taught Sunday School, ghostwrote letters for St. Raphael, and generally promoted the use of English in the Syrian Mission. He did this at the direction and with the encouragement of St. Raphael; when St. Raphael died in 1915, Irvine wrote, “With Bishop Raphael’s death ended the initiatory Chapter of English Orthodox Church work in America.”[*]
I don’t think Irvine alone was responsible for the great proliferation of English in the Syrian Mission in the years 1906-1916, but he must have played a major role. Just thinking out loud, another factor may have been the weaker national identification with Orthodoxy among the Syrians. What I mean is this: to be a Russian, a Greek, or a Serb was to be Orthodox. National identity and religious affiliation were intimately intertwined, to the point that they were one and the same. But it was not so among the Syrians. They came, not from their own nation-state, but from the Ottoman Empire. And they also came from a region of great religious pluralism — back in Syria, they lived alongside Melkites, Maronites, Muslims, and Druze. In other words, while Slavonic, Greek, and Serbian culture (and language) was closely identified with Orthodoxy, the same could not be said of Syro-Arab culture and language. And it’s possible (though I can’t prove it) that this distinction was a major factor in the spread of English among the Syrians, while the rest of American Orthodoxy was still firmly attached to foreign languages.
Finally, Fr. John Erickson offered this comment upon seeing the language data:
In light of the very large number of parishes St Raphael’s Syrian mission that used only English or predominantly English, another question that might be interesting to explore would be the extent to which, in the years immediately following, the “Antacky” advocated the use of Arabic or otherwise resorted to identity politics.
At present, I don’t have any idea whether the Russy-Antacky divide involved language, but it is a question I will have to explore (and if anyone wants to help, please let me know!)
[*] Ingram N.W. Irvine (Fr. Nathaniel), “Bishop Raphael, In His Relation to the English Work of the Archdiocese of North America,” Russian Orthodox American Messenger 19:5 (March 15, 1915), 72.