Posts tagged 1870
Yesterday, I ran the first of six articles on the so-called “Bulgarian Question,” a controversy that rocked the Orthodox world in the early 1870s and ultimately led to the 1872 Council of Constantinople, which condemned the heresy of “phyletism.” Search the Internet — both Google and the various subscriber-only databases of academic journals — and you’ll find precious little of substance on the Council. I recently stumbled onto a series of contemporaneous accounts published in the Methodist Quarterly Review, and I’m reprinting those accounts here.
I know I said that I’d run Part 2 next week, but I’ve got this ready to go now, so why wait? This latest installment appeared in the April 1871 issue of the Methodist Quarterly Review — so, nine months after the article I printed yesterday.
The Bulgarian Church Question, to the earlier history and importance of which we have referred in former numbers of the “Quarterly Review” led in the year 1870 to very important developments. The demand of the Bulgarians to have Bishops of their own nationality, and a national Church organization like the Roumanians and the Servians, was, in the main, granted by the imperial firman of March 10. The substance of the eleven paragraphs is as follows:
- Article I. provides for the establishment of a separate Church administration for the Bulgarians, which shall be called the Exarchate of the Bulgarians.
- Article II. The chief of the Bulgarian Metropolitans receives the title of Exarch, and presides over the Bulgarian Synod.
- Article III. The Exarch, as well as the Bishops, shall be elected in accordance with the regulations hitherto observed, the election of the Exarch to be confirmed by the oecumenical Patriarchs.
- Article IV. The Exarch receives his appointment by the Sublime Porte previous to his consecration, and is bound to say prayer for the Patriarch whenever he holds divine service.
- Article V. stipulates the formalities to be observed in supplicating for the appointment (installation) by the Sublime Porte.
- Article VI. In all matters of a spiritual nature the Exarch has to consult with the Patriarch.
- Article VII. The new Bulgarian Church, like the Churches of Roumania, Greece, and Servia, obtains the holy oil (chrisma) from the Patriarchate.
- Article VIII. The authority of a Bishop does not extend beyond his diocese.
- Article IX. The Bulgarian Church and the bishopric (Metochion) in the Phanar are subject to the Exarch, who may temporarily reside in the Metochion. During this temporary residence he must observe the same rules and regulations which have been established for the Patriarch of Jerusalem during his residence in the Phanar.
- Article X. The Bulgarian Exarchate comprises fourteen dioceses: Rustchuk, Silistria, Schumia, Tirnovo, Sophia, Widdin, Nisch, Slivno, Veles, Samakovo, Kustendie, Vratza, Lofdja, and Pirut. One half of the cities of Varna, Anchialu, Mesembria, Liyeboli, and of twenty villages on the Black Sea, are reserved for the Greeks. Philippople has been divided into two equal parts, one of which, together with the suburbs, is retained by the Greeks, while the other half, and the quarter of Panaghia, belongs to the Bulgarians. Whenever proof is adduced that two thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese are Bulgarians, such diocese shall be transferred to the Exarchate.
- Article XI. All Bulgarian monasteries which are under the Patriarchate at the present time shall remain so in the future.
The Greeks of Constantinople where indignant at this firman, because they were well aware that its execution would put an end to the subordinate position in which they have thus far kept the Bulgarians. They demanded that the Patriarch should either reject it or resign. The Synod which was convened by the Patriarch in April declared that the firman was in conflict with the canons of the Church, and that an Ecumenical Council should be summoned to decide the question. The Patriarch accordingly notified the Turkish government that he could not accept the firman, and that, therefore, he renewed his petition for the convocation of an Ecumenical Council. The Bulgarian committee, on the other hand, issued a circular in which the solution of the question by the firman was declared to be entirely satisfactory, and corresponding with their just demands. They pointed out that the principal demand of the orthodox Bulgarians had been that their Churches and bishoprics be intrusted to a clergy familiar with the Bulgarian language, and that they did not understand how the Patriarchate could designate as unevangelical so legitimate a desire. The Patriarch, in a letter to the Grand Vizier, declared that he could retain his office only if the government granted the convocation of the Ecumenical Council. The endeavor of Ali Pasha to induce the Patriarch to desist from his demand proved of no avail. The twelve Bishops constituting the Synod of Constantinople sent a synodic letter to the Porte, in which they implore the government to settle the Bulgarian Church question on the basis proposed by the Patriarch in 1869. The government now yielded. Ali Pasha invited the Patriarch to send to the government a programme of the question to be discussed by the Ecumenical Synod. To this the Patriarch replied as follows:
We had the honor of receiving the rescript which your highness has condescended to forward to us, as a reply to our letter and the Maybata of the Synod of Metropolitans. We perceive that we shall be authorized to convene the Ecumenical Council, to which will appertain the final solution of the Bulgarian question by canonical decision. Your highness expresses the desire to know beforehand the objects and the limits of the deliberations of the Council, and invites us to submit a programme of the same. We have the honor of informing you that the Ecumenical Council, for whose convocation we requested the authorization of the imperial government, will have to investigate and to adjust the controversy which has arisen between the Patriarchate and the Bulgarians. Your highness is aware that said controversy resulted partly from the circumstance that the Bulgarians did not consider satisfactory the concessions which we granted them in regard to the administration of the Church, partly from the fact that the Bulgarians demand something which is in direct opposition to the spirit of our faith and to the commands of the holy canons, although they pretend that their proposals are not at all in contradiction to the holy laws. Thus the labors of the Council, which will not touch on any secular question, will be strictly limited to deliberations on the Bulgarian question; the demands of the Bulgarians, as well as the concessions made by the Patriarchate, will be minutely and impartially scrutinized, upon which the Council will come to a decision in accordance with the spirit of the canons, from which there can be no appeal.
Done and given at our Patriarchal residence on November 16, 1870.
And with that, the Methodist Quarterly Review article ends.
The biggest bombshell — the thing that really got the Ecumenical Patriarchate riled — seems to be Article X, which provided that, if two-thirds of the inhabitants of a diocese are ethnically Bulgarian, the diocese would be transferred from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Bulgarian Church. If THAT is what we’re calling “phyletism,” then I can see why Constantinople would be upset. You can’t have a bishop’s territory taken away from him simply by virtue of the ethnic makeup of that territory.
Also, while such things have been common throughout history, it’s pretty jarring to see church policy so explicitly dictated by a non-Orthodox, secular government. I mean, I realize that Bulgarian Orthodox officials probably drafted the “firman,” but the thing was issued by the Turkish government, and it’s this document that lays out the structure of an entirely new (purported) Local Church.
The part about the Bulgarian Exarch living in Constantinople sounds pretty weird, too, but in those days it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. The article alludes to the Patriarch of Jerusalem doing the same thing, and other Patriarchs lived in Constantinople at various times throughout history.
Anyway, we’ll run the next article on this fascinating situation in the very near future. Thanks for reading.
Recently, I had occasion to research the 1872 Council of Constantinople, which somewhat famously condemned “ethno-phyletism.” The issue arose because, as I understand it, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church — which was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate — declared itself autocephalous. Anyway, before I began this research, I could probably tell you three or four sentences’ worth of information about the whole affair. Surprisingly, there is very little to be found online, and what little has been written about the Council tends to focus on applying it to a modern, American context — an endeavor that can lead to historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. I also searched various databases of scholarly journals, but came up empty. At least in English, there appear to be almost no modern treatments of this Council.
I then checked my personal archives, and it turns out that I have a series of contemporaneous accounts of the situation, published in the Methodist Quarterly Review beginning in 1870. I’m going to reprint those articles here, because they are the best thing I’ve yet found on the subject, and also because they show the kind of reporting you could find in America on global Orthodox events in the 1870s.
This first installment comes from the July 1870 issue of the Methodist Quarterly Review, beginning at page 451.
THE EASTERN CHURCH — THE BULGARIAN QUESTION. — Among the most important questions which have agitated the Eastern Churches since the beginning of the present century is the re-construction of a national Bulgarian Church, which is to remain united with the Patriarchate of Constantinople and other parts of the Greek Church in point of doctrine, but to maintain an entire independence in point of administration. This question has obtained a political, as well as an ecclesiastical, importance, as Russia, France, and other European powers have tried to make capital out of it. A decree of the Turkish Government, issued in February, 1870, appears to decide the main point which was at issue. As important results may follow this decision, a brief history of the Bulgarian question will aid in a proper understanding of the situation it now occupies, and of the hopes that are entertained by the Bulgarians with regard to their future.
When the Bulgarians, in the ninth century, under King Bogaris, became Christians, the new missionary Church was placed under the supervision of the Greek Patriarch. About fifty years later King Samuel established the political independence of the Bulgarian nation and the ecclesiastical independence of the Bulgarian Church. But after his death, the Church was again placed under the Greek Patriarch, and did not regain the enjoyment of ecclesiastical independence till the latter part of the twelfth century. After the conquest of the country by the Turks, in 1393, many of the Bulgarians for a while became, outwardly, Mohammedans; but, as religious freedom increased, returned to their earlier faith, and the Bulgarian Church was made an appendage to that of Constantinople. Good feeling prevailed then between the Greeks and the Bulgarians, and the Sultan filled the Bulgarian Sees with Greek prelates, who were acceptable to the people. As the Bulgarian nobility was exterminated, and the people oppressed by wars which followed, there was, until the beginning of the present [19th] century, scarcely a single voice raised against the foreign Episcopate. But the national feeling began to assert itself about fifty years ago, and the Greek Patriarch was compelled to authorize several reforms. Abuses continued, however, and the national feeling increased, so that the Patriarch was obliged, in 1848, to approve the erection of a Bulgarian Church, and of a school for the education of priests, in the capital. The demand of the Bulgarians for a restoration of their nationality, in 1856, again aroused the slumbering zeal of the Greeks, and the differences between the two nationalities have continued very active up to the present time. The Porte, in 1862, named a mixed commission, to investigate and settle the inquiries. It proposed two plans of adjustment. According to one of these plans, the Bulgarian Church was to name the Bishops of those districts in which the Bulgarian population was a majority. The other plan accorded to the Bulgarians the right to have a Metropolitan in every province, and a Bishop in every diocese, where there is a strong Bulgarian population. Both plans were rejected, and the Turkish Government, having been to considerable pains for nothing, left the contending parties to settle the controversy in their own way.
Accordingly the Greek Patriarch, in 1869, proposed a General Council, and solicited the different Churches of the Greek Confession for their opinions and advice on the subject. Greece, Roumania, and Servia declared themselves in favor of the Council. On the other hand, the Holy Synod of Petersburgh, for the Russian Church, declared the claims of the Bulgarians to be excessive, and that, although it considered a Council the only lawful means of settling the points at issue, it feared a schism if the demands of the Bulgarians were complied with, and was further afraid that the fulfillments [sic] of the demands of the canons would be refused, and advised the continuance of the status quo. The Greek Patriarch, being unwilling to solve the question, the Turkish Government took the matter into its own hands, and in February, 1870, issued a decree which establishes a Bulgarian Exarch, to whom are subordinate thirteen Bulgarian Bishops, whose number may be increased whenever it may be found necessary. The Turkish Government has tried to spare the sensibility of the Greeks as much as possible, and has, therefore, not only withheld from the head of the Bulgarian Church the title of Patriarch, but has expressly provided that the Exarch should remain subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nevertheless the Patriarch has entered his solemn and earnest protest against the scheme. His note to the Grand Vizier, which is signed by all the members of the Holy Synod of Constantinople, is an important document in the history of the Greek Church, and reads as follows:
To His Highness the Grand Vizier: – Your Highness was pleased to communicate to the Patriarchate, through Messrs Christaki, Efendi, Sagraphras, and Kara-Theodor, the Imperial firman, written upon parchment, which solves the Bulgarian question after it had been open during ten years. The Patriarchate, always faithfully fulfilling its duties toward the Emperor, whom the Lord God has given to the nations, has at all times remained foreign to any thought that the decrees of the Sublime Sovereign in political questions should not be obeyed. The Oriental Church obeyed with cheerfulness and respect the legitimate Sovereigns. The latter, on their part, have always respected the province which belongs to the ecclesiastical administration. The Sultans, of glorious memory, as well as their present fame-crowned successor, (whose strength may be invincible,) have always drawn a marked boundary-line between civil and ecclesiastical authority; they recognized the rights, privileges, and immunities of the latter, and guaranteed it by Hatti-Humayums. They never permitted any one to commit an encroachment upon the original rights of the Church, which, during five centuries, was under the immediate protection of the Imperial throne.
Your Highness: If the said firman had been nothing but the sanction of a Concordat between the Patriarchate and the Bulgarians, we should respect and accept it. Unfortunately, things are different. Since the firman decides ecclesiastical questions, and since the decision is contrary to the canons, and vitally wounds the rights and privileges of the Holy See, the Patriarchate cannot accept the ultimatum of the Imperial Government. Your Highness: Since the Bulgarians obstinately shut their ears to the voice of that reconciliation which we aim at, and since the Imperial Government is not compelled to solve an ecclesiastical question in an irrevocable manner; since, finally, the abnormal position of affairs violates and disturbs ancient rights, the Ecumenical Patriarchate renews the prayer, that the Imperial Government may allow the convocation of an Ecumenical Council, which alone is authorized to solve this question in a manner legally valid and binding for both parties. Moreover, we beseech the Imperial Government that it may take the necessary steps which are calculated to put an end to the disorder which disturbs the quiet within our flock, and which can chiefly be traced to the circulars of the Heads of the Bulgarians (dated the 15th of the present month). The Ecumenical Patriarchate enters its protest with the Imperial Government against the creation of these disturbances.
Written and done in our Patriarchal residence, Mar. 24 (old style), 1870.
(Signed) GREGORY CONSTANTINE, Patriarch.
(Signed) All the members of the Holy Synod.
The note of the Patriarch and his Synod indicates that they are aware that, sooner or later, the national demands of the Bulgarians must be granted; and their chief concern now is to obtain as large concessions for the supremacy of the Patriarchal See as possible.
A peaceable and a speedy solution of the difference is the more urgent, as during the last ten years the heads of the Roman Catholic Church in Turkey, aided by the diplomatic agents of the French Government, have made the most strenuous efforts to gain a foothold among the Bulgarians, and to establish a United Bulgarian Church. Nor have these efforts been altogether unsuccessful. Several years ago the Pope appointed the Bulgarian priest, Sokolski, the first Bishop of those Bulgarians who had entered the union with Rome, and who constituted a nucleus of the United Bulgarian Church, which, like the other united Oriental Churches, accepts the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, but is allowed to retain the ancient customs of the ancient national Church, (marriage of the priests, use of the Sclavic [sic] language at divine service, etc.). Bishop Sokolski was quite on a sudden carried off from Constantinople, (as was commonly thought by Russian agents,) and has never been heard of since. In 1855, Raphael Popof was consecrated successor of Sokolski; he still lives, as the only United Bulgarian Bishop, is present at the Vatican Council. He resides at Adrianople, and under his administration the membership of the United Bulgarian Church has increased (up to 1869) to over 9,000 souls, of whom 3,000 lives in Constantinople, 2,000 in Salonichi and Monastir, 1,000 in Adrianople, and 3,000 in the vicinity of Adrianople. The clergy of the Church, in 1869, consisted of ten secular priests.
The part about Rome and the emerging Bulgarian “unia” — complete with a Uniate bishop allegedly abducted by Tsarist agents! — is a topic worthy of study on its own. It’s also interesting to note that all of this was happening simultaneous with the First Vatican Council, which proclaimed the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility.
Next week, we’ll be back with another article on the “Bulgarian Question” and the build-up to the 1872 Council of Constantinople — which, as you might have noticed from the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s letter, was referred to as an “Ecumenical Council.” (Yes, there were Ecumenical Councils after #7.)
This article was originally published on October 30, 2009.
On July 19, 1870, a Philadelphia newspaper called the North American and United States Gazette published the following report:
The Russian Ambassador has received instructions from his government that three bishoprics of the Greek Church are to be established forthwith in this country – one at New York, one at New Orleans, and one at San Francisco, in each of which last named places there is already a Greek church and a Russo-Greek priest.
A few days later, the journal Christian Union (7/23/1870) reported on the move of the Russian bishop from Alaska to San Francisco, and on the founding of Bjerring’s chapel in New York City. Citing the Pacific Churchman as its source, the article then stated the following:
New York is expected to be, in time, the seat of a Greek Orthodox Eastern Church arch-diocesan, and of the cathedral church of that hierarchy on the American continent, while New Orleans and San Francisco are to be episcopal seats. It is further stated that Mr. N.L. BJERRING, of Baltimore, a recent convert from the Roman Church, has been selected as one of the Orthodox bishops for this country, and that he has been invited by telegraph, from St. Petersburg, to proceed thither, to be baptized, ordained into the ministry, and be consecrated a bishop.
It’s interesting to read about a plan calling for New York to be the headquarters of an archdiocese; it would be more than three decades before this would actually happen. Also, Bjerring, being married, could not have become a bishop. It’s possible that the Russian Church wasn’t initially aware of this, and did at some early stage consider him a candidate for the episcopacy. It’s also possible that the newspaper reporter misunderstood something.
Anyway, within a few more days, the New York Sun had run a piece on all this. I don’t have the original Sun account, but it was picked up by various papers, including the Cleveland Herald (7/30/1870), the Chicago Tribune (8/1), and Flake’s Bulletin of Galveston, Texas (8/20). This is from the Cleveland Herald‘s version:
The Russian Government has decided to establish a Bishopric of the Greek Church in New York. The fact was made known to a number of Episcopal clergymen by Count Catacazy, the Russian Minister, and the Count recently offered the position of Prelate of the proposed See to the Rev. Samos [the other versions say "James"] Christal, an Episcopal minister, who is understood to have favored the plan of Dr. (now Bishop) Young of uniting the Episcopal and Greek churches. Mr. Christal has, however, declined to accept the office, on the ground that he could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship, and the new Bishopric has not yet been filled.
Two other Bishoprics are to be established by the Russian Government, one in San Francisco and the other in New Orleans, but the candidates have not yet been named.
On August 27, Christian Union (which had already published a report on July 23 — see above) ran a similar story, but cited Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Banner.
Finally, in October, a correction of sorts began to appear. From the Christian Advocate (10/10/1870; the same appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin on October 29):
The Russian Government does not contemplate sending Bishops of the Greek Church to form dioceses in this country. Greek Church communicants are too few to require them, and these few, it seems, do not desire foreign Bishops.
That is the last thing I’ve found on the plan.
All of these reports were coming during a time of transition for American Orthodoxy. During the same summer of 1870, Bishop John Mitropolsky was assigned to replace Bishop Paul Popov as the Russian hierarch in North America. The diocese itself was restructured, and the new Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska was created. (Previously, Bishop Paul had been merely a vicar in the Diocese of Kamchatka.) Bishop John moved the hierarchical residence from Sitka (or New Archangel) to San Francisco. This move wouldn’t be officially recognized until 1872, but for all practical purposes, it took place with the change in bishops in 1870.
Also, in May of 1870, Nicholas Bjerring went to Russia and was ordained a priest. He returned to the US that summer, and news began to circulate that the Russian Church planned to establish a chapel in New York City.
Is it possible that the Russian Church (and the Russian government) was making initial efforts to implement St. Innocent’s recommendation from a few years earlier? Late in 1867, Innocent recommended, among other things, that
- The diocesan seat be moved from Sitka (New Archangel) to San Francisco,
- The American part of the Diocese of Kamchatka be separated from the Diocese (Innocent recommended that it be formed into a vicariate under St. Petersburg, so creating a separate diocese would have been an even bolder step),
- The former bishop be recalled to Russia, and a new bishop be appointed who is familiar with English, and
- The new bishop be allowed to ordain American converts to the priesthood for service in America.
It’s also interesting to note the apparent resistence of the few Orthodox living in America. The San Francisco community was probably not the source of the problem, since they were the one city that did receive a Russian bishop in 1870. The New Orleans parish may have taken issue with this proposal, though, since they were a mostly independent group connected with the Greek consulate and nominally affiliated with the Church of Greece. But, details being so scarce, it’s hard to know just what the real story is.
There are a couple of avenues one might pursue to get to the bottom of all this. Obviously, the Russian Orthodox Church may have records of this plan (and I would expect them to be in St. Petersburg). There also might be something in the records of the Russian embassy, since the Russian ambassador was the one who approached Chrystal about the proposal. It can’t have just been the imaginings of American newspapermen, and I for one would love to know rationale behind the plan — and the reasons why it was abandoned.
This article was written by Matthew Namee and was originally published on October 30, 2009.
Editor’s note: Last year, on September 30, I aired a podcast on James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring, the first two convert priests in American Orthodox history. On the same day, I published an article on the two men, reflecting on their relevance to us today. Given that many of our readers are new to the site since September, I thought I’d reprint the article.
On today’s American Orthodox History podcast, I discuss the first two convert American Orthodox priests, James Chrystal and Nicholas Bjerring. You can listen to the podcast for the whole story, but I thought I’d give a brief summary here.
Chrystal and 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 City, and he lived there the rest of his life.
Both Chrystal and Bjerring converted to Orthodoxy for ideological reasons. Chrystal was an Episcopalian intellectual, and he was obsessed with the history of baptism. He even wrote a book on the subject, and he came to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church alone had preserved the correct method of baptism (by triune immersion, in the name of the Trinity). Bjerring was a Roman Catholic intellectual, and he became scandalized by Rome’s declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. He, too, came to believe that only the Orthodox Church had preserved the truth.
Both men wanted to be “correct,” and they both came to Orthodoxy without having actually attended an Orthodox church. There were, of course, very few Orthodox churches in America in that period — just two outside of Alaska, in San Francisco and New Orleans — and neither Chrystal nor Bjerring had any connection with those. Both men traveled to Orthodox countries to seek reception into the Church and ordination to the priesthood. Chrystal went to Greece, were he impressed church leaders with his vast theological knowledge. Bjerring went to Russia, where he impressed church leaders with his zeal. Both men were quickly received into the Church — Chrystal by baptism, of course, and Bjerring by chrismation. Both were quickly ordained priests, and both were quickly elevated (Chrystal to archimandrite; Bjerring, being married, to archpriest). Both were sent back to America — specifically, to New York City.
Chrystal was the first to leave. Almost immediately upon his return to the United States, he repudiated the Orthodox faith, declaring that he could not accept the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the veneration of icons. He started his own sect, and he spent the rest of his life — the next 35-plus years — railing against “creature worship” and trying to convince the Orthodox to abandon icons.
Bjerring lasted a good bit longer. He was priest of the New York chapel for 13 years, and he was a visible figure in New York society. But he had a lot of problems. He didn’t have sufficient training for the priesthood, and he made what might be called “rookie mistakes” — errors that any seminary student learns to avoid. But what’s worse, he didn’t speak Russian or Greek (the languages of most of his small congregation), and, being a native of Denmark, he spoke English with a thick accent. He actively discouraged conversions, viewing himself not as a missionary but as a sort of religious ambassador to America, promoting goodwill between the Orthodox and the Protestants (especially the Episcopalians).
Bjerring’s parish never grew; in fact, it stagnated. Attendance was always low. By 1883, the Russian authorities had seen enough. They pulled the plug on the chapel, and they offered Bjerring a teaching position in St. Petersburg, where he wouldn’t have to deal with parishioners or church services. But Bjerring wasn’t interested; instead, disgruntled, he abandoned Orthodoxy and became a Presbyterian minister. By the end of his life, he became dissatisfied with Presbyterianism as well, and, coming full circle, returned to the Roman Catholic Church as a layman.
In the cases of both Chrystal and Bjerring, you had men who were obviously intelligent, well-read, and serious. But in both cases, those impressive characteristics blinded church authorities (Greek for Chrystal, Russian for Bjerring) to the obvious deficiencies of both men. One should never become Orthodox to be “right,” as did Chrystal. And one should never become Orthodox in a state of disillusionment, as did Bjerring. Both men joined the Orthodox Church principally because of their brains, but they lacked an experience of the life of the Church, which is necessary for a healthy conversion. The Greek and Russian Churches, in their excitement over these American converts, failed to realize that they were inexperienced and idealistic, and that their interest in Orthodoxy needed to be nurtured for at least a year or two before conversion.
And then there were the ordinations. It’s a frustrating thing, if you study American Orthodox history — time and again, converts are received and then immediately ordained to the priesthood. This became a big problem in the Russian Archdiocese in the late teens and early twenties, and it’s certainly still a problem today. And if you read St. Paul, it’s been a problem since the beginning of the Church. He writes that an episcopos should be “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim 3:6); of deacons, he writes, “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (3:10).
It’s funny; to become an OCMC missionary, one must have been Orthodox for at least three years. (There are other requirements as well; for instance, one must provide a written history, and must be approved by the OCMC Board.) In some respects, it’s harder to become a lay missionary than it is to become a priest — and yet, are not all priests missionaries themselves, to their flocks and their communities?
Chrystal and Bjerring had barely set foot in an Orthodox church before they were chrismated, and the chrism was not yet dry before they were ordained to shepherd souls. Neither had been initiated into the mind of Orthodoxy; neither had been properly trained to be both priests and pastors; neither had been given the opportunity to truly know the life of the Church and to submit his reason to the wisdom of the Church. And so it’s little wonder that both men, driven to Orthodoxy by their minds and emotions, were driven out of Orthodoxy by the same.
I know that plenty of good priests have been ordained immediately after chrismation. Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who has been discussed at length on this website, is one of them. I’m not trying to make a sweeping generalization, or argue for a hard-and-fast rule. But it’s been 140 years since the Greek and Russian Churches rushed to ordain these neophytes, and we still haven’t learned the lesson. It’s high time we did.
Immediately upon Fr. Nicholas Bjerring’s arrival in New York City in 1870, news spread that the Russian Church planned to construct a great temple in the city, on the corner of 51st Street and Lexington Avenue. This is from the Christian Advocate journal (6/29/1871):
A magnificent structure is about to be erected by the Russian government on Lexington Avenue for the devotions of the members of the Greek faith in this city and country. The designs will arrive here in a few days from St. Petersburg, when the work will at once be commenced. When finished the church will have cost between $500,000 and $600,000.
Half a million dollars in 1871 works out to something close to $9 million today. I’ve seen other references putting the figure at $200,000 to $300,000, but regardless, it was a pretty big chunk of change, and I have a little trouble believing that the Russian government was really going to foot that kind of bill for a representation church. In 1866, estimates out of Russia put the total cost of the proposed church at $20,000, or a little over $350,000 in modern terms, which sounds a lot more reasonable.
Already, the Russian ambassador, Konstantin Katakazi (or Catacazy), had spent $20,000 to purchase the necessary land. When Grand Duke Alexis arrived in America for his famous visit in the fall of 1871, he brought with him plans for the building.
Everything looked like it was going smoothly, until the next summer. From the New York Times (7/22/1872):
The site was purchased by him [Catacazy] for $17,000 in currency. When the deed came to be made out Catacazy desired that $20,000 should be inserted, instead of the amount actually to be paid. There was some difficulty experienced in getting this done, but the intriguing diplomat at last succeeded. By paying the increased cost of revenue-stamps, and possibly using some other inducements, the character of which are not stated. Then he drew on his Government for $20,000 in gold to pay for the site. These facts became known to or suspected by some of the Russians in New-York, who had an interest in the matter, and through them it was made known to the Russian Foreign office. When Catacazy was tried on his return, this was one of the charges which his own Government placed before the Commission for investigation, and it was fully proved.
It might just be a coincidence, but this report ran on exactly the same day that the same newspaper reported on Bjerring’s return to New York after a lengthy visit to Russia. Whether through Bjerring or some other channel, in the summer of 1872, the Russian government figured out that Ambassador Catacazy was skimming money. He had other issues as well (check out his Wikipedia entry), and he was soon exiled to a lowly post in Paris.
As you might expect, plans to build the New York church ground to a halt. But the Russian government still owned the land on Lexington Avenue, and two years later, the plans were revived. From the Baltimore Sun (9/17/1874):
The Russian chapel in New York being too small to accommodate the members of the Greek Church in that city, Russian subjects there have represented to the imperial government the need of a new church edifice for their use, and plans for a structure to cost $85,000 have been sent to St. Petersburg for approval. About $35,000 in aid of the project has already, it is understood, been obtained from various sources, Mr. Ross Winans, of Baltimore, having given $10,000. A plot of ground for such a church was purchased for the Russian government three years ago.
Who, you might be wondering, was Mr. Ross Winans? Well, from his Wikipedia entry, he was one of the first American multi-millionaires, an “inventor, mechanic, and builder of locomotives and railroad machinery.” Also, there’s this:
The Winans engine designs impressed a Russian delegation, and he was asked by the Czar to build the Imperial railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Winans sent his two sons, as well as engineer George W. Whistler to Russia for several years for that project. Winans may have sold as much or more equipment in Russia as he did in the United States. Winans’ son returned to build a Russian style estate in Baltimore, named Alexandrofsky.
So Ross Winans had some serious ties to Russia and the Russian government, and also some serious capital at his disposal. The New York Orthodox, for their part, had apparently scaled back their ambitious plans, reducing the proposed cost of the church from several hundred thousand dollars down to $85K (around $1.6 million today).
Despite that encouraging report, the church was never built. I’m not sure what happened. Even on the eve of the New York chapel’s dissolution in 1882, there were still reports that the Russian government planned to construct a great edifice in the city, but of course they never materialized.
Not everyone realized this. In their 1871 Annual Cyclopaedia, D. Appleton & Company said this:
The first building in the United States designed expressly for a Greek church was erected in the city of New York, during 1871. It is on Lexington Avenue, between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets. The cost, about $260,000, is defrayed by the Russian Treasury in St. Petersburg. The church is attached to the Russian legation in the United States, but is directly under the supervision of the Metropolitan at St. Petersburg, and is not in anyway connected with the diocese of the resident Greek bishop at San Francisco.
They were wrong, of course; when that statement was written, the New York church was only in its earliest planning stages. What’s especially interesting about this Appleton’s reference is the assertion that the New York chapel was under the direct authority of the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, rather than the Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.
In any event, it’s not clear precisely why the plans for the church never came to fruition. Perhaps the money just couldn’t be raised — after all, New York’s Orthodox community was small and generally not wealthy. Perhaps the Catacazy scandal made the Russian government think twice about investing in a New York church. Perhaps the Russian Church changed its mind about the need for a great building in New York. The answer is out there somewhere, probably in some church archive back in Russia.
Also, what happened to the Lexington Avenue property? By all accounts, the Russian government had already bought the land.
As with so many of the stories we recount here at OrthodoxHistory.org, this one ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers.