Posts tagged 1897
In March, I gave a lecture at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, on the subject of Chicago’s Orthodox history. Since then, I’ve begun to probe deeper into the early history of Orthodoxy in Chicago. Many people have asked about one man in particular — George Brown, an early leader of Chicago’s Orthodox community.
At a landmark meeting of the Chicago Orthodox in 1888, Brown was elected president of the fledgling multiethnic proto-parish. He offered this speech (reported in the Chicago Tribune the following day, 5/14/1888):
Gentlemans, union is the strength. Let everybody make his mind and have no jealousy. I have no jealousy. I am married to a Catholic woman but I hold my own. Let us stick like brothers. If our language is two, our religion is one. The priest he make the performance in both language. We have our flags built. It is the first Greek flags raised in Chicago. We will surprise the Americans. Let us stick like brothers.
The Tribune also reported that Brown was a veteran of the American Civil War. Three years later, the community was still trying to start a full-fledged parish, and Brown was still in a leadership role. From the Chicago Inter Ocean, we learn that “Mr. George M. Braun, a Greek, who is one of the leaders in the movement for a church in this city, says that they have been promised a priest of the orthodox faith as soon as they have erected a church.” Ultimately, no multiethnic parish was founded; instead, separate Greek and Russian churches were established in 1893.
Four years later, Greece was on the brink of war with Turkey, and thousands of Greek Chicagoans prepared to return and fight for their home country. The Tribune (2/15/1897) reported,
George M. Brown, a barber, No. 32 Wells street, and, in spite of his English name, of pure Greek blood, was seen last night at his home in North Market street, between Kinzie and Michigan. He rubbed his hands gleefully when told of the latest cable news.
“I am glad to hear this,” he said. “There are 2,000 of my fellow-countrymen in Chicago who will return to their native land to fight against the hated Turks. I hope it will end in driving the Musselmans [Muslims] out of Europe. We have been holding meetings for some time and almost without exception the Greek residents are anxious to fight. I do not know positively, but understand the resident Consul favors the movement and has promised its support. As soon as war is declared, and I guess the news of today is a practical declaration of war, we shall write to the Consul at New York and offer our services. Many of us can and will willingly pay our way back, but the majority will require assistance, which I have no doubt will be furnished by the proper authorities. The Greek colony numbers 3,000 and there are few women and children. If passage money is assured, it is probable 2,000 would embark for Greece without delay.”
Recently, I searched the US Census records to see if I could find Brown. And I did: the 1880 Census lists George Brown, a 40-year-old barber who was born in Greece and living in Chicago. He is listed along with his 26-year-old wife, Louisa, who was born in Italy (which is consistent with his statement in 1888 that he was “married to a Catholic woman”).
The couple also appears in the 1900 Census, along with their children. (The 1890 Census records are unavailable.) Here’s the family:
- George, born in Greece in May 1840, immigrated to America in 1855. He and Louisa had been married for 28 years as of the 1900 Census. This puts their wedding sometime around 1872. George still ran a barbershop in 1900.
- Louisa, born in Italy in June 1855, immigrated to America in 1870. She must have met George not long afterwards, since they were married by 1872 at the latest. The Census reports that Louisa could neither read nor write, although she could speak English.
- Son Leo was born in Illinois in March 1883. His occupation is listed as “Laborer in Grocery.”
- Son Lycurgos (clearly George picked this name) was born in Illinois in June 1884, and in 1900 he worked as an “Errand [boy] in Office.” Incidentally, the early Greek organization in Chicago was known as the “Society of Lycurgos.”
- Daughter Asphasia (or Aspasia) was born in Illinois in May 1890. She’s listed as being “At school.”
- Daughter Consulata was born in Illinois in September 1895.
I can’t find George Brown in the 1910 Census; in fact, I can’t find anyone who even possibly is a match — that is, (1) named George, (2) born in Greece sometime around 1840, and (3) living in Illinois. It’s entirely possible that Brown died between 1900 and 1910. Even in 1900, at age 60, he had surpassed the average lifespan of Americans in his day.
In trying to track down the Brown children, I started with son Lycurgos, for the obvious reason that there can’t be more than one Lycurgos Brown — right? Wrong, actually: In the 1920 Census alone, there were no fewer than six men named Lycurgos (or Lycurgus) Brown. Only one was reasonably close in age to our Lycurgos (who would have been 36 in 1920), but that man, aged 38, was born in Texas, as were his parents. I haven’t been able to find any of the other Brown children in later Censuses, either. However, I found possible matches for daughter Aspasia in the Social Security Death Index. We know that she was born in May 1890, and according to the SSDI, Aspasia Pantek and Aspasia Constantinou were both born in that month. If anyone wants to take the baton and try to track down George Brown’s descendants, go for it — it would be great to see what, if anything, they know about their ancestor.
Finally, further digging turned up the fact that our George Brown’s actual surname was Kotakis. He seems to have dropped it after coming to America. So, here is what we know:
- George Kotakis was born in Greece around 1840.
- He came to America in 1855, took the surname “Brown,” and fought in the Civil War.
- He married an Italian woman named Louisa around 1872.
- He was living in Chicago by at least 1880, and he worked as a barber.
- He was a leader in Chicago’s early Orthodox proto-parish, becoming the community’s president in 1888.
- He had at least four children — two sons and two daughters.
- He may have died between 1900 and 1910.
If anyone out there has any information that can add to our knowledge of George Brown, please email me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
UPDATE: I may have found Lycurgos Brown, George’s second son. On November 16, 1917, a girl named Elizabeth Veronica Brown was born in Cook County, IL (i.e., Chicago). Her birth certificate lists her mother as the former Clara Scanlan, and her father as George Lycurgus Brown, age 33, born in Chicago. Doing the math (1917 minus 33), this man would have been born in 1884 — the same year as our Lycurgos Brown. It’s entirely possible that our Lycurgos actually had the first name of George (after his father), but went by his middle name as a child.
We can verify this hypothesis by revisiting the Census records. In 1910, George L. Brown, a 25-year-old shipping clerk, was living in Chicago with his wife Clara, 3-year-old son George E., and 7-month-old son Daniel P. And according to the Census, George L. Brown’s father was born in Greece, and his mother was from Italy. This is our guy.
I can’t find George Lycurgos Brown in the 1920 Census, but in 1930, he’s still in Chicago. Here is the family:
- George, age 46
- Clara, age 42
- Daniel, age 21
- Gordon, age 17
- Elizabeth, age 12
- Robert, age 5
- Clara G., age 3
- Thomas M., newborn
George Lycurgos Brown’s youngest children would thus be in their eighties today, and it is entirely possible that one or more is still alive. I wonder how much they know about their grandfather, the original George Brown?
UPDATE 2: Sorry for all the updates, but I’ve now traced George Brown’s line down to the present day. Son George Lycurgos Brown’s daughter Elizabeth married a man named Russell Garrett. Elizabeth died in Chicago in 2004, and according to her obituary, her descendants include daughter Elizabeth Balfanz and grandchildren Michael and Rebecca Balfanz.
I’m sure George Brown has dozens of other surviving descendants, through his various other children and grandchildren.
In my recent lecture on Orthodoxy in Chicago, given at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, I cautiously addressed the still-controversial issue of the 1897 split in Chicago’s Greek Orthodox community. Let me go over the basic details very briefly, before moving onto the broader question of what constitutes a parish.
In 1892, Fr. Panagiotis Phiambolis came to Chicago and founded the city’s first Greek Orthodox church, Annunciation. This community met in a rented space and existed for at least five years. Of that, there is no dispute. In 1897, for various reasons which I won’t get into right now, the parish divided. The Archbishop of Athens had sent Fr. Theodore Papaconstantine to replace Fr. Phiambolis as priest of Annunciation. Fr. Phiambolis refused to step down, and Fr. Papaconstantine led part of the Annunciation community away to start a separate parish, Holy Trinity. Fr. Phiambolis remained in Chicago for a couple of years, until about 1899, after which he moved to Boston.
This is where things get complicated. Some contend that Annunciation closed when Fr. Phiambolis left in 1899 (or even earlier — some date its closure to 1897). These folks say that there was no Annunciation Church in Chicago from then until 1907, when the current parish of Annunciation (now a cathedral) was established. Thus, according to this narrative, there were two Annunciation parishes — we’ll call them Annunciation 1892 and Annunciation 1907.
Others have a different story. They say that while Annunciation did lack a priest from 1899 (or whatever) until 1907, it continued to exist, serviced by visiting priests. At my lecture, a woman in the audience even said that she had a photo from her grandparents’ wedding, taken on the steps of Annunciation’s building in 1902 or thereabouts. A parish can still exist without a resident priest, and the argument here is that the present Annunciation Cathedral is identical to the original Annunciation Church from 1892.
I should also mention a third, related argument, brought up to me by a gentleman after my talk. This man suggested that, actually, Holy Trinity itself, while technically founded in 1897, may reasonably be dated to 1892. After all, the founders of Holy Trinity were all previously members of Annunciation. Holy Trinity could, according to this interpretation, be considered merely a continuation of Annunciation 1892, under a different name.
All of this caused me to take a step back and ask, “What is a parish?” We can say what is definitely a parish — a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians with a permanent place of worship, a resident priest, and regular church services. But beyond that, there’s a huge gray area. I’ve come up with several factors and sub-factors to help define a parish. The list isn’t exhaustive, and you could have a parish with only a couple of these elements.
An Orthodox community. This is the most essential element. On the OCA website, many former Greek Catholic parishes which converted to Orthodoxy date their foundings to the year they were established as Greek Catholic communities. I don’t do that; I would date their foundings as Orthodox parishes to the year when they converted to Orthodoxy. Before that, they may have been parishes, but they weren’t Orthodox.
A cohesive community. In other words, the Orthodox people must think of themselves as being part of a community. You could have 100 Orthodox in a city, and a priest could occasionally visit them, but if they don’t think of themselves as being a community, it’s hard to argue that a parish is present.
A priest. Most normatively, an Orthodox parish has a resident Orthodox priest. However, this element can be satisfied with something less than that. Many missions are serviced by priests who care for multiple churches, or by priests assigned to other parishes. Throughout history, some communities have relied, at times, on the services of itinerant clergy.
Worship space. Again, the norm here would be a permanent Orthodox temple, owned by the parish. Alternatively, a parish might rent its building. This could be broken down further — the parish could rent the building every day of the week, or only on certain days (e.g. Sundays).
Regular church services. The basic standard is a Sunday liturgy each week, but of course many parishes do a lot more than that. However, you could have a parish that meets less often (only once or twice per month). And while priest-led services are the norm, in theory, regular meetings of the laity for prayers might suffice.
Incorporation. Most parishes are incorporated as legal entities with the state. However, it’s also true that parishes usually predate their incorporation. After all, until you have at least some of the basic elements of a parish, how could you take the steps to incorporate? Incorporation helps us identify a parish, but lack of incorporation doesn’t mean there isn’t a parish.
A parish council or board of trustees. This isn’t absolutely essential, but it’s the norm for Orthodox parishes in America.
Hierarchical oversight. Today, to be an Orthodox parish in America, you pretty much have to be under a bishop. That wasn’t always necessarily the case. I mean, I guess you could argue that some of the early American Orthodox parishes weren’t really Orthodox, because they were established in an ecclesiologically irregular manner, but I don’t take that approach myself. At the very least, there usually was some minimal tie to a bishop or “mother church.”
A common name: Having a common name doesn’t mean a community is a parish, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a parish that didn’t have a name along the lines of “Annunciation,” “Holy Trinity,” or “St. Nicholas.” I’ve heard of fledgling missions called, “Orthodox Mission of [City],” but they usually get a name pretty soon after their establishment.
Self-identity as a parish. This is actually kind of a big one. In Chicago, prior to the 1892 founding of Greek and Russian parishes, the city had a cohesive community of Orthodox Christians. These people had organized themselves into a “society” for the purpose of starting a parish. They elected officers. They seem to have had a name (St. Nicholas), may have rented worship space, and may have had something resembling regular services. Yet, they clearly didn’t consider themselves a parish. In 1888, they met to decide whether to start a parish, and as late as 1892, there was still talk of starting a multiethnic parish. They obviously didn’t consider themselves to be a parish, even though they had a lot of the fundamental elements. In some cases, we might look back with hindsight and say, “That was a parish,” even if the community didn’t say so at the time. But the burden of proof is higher, I think.
In sum, then, we can say for certain that an Orthodox parish exists if there is a cohesive Orthodox community with a common name, self-identifying as a parish, under the jurisdiction of a bishop, incorporated with the state, with a board of trustees, and holding regular church services with a resident priest in a permanent worship space. But lots and lots of parishes don’t have one or more of those elements, and they’re still indisputably parishes.
I think the mimimum to call something a parish has to be a cohesive Orthodox community, but even that may not be enough. Consider: I was once a part of a cohesive Orthodox community which held regular services in a permanent worship space, led by a resident and full-time Orthodox priest. We had a name, a patron saint. We didn’t self-identify as a parish, and while our priest was under an Orthodox bishop, our community was technically an OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry) not under any one hierarch. We didn’t self-identify as a parish; we called ourselves an OCF, even though we had many regular worshippers who weren’t actually OCF members. Later, our priest left his jurisdiction for another, and our community was converted into a mission parish under a specific bishop. At that point, we incorporated ourselves and elected a parish council. Were we a parish at the beginning, when we self-identified as merely an OCF? I don’t think we were, but looking back, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone to say, “Hey, that’s a parish, whether you say it is or not.”
Another interesting question, this one from history, concerns the original Orthodox community in Portland, Oregon. In the 1890s, an Orthodox chapel called Holy Trinity was established in Portland, under the oversight of the Russian Diocese. The community had a permanent building and was served by priests who visited from the larger Orthodox parish in Seattle. The Russian Diocese, and perhaps the local community, referred to it as a “chapel.” Was this a “parish,” or was it something else — to steal a term from others, a “proto-parish”? Later, the Greeks formed their own parish, which was also called “Holy Trinity” and, at the outset, rented the original Holy Trinity chapel building. This raises another question: was Holy Trinity Greek parish a continuation of Holy Trinity Russian chapel? After all, at least some (and perhaps most) of the Holy Trinity Greek founders had previously attended Holy Trinity Russian chapel. It’s a gray area.
Returning to the original issue: did Annunciation parish of Chicago persist during the early 1900s, or did it close? Put another way, was the present Annunciation founded in 1892, or 1907? There is, I’m afraid, no single answer. Let’s do the analysis:
- An Orthodox community: The key question here is whether there were Greek Orthodox people in Chicago who weren’t members of Holy Trinity. I think the answer is yes.
- A cohesive community: Again, I think the non-Holy Trinity Greeks continued to exist as a cohesive community, as evidenced by the existence (or founding) of Annunciation in 1907.
- A priest: No, there was not a resident Greek priest in Chicago apart from Holy Trinity in the gap period.
- Worship space: I think the original Annunciation worship space continued to be maintained. I haven’t verified this, but if true, it is a key argument in favor of Annunciation’s claim.
- Regular church services: I don’t think there were regular services. I’ve heard that visiting priests occasionally held services for the Annunciation survivors.
- Incorporation: I’m not sure, but I don’t think the community was incorporated prior to 1907. I hope readers will correct me if I’m wrong.
- Board of trustees: I don’t know about this. I strongly suspect that there continued to be officers, but I don’t know for sure. This would be another good argument that there was a parish.
- Hierarchical oversight: Bishops had little practical oversight of Greek parishes in America at the turn of the last century, and without a resident priest, I can’t imagine the Annunciation survivors had much contact with a hierarch.
- A common name: The argument here depends a lot on this element. The claim is that Annunciation’s survivors continued to refer to themselves as “Annunciation” during the gap period.
- Self-identity as a parish: This is another critical element, and Annunciation partisans would certainly argue that this self-identity existed.
This leaves us with some basic questions, and perhaps someone in Chicago could look into them:
- Did Annunciation’s building continue to be maintained and used by a Greek Orthodox community?
- Were the members of that community not members of another Orthodox parish (i.e. Holy Trinity)?
- Did that community have a board of trustees?
- How often did the community meet for services? How often did a priest visit them? (One place to start looking would be state marriage records.)
- Did the parishioners in 1907 understand themselves to be (re-)founding the parish, or did they think that the parish had continued to exist during the gap?
We’ll continue to explore the issues of parish identity in the future, but the whole Chicago debate reminds me that we must always ensure that we define our terms. We can’t take for granted that we all know what a “parish” is, because, as I think I’ve demonstrated, there’s a lot more gray area than we might initially assume.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Editor’s note: The following lecture was given by Fr. Sebastian Dabovich on August 15, 1897 to the parish school St. Sergius in San Francisco, in the presence of Bishop Nicholas Ziorov. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. Innocent Veniaminov, the great Alaskan missionary and later Metropolitan of Moscow. The text was originally printed in Dabovich’s 1898 book The Lives of the Saints (1898).
As I stand here in the midst of this gathering, I picture in my mind another company, greater than this, filling the spacious halls of a more magnificent structure in the capital city of the Russian Empire — Matushka Moskva (dear mother Moscow). My imagination reaches still farther out, and I behold another throng of busy citizens, together with young Seminarians and prayerfully inclined Christians, away off in Siberia, in the city of Irkoutsk. Methinks I hear them speak the very name of him whom they have come to honor, Innocentius. My whole being thrills with a veneration at the sound of that name. My heart is filled with gladness when I think of the pure joy and reasonable pride of the country folk in rural Anginskoe of the Province of Irkoutsk — the native home of the Most Reverend Metropolitan Innocent.
Yet all these multitudes and territorial distance are but a part of the whole, celebrating a great event. Look you, the tribes of Kamchatka with the Yakout race sing of him, while the Aleut and the Alaskan Indians gratefully commemorate their teacher on this day — the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. While the great Orthodox Missionary Society in Russia, which to-day upholds our prosperous Church in Japan and in other parts of the world, is paying honor to the sacred memory of its founder, we too bless this one hundredth birthday of our first Bishop in America — the same Innocentius, Metropolitan of Moscow.
This great Missionary, who passed away from this visible world eighteen years ago, and rests with his remains in the holy Troitse Sergiev Monastery, still dwells in the loving hearts of the different peoples of his spiritual charge. I understand and feel the special privilege which I enjoy to-night, and for which I most heartily thank thee, Gracious Bishop and Most Reverend Father in God. Deeply feeling the love of our Archpastors, I become bold and venture to look into the unseen, where I behold the spiritual eyes of our first hard-working Missionary, with kindly light beaming upon this gathering and approving of the feeble words of your son (to the Bishop), and your brother (to the Clergy), and your pastor (to the Congregation) — one of the first born of the young American Orthodox Church!
John Veniaminov, indeed, was a great man. As one of the first priests in Alaska, he labored for fifteen long years in several parts of that vast region, making his home, principally, first in Ounalashka and then in Sitkha. In those pioneer days of Alaska an Aleutian badairka or small canoe made of the skin of a walrus was the only means he had for his constant locomotion, and not seldom for his voyages of a longer course. It often happened that, in a mean, wet climate, his only comfort for whole months would be found in an earthen dug-out. I will not detain you by repeating; you will soon hear, and also read for yourselves, of his life, and then you will know how in the Providence of God the Reverend Father John became to be known by the name of Innocent, and how he returned to Alaska — as the first bishop there, and likewise our first bishop in America! Brief accounts of his life are now printed in English, as well as in Russian and other languages, and may be had for nothing, comparatively.
There are several people in this city who have personally seen him, and remember well the wholesome instructions of their gentle pastor — Bishop Innocent, later the Metropolitan of Moscow. Besides the elder brethren and the elder sisters among you, some of the people mentioned are also fathers in their community. Our present Bishop and beloved Father in God was at one time under the spiritual rule of the Most Reverend Innocentius, and that was during his student life in the Academy of Moscow, when Innocent was the Bishop of the Church of God in that Province.
I have strong reasons for maintaining my assertion that this Missionary Priest, John Veniaminov, also landed on our shores here, and — how I love to dwell on the thought! — he bestowed God’s blessing upon our beautiful California. It was in the fall of 1838 that this God-fearing worker left Sitkha in a sailing vessel — to voyage down the whole length of the great Pacific, and make his way around Cape Horn to Europe and St. Petersburg. At that time the government of Alaska, following the wise counsel of Baranov (another great man), obtained and held land in California, where it had a flourishing colony in the part now known as Sonoma county. Baranov was well aware of the worth of Alaska, but he needed California as a store- house of grain for the Great North with its many resources and grand coast. The globe-circumnavigating vessels, coming from the north, certainly must have anchored in California waters, in order to take on supplies and make a final preparation before setting sail to round the Cape for Europe. And so it is possible that our dear Missionary may have even offered the Divine Liturgy in the chapel at Fort Ross, and also baptized the Indians in Russian River. I do not attempt to speculate on the idea that our apostle trod the sands where now our splendid city of San Francisco is built. For memory’s sake I simply ask: Is there not a history attached to Russian Hill in San Francisco?
A most remarkable man was this Russian priest from Siberia. He was a mechanic, navigator, school-teacher, administrator, and a preacher of the Gospel. A poor orphaned boy, too young to earn his own bread, must depend upon the charity of poor relatives and even strangers for his very existence. From a little town in the heart of Siberia he finds his way into the city of Irkoutsk, where he becomes a pastor, beloved by his devoted people. Then he goes, as he thought, to give up himself with his entire strength and knowledge to the simple Aleuts, who sat in darkness in the distant islands of the ocean. It was he, as he afterwards sat in the councils of the Most Holy Governing Synod of our Church, who moved the proposition that the Orthodox Bishop in America should transfer his residence from Sitkha to San Francisco.
God selected the priest, John Veniaminov, to bear the light of Orthodox Christianity from the East to the West, from Asia to America! And nobly did the Great Russian Church prove herself worthy of the apostolic power of rightly dividing the Word of Truth by carrying out the work in all its detail. She faithfully keeps the apostles’ will as expressed in these words: Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and teaching; she elevates her Missionary to a high post. In his new office as an archpastor, the M. Rev. Innocent created two more dioceses in Eastern Siberia, besides the church of Alaska. He was ever sailing over the ocean, or driving in reindeer and dog sledges over a country thousands of miles in extent, everywhere baptizing the natives, for whom he has introduced the use of letters, and translated the Gospel into their native tongues.
It has been, and still is, the habit of some who are unfriendly to the Orthodox Church to speak of her as a dead church. Such a daring charge could be uttered for three reasons, and they are these: Such persons are either determined upon a certain course of public policy, with no respect for the truth, or they are not inclined to think well of Eastern Christians, whom it would be inconvenient to recognize as brethren while enjoying personal comfort through social connections; but if it be not that, it is then because of a light head and total ignorance of the facts in universal history. In modern times the Russian Church has proved, in more instances than one, that she is alive with the missionary spirit. May we condemn the Slavonic Orthodox Church in the Balkan States, and in Austria, simply because she is struggling for her existence in spite of the aggressive intrusion on her own ground of the brethren of the Society of Jesus? Nor is the influx of American Sectarian preachers in Arabia and in Palestine, a reason which could justify any one in saying that the Church of Christ in those parts is dead! In these days we know something of what enslavement to the Turk involves. And what, in common justice, to say nothing of Christian charity, have we a right to expect from those groaning under such bondage? Have we the conscience to ask that they should make converts, when now for five hundred years they have been struggling, as in a bloody sweat, to keep Christianity alive under Moslem tyranny? And, in that time, how many martyrs of every age and condition have shed a halo around the Oriental Church? Not less than a hundred martyrs of these later days are commemorated in the services of the Church, and countless are the unnamed ones, who have suffered for the faith, in these five hundred years of slavery. In 1821, Gregory, Patriarch of Constantinople, was hung at the door of his cathedral, on Easter Day. Many other prelates and prominent ecclesiastics were put to death in Adrianople, Cyprus, the Ionian Islands, in Anatolia and Mount Athos. And yet, none apostatized from the faith of Christ. Are not such martyrdoms the best way of making converts? It was thus that, in the first three (and more) centuries of our era, the Church was founded in those lands by the apostles and their immediate successors. How can it be said that, among people who could so die for the faith, there was no real spiritual life ? Has not the Greek Church shown by her deeds the steadfastness of her faith?
But it is not our purpose to lecture on history. Nor is it that out of mere curiosity we are here. Let us now look to the duty we have before us this hour. We are gathered here to show our gratitude to our benefactor, and also in a becoming way to honor the memory of our dear Archpastor, Metropolitan Innocentius. Remembering him who has had the rule over us and our fathers — the Christians of this Diocese; remembering him who had spoken unto us the Word of God, let us now, according to the Divine commandment, consider his end, so that we may be able the better to follow the example of strong faith, which he gave us throughout his whole life. Although he was much weakened in his last days by old age and sickness, yet the venerable prelate retained his mind clear up to the last, and truly his course on earth was appropriately crowned with a bright Christian end. Tell them, he said, as he was about to sleep, that no eulogies be pronounced at my funeral, they only contain praise. Let them rather preach a sermon, it may be instructive; and here is the text for it: The ways of man are ordered by the Lord.
Leaving aside Native Alaskans and Uniates, conversions to Orthodoxy in America were quite rare at the turn of the last century. Yes, American women occasionally converted when they married cradle Orthodox men, and there was the odd Episcopalian convert, but even taking those into consideration, conversions were very uncommon. And if Protestants joining the Orthodox Church were rare, a Jewish convert was rarer still. In fact, I’ve found only one solid example of a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy in America in the early years of our history.
We don’t know his name, or his story, but the event was sufficiently notable that the New York newspapers reported on it. The convert — baptized with the name “Vladimir” — was received on Sunday, February 14, 1897, at St. Nicholas Russian Church in New York City. The convert, described by the New York Times (2/16/1897) as “young,” renounced the “false doctrines of the Hebrews,” including the teachings of the Talmud. He swore that he was joining the Church only out of genuine conviction of faith and love for Christ, and not because of fear, coercion, the hope of personal gain, or any other reason. While the Hours were read, a wooden baptismal font was filled with water. The font was behind a low screen, which blocked the baptism from the view of the congregation. From the New York Sun (via the Atlanta Constitution, 2/25/1897):
The priest, the convert and the male sponsor went behind the screen. The woman sponsor staid [sic] outside. The screen was not high and the congregation could some times see garments that were raised in the convert’s complete disrobing. They could hear the solemn words of the service by those within. They could hear the splashing and gurgling of the water as the convert was immersed for the first, second and third time. They saw the symbolical white robe and the cross as they were raised above his head. Meanwhile they joined in singing the hymn of baptism.
The ceremony coincided with the Feast of the Entrance of Christ into the Temple, and the officiating priest was St. Alexander Hotovitzky. Presumably, St. Alexander played a major role in bringing this young Jewish man to Christ. But how, exactly, did a young New York Jew come to join the Russian Orthodox Church in 1897, just two years after St. Nicholas parish was founded? What effect did this conversion have on his life? Was he unique, or were there other Jews who converted around the same time? It’s likely that a record of this baptism still survives, perhaps in the OCA archives, and it’s possible that the Vestnik, the official diocesan publication, may have mentioned the event, so information is out there to be found.
In many ways, the conversion of a Jewish man to Orthodoxy in New York in 1897 is just as remarkable as the conversion of the black Jamaican Fr. Raphael Morgan a decade later. And, as with Morgan, this anecdote leaves us wondering about the rest of the story. Hopefully, one day, we will learn more.