Posts tagged Nicholas Bjerring
I have uploaded a copy of a very short article on Christmas in New York in 1874. What I wish to do, however, is not simply provide you with a little factoid, but to use this piece as a window into what “evangelism” meant for Orthodoxy on the ground in NY in the 1870s. At the time, the diocese of the Russian Mission did not formally extend into New York, but this chapel existed as a show-chapel of sorts, in part to promote good relations with the Protestant Episcopalians. The pastor, Fr. Nicholas Bjerring, was himself a convert from Roman Catholicism and we have mentioned him more than once on this site. Perhaps we have even noted this news article. Bjerring connected with Bishop Henry Potter, the local Episcopalian bishop. Bjerring also made the newspapers at various times for different speaking engagements and sometimes for liturgical services. Bjerring had a soft approach to evangelism. He did not engage in direct proselytism and even discouraged people from attending and converting, though he also said he would not shut the door in inquirer’s faces. He wished to make Orthodoxy known, but in the context of a possible future reunion of Christians, especially the Anglican Communion and the Orthodox Church. Although one might consider that this approach would work against converting people, another aspect was his struggle with language. He served in English with a heavy accent. That is not mentioned here, but the language issue is hinted at in this piece by highlighting what was in Slavonic (which Bjerring did not know) and that the sermon was in English.
So, early on, the Russian Orthodox Church had a chapel that sought to entice people through a soft sell of providing information and services in English. This might not be the kind of evangelism many of us would want today, but it’s worth noting that this softer sell has a history in America. Of course, it might be easier to have a softer sell in a context in which religious concerns regularly made the papers. In many places in the country today, it takes a scandal to make the paper. Perhaps, though, the real lesson to be learned is twofold: a soft sell has a place at times but in the current situation, where real reunion between Orthodoxy and other Christian bodies seems highly unlikely, a more overt proselytism has a role to play. That is, somehow, what we may need is a marriage of the two. In January, I will continue with this theme of evangelism in America. Looking at our Orthodox heritage of missions and evangelism is vital.
[This article was written by Fr. Oliver Herbel.]
From the New York Times, December 1, 1871:
Thanksgiving Day was observed by the Grand Duke Alexis yesterday in a very quiet manner. In the morning he went to the Greek Chapel at No. 951 Second-avenue, accompanied by Minister Catacazy, Admiral Poisset, the Secretary of Legation and Consul-General Bodisco. By 9 o’clock the privileged few who had tickets of admission to the chapel began to assemble. A serving-man was at the outer door, and he assisted each gentleman to lay aside his overcoat and hat, and showed all into the front parlor or auditorium of the chapel.
There were not more than twenty persons in all. The ladies stood on the left side of the room looking toward the chancel or back parlor, the gentlemen on the right. Prince Gallitzin, the Russian impressario, was among the earliest arrivals. The few present were, with perhaps one or two exceptions, members of the Greek Church. The chapel was lighted up before 10 o’clock, and Father Bjerring, his assistant and the chaplain of the Svetlana, stood robed at the door through which His Imperial Highness must enter, awaiting him. Father Bjerring held a massive gold crucifix, and his assistant a holy water font and “aspersion whisk.” At about 10:40, some commotion was heard at the hall door, and immediately after the Grand Duke appeared at the chapel door, kissed the crucifix presented, crossed himself and received the holy water. The whole party entered and stood in front of the chancel. Father Bjerring then chanted a “Te Deum” in English, comprising also the prayers for the Emperor of Russia and the President of the United States. His assistant repeated the same in Slavic, and the services concluded. They did not last longer than twenty-five minutes, after which the Imperial party saluted the chaplain of the Svetlana and retired.
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.
No one knows for certain when and where the first Orthodox Divine Liturgy was served in Canada. The first documented Liturgy was served in June 1897 by the Seattle-based missionary Fr. Dimitri Kamnev (assisted by Vladimir Alexandrov, then a reader) in a field belonging to Theodore Nemirsky at Wostok, Alberta. At this Liturgy, approximately six-hundred Greek Catholics and others were united to the Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, local lore abounds about the presence of much earlier Orthodox activities spread out across the vast Dominion – now the most expansive territorial diocese in world Orthodoxy.
Unsubstantiated reports suggest that the Greek seafarer Ioánnis Fokás (a.k.a. Apóstolos Valeriános, or “Juan de Fuca”) may have brought his Orthodox faith with him in some sort of meaningful way as he explored the west coast of North America in 1592 for King Phillip II of Spain. The Strait of Juan de Fuca which separates Vancouver Island from the U.S. Pacific Northwest mainland is named for him. While precious little is known about Fokás’s own life and religious commitment, the mere presence of an Orthodox Christian explorer in the archipelagos adjacent to Alaska – more than two hundred years before the Valaam mission – is a historical episode that begs further study.
In an article entitled “110 years of missionary efforts in Canada” published in the Summer 2007 edition of The Orthodox Church, OCA Archivist Alexis Liberovsky mentions accounts of Orthodox activity in Quebec in the 1860s or 1870s. There is indeed historical evidence of Orthodox Syrian or Lebanese merchants in Quebec at this time, both in Montreal and in the ‘eastern townships,’ which were then primarily English-speaking. Little to no documentary evidence, however, indicates that any clergy-led Orthodox services actually took place during this time. The plot thickens. In 1879, Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec received a gift of a rare and valuable book, an 1862 edition of the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus. The letter accompanying the donation reads as follows:
November 11, 1879. To the Principal of Bishop’s College, Lennoxville, from the Russian Minister to the U.S. on behalf of the Emperor of Russia. Concerning the donation of the Codex Sinaiticus at the request of Mr. James Simpson.
The story, as it is often relayed in Orthodox circles is that this donation on behalf of Tsar Alexander II was in some way in thanks to the College for allowing Orthodox services to be held in their chapel. Bishop’s College, an Anglican school then primarily concerned with the formation of clergy, has a reputation for such hospitality. The mysterious aspect of the story, however, is that if indeed there were services held, no Orthodox clergyman is named, and the local newspapers have no record of such an event. If it did happen, this is strange, since such services would have been in the public interest – if only as a liturgical curiosity.
Could the story of Orthodox services in Quebec in the 1870s possibly be true? At the time, Orthodox clergy in the ‘lower 48’ were pretty thin on the ground. The See of the Diocese of the Aleutians and Alaska had only been transferred from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872, during the episcopacy of Bishop John (Mitropolsky). At the time of the gift of Codex Sinaiticus, there were certainly less than a half-dozen Orthodox priests in North America, outside of Alaska. The only priest based in the region, who could plausibly have served in Quebec during this time, would have been Fr. Nicholas Bjerring, pastor of the Russian chapel of the Holy Trinity in New York City. His metrical book which is preserved in the OCA archives, contains only records of sacraments performed by Bjerring at his New York Chapel, so cannot prove that he served in Quebec. The timeframe of the gift of Codex Sinaiticus and gaps of time in his documented record suggest the off-chance of his presence in Quebec. In 1877 and 1878, we know that Bjerring made a trip to St. Petersburg, and perhaps he travelled through Quebec to serve the Syrian Christians there en route from Europe to or from New York. Conjecture would be that Bjerring may have been informed of the existence of this community during his time in Russia, and made arrangement to visit them on his return voyage.
Not much more can be said conclusively about the stories of Orthodox services in Quebec in the 1870s. It remains possible that services were held in Lennoxville, at Bishop’s College, but this has not been proven. The letter provided with the gift of Codex Sinaiticus is equally mysterious, particularly because in 1879 there was, due to the controversial behaviour of the previous representative – Konstantin Katakazi – no formally appointed Minister of the Russian Empire to the U.S. The military attaché, Alexander Gorloff, served in this capacity, but it is unknown which official was responsible for the donation. The next Minister, Karl von Struve, was not appointed until 1882. It is not known who “Mr. James Simpson” was, either.
Anyone with further information on Orthodox activity in Canada prior to the 1890s, would be most welcome to provide details in the “comments” section below.
So, as Alexis Liberovsky stated in his 2007 article, “the documented historical roots of Orthodoxy in Canada can be traced with certainty to the late 1890s.” The intrepid missionary activity of Frs. Dimitri Kamnev and Vladimir Alexandrov in western Canada is an essential aspect of this story. The work of other missionaries, such as Fr. Michael Andreades, Fr. Jacob Korchinsky, and Igumen Arseny (Chagovstov) fill out the early days of Orthodoxy in Canada. Future articles will explore their contributions.
[This article was written by Deacon Matthew Francis.]
Yesterday, May 19, was the 126th anniversary of the arrival in America of Protopresbyter Stephen Hatherly, a convert priest from England. Hatherly served under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and spent several months in the US, attempting to establish an Orthodox parish in New York. Last July, I wrote an article on Hatherly’s brief American tenure, but back then, this website had far fewer readers than it does today. For that reason, I’m reprinting my original article.
From 1870 to 1883, Fr Nicholas Bjerring was pastor of a Russian Orthodox chapel in New York City. Bjerring was a convert from Roman Catholicism, and he basically operated an “embassy chapel.” He held services for Russian and Greek officials stationed in America, he ministered to the few Orthodox Christians living in New York, and he strongly discouraged inquirers.
In 1883, the Russian government informed Bjerring that they intended to close his chapel, apparently to save money. They offered Bjerring a comfortable teaching position in St Petersburg. Bjerring, upset and disheartened, turned down the offer and instead became a Presbyterian.
Word of Bjerring’s apostasy eventually reached the ears of one Fr Stephen G. Hatherly, an archpriest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Hatherly was a convert himself. An Englishman, he had joined the Orthodox Church way back in 1856, and he was ordained a priest in 1871. He was based in England, but in May of 1884, he arrived in America. His plan was to band together the handfuls of Orthodox on the East Coast (mainly New York and Philadelphia) and establish a new church to replace the defunct Russian chapel.
Hatherly spent three months in America, and his mission was a resounding failure. There was simply not enough interest from America’s meager Orthodox population. At the close of his stay in the US, the New York Sun ran the following story (August 18, 1884):
S.G. Hatherly, the Greek arch priest who came to New York from Constantinople and established a chapel in St. John’s School in Varick street two months ago, conducted service yesterday for the last time, and the chapel will be closed. About a score of the Greek colony in attendance and as many curious minded spectators. Athanasius Athos, the son of a Greek priest, was reader. Father Hatherly did not deliver an address, but said briefly to the worshippers that it was because of their want of faith that the effort to establish a Greek chapel had failed.
In conversation Father Hatherly, who is an Englishman by birth, said that he wrote from Constantinople to the authorities in Russia to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York. The official reply was that no effort to establish a Greek Church chapel in New York would be undertaken after their “cruel experience” with N. Bjerring, who is now a Presbyterian. The Russian colony, Father Hatherly said, has kept away from this chapel in Varick street. Two or three Russians, he said, had said that they wanted something grander than Father Hatherly’s chapel.
“The collection to-day,” he added, “is $4.32. You can see that the chapel would not be self-supporting. However, that is not the only reason why the chapel is given up. The people do not attend as they should. I had hoped when I came on my mission of inquiry to be able to hold services alternately in New York and Philadelphia. It’s all over now, and I go to Constantinople in a few days.”
That’s an interesting article for a variety of reasons, but one in particular jumps out — the statement that Hatherly wrote to the Russian authorities “to learn whether the coast was clear for him in New York,” and the Russian reply that it indeed was.
Up to now [July 2009], I’ve felt that the Russian closure of the New York chapel was an implicit abandonment of the city, and that the Greeks who, seven years later, formed their own church, were under no obligation to contact the Russian bishop on the other side of the continent. But Hatherly’s story drives that point home even further. The Russians didn’t implicitly abandon New York; if this report is correct, they explicitly did so.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee. After I originally published it in July 2009, I contacted the Ecumenical Patriarchate to see if they still had, in their archives, the letter from the Russian Church to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Alas, they couldn't find anything. It's possible that the letter is there somewhere, and it's also possible that something remains in St. Petersburg. Of course, a century and a quarter after the fact, it's just as likely that we'll never find the original document.]