The Failed Mission of Fr Stephen Hatherly

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, 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; they explicitly did so.

12 Replies to “The Failed Mission of Fr Stephen Hatherly”

  1. Well, “The Russians didn’t implicitly abandon New York; they explicitly did so” according to the second hand account of a 19th century New York journalist – prior to the sort of ‘serious journalism’ that still today misunderstands inaccurately represents Orthodoxy (and a goodly number of other things), even when it quotes interviewees. Corroboration by other, similar first- and second-hand accounts would still be necessary, however.

    It is an important witness, nonetheless. Thank you for sharing it, and the background it reveals.

    1. Orrologion,

      You’re right: I don’t have the actual document in question, and I should have qualified my statement (perhaps, “Assuming the Sun’s account is accurate…”). I am currently trying to determine whether the original letter from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Patriarchate still exists. Such existence, of course, would settle the question.

      All that said, this story does accord with known facts. The Russians did close the chapel, and they did have reason to be disappointed with Bjerring. New York (and America as a whole) had an inconsequential number of Russians, and from the closing of Bjerring’s chapel until the conversion of St Alexis Toth in 1891, there was no organized Russian ecclesiastical presence in America east of San Francisco. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the Russians did effectively say to the EP, “We’re through with New York; you can have it.”

      None of this would be terribly important, except for the fact that many today claim that the Russians did have sole jurisdiction over the entire North American continent. If the Russians themselves explicitly denied this in 1884, those claims will be much, much harder to justify.

  2. What I find personally interesting is that the two chapels were ostensibly for Russians and Greeks, but staffed by converts. It seems the Church has been mixed up about this sort of thing from the beginning. It’s no use sending a native of that land to serve immigrants to that land – that’s when you send someone of the immigrant culture. When the assimilation process is underway, then you begin to prepare for the future by ensuring that Orthodoxy is seen not just as a religion of ‘over there’ and ‘back home’, but for here in America, too. There has to be the pastoral care in the beginning of the cultural dislocated, but that pastoral necessity must give way to the pastoral necessity of all future generations. And yet, many Orthodox in America are still trying to pretend that only a ‘real’ priest from ‘back home’ or that can ‘speak _____’ is truly Orthodox. Bass ackwards, as my mother always says.

  3. Good observation. Actually, though, neither Bjerring nor Hatherly were really “sent.” They both seem to have undertaken their missions on their own volition, which, frankly, may have been the problem. In 1884, nobody in New York was asking for a priest to replace Bjerring. Hatherly got the idea to go on his own. It was the same with Bjerring before him, Bjerring having decided on his own to become Orthodox and to seek the priesthood. Bjerring didn’t help himself by refusing to evangelize Americans.

  4. The question is, why did the Russians feel the need to close down in New York? Perhaps the answer may lie within the archives in Moscow.

  5. My understanding is that the New York chapel was indeed closed for financial reasons. Fr Oliver Herbel has done the most research in this area and should be able to confirm this.

  6. It is my understanding that Bp. Paul of Sitka, on his way and meeting his replacement Bp. John of the Aleutians and Alaska, was in New York on his way back to Russia (eventually ending up on the other side of the Bering Sea) consecrated the Bjerring Chapel (Bjerring coming from St. Petersburg).

    As to the Russians abandoning New York, they seemed eager to pick up where they left off in the succeeding decade: in 1895 St. Alexander Hotovitzky was sent there fresh out of seminary to Bp. Nicholas of the Aleutians and Alaska , who set him to editing the “Russko-Amerikanski Pravoslavny Viestnik” [(Russian American Orthodox Messenger; title varies: Pravoslavny Amerikanski Viestnik), Jackson Heights, Long Island, NY. Semi-monthly. (Microfilm: 1896-1942). Includes English.
    which included information from the East Coast to Alaska]

    A NY Times article headline (Sept. 15, 1895) sums it up:
    “MINISTER FOR SYRIANS; Christian Church to be Filled by a Damascus Preacher. WILL ALSO VISIT OTHER CITIES Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands Asked the Emperor of Russia to Make the Appointment”

    It has a paragraph of particular interest:

    “The Russian Bishop of Alaska, whose Episcopal See comprises all the United States, had been taking a great deal of interest in the Syrians of the Orthodox Greek Church who are in this country, and has quite recently prevailed upon the Russian Emperor and Synod to appoint a Syrian priest who studied in Russia as a pastor for orthodox Syrians in this country under the supervision of the Russian See…”

    Following the paper translates the letter of the Holy Governing Synod to the Alaskan bishop “informing him of the action of the Synod on his request to have Archimandrite Raphael Hawawini appointed and to fix salaries for him and a Syrian deacon of his own selection” (i.e. the support the Holy Synod would not give Fr. Hatherly after Fr. Bjerring):

    “…the report of your Right Reverence of the 15th of June of the present year, together with the presented petition of the Archimandrite Raphael….asking to be accepted in the service of the Alaskan diocese, with an appointment to the Church of New York for the Arabians, emigrants from Syria, who live in America…to obtain for him from the Most Holy Synod an appointment to the Church in New York for the orthodox Syrians, (Arabians) who live there, as also for those who live in other American cites, and that if his request he granted he should receive besides traveling expenses an annual income of 1,800 rubles in gold…Your Right Reverence reports….that the amount he names for his support you find not to be not quite sufficient on account of the higher cost of living in America, and you ask for an increase of the salary and that 500 rubles in gold more be allowed for expenses in missionary visitations…having examined the above, and, bearing also in mind the answer of the Most Blessed Patriarch of Antioch in regard to the advisability of transferring Archimandrite Raphael to the service of the diocese in America, it is therefore resolved by the Most Holy Synod: First-That your Right Rerence be allowed to receive the aforesaid Archimandrite into the diocese entrusted to you, with an appointment together with a deacon selected by him from Syria, to one of the churches of the diocese at your discretion. Second-That for the support….1,800 rubles in gold will be annually appropriated…and 500 rulbes more for traveling expenses…Third-…150 chervonets [chervonet, about $3.85] for passage money, and 150 chervonets for the expense of moving and settling the total of 316 chervonets be assigned to the Archimandrite Raphael…”

    What jumps out for me from Fr. Hatherly’s account? That he wrote to Russia: Arb. Meletios in his accounts claims that Constantinople and the Church of Greece did not know that a Russian bishop resided in America and oversaw the Orthodox in the Americas. The letter eminating from Constantinople and Fr. H. return there would belie that. The account of the Russian reply sounds more like the Russians were stating that no $$$ would be forthcoming.

    The NY Times article continues:
    “When the Russian Bishop of Alaska received the letter, he wrote:
    ‘I am happy that God blessed this, my long desire, to give the American Arabians a native Arab pastor! The diocesan office will send a copy fo this charge to the rector of the Church in New York and another copy to the Arabian newspaper for the information of the Syrians in America. Further, Archimandrite Raphael will annually…visit the cites of the United States in which Arabians are more numerous, viz., Chicago, San Francisco, &c.

    It would seem that Russians saw there jurisdiction encompassing the entire continenet, and that was accepted by non-Russian Orthodox, the public at large in America in 1895, and the Patriarchate of Antioch (btw, not yet freed in 1895 from the Phanariot yoke). They also had a Church in New York of some standing, which of course recognized their jurisidiction. The Greeks would not have even a congregational Church until St. Raphael was consecrated by the RM bishops in a consecrated Cathedral.

  7. About New York: a lot changed between 1883 (the closing of Bjerring’s chapel) and 1895 (the founding of the new Russian church). In 1883, the Russian Mission, consistent with the desires of the Russian government, was scaling back in America. In fact, from 1882 until 1888, there was no Russian bishop in America at all. There were very few Orthodox in the Eastern United States, which Hatherly learned to his disappointment in 1884. By 1895, however, the immigration was in full swing, and the Russian Mission had begun a serious effort to evangelize the Uniates. This led to some of Russia’s best and brightest (e.g. St. Alexander Hotovitzky and St. John Kochurov, among others) coming to America. Whereas in 1883 the Russian Church had little interest in the U.S. west of California, by the mid-1890s, everything had changed.

    I don’t think Bjerring’s chapel could have been fully consecrated, since it was just a second-story (I think) apartment. It could not have had a consecrated altar. It’s possible that Bp Paul blessed the chapel, but I doubt there was a full consecration (though I realize this is a very minor point).

    From the article on Hatherly (above), we learn that Hatherly wrote from Constantinople to the Russian authorities to see whether the “coast was clear” in New York. According to the article, “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.”

    I’m not sure how you conclude from this that the Russians were merely “stating that no $$$ would be forthcoming.” I mean, that’s possible, but just looking at the article, it seems to suggest 1) that Constantinople, or at least Hatherly, recognized some sort of Russian jurisdiction in New York City in 1884, as a result of their having had a chapel there; and 2) that the Russian Church would make no effort to establish a new chapel in New York City (which is exactly what the text says). The result being (if you believe Hatherly and the newspaper reporter), the Russian Church confirmed that the coast was indeed clear for the EP to come in and start a parish. I’m not sure why Hatherly would bother lying about something like that to a New York newspaperman, or why the newspaperman would (or could) embellish it. But until we have the documents themselves, we can’t know exactly what was said.

    I agree that Bishop Nicholas saw himself as having jurisdiction over all North America (or even over the whole New World, depending on what sources you read). That jurisdiction was not formally declared until later, when, under St. Tikhon, the bishop’s title was changed to include North America. The Patriarchate of Antioch said nothing one way or the other in 1895, and at that point, St. Raphael was still very much persona non grata in the Patriarchate. Once Antioch got an Arab Patriarch, relations between the Patriarchate and St. Raphael’s Syrian Mission became much more confusing and ambiguous. Certainly, though, when he came to America, St. Raphael saw himself as a representative of the Russian Church.

    About Metaxakis, I can’t imagine he was truly ignorant of the Russian hierarchy in America. However, I would point out that Hatherly was a relatively obscure English convert priest under the EP in the 1880s, and Metaxakis arrived in America as a religious-political figure from the Church of Greece in the late 1910s. I would actually be kind of surprised if he knew about the Hatherly exchange. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve been in contact with the chief archivist of the EP, and they didn’t know about the Hatherly letter. My guess is that Hatherly himself kept the letter. He may have received it directly, and it’s possible that nobody at the Phanar ever saw it (even in 1884).

    What’s kind of funny is that the letter itself would be something of a smoking gun for both sides. It would presumably testify to an EP acknowledgement of Russian jurisdiction in New York in 1884, but also a Russian disavowal of that jurisdiction. (It also might turn out to be nothing, or at least, nothing quite so explosive. But I’d love to see it regardless.)

  8. I agree, the letter needs to see the light of day.

    I don’t think anyone was lying, but we are dealing with perceptions. Fr. Hatherly may have been interested only in good canonical order, but the Holy Synod, as we know from the time, was looking at the bottom line:their reply as we have it here contains no yeah or nay, just that they were not going to make the effort.

    The only reason I bring up Constantinople is the fact that he points out that he wrote from there and would be returning to there. Since he would need canonical release for that, one wonders what was brought up in that process.

    As to the $$$, I’ve seen plenty of requests for money. I’m sure the Holy Synod bean counter did too. Given the circumstances at the time, the green eye shade types were probably exerting maximal control over the Holy Synod, and would probably see $$$ in any request. The fact that the costs play a large part in the correspondance on St. Raphael would indicate that practical matters could play as much a role as theoretical and spiritual matters.

  9. If anyone out there lives in the UK, or knows where Fr. Stephen Hatherly’s papers might be, please contact me at mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com.

  10. A little NY Times article of November 26, 1870 mentions almost in passing that Bishop Paul was “residing with Father N. BJERRING, pastor of the Greek Church of this City” and “leaves this afternoon by the German steamer Hermann for his new Diocese of Iokutsk in the Eastern Divison of Siberia.”

    A few days earlier it told of Bishop Paul of Alaska, on his way to Siberia, presiding over Thanksgiving services, at the newly constituted Church.

    The date I’ve seen for the consecration in later literature is November 12, which would place the bishop in New York for at least two weeks. Since Bishop Paul could have gone (as it seems the Russian settlers did) back to Russia across the Berring Sea, I wonder if his route was dictated by the plans for an American Church and hierarchy as you have posted:

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