Two Russian Priests in New York City, 1863

The Russian frigate Alexander Nevsky, circa 1863. Detail of an illustration in the October 17, 1863 issue of Harper's Weekly.

In September of 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, a fleet of Russian ships arrived in the New York harbor. Their mission was both diplomatic and strategic, but anyway, that’s not terribly relevant here.[i] More to the point, among the crews of the ships were at least two Orthodox priests serving as chaplains – the first known Orthodox clergy to set foot in the eastern United States.

On September 23, the New York Times reported that a certain Father Nestor, chaplain of the Russian frigate Olisiaba, baptized four Greek children in New York. “The service was of a most impressive character, and created great interest,” the Times said. “The service was read in the Russian dialect, and its forms are peculiar, but very appropriate to such a ceremony. The officers of the Russian frigate were present, and enjoyed at the residence of Mrs. Negroponti, in Nineteenth street, a most magnificent dejeune. The toasts of the Emperor of Russia and the new King of Greece were given in conjunction with our own magnates, and received with appropriate ovations.”[ii]

I don’t know the name of the second Russian priest to visit New York. He was the chaplain of the Russian frigate Alexander Nevsky. “The festival of St. Michael and of all Angels is one of those most reverenced in the Greek Catholic Church,” the Times said, “and the worthy ‘Papa’ saw fit to observe it in an Episcopalian cathedral, which he did with every semblance of intense curiosity, interest and devotion. He was received with distinction and conducted to a conspicuous and comfortable seat near the altar, on the right side of which sat the Rt. Reverend Bishop Southgate, in the ceremonial Chair of the Episcopate.”[iii]

When the Alexander Nevsky left New York, it made a stop in Athens, where it informed the Greek Church leaders that there were a number of Orthodox in America without a priest. This resulted in the arrival in New York, in 1865, of Fr. Agapius Honcharenko.


[i] Cf. Marshall B. Davidson, “A Royal Welcome for the Russian Navy,” American Heritage Magazine 11:4 (June 1960). Also cf. Edward W. Ellsworth, “Sea Birds of Muscovy in Massachusetts,” New England Quarterly 33:1 (March 1960), 3-18.

[ii] “A Greek Christening,” New York Times (September 23, 1863), 8.

[iii] “A Novelty for Michaelmas,” New York Times (September 30, 1863), 5.

5 Replies to “Two Russian Priests in New York City, 1863”

  1. The “certain Father Nestor” was none other than the later Bishop Nestor of the Aleutians and Alaska. As the London Journal reported:

    “The Holy Synod of the Russian Church has appointed to the Episcopal See of the Aleutian Islands the Archimandrite Nestor. Father Nestor was in early life known as Baron Zass; he was an officer in the navy, and besides his theological attainments he is well versed in secular learning, and understands fully the English language, in which he expresses himself fluently. He is distinguished for his lofty character, his Christian convictions, and his thorough devotion to duty. Father Nestor will be quite in his proper place in America, for at the time of Admiral Lesoffsky’s visit to New York, in 1863, he made himself highly esteemed by the Americans. It is to be hoped that the Episcopate of Father Nestor may be a source of close and intimate relations between the Orthodox Russian Church and the Church of North America. A letter which came to the Holy Synod, not long since, from the American bishops gives reason to hope thus. God grant that through the cooperation of the future Bishop of the Aleutian Islands brotherly relations may be established [between] these two great Churches”

  2. “on the right side of which sat the Rt. Reverend Bishop Southgate, in the ceremonial Chair of the Episcopate”

    I’m assuming that this was the Rt. Rev. Horatio Southgate, who PECUSA had ordained missionary bishop “on the right side of which sat the Rt. Reverend Bishop Southgate, in the ceremonial Chair of the Episcopate.” The Episcopalians in SF, after organizing “the Church in California” with “no reference to the Church at the East (i.e. PECUSA)” and toying with the idea of receiving orders from St. Innocent in Sitka, instead approached Bp. Southgate, freshly consecrated and arrived from Constantinople, who declined. Bp. Southgate served at Zion Church in NYC 1858–1872, and died in Astoira, NYC in 1894. So he lived to see the arrival of Honcharenko, the return of Bp. Nestor, the founding of Bjerring’s Chapel and then the permanent setttling of the Orthodox in NYC.

  3. Is there an edit button?

    I meant to mention, Bp. Southgate had been ordained by PECUSA as missionary bishop of Constantinople ” “for the dominions and dependencies of the Sultan” i.e. what is now the jurisdiction of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, part of Greece, and Albania, areas which he traveled and wrote of extensively.

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