The First Orthodox Liturgy in New York City

Trinity Episcopal Church, New York City

Trinity Episcopal Church, New York City

On March 2, 1865, New York City witnessed its first-ever Orthodox liturgy. The service was held in Trinity Chapel, which belonged to the Episcopal Church. The priest, Fr Agapius Honcharenko, was originally from what is now Ukraine and what was then a part of the Russian Empire. But he came, apparently, from the Church of Greece: he had been sent, or perhaps volunteered, to serve as a priest for the handful of scattered Orthodox Christians in America.

As I will discuss in depth later, Honcharenko was a bizarre character, and we have to regard his ecclesiastical credentials as suspect at best. At the time, though, he was welcomed in New York by the Episcopalians, who offered their chapel and provided a choir. The occasion for the service was the anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation; this appears to have been suggested not by Honcharenko but by Dr Morgan Dix, the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church.

The following day, the New York Times reported, “The church, both aisles and galleries, was crowded with ladies and gentlemen to its utmost extent, although there had been no advertisement in the papers regarding the celebration. There were present upward of fifty clergymen of the city and neighborhood. The music (only vocal) was very fine. The ceremonies were impressive, solemn, and, to almost everyone present, novel, but exceedingly interesting, and, it might be said, beautiful. We ought to say that there were some sixty Greeks and about twenty Scalvonians [sic] or Russians present, who occupied seats in front of the altar.”[1]

The Times actually reprinted several sections of the liturgy itself. The Protestants present were especially struck by the absence of the filioque from the Creed. The music, sung by a small group of Episcopalians, was provided by a certain Dr Young. This man was a member of the Russo-Greek Committee of the Episcopal Church – the group charged with fostering relations with the Orthodox Churches. Dr Young had brought texts and music back from a visit to Russia, and he put the Slavic words into English phonetics for the occasion.

Not everyone was excited about the service. The magazine Evangelical Christendom commented, “Some of the religious papers find in it an unbecoming complicity with mischievous superstition and error; since the filioque was omitted from the creed by the Episcopal choir, and the ‘sacrifice’ ‘received’ by the priest is claimed to include all the enormities of transubstantiation and the Mass.”[2]

News of the event quickly traveled around the world. It was reported in Orthodox publications in Russia and France. The French Orthodox journal Union Chretienne soon broke the news that Honcharenko had been involved with the exiled Russian radical Alexander Herzen, and had written several articles criticizing the Russian Church.[3]

This revelation led the Orthodox of New York to cut off contact with Honcharenko, who went on to have many more strange adventures over the next several decades.

[1] “Novel Religious Service,” New York Times (March 3, 1865), 8.

[2] “America,” Evangelical Christendom (April 1, 1865), 190.

[3] “The Anglican and Greek Churches,” Catholic World 2:7 (October 1865), 67-68.

6 Replies to “The First Orthodox Liturgy in New York City”

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