Honcharenko in San Francisco

From the Congregationalist and Boston Recorder, January 16, 1868:

Many will remember that, some two years ago, a famous service was held in Trinity Chapel, New York city, in which, with a great flourish of trumpets, one “Father Agapius,” who purported to be a Priest of the Greek church, celebrated “the Sacrifice of the Mass” in the Greek tongue; to the great delectation of the High Churchmen, who enjoyed the show intensely, and who feld that they were coming very near, in this performance, to the real thing. Great was the glorification which was made over this manifestation of the “Orthodox Catholic Church.” Father Agapius had the genuine Apostolical succession, and it was a blessed symbol that he should condescend to hold his gorgeous Greek service in an American Episcopal church! Father Agapius, however, soon after mysteriously disappeared. It was darkly hinted, after a time, that he was — tell it not in Gath — a swindler and a cheat; and, most mournful of all, a mere mechanic and prosaic printer. Father Agapius has turned up again, however — this time in the Methodist connection. The Pacific Churchman of San Francisco, Cal., of 28th Nov. last, contains the following advertisement:

“Russo-Greek Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Agapius Honcharenko, Pastor. Preaching every Sabbath morning at 9 o’clock in the Vestry of the Howard Street M.E. Church. Services conducted in the Slavonian, Russian and Greek languages. All are invited.”

We hope there is no irreverence in the suggestion; but wouldn’t it be well to have Trinity Chapel disinfected?[1]

And here is the original article in the Pacific Churchman, to which the above article refers:

FATHER AGAPIUS – Some of our readers may recall the name of this individual, who, about two years ago, appeared in New York, claiming to be a priest of the Greek Church. At first his pretensions were received by some of the clergy, and a Greek service was arranged for him. Immediately afterwards, however, he disappeared, and, we believe, subsided into his original employment, which was that of a printer. Since then nothing has been heard of him, until about a fortnight since, when he appeared in this city [San Francisco] as – to copy his card – a member of the “Orthodox Catholic Church.” We find, however, from the following advertisement that he has now transferred his valuable talents to our Methodist brethren:

“Russo-Greek Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Agapius Honcharenko, Pastor. Preaching every Sabbath morning at 9 o’clock in the Vestry of the Howard street M.E. Church. Services conducted in the Slavonian, Russian and Greek languages. All are invited.”

As the members of the Greek Church (if there are any here) cannot recognize him, and American Methodists cannot understand “Services in the Slavonian, Russian and Greek languages,” we think his chance is a small one of founding a sect with the “stunning” name of the “Russo-Greek Methodist Episcopal Church.”[2]

As it happened, there were indeed Orthodox Christians living in San Francisco in 1867. They were grouped into two societies — the Russian Slavonian Benevolent Society and the Greek-Russian Slavonian Orthodox Eastern Church and Benevolent Society. Just a couple weeks after the above article ran, the two societies merged, and the Russian and Pan-Slavonic Benevolent Society was incorporated.[3] The Orthodox in San Francisco had initially attended some of Honcharenko’s church services. In a letter in 1868, Prince Dimitry Makutsov (acting director of the Russian American Company) wrote, “Last year Agapius Honcharenko arrived in S.-Francisco, who escaped from a certain monastery. At the beginning, he was conducting divine services here, but, since he is not following the precise rules of our Church, all those who share our faith left him and renounced him as a schismatic.”[4] The realization that Honcharenko was a fraud appears to have been part of the impetus for the San Francisco Orthodox community to form a parish.

One of the immediate goals of the society was to build an Orthodox church. In March of 1868, they sent a petition to Bishop Paul in Alaska, asking that he send Fr. Nicholas Kovrigin to San Francisco. The bishop granted the society’s request, and Kovrigin was in San Francisco in time for Holy Week. This was the first formal Russian parish in the contiguous United States, and Kovrigin was the first resident parish priest.
[1] The Congregationalist and Boston Recorder (January 16, 1868), 20.
[2] “Father Agapius,” San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin (reprinted from the Pacific Churchman, November 30, 1867).
[3] “Russian Benevolent Society,” San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin (December 27, 1867).
[4] Prince D. Makutsov to Bishop Paul (March 1868). Published at Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA), http://www.holy-trinity.org/history/1868/03.00.Maksutov-Paul.html.

8 Replies to “Honcharenko in San Francisco”

  1. “Last year Agapius Honcharenko arrived in S.-Francisco, who escaped from a certain monastery. At the beginning, he was conducting divine services here, but, since he is not following the precise rules of our Church, all those who share our faith left him and renounced him as a schismatic.”

    This is a fascinating phrase.

    The escape from a monastery would seem to imply he was in a country where people would be held or ‘imprisoned’ in a monastery. This would seem to point to Russia, or perhaps Uniate lands where he could have been held in a Uniate monastery. The former seems more likely and would point to him being under discipline of some kind.

    “…He is not following the precise rules of our Church…” alone could simply be written off as the parochialism common to Orthodoxy. Russians think Greeks are doing the services ‘wrong’ (and vice versa) when each are simply holding to their own ‘time-honored’ (a relative term) local traditions.

    But, escape from a monastery together with other more innovative changes in “the precise rules of our Church” and the rather un-Orthodox sounding name and a lack of episcopal command/oversight do seem to point to the fact that he was schismatic in some sense more than merely irregular and/or not unanimous (as was the Metropolia at some points of the 20th century).

    If such is the case, I wonder if anything he did can be considered fully Orthodox? and whether his ‘firsts’ were in reality ‘Orthodox firsts’. This is where what happened alone is infringed upon by what should have happened given the fact that those in charge seemed far enough away not to be given an opportunity to investigate and decide. This quote even calls into question not only whether he was ‘canonical’, but whether the services he performed even conformed to Orthodox usage.

  2. Honcharenko had been a deacon at the Russian Embassy in Athens, and he may have spent time on Mount Athos. He was apparently ordained at some point, probably by a Greek bishop, but the details aren’t clear and it may have been “irregular.” He was simultaneously contributing to Kolokol, the revolutionary journal edited by Alexander Herzen. Herzen had been exiled by the Tsarist government to London. Honcharenko claimed that his association with Herzen was discovered by the Tsarist government, which tried to bring him back to Russia. He was (so his story goes) imprisoned in Istanbul, but escaped in dramatic fashion, and ultimately ended up in America.

    Much of this seems to be fabricated. Honcharenko was always claiming to have been persecuted by Tsarist spies and so forth, but from my research, the Russians don’t seem to have known of his activities until after his arrival in America. Anyway, I discussed all this in my latest podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

    As to your observation that Honcharenko’s “firsts” might not have really “counted” — you may be right. It all depends on what we mean when we say “Orthodox.” Honcharenko was certainly accepted as an Orthodox priest when he served in New York and New Orleans. He presented himself as such, and the Orthodox in both cities accepted this (as did the Episcopalians). But he most definitely turned out to be a heretic and a schismatic, it’s not clear whether he was even properly ordained. Did the Holy Spirit come down when Honcharenko consecrated the Gifts? I have no idea. Did all the Orthodox think those Gifts were the Body and Blood of Christ? Yes, they did.

  3. I agree regarding the perspective of the Orthodox in America: they thought he was Orthodox and accepted him as such (except for the Russians in SF, at least, as stated above). I wonder whether such vagante-ism was very common in these early days of the Orthodox immigration. I wonder if this caused or bolstered the various problems we have had since then, or if such actions are simply another example of a more common ‘Eastern Rite’ Protestantism that flourished in the New World, under the influence of the Episcopalians, Protestant congregationalism, if America served as a workshop for innovations not welcome back home, etc. Perhaps there is something to all the Masonic paranoia in Orthodoxy, I don’t know.

    It is an important question only if one is looking to establish a pristine history, to claim being the ‘earliest’ based on such vagante priests as Fr. Agapius, etc. I think it points to the fact that we have to be very careful whether we assume that the self-styled Orthodox that founded a given parish, community or diocese were in fact Orthodox. This may or may not affect the claims of various jurisdictions – it may prove that the only canonical Orthodox body in America were the Russians and all other jurisdictions were begun in highly irregular and/or uncanonical fashions, it could also prove that uncanonical and irregular was par for the course across the board meaning no one has a claim to regularity and canonicity.

  4. Well, I personally don’t think the “here first” argument is helpful (or even canonically regular). I certainly wouldn’t trot out New Orleans in support of some kind of Greek supremacy. However, I think a distinction should be made between the priests and the parishes. It is true that there were a number of imposter priests in early American Orthodoxy (though certainly not a majority). There were even some instances of imposter bishops. But these clergy didn’t typically stay put in one place; they traveled from place to place, latching onto one community for a short time, and then moving on to another. The communities themselves were usually far more legitimate. New Orleans did have a (loose) relationship with the Church of Greece, and its first resident clergy appear to have come from that Church. Even Honcharenko may well have been “legitimate” when he arrived on American shores.

    And while there was definitely an un-traditional “congregationalism” that existed in many parishes in those early years, this congregationalism seems to have come about through necessity, rather than an overt desire to innovate. Immigrants probably weren’t very well-versed in ecclesiology, and they were suddenly faced with the need to form a church on their own, without help from the hierarchy or the state. This was an unprecedented situation for them, and they responded as best they could. I don’t agree with that response, necessarily, but it does seem to have been made (generally) with good intentions.

    Incidentally, there is at least some precedent in Church history for lay-run parishes. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the years following the heretical Union of Brest, those who remained Orthodox were left without a hierarchy (since their bishops had all joined the Unia). The laity organized themselves into brotherhoods, which had remarkably far-reaching ecclesiastical authority. The Patriarchates recognized the authority of the brotherhoods in this unusual situation. Eventually, the brotherhoods died out and a more traditional hierarchy returned, but for a time, the brotherhoods were a necessary reality. I think much the same thing could be said about early trustee parishes in America.

    (Here’s a good piece on the brotherhoods, by Florovsky: http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/way_russian_theology_florovsky.htm#_Toc26329302 )

  5. There is this interesting tidbit on the Holy Trinity Cathedral (OCA) website (a good source of primary documents, btw), the report (1868) of the resident priest Fr. Kovrigin in San Francisco :

    …About the presbyter Agapius Honcharenko. When I arrived to S.-Francisco, Mister Consul warned me to not allow myself to receive him and not to talk to him. In the evening, … a man of small stature with a black beard came to my apartment and ordered me to give him vestments and the antimension, and [to cease?] a campaign to establish a newspaper. As I was already warned, I told him that I could not have anything to do with him and asked him to leave me alone. He left my apartment very angrily, and then began to curse all around the city. He is a former monk and married to an Italian woman. The Slavs cannot stand him.


    (btw, Fr. Agapius’ grave with his wife is a state historical site in CA).

    Several interesting things here:

    The role of the consul: The Russian Consul and the Greek Consul (the naturalized Serb George Fisher, who I hope will have his own place on this site) formed what went on to become Fr. Kovrigin’s parish serving the Orthodox in SF, soon afterwards to become the See of North America. The role of the Greek Consul in New Orleans is here elsewhere described. The significance of this fact is magnified by the NY Times article shortly after the death of the Greek Counsul Fisher (whose obituary in the SF papers state he fulfilled his office to the King of Greece “to the satisfaction of every Greek resident in the state”), which describes the SF Greek colony as larger than New Orleans and as the “best organized of the Greek colonies in the States of the Union. They maintain a chapel of their own, and have established a benevolence society.” Given what we know about San Francisco of the time, the last reference can only be to the institutions the Greeks help found with the Russians in San Francisco, which were definitely under the Bishop of Alaska, who had translated to SF by the time the article was written. Although Caesaropapism does not replace Orthodox ecclesiology, one cannot deny the dominance the Czar’s officials (like the Oberprokurator and the consul) exercised over the bishops (as the report to the bishop shows), nor the role the government of Greece (represented in New Orleans and San Francisco by the consuls) in the CoG, and indeed in Constantinople and the other “Greek” patriarchates.

    The request (or rather demand) for an antimens and vestments: the significance of the antimens is a given. However, given Fr. Agapius’ status as the first priest at Holy Trinity in New Orleans prior to this incident, raises the question: what antimens and from whom did the parish have it? The same parish received a set of vestments from Czar Alexander II (the Czar at the time, until 1881, still very early and prior to any other Greek Orthodox parishes founding. The DL celebrated by Fr. Agapius was in honor of that Czar’s anniversary of ascending the throne), a Gospel book in Slavonic and an icon from Czar Nicholas II. Couple this with the fact that although the Greek Consul was the heard of the community, yet a priest was first procured by the Russian ship Alexander Nevsky sailing through New Orleans to Athens via NYC: and then a Ukrainian attached to the Russian representation in Athens. We cannot conclude definitely that the New Orleans parish recognized the Russian jurisdiction in the New World, but we can speak with confidence of their (and the CoG at least, if not also Constantinople’s) awareness of that jurisdiction, something that the official reports of the founding of the GOA explicitely deny (the question then turns to the “why” of the denial).

    The newspaper: Fr. Agapius went on to pubish his newspaper, The Alaska Herald, the first paper in America to have Russian and Ukrainian (in addition to the paper main language, English): its first edition contained a Russian translation of the US constitution for the citizens of the new US territory. The paper was published in SF, but distributed to Alaska, and from there into Siberia and the Russian Far East and Japan.

    So, yes, Fr. Honcharenko’s career shows the chaos which could occur in the New World, chaos which reigned, as is often forgot, in practically all the established jurisdictions at the time. (The New World situation at least had not degenerated as it had, say, in Macedonia of the time, where partisans of the EP, CoG, Bulgarian, Romanian and Serbian patriarchates were slitting each other’s throats, literally). It would seem that this priest from Greece, brought to the US for a Greek parish, found some primacy in the bishop of in Alaska, because he dashed off across the continent to said bishop’s representative. What, we must ask, compelled him to go from Athens to San Francisco?

  6. Great post, Isa. I’m familiar with the Holy Trinity archives, which are a fantastic resource. We have a link to them on our Resources page, if anyone is interested.

    Just responding to a few things… If Honcharenko did have an antimens (which is by no means certain), it probably came from a bishop in Greece. But Honcharenko’s status was very obscure, and it’s not even entirely clear whether he was properly ordained. It would not surprise me at all if he had no antimens. As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, Honcharenko wasn’t really the first priest of Holy Trinity in New Orleans, so much as he was the first priest to serve there. He was never the resident pastor, and he stayed less than a month.

    After leaving New Orleans, Honcharenko returned to New York City, where he found himself no longer welcome (his involvement in socialist activities having been discovered). He eventually made his way to California, but not before marrying an Italian woman in Philadelphia. By this point he cannot really be called “Orthodox”; he had already strayed very far from the Church. He never “dashed off across the continent to said bishop [of Alaska]’s representative.” Once he arrived in the San Francisco Bay area, he tried to start a Slavic Protestant church, which failed, and the presence of which may have helped motivate the San Francisco Orthodox to start a real Orthodox church in that city.

    And if you ask Honcharenko what compelled him to go to San Francisco, his answer almost certainly would be, “I was fleeing from Tsarist agents who were trying to kill me.” They weren’t really, I don’t think, but that was Honcharenko’s consistant claim.

  7. Mr. Namee, did you do any research in Russian and Ukrainian sources or consult history scholars under Honcharenko’s real name?
    This article published in 1999:
    mention’s Honcharenko’s real name was Andrii Humnytsky. He was was born August 31, 1832, in Kryvyn, Skvyra county, Kyiv gubernia. He attended the seminary in Kyiv and was also a monk at Pecherska Lavra. He was ordained a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church, before being assigned in 1857 to the Russian Embassy Church in Athens.
    The article also includes the entry on Honcharenko from the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Vol. 2 published by the University of Toronto Press in 1988. The entry also includes Honcharenko’s real name. Jars Balan, the noted historian at the University of Alberta has been researching Honcharenko for well over 10 years including all the Russian & Ukrainian sources.

  8. The Lay Orthodox Brotherhoods in Western Ukraine have been researched by scholars. For example, you can read a review of this recent book:
    Iaroslav Isaievych, Voluntary Brotherhood: Confraternities of Laymen in Early Modern Ukraine Review by Wojciech Beltkiewicz in Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol:XXVII.

    Also Dr. Frank Sysyn has also researched Ukrainian orthodox Brotherhoods. Dr. Sysyn is the Director Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research, CIUS.
    Here is his contact info:
    256 McCaul Street, Rm. 308. University of Toronto Toronto ON M5T 1W5 Canada.


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