The New Orleans Gospel Book

In 1927, Fr. Boris Burden wrote the following:

The Church of the Holy Trinity in New Orleans, La., claims to have been the first Greek church in the United States. On the occasion of its dedication in 1860 Alexander II, Czar of Russia, sent to its Greek Priest, the Reverend Father Michael, a gold-embossed Book of Gospels in token of his imperial pleasure over the beginning of Greek-speaking churches within the American diocese of the spiritual jurisdiction of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Russia. For nearly fifty years after the Russian Hierarchy in America had thus established the first Greek church in this country Greek churches and faithful continued to increase and multiply under the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America.[1]

This quotation (and, frankly, Burden’s whole article) is fraught with inaccuracies. Unfortunately, Burden had a pretty significant influence on later thinking about American Orthodox history, so his errors have become, in many places, conventional wisdom.

  • The New Orleans Greek church was not dedicated in 1860. It appears to have been dedicated around 1866; in any event, it was the late 1860s.
  • The “Reverend Father Michael” (aka Fr. Michel Kalitski, Fr. Michael Karydis, or Archimandrite Misael — all, apparently, the same person) didn’t become the pastor of the church until about 1881.
  • The Russian Church certainly didn’t found the New Orleans parish.
  • The claim that Greek parishes, for the next half-century, “increased” and “multiplied” under “the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America” just doesn’t hold water. The next Greek parish, period, was founded in New York in 1892, under the Church of Greece. The overwhelming majority of Greek people, parishes, and clergy were completely independent of the Russian bishops.

Anyway, my point is not really to pick apart Fr. Boris Burden’s 82-year-old essay. No, I want to focus on one aspect in particular: the “gold-embossed Book of Gospels.”

The first traces that I can find of this Gospel Book date to 1872. That year, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis was touring the United States, and in February, he visited New Orleans. Among those greeting him upon his arrival were representatives of Holy Trinity Church, among them Nicolas Benachi, the Greek Consul. From the Daily Picayune, a New Orleans newspaper (February 15, 1872):

Mr. Benachi took occasion to add a few remarks on their behalf, praying His Highness to think his mother, the Empress of Russia, for the kind solicitude she had manifested for their Church, and the rich presents which she had bestowed upon the tiny edifice, situated on Dorgenois Street, near the corner of Ursulines; and also to express to the Empress the wishes of thee Greek and Russian congregation of New Orleans for the welfare and prosperity of the Imperial family of Russia.[2]

The Gospel Book appears to have been one of the gifts sent by the Empress — that is, the Tsarina, rather than the Tsar. But the text isn’t really clear on when she sent the book. Was the parish thanking the Grand Duke for a gift sent prior to his visit, or were they thanking him for a gift that he himself had brought, on that trip, on his mother’s behalf?

In any event, the Gospel Book was far from the only gift sent by the Empress. A travel guide from 1885 mentions that the parish had a “rare Madonna and child, brought from the far-off shrine of St. Petersburg.”[3] Another 1885 book describes an icon “of Christ partaking of the sacrament; around it in Russian: ‘He who takes the sacrament never dies.'”[4] A 1904 guide to New Orleans says, “The ornaments on the altar were presented by the late Empress of Russia.”[5]

When I spoke with the current pastor of Holy Trinity several months ago, he confirmed that the parish still possesses a Gospel Book and old icons from Russia; these are almost certainly the same items that were present in 1872. I’d love to get some photos of those things, particularly photos of any inscriptions that might appear. (If anybody out there can help, let me know!) That might help us better understand when the items were sent, and what exactly they meant to the sender and the recipients.
[1] Hieromonk Boris (Burden), “The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America,” Orthodox Catholic Review 1:1 (1927), 10.
[2] His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Alexis in the United States of America During the Winter of 1871-72 (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1872), 216-218. This was taken directly from the February 15, 1872 issue of the New Orleans Daily Picayune.
[3] Lydia Strawn, “The North, Central and South American Exposition, New Orleans. Opens November 10th, 1885. Closes April 1st, 1886.” In Pen Points from the American Exposition, Presented by the Illinois Central R.R. (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1885), 10.
[4] Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans and Environs (New York: Will H. Coleman, 1885), 121.
[5] The Picayune’s Guide to New Orleans (New Orleans: The Picayune, 1904), 58-59.