Three bishops for America in 1870?

Yesterday, in my article on James Chrystal, I mentioned, “In 1870, there were various reports that the Russian government planned to assign a bishop to New York and offered the job to Chrystal. He declined, citing his opposition to icons.” In the comments, Isa Almisry asked, quite reasonably, if I had documentation for this. Here it is.

On July 19, 1870, a Philadelphia newspaper called the North American and United States Gazette published the following report:

The Russian Ambassador has received instructions from his government that three bishoprics of the Greek Church are to be established forthwith in this country – one at New York, one at New Orleans, and one at San Francisco, in each of which last named places there is already a Greek church and a Russo-Greek priest.

A few days later, the journal Christian Union (7/23/1870) reported on the move of the Russian bishop from Alaska to San Francisco, and on the founding of Bjerring’s chapel in New York City. Citing the Pacific Churchman as its source, the article then stated the following:

New York is expected to be, in time, the seat of a Greek Orthodox Eastern Church arch-diocesan, and of the cathedral church of that hierarchy on the American continent, while New Orleans and San Francisco are to be episcopal seats. It is further stated that Mr. N.L. BJERRING, of Baltimore, a recent convert from the Roman Church, has been selected as one of the Orthodox bishops for this country, and that he has been invited by telegraph, from St. Petersburg, to proceed thither, to be baptized, ordained into the ministry, and be consecrated a bishop.

It’s interesting to read about a plan calling for New York to be the headquarters of an archdiocese; it would be more than three decades before this would actually happen. Also, Bjerring, being married, could not have become a bishop. It’s possible that the Russian Church wasn’t initially aware of this, and did at some early stage consider him a candidate for the episcopacy. It’s also possible that the newspaper reporter misunderstood something.

Anyway, within a few more days, the New York Sun had run a piece on all this. I don’t have the original Sun account, but it was picked up by various papers, including the Cleveland Herald (7/30/1870), the Chicago Tribune (8/1), and Flake’s Bulletin of Galveston, Texas (8/20). This is from the Cleveland Herald‘s version:

The Russian Government has decided to establish a Bishopric of the Greek Church in New York.  The fact was made known to a number of Episcopal clergymen by Count Catacazy, the Russian Minister, and the Count recently offered the position of Prelate of the proposed See to the Rev. Samos [the other versions say “James”] Christal, an Episcopal minister, who is understood to have favored the plan of Dr. (now Bishop) Young of uniting the Episcopal and Greek churches. Mr. Christal has, however, declined to accept the office, on the ground that he could not subscribe to the articles of the Seventh Synod of the Greek church, relating to the images and creature worship, and the new Bishopric has not yet been filled.

Two other Bishoprics are to be established by the Russian Government, one in San Francisco and the other in New Orleans, but the candidates have not yet been named.

On August 27, Christian Union (which had already published a report on July 23 — see above) ran a similar story, but cited Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian Banner.

Finally, in October, a correction of sorts began to appear. From the Christian Advocate (10/10/1870; the same appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin on October 29):

The Russian Government does not contemplate sending Bishops of the Greek Church to form dioceses in this country. Greek Church communicants are too few to require them, and these few, it seems, do not desire foreign Bishops.

That is the last thing I’ve found on the plan.

All of these reports were coming during a time of transition for American Orthodoxy. During the same summer of 1870, Bishop John Mitropolsky was assigned to replace Bishop Paul Popov as the Russian hierarch in North America. The diocese itself was restructured, and the new Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska was created. (Previously, Bishop Paul had been merely a vicar in the Diocese of Kamchatka.) Bishop John moved the hierarchical residence from Sitka (or New Archangel) to San Francisco. This move wouldn’t be officially recognized until 1872, but for all practical purposes, it took place with the change in bishops in 1870.

Also, in May of 1870, Nicholas Bjerring went to Russia and was ordained a priest. He returned to the US that summer, and news began to circulate that the Russian Church planned to establish a chapel in New York City.

Is it possible that the Russian Church (and the Russian government) was making initial efforts to implement St. Innocent’s recommendation from a few years earlier? Late in 1867, Innocent recommended, among other things, that

  • The diocesan seat be moved from Sitka (New Archangel) to San Francisco,
  • The American part of the Diocese of Kamchatka be separated from the Diocese (Innocent recommended that it be formed into a vicariate under St. Petersburg, so creating a separate diocese would have been an even bolder step),
  • The former bishop be recalled to Russia, and a new bishop be appointed who is familiar with English, and
  • The new bishop be allowed to ordain American converts to the priesthood for service in America.

It’s also interesting to note the apparent resistence of the few Orthodox living in America. The San Francisco community was probably not the source of the problem, since they were the one city that did receive a Russian bishop in 1870. The New Orleans parish may have taken issue with this proposal, though, since they were a mostly independent group connected with the Greek consulate and nominally affiliated with the Church of Greece. But, details being so scarce, it’s hard to know just what the real story is.

There are a couple of avenues one might pursue to get to the bottom of all this. Obviously, the Russian Orthodox Church may have records of this plan (and I would expect them to be in St. Petersburg). There also might be something in the records of the Russian embassy, since the Russian ambassador was the one who approached Chrystal about the proposal. It can’t have just been the imaginings of American newspapermen, and I for one would love to know rationale behind the plan — and the reasons why it was abandoned.

7 Replies to “Three bishops for America in 1870?”

  1. “In the comments, Isa Almisry asked, quite reasonably, if I had documentation for this.”

    Just to be clear, I had not the slightest doubt you had the goods. Just being such a creature of the University of Chicago, I’m OC on primary sources, and wanted you to share. 🙂

    Which, the ones you have provided, I find most interesting. That New Orleans is mentioned may have something to do with the mystery of the New Orleans Gospel Book. Flake’s Bulletin of Galveston, Texas (8/20) is also interesting: one would think that something would be mentioned about SS Constantine and Helen there, which also claims a hoary past. What was its status then?

    It is also very interesting that after the sale of Alaska, we see a rush to build up an American Orthodox Church of Americans, such that bishoprics are offered to those whose main qualification seems to be that they were US citizens.

    There might be some information in the OCA archives, if St. Petersburg thought to discuss the matter with those on the ground so to speak. But, as you say, it was a time of transition and maybe the Holy Governing Synod saw no need (that might explain the mixup about Fr. Bjerring’s marital status). That Bishop Popov passed through NYC to return to Russia and supposedly consecrated the Bjerring Chapel may be connected.

    I doubt anything remains in the Russian embassy, as the Soviets would probably have little use for such records. St. Petersburg I expect would, and there might be something at Moscow, where at the time St. Innocent had taken up that see. But you are right, the American newspapers have too much correct for it to be just their speculation. And I am sure that they knew nothing of St. Innocent’s recommendations which dove tail with the 1870 plan (or could it be great minds think alike?).

    Btw, I’ve always wondered how Bjerring, a native of Denmark, had been baptized by the Vatican and not the state Lutheran Church (at the time, the Absolutist Constitution of Denmark (the only formal one the Age of Absolutism produced) had only two articles it mandated as unamendable, the absolute power of the king and the Augsburg Confession as the creed of the State.

    This would support the idea that the Russian Church had seen itself as the Orthodox jurisdiction in North America at least (or at least the US). The question then becomes what of the reaction in NYC about the Greek chapels from the Russian Consul at the time.

  2. Speaking of American Newspapers and Orthodox Plans, a NYT article “THE RUSSO-GREEK CHAPEL.; A Princely Gift from Russia A Noble Lady of the Imperial Household the Donor An Elaborate and Gorgeous Specimen of Embroidery.” May 15, 1871, mentions in passing “It is Father BJERRING’s wish that it be generally known that the Greek Chapel is a private chapel of the Russian and Greek Legations, and is not open for public worship….there is ordinarily no sermon, and there will not be until the occupation of the new church to be built on Lexington-avenue, plans, &c., for which are expected in a few days. The chaplain, however, cordially invites any orderly and respectable lady or gentlemen…”

    Given the involvement of the Church of Greece via the consulates, there may be something in the Greek embassy about these plans. It also raises questions about the later Greek claims vis-a-via Russian jurisdiction. It is worthy to note that the Greek consul in San Francisco was also involved with the Russian mission there.

  3. Just to respond to a couple of your points, Isa:

    I have yet to see any hard evidence of a parish in Galveston before the 1890s. I’m sure there were some Orthodox Christians in the city, since it was a major port, but I don’t think there was a parish or a priest before the 1890s. I’ve searched several old Galveston newspapers, with no success.

    On Greek officials attending Bjerring’s Russian chapel, I would point out that the opposite happened in the early 1890s: Russian officials attended the Greek churches in New York City until 1895, when a Russian church (St. Nicholas) was established. (I’ve written about this in earlier posts.) Bjerring’s chapel, and then the Greek churches, were the only shows in town.

    1. “I have yet to see any hard evidence of a parish in Galveston before the 1890s. I’m sure there were some Orthodox Christians in the city, since it was a major port, but I don’t think there was a parish or a priest before the 1890s. I’ve searched several old Galveston newspapers, with no success”

      Exactly my point. I’ve seen the parish mentioned often, and as early as Burgess (1913), yet not mentioned in the NY Times article “Greeks in America” of 8/4/1873 (which mentions the New Orleans Church and what must be the beginnings of the OCA Holy Trinity in San Francisco, but only mentions a Greek newspaper subscriber in Galveston). As for the consuls, yes, it is an interesting question in light of what followed. I am also wondering how much the intermarriage of the Russian Imperial and Greek royal families had to do with attitudes on the matter.

      [This comment has Fr. Andrew’s avatar next to it because he accidentally first deleted it instead of approving it. Apologies!]

  4. Isa,

    Bjerring apparently converted while in Europe, at least according to Fr. David Abramtsov. I have no reason to doubt him and it makes sense of the very real situation you note. Would the son of a prominent city official not have been raised in the Protestant church at the time?

  5. Some odds and ends on Fr. Bjerring:

    Early on Fr. Bjerring is mentioned serving the needs of the diplomatic corps in Washington (c. 1871) “The marriage of Mr. Kleon Rangabe Greek Minister at Washington, to Miss Dorothea Gerolt, daughter of Baron Gerolt, Prussian Minister at Washington, was solemnized in the Greek chapel, at the residence of the Rev. Father Nicolas Bjerring, the pastor of the Greeks in New York. The little chapel was lighted with wax tapers, and there were only preseot the immediate relatives and friends of the bride and bridegroom. Among these were the Russian Minister at Washington, Mr. Catacazy, and Mr. Botazzi, Greek Consul in New York. ”

    A NY Times article of March 14, 1881 mentions in passing that “There is no Greek Chapel in Washington, and the service [for the murdered Czar] will doubtless be held at the residence of the Russian Minister,” “the telegram also directing [the consul general] to start for Washington with Father Bjerring to atttend commemorative services, which will probably be held tommorrow.

    During the Centennial Exposition, through Fr. Bjerring, Henry C. Dane brought it to Pres. Grant’s attention that the Ottoman Empire could not afford to pay

    Fr. Bjerring wasn’t just limited to the religious sphere, among other things he represented the American Geographical Society, as shown in a US Senate Report:

    to give an idea of the standing Fr. Bjerring had at the time.

    I’ve come across litterature about “Fr.” Honcharenko, which makes him the catalyst for Fr. Bjerring’s chapel, the Greeks being obliged to cut all ties to the Ukrainian.

Comments are closed.