The First English-Speaking Parish

For a while now, I have been meaning to write about the first all-English Orthodox parish in America, founded in New York City in 1920. Today, I’m going to give a brief introduction to that parish, and the main characters involved. This is hardly the whole story; it really is just an introduction.

To start — well, you know about Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who converted to Orthodoxy in 1905. (If you don’t know about Irvine, you can read our earlier posts about him, or listen to two podcasts I did on Ancient Faith Radio.)

So Irvine converted in 1905, and he remained an Orthodox priest until his death, in January 1921. During that time, in both the Russian and Syrian Missions, he was a strong advocate of the use of English in American Orthodox worship. He felt that, for Orthodoxy to survive and thrive in America, it was imperative that it, to some extent, “Americanize.” (This is the term that was used at the time.)

For most of Irvine’s Orthodox career, there were not many converts. Irvine spent a lot of his time working with Orthodox young people, and interacting with Episcopalians, but he didn’t actually bring a lot of people into the Church. Late in his life, however, things started to change. An Episcopal priest named James Grattan Mythen converted to Orthodoxy in 1920. He was immediately ordained a priest by Abp Alexander Nemolovsky, and he took the name, “Fr. Patrick.”

Mythen would prove to be the first of a surprisingly large number of convert priests to enter the Russian Archdiocese in the early 1920s. Irvine was quite old by this point, in his early 70s at a time when most people didn’t live past 60. He was not really capable, physically, of running his own church. But Mythen was young — just 37 at the time of his conversion — and he became the leader of a group of convert clergy.

Within a very short period of time, Mythen was joined by the following men:

  • Dr. Geoffrey A. Lang, ordained Fr. Stephen
  • Robert F. Hill, ordained Fr. Antony
  • Fr. Paul Ihmsen
  • Dr. George Gelsinger, ordained Fr. Michael
  • Royce M. Burden, ordained Fr. Boris
  • Arthur W. Johnson, ordained Fr. Kyrill
  • Sgt. William H. Schneider, ordained Fr. A. (not sure what it stood for)

Irvine didn’t know all of these men; several of them came along after he had already died. And Irvine doesn’t seem to have been the main person driving this enterprise; Mythen was. Abp Alexander put an enormous amount of trust in Mythen. For a while, in the early 1920s and before Metropolitan Platon took over the Russian Archdiocese, Mythen basically ran the whole Archdiocesan operation, even signing ordination certificates (a task properly done by a bishop). Needless to say, Mythen supplanted the aging (and then deceased) Irvine as the leader of the English Department of the Russian Archdiocese.

And in 1920, the newly-converted-and-ordained Mythen became the rector of the “American Orthodox Catholic Church of the Transfiguration,” the first all-English, all-convert parish in history. The church was located at St. Vladimir’s Immigrant Home, 233 East 17th Street in New York City. The first services were held on July 18, 1920. This is part of an article from the New York Times (7/17/1920):

In the establishment of this English-speaking church by the Russian hierarchy the efforts of fifteen years of the Rev. Dr. Ingram N.W. Irvine, a canon of the local Russian Cathedral, have been realized.

Archbishop Tikhon, who was head of the Russian Church in America for several years, favored such a move, but he was recalled to Russia before he could organize such a branch. Appeal was then made to Archbishop Nemoloski, who agreed that an English mission would fill a need. Abbot Patrick (James Gratton Mithen), who came here from England three months ago, was designated as rector of the new branch. Dr. Irvine will be the associate rector. He and Abbot Patrick are major canons.

The other two members of the staff are minor canons. The first vicar is Canon Stephen, who came to America with Canon Patrick, and the second vicar is Canon Paul, who was ordained a priest of the Russian Church in Pittsburgh by Bishop Stephen of the Uno-Russian Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is a brother of Max Ihmsen, a newspaper editor. Dr. Irvine is Professor of the English Department in the Russian Seminary, Tenafly, N.J., and Canon Paul is his assistant.

A few things… One, I find the whole “canon,” “vicar,” language to be slightly amusing, borrowed as it is from the Episcopal Church. Is a “major canon” supposed to be an archpriest, in this context? I don’t know. I’m not aware of Irvine having ever been raised to archpriest, but it is possible.

Two, while Mythen did travel from England to the US, he was only in England for a few months. We’ll talk about his life in a separate post in the future, but he was born in Baltimore and was an American citizen. Like Irvine, Mythen was of Irish ancestry, but was an Anglican clergyman. He was very involved in politics and art — he was a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage and of Irish independence, and he moonlighted as a playwright. One of his allies in the Irish independence movement was Geoffrey Lang (aka Fr. Stephen), who, along with Mythen, helped run a group called Protestant Friends of Irish Freedom.

Fr. Paul Ihmsen — I’m not certain, but I think his given name was Charles. His brother Max, the newspaper editor, was a major figure in the newspaper industry of the early 20th century. He was a protégé of William Randolph Hearst, with titles ranging from “political manager” to “henchman.” He then went to California and ran the Los Angeles Examiner, and on the side, he became a pioneering apple farmer. The Ihmsens came from an old, prominent German family from Pittsburgh.

Another priest in these early years was Fr. Antony (Robert) Hill, who happens to be the second black priest in American Orthodox history, after Fr. Raphael Morgan. Hill was Orthodox for a very short time; he soon joined the upstart “African Orthodox Church,” about which, more in the future.

The other clergy I mentioned above — Gelsinger, Burden, etc. — came along later, after the Church of the Transfiguration had closed. And close it did, very soon — the New York Times has advertisements for the church through November 1920, but nothing afterwards. The church’s few months of existence were eventful, though. Two prominent literary figures, T. Everett Harre and Reginald Wright Kauffman (both, apparently, friends of Mythen), converted to Orthodoxy. In August, Irvine was apparently poisoned, allegedly by Bolshevik sympathizers. And in September, Abp Alexander raised Mythen (who was unmarried) to the rank of archimandrite. We will discuss all of these events, and the history of the broader English-speaking mission, in future articles.