A church in New York in 1850?

New York City had a population of 515,547 in 1850 -- a 65% increase in just 10 years.

The first Orthodox place of worship in New York was founded in 1870, when the Russian Church established an embassy chapel under the care of Fr. Nicholas Bjerring. As we’ve discussed before, the idea of a New York chapel originated in 1866, and its purpose was primarily to further relations with the Episcopal Church. A year earlier, in 1865, the renegade priest Agapius Honcharenko served the first Orthodox liturgy in New York. In 1863, two Russian priests visited the city when their naval vessels docked in New York’s harbor. Until recently, I thought that this was as far back as we could trace the presence of Orthodox clergy in New York.

Remarkably, though, there was almost an Orthodox chapel in New York long before all that. The following report appeared in the January 1850 issue of the Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America:

Efforts are now making in New York to form a congregation of Greek Christians. We observe an announcement that a priest of that denomination, with an interpreter, is now in New York, and will doubtless take charge of the movement.

I haven’t been able to find any other reports of this development, and it obviously didn’t lead to an organized parish. But it does indicate that, even in 1849-50, there were enough Orthodox people in New York for somebody to send a priest to visit them, and possibly start a church. Who was the priest? What church sent him — was it Russia, or Greece, or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? And why did this early effort fail? There’s a story here, waiting to be uncovered. The New York Times — the best-archived New York newspaper — didn’t begin publication until 1851. But there were dozens of other papers in that era; surely some of them covered this story. Sooner or later, we’ll track down the details.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]

6 Replies to “A church in New York in 1850?”

  1. Isa, where did you find out about Bishop Nestor being one of the 1863 priests? That’s really, really interesting.

    I doubt there’s a connection to Quebec, simply because the Quebec story is 20+ years later than this 1850 article. But, clearly, there’s a lot we don’t yet know.

  2. “Isa, where did you find out about Bishop Nestor being one of the 1863 priests?”

    [St.] Sebastian Dabovitch’s history of Orthodoxy in CA mentions it:


    The “certain Father Nestor” was none other than the later Bishop Nestor of the Aleutians and Alaska. As the London Journal reported:
    “The Holy Synod of the Russian Church has appointed to the Episcopal See of the Aleutian Islands the Archimandrite Nestor. Father Nestor was in early life known as Baron Zass; he was an officer in the navy, and besides his theological attainments he is well versed in secular learning, and understands fully the English language, in which he expresses himself fluently. He is distinguished for his lofty character, his Christian convictions, and his thorough devotion to duty. Father Nestor will be quite in his proper place in America, for at the time of Admiral Lesoffsky’s visit to New York, in 1863, he made himself highly esteemed by the Americans. It is to be hoped that the Episcopate of Father Nestor may be a source of close and intimate relations between the Orthodox Russian Church and the Church of North America. A letter which came to the Holy Synod, not long since, from the American bishops gives reason to hope thus. God grant that through the cooperation of the future Bishop of the Aleutian Islands brotherly relations may be established [between] these two great Churches”

    The London Times it seems got the imformation from the “The Missioner” of Moscow, the organ of the Orthodox Missionary Society of Russia, in its issue of January 5, 1879

    btw, The Morning Call, San Francisco, Tuesday, August 15, 1882 obituary makes the interesting statement:
    “Having served long and faithfully in the cause of the church both at home and abroad. Nestor in 1878 was appointed Bishop of Alaska by the Holy Synod of St. Petersburg, and to this diocese were attached the orthodox Russian churches in New York and San Francisco.”

    The Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, Monday, August 14, 1882 notes “He was at one time a lieutenant on board a Russian man-of-war.”

    Btw, I came across an interesting article(3/23/1880) on a letter written by the newly appointed Bp. Nestor to the American president concerning the Orthodox population and self government of the territory.

    1. Thanks, Isa. I don’t know why I never noticed that bit about Bishop Nestor in the Dabovich article. This certainly helps explain why Nestor was appointed to the Alaskan see — he had already visited America.

      Regarding the item about the New York chapel being attached to the Alaskan diocese — I don’t think the Morning Call has it right. It’s actually the only source I’ve ever seen that suggests that the New York chapel was a part of the Alaskan diocese. Other sources, such as the diocesan reports during Bishop Nestor’s tenure (which are also on the Holy Trinity Cathedral website), show that New York was not a part of the diocese. Other evidence strongly suggests that it was directly under St. Petersburg. This makes sense, as it was easier to communicate with and travel to St. Petersburg than San Francisco in the 1870s/80s. So, I think that 1882 article just got it wrong.

  3. about the Quebec connection: I’m just quessing: a Melchite priest, Fr. Flavianus Fkoury is recorded as having come to New York in 1848-9, and do the circuit in the US and Canada for back home.

    IIRC, the Syrians in Quebec were the cause of the DL comeing there decades later. I figure that they may have been alongside the Melchites, since Greeks were still very rare in the US, and Russians almost as unknown.

  4. “Regarding the item about the New York chapel being attached to the Alaskan diocese — I don’t think the Morning Call has it right. It’s actually the only source I’ve ever seen that suggests that the New York chapel was a part of the Alaskan diocese.”

    Technically, I believe this is correct. I was thinking, however, of St. Innocent’s recommendations
    “whereby Orthodoxy will penetrate the United States.” Having NYC under St. Petersburg comports with St. Innocent’s recommendation. However, it seems St. Innocennt’s motivation differed from the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.” The latter had the goal of recognition of their jurisdiction as “the Church of North America” (as quoted above), ever since the Episcopalians, leading up to their organization of “the Church of California” in 1850 did not seek to be joined to the New York based PECUSA (called, ironically “the Eastern church”) but contemplated getting a bishop and orders from St. Innocent in Sitka. Dr. Thrall (who brought up the Russian Church as competitors at the 1862 PECUSA convention in NY) succeeded the clergyman who made the suggestion, at the Church where the CA founding convention of 1850 was held. While Dr. Thrall and his Russo-Greek committee (who had a hand in staging Honcharenko’s performance in 1865 at NYC) intended the NY chapel as to grease the skids into PECUSA and recognition of its orders, St. Innocent seems to have seen it more as a Trojan horse.

    In that role, it seems to have succeeded to a degree, hence the association of NY with SF and AK and Bishop Nestor. As St. Innocent suggested, the diocese was not abolishes as happened in 1811 (suggestion A.), his vicar Bp. Paul was recalled (suggestion D.), leaving through NYC as whence his succesor Bp. John came (suggestion C.), who moved the see to SF (suggestion B.) and with Bp. Nestor, a bishop who spoke English (suggestion D.). The NYC chapel conducted the services in English, as the priest Fr. Bjerring had only this language in common with his congregation (suggestions E-G). The identification of the NYC chapel with the SF bishop of the AK Diocese was so complete, that the Americans saw its closure as the end of the AK Diocese as well:
    “After the transfer of the territory, the Russian bishop moved his residence to San Francisco, and, taking charge of the chapel there, made annual visits to the Sitka, Kodiak, and Ounalaska churches. The last incumbent of the office, Bishop Nestor, was lost overboard while returning from Ounalaska to San Francisco in May, 1883, and at Moscow no one has been found willing to be sent out to this diocese…The Russian government, in its protectorate over the Greek church, assumes the expenses of the churches of Sitka, Ounalaska and Kodiak, and about $50,000 are expended annually for their support. With the diminishing congregations, it is merely a question of time when the Alaska priests will be recalled, as the abandonment of the Russian chapel in New York is significant of the coming change.”
    : its southern coast and the Sitkan archipelago” (1885) By Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, pp. 163-4

    (btw, just as the demise of the Orthodox Church was predicted with the Cession of AK, so too was the Anglicans in America with the Revolution. Samuel Provost, the only “patriot priest” in NY, later its first Episcopalian bishop and later primate of PECUSA (besides serving as chaplain of the Continental Congress and the first for the US Senate), resigned his post in 1801, disheartened with the conviction that PECUSA would die out with the colonial generation).

    Anyway, it seems it already at Bp. Nestor’s death (helped by his previous fame in NYC, his command of English and involvement with US politicians) helped get the ball rolling from Sitka through SF to NYC of a jurisdiction spanning the entire continent. Bp. Vladimir would openly claim it (and South America), and Bp. Nicholas give out business cards so stating, even to the Episcopalian bishop of SF, until St. Tikhon made the title official.

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