Three bishops for America in 1870?

This article was originally published on October 30, 2009.

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.

This article was written by Matthew Namee and was originally published on October 30, 2009.