The Biggest Pan-Orthodox Event in American History

In 1963, between 11,000 and 13,000 Orthodox youth, from seven jurisdictions, came together for a pan-Orthodox festival in Pittsburgh. Ten bishops and more than 150 priests celebrated Vespers in an arena, and a thousand-person pan-Orthodox youth choir sang. This was the biggest pan-Orthodox event in American history, and most Orthodox Christians today are completely unaware that it happened.

The 1963 festival was just one of many achievements of a long-forgotten alliance of Orthodox youth leaders known as “CEOYLA” (which stood for the Council of Eastern Orthodox Youth Leaders in the Americas). CEOYLA was formed in 1954, when GOYA — the Greek Orthodox youth organization — organized a meeting of the leaders of the various jurisdictional youth organizations. This took place with the blessing of Archbishop Michael of the Greek Archdiocese — a man whose impressive legacy is mostly overshadowed by his larger-than-life predecessor and successor, Athenagoras and Iakovos.

CEOYLA was an amazing organization. Each jurisdiction had three representatives, which shared a single vote per jurisdiction. All decisions had to be made with unanimity. While the 1963 Festival was CEOYLA’s signature event, the alliance had numerous other remarkable achievements, including:

  • It helped organize OCF chapters on college campuses across the country;
  • It participated in lobbying efforts to have dozens of state legislatures to recognize Orthodoxy as a “fourth major faith”;
  • It helped get the “Eastern Orthodox” designation made available to military service members on their “dog tags”;
  • It convinced the U.S. Chaplain Corps to admit Orthodox priests on equal footing with other religious groups;
  • It lobbied state adoption agencies to place Orthodox orphans and foster children with Orthodox families;
  • It designed a Leadership Training Program (the details of which I’m unaware of); and
  • It published the first authoritative directory of Orthodox churches in America.

In the 1960s, the alliance collectively oversaw nearly a thousand local chapters, with over 50,000 members. It worked to advance Orthodox religious education and was a prime advocate of Orthodox unity in America.

But if it is remembered at all today, it’s for that amazing 1963 festival, which has never really been replicated. The festival took five years to plan, and the seven participating jurisdictions worked for years to coordinate their national conventions, to hold all of them in Pittsburgh simultaneously. There were no registration fees, and the cost to hold the event — in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars — was just $60,000.

Archbishop Iakovos, a visionary in many respects, threw cold water on the 12,000 or so attendees at the 1963 festival, repeatedly telling them, in his keynote address, to “submit to your elders,” and asserting that, among other things, Orthodoxy’s “liturgical language,” and not English, should be used in worship. CEOYLA was, in so many ways, ahead of its time. They tried to pull off another big gathering, and they did manage to hold one more pan-Orthodox festival in 1977, but in the end, the organization died out. And while it ultimately passed into oblivion and failed in its goal to unite Orthodoxy in America, it provides a compelling model for what might be possible if Orthodox young people become motivated to collaborate again.

[Most of this information came from original CEOYLA documents and materials. One person who appears to have been instrumental in preserving and organizing these materials is Ronald Andrei Muresan, past chairman of CEOYLA, who prepared a presentation on CEOYLA’s history in 2010. I don’t know Mr. Muresan personally, but I am grateful for his efforts.]

19 Replies to “The Biggest Pan-Orthodox Event in American History”

  1. I was at that Orthodox gathering. Our choir sang there. I want to say that it was in the Civic Arena. When they opened the dome and the flag began waving, it became very moving. an unforgettable moment in my life. We began to sing our national anthem , and then continued with the liturgy.

  2. I was there also and it was at the Civic Arena which is no longer there. I am from Pittsburgh. They did not open the arena a lot but that day the walls opened and it was very was like the skies opened and God was reaching out to all of us there…too bad it was never replicated.

  3. I was there also with a club called the F.R.O.C.. Above the temporary altar inside the civic arena was a HUGE White cross. At the end of the service the huge dome door open and a brisk wind rolled threw and that huge white cross over the temp. altar FLEW out of that roof and never to be seen again. All over TV that weekend were clergy from all the ethnic Orthodox Jurisdictions. GREAT weekend both religous and social.
    I was thinking at that time of administrative unification of Orthodoxy in America and all the good points that would come. Sadly, even till today it is a DREAM without any reality. Now 42 years have passed since that festival and I must say bluntly that I will go to my grave WITHOUT what we really, really need. An Orthodox Church in America UNITED instead of jurisdictions standing in a CIRCULAR firing squad while non Orthodox laugh at us.

  4. I was 16 in 1963. I would definitely have been interested but never knew about this until right now! In ’77, I was busy with 2 young daughters, a husband, job, etc, but I didn’t know of the CEYOLA then either, although I was probably “too old” at 30.

  5. It should be noted that with the help of Ron Muresan, OCL’S 24th Annual Meeting, 2011, in Pittsburgh, focused on celebrating and preserving the primary and secondary sources related to the history of CEOYLA. The resources OCL gathered are preserved in the OCL Archives at DePaul University. The Library of the Vatra of the Romanian Episcopate, Grass Lake, Mi also has a collection of sources on the history of CEOYLA. Reflections were offered by Archbishop Nathaniel, Detroit, Bishop Basil, Wichita. Panelists included Jim Demetrion, Ron Muresan, Kweilin Nassar, and Michael C. Herzak. An overview of the history of CEOYLA was presented in the OCL program booklet, which included the cover and back page of the 1963 and 1977 CEOYLA brochures. CBS television series
    “Lamp Unto My Feet” filmed and presented a television documentary of the Civic Arena Event Presented by CEOYLA on August 31, 1963. To this day we have not been able to locate a copy. We have checked at CBS and various Archdioceses to ask for a copy so that it can be duplicated, digitized and preserved, but have not been able to locate the few copies that were produced in 1963. Please help us locate a copy so that it can be shown once again and preserved in the OCL Achieve.

    1. Hi Mr. Matsoukas,
      To your knowledge, has there ever been a deliberate letter-writing campaign expressing the need for pan-Orthodox unification addressed to the various (and many) hierarchs in the US?

    2. I was present at this memorable event. My late husband Fr. George Scoulas was a celebrant along with Fr. Basil Gregory for the GOA. Each jurisdiction had two priests officiating and the remaining clergy numbering 140 were seated in the first rows. Pittsburgh newspapers generously covered the event. Since Fr. Gregory was a key planner of this event I would contact the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Pittsburgh where he was Dean at the time to see if they have the Lamp Unto My Feet film you are trying to locate.
      PS Archbishop Iakovos delivered the sermon and Fr. Gregory read a letter sent for the event from President Jack Kennedy

    3. Dear George, Contact Ron Muresan now & see what he has to say about that CBS documentary “Lamp Unto My Feet”. It seems I remember viewing it once, & that would have been through the ROEA (my Diocese). Ron is a personal friend of mine.
      He lives in another state now, so I don’t see him that often anymore, but we are still in touch via FB, e-mail, & text. CEOYLA was a fantastic organization!

  6. David, this is tragic.
    As cradle GOA, I have seen so many Orthodox “wander off” or even be overtly rejected for not being of the correct ethnicity or not being “ethnic enough”, not speaking it well enough, etc.. Not to mention the countless other US residents that have not even approached Orthodoxy because “I’m not Greek”, or “I’m not Russian, Serbian, etc.”.
    Other than the current geographic location of the community served, ethnic designations have no place in the Church. I wish that the laity and clergy would insist on immediate unification into a canonical Orthodox Church here in the United States. Yes, it would initially be a very messy and difficult process, but the result could be glorious. (As shown in the photo and article above.)

  7. As a part of the ACRY and the Church Choir at that time, I remember this 1963 event fondly. As part of a program to integrate the various Nationalities, I was assigned to work with GOYA, to put out news releases, help coordinate upcoming activities and meetings. This caused me to fall in love with Greek food and the Greek culture, so much so that I am married to a wonderful Greek man. That CEOYLA event helped change my life. Do you all remember the last song the choir sang? An American song – GOD BLESS AMERICA. It was dynamic.

  8. I attended the 1977 Pan Orthodox Festival in Pittsburg. I was 23 then. We grew up hearing great stories about the 1963 Festival, CEOYLA activities, and even though the 1977 Festival was not as large, the Pan-Orthodox effort was very impressive & exciting! The spirit of Orthodox Unity among the youth then was very palpable! We all thought it would be achieved in our lifetime! I go on Medicare next month. I no longer believe I will see this come to fruition before our Lord takes me. My prayer 🙏🏼 is for the future of Orthodoxy in the USA, which cannot be achieved without Unity within Orthodoxy!

  9. Whether we like it or not, the answer is tears of Repentance, we need leadership of integrity overseeing orthodox hierarchy, not ones who want to control us all for their particular Patriarchate’s glory.. lifestyle Example will gain everyone’s respect.. let us each Weep: I) to be Purified of Our personal Imperfections (it is so easy to be blind to) & Then B) for what the church has in some places become .. Repentance will bring the solutions .. the grace of God is attracted to True humility, which only comes by Real repentance .. pray for me

  10. I read this article, which almost brought me to tears. There are four reasons this dream has not come true: 1). the “Mother” churches back in the ” old countries” will not allow their “daughters” to be free because it means a serious loss of income & prestige in the West, 2). the bishops REFUSE to realize the spiritual vision of a United church & do not want their personal power in any way to be curtailed, 3). the Laity have become so complacent & used to things as they are, and therefore will not exercise their God-given ministry of holding the hierarchy accountable & 4). the demonic spirit of ethno-phylitism continues to hold many of our leaders and communities by the throat. That demonic spirit knows that if it’s power is broken then the Glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ will be fully proclaimed, the Orthodox people will be re-evangelize & the life-transforming truth of the Orthodox Christian faith will lead to a spiritual renewal of American society. Lord, have mercy!

    1. In 60s terms, “right on,” Fr. Timothy.

      In failed unification negotiations w my OCA Romanians, the Patriarchal ROMA delegates came out & said, “the day will never come that we will leave our mother.” In 1987 the late RO Patriarch +Teoctist told me in Bucharest, “listen carefully my son, we will wait 1,000 years, but you WILL return to the bosom of your Mother.”
      It’s intentional that CEOYLA’s been consigned to the scrap heap of history – as in the Roman “damnatio memoriae.”
      The Foreign Ministries of other nations subsidize patriarchal pretensions. And we are left to live in a shadow existence where I’ve never shared Communion with the (non-Romanian) Orthodox Kids I grew up with in northwest Detroit. And we’re told that’s correct.

  11. God grant us purified hearts of respect And courage that will gain the attention of the truly God-fearing Bishops who have to know we STAND With them. Lead the way beloved Hierarchs, but Please have Your colleagues place repentance & accountability before administrative unity. As the latter will in this way, come naturally & on the Sure foundation of humility rather than of more lamentable politics

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