A Disappointing First Chapter of The Greek Orthodox Church in America


This summer, Alexander Kitroeff’s new book The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History was published by Northern Illinois University Press. It’s an ambitious book, attempting to span 150 years of history in a mere 264 pages. Unfortunately, in what seems to be his rush to talk about the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (which was formed between 1918-21), Kitroeff gives short shrift to the first 60 or so years of that history: out of the book’s dozen chapters, just a single one is devoted to the first 40% of Greek Orthodox history in America. Even worse, Kitroeff makes rookie mistakes in that chapter and generally fails to explain the pivotal era in which Greek Orthodoxy was established in the United States. In this article, I’m going to review that single chapter.

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Chapter One is called, “Greek Orthodoxy Arrives in America,” and it attempts to cover the period from 1864 to 1922 (58 years!) in a mere 21 pages. The first Greek Orthodox church the United States — Holy Trinity in New Orleans — is given just a passing mention, which is unfortunate given its status as the oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Western Hemisphere. Kitroeff seems not at all interested in the quarter-century before the mass immigration of the 1890s, and thus basically ignores it.

Bizarrely, Kitroeff seems to endorse the “flag-planting” theory of territorial rights, writing of the Russian Church’s “canonically important claim to represent all the Orthodox in the New World because Russia established the first mission there — albeit in Alaska, before it was acquired by the United States in 1867.” Kitroeff then goes on to espouse a version of the Myth of Unity, “The Russian church had spread its influence eastward by the turn of the century in an effort to incorporate all Eastern Orthodox who began arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth century.”

This is simply false. In 1890 — the eve of the great immigration — the Russian Orthodox Church had just a single parish in North America outside of Alaska: the cathedral in San Francisco. The only other American Orthodox parish was in New Orleans, and it was under the Church of Greece. In the early 1890s, Greek parishes in New York and Chicago preceded their Russian counterparts. And while the Russian Church did establish churches in the eastern part of the United States in the years that followed, this was not “in an effort to incorporate all Eastern Orthodox who began arriving in the United States,” but rather in an effort to facilitate the “return of the Unia” — the conversion of Slavic Eastern Rite Catholics to the Orthodox faith. The Russian Church leadership was, indeed, happy to work with clergy of other ethnic groups, most notably Saints Raphael Hawaweeny (Syrian) and Sebastian Dabovich (Serbian), as well as the remarkable Archimandrite Theoclitos Triantafilides (Greek), but Kitroeff badly oversimplifies the story, to the point of being misleading. He also completely fails to even mention Triantafilides, an ethnic Greek clergyman from Mount Athos who served as tutor to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and, while already in his twilight years, was sent by the Tsar to America to establish a multiethnic parish in Galveston, Texas.

Fr. Demetrios Petrides

Kitroeff passes over the colorful story of the founding of Orthodoxy in Chicago, noting only that “the first Greek immigrants in Chicago worshipped in rented facilities in cooperation with Slavic Orthodox immigrants beginning in 1885.” His description of the early Greek Orthodox presence in New York City is barely longer. Later in the chapter, in a section on “Clergy-Laity Relations” on page 31, Kitroeff mentions (among other examples) the case of the Greek parish in Philadelphia, of which he writes, “There was turnover in the position of parish priest, but changes occurred without friction, owing to the firm influence of the Stephano family, despite some opposition to the family among a group of parishioners.” Kitroeff overlooks the very pertinent example of Constantine Stephano’s conflict with Fr. Demetrios Petrides in Philadelphia. Here’s the story from an article I wrote on Petrides — it’s too good for merely a link:

It was this gumption that got Petrides run out of Philadelphia. Like a lot of early Greek communities, the Philadelphia church was dominated by a rich layman — in this case, Constantine Stephano, a millionaire cigarette manufacturer. Stephano and Petrides did not get along. Things came to a head in 1912, when Stephano sent the following message to Petrides – this is almost unbelievable. It said,

“Constantine Stephano commands you to appear at his office every evening at sunset and salaam low upon entering his presence. Then you are to stand erect, with folded arms, with your eyes cast downward, awaiting a word from Stephano before sitting down or otherwise changing your position. If you are not asked to be seated you are to remain in this position until Stephano leaves his office, and when he passes through the door you are to salaam low again and depart with bowed head.”

Stephano was obviously trying to humiliate Petrides, and Petrides would have none of it. He responded, “I will not thus humiliate myself before this maker of cigarettes.” Now, as you all probably know, in the early twentieth century, Greek parishes in America had only a loose connection to the church authorities in Athens or Constantinople. As a practical matter, the parishes were run by all-powerful boards of trustees, which would hire and fire priests at will. Constantine Stephano arranged for Petrides to be ousted from the Philadelphia church, by the slim margin of seven votes.

On page 19, Kitroeff makes a surprising error, referring to the turn-of-the-century Russian Orthodox Church as the “Patriarchate of Moscow,” despite the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate had been abolished under Tsar Peter the Great and would not be reestablished until 1917. Another mistake appears on the next page: Kitroeff asserts, “The earliest Greek Orthodox in most cases were usually housed in what had been a Protestant church, whose own congregants had already moved away to a better part of town.” In fact, it was the opposite: the majority of the early Greek churches were built by the Greek community, not purchased from other religious groups. Here’s the really odd thing: elsewhere in his book, Kitroeff cites my 2009 article, “Pews (or lack thereof) in early Orthodox churches.” In that article, I said, “most early Greek parishes were actually built by the Orthodox communities themselves,” and I cited and linked to an article I had written the day before, proving this to be the case. So Kitroeff clearly had access to the right source material; he just seems to have been careless.

Because he cites no sources for it, it’s unclear to me upon what Kitroeff bases his description of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s approach to America. On pages 31-32, Kitroeff writes:

When emigration from Greece had begun in the early twentieth century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople had asserted its canonically grounded responsibility for the Orthodox “diaspora.” […] The Orthodox diaspora was the responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Notwithstanding its claims over the Greek Orthodox in the United States, the patriarchate refrained from appointing a Greek Orthodox bishop across the Atlantic, tacitly acknowledging that “canonically” there was supposed to be only one archbishop in a particular region, and that there was already a Russian Orthodox archbishop in place.

Kitroeff goes on to say that various problems arose that “persuaded the patriarchate in 1908 to cede jurisdiction over America to the Church of Greece.” Here, Kitroeff is referring to the landmark 1908 Tomos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But his whole presentation of the matter is muddled. First of all, he alternates between “Orthodox” and “Greek Orthodox,” and it is not clear whether he is saying that the EP claimed authority over all Orthodox Christians in the “diaspora” regardless of ethnicity, or over the Greeks only. This is no small point. In the agreement between the EP and the Church of Greece that accompanied the 1908 Tomos, it’s clear that Constantinople was focused on the ethnic Greek diaspora. Only later, under Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis in 1922, did the EP clearly assert authority over the entire “diaspora” without qualification. Kitroeff also confusingly claims, without evidence, that the reason the EP did not appoint a bishop for America prior to 1908 was out of respect for the Russian Archbishop. If true, this would be a significant ecclesiological and church-political position for the EP to take; yet Kitroeff offers this explosive claim with no supporting evidence.

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The first chapter of The Greek Orthodox Church in America reads as if the author was in a hurry to get through the early decades so that he could write about his real interest: the Greek Archdiocese. But the Greek Archdiocese was formed by pre-existing Greek Orthodox church communities — communities that had been founded over those crucial early decades. I can hardly criticize Kitroeff for making mistakes in his work (I’m sure you can find even more in my own work over the years!) but I do take issue with what appears to be simple carelessness and lack of thorough engagement with his sources. This isn’t just the fault of the author, though: NIU Press (which publishes a lot of academic books on Orthodoxy) has an obvious quality control problem, and the anonymous scholars they engaged to peer review the book have failed both the publisher and the author.

We are, I’m afraid, still waiting for a comprehensive history of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. It certainly deserves it.

5 Replies to “A Disappointing First Chapter of The Greek Orthodox Church in America”

  1. Hello, a question for you:

    Are you saying that the Russian Church did not claim, or attempt to claim, other Orthodox parishes, like Greek ones, in the late 1800s?

    That there were no claims made by hierarchs over the communities of the territory?

    Best, Nikolaos Piperis

    1. Yeah – it’s a complicated history, and I published a long paper on it on this website (“The Myth of Unity”). The short version is that the Russian Church did not attempt to exercise jurisdiction in North America (outside of Alaska and northern California) until after 1890, when the Uniates began to convert to Orthodoxy (on their own initiative) under the Russian Church. This coincided with the great immigration of Greeks, Syrians, Serbs, etc. to the eastern United States. With few exceptions, the Greeks operated independently of the Russians (same thing for the Romanians and Bulgarians). Here’s what St Tikhon said about the Greeks in 1900: “There are in America several Greek clergymen. Ecclesiastically they depend either upon the Patriarch of Constantinople or the Archbishop of Athens, but in fact they are dependent upon neither, and remain without any kind of oversight. […] The Greek clergy ought to submit to some sort of diocesan oversight, all the more so because they are now living with the Orthodox North American Diocese; but this issue is beyond my competence.” So by 1900 the Russian leadership had expanded the boundaries of the diocese beyond Alaska (+ northern CA) to encompass all of North America, but in many respects it was too late — the Greeks had already started establishing parishes and the Russian diocese didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to assert any sort of claim over them. St Tikhon’s view was basically, yeah, they’re on my diocesan territory and they’re Orthodox, but they don’t belong to me.

      As for the other groups, as I said, the Romanians and Bulgarians weren’t under the Russians and I am not aware of Russian attempts to assert oversight over them. The Syrians and Serbs, on the other hand, were definitely under the Russians in the 1890s-1900s, although (1) Bp Nicholas Ziorov did attempt to induce the Serbian Church to take oversight over the Serbian parishes in America, but the Serbian Church declined due to lack of bandwidth, basically, and (2) after his consecration in 1904 St Raphael began to openly claim that his Syro-Arab Vicariate was “a diocese of Antioch, notwithstanding its nominal allegiance to the Russian Holy Synod.” By the mid-1910s, pre-Russian Revolution, the Syrians and Serbs began to more formally split from the Russian Church.

      So, it’s complicated, but the concept of territorial exclusivity we have today was not entirely the same back then.

      1. So, your disagreement with Kitroeff is that the Russian Church did not really make an effort to incorporate the Greek churches — yes?

  2. The author of the review instead of praising Alexander Kitroeff’s efforts lashes out at him and proceeds to minimize the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in America at a time when the home Church was in peril from the Bolsheviks!

    1. I’m not sure what you’re talking about. The Bolshevik Revolution took place in late 1917, near the very end of the period covered by this article. How exactly did I “minimize the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in America”?

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