A Brief History of the Orthodox Church in America
Early Church History
Orthodoxy dates from the founding of the Church on Pentecost, 33 A.D., fifty days after the Lord’s Resurrection. Anointed by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Apostles went forth to establish churches throughout the Middle East. St. Paul, the most dynamic of the Apostles, traveled west, founding churches in Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately Rome.
Centuries later, Emperor Constantine I (the Great) moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, and in 323 declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. The early Church was made up of five autocephalous (self-governing) dioceses: Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, whose bishop was considered primus inter pares, or “first among equals.” These dioceses (later known as patriarchates) cooperated as one faith until the Great Schism of 1054, when Rome separated from the other four patriarchates. The eastern patriarchates remained united as the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Orthodoxy Arrives in America
Orthodoxy first arrived in the Americas in 1794 when Russian missionaries founded a church in Novoarkhangelsk (now Sitka), Alaska. The Russian missionary field extended from Alaska to San Francisco, California, covering much of the Pacific Northwest. The Church later expanded eastward into the United States and Canada as immigrant communities organized parishes. The Orthodox Church in North America was originally under the jurisdiction of the Church of Russia, and would likely have remained so were it not for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The revolution in Russia and its tragic aftermath threw the evolution of an American Orthodox Church into disarray. The situation was further complicated by a twenty year flood of immigrants into the United States from Eastern Europe and the Balkans which created a patchwork of Orthodox churches in American cities serving their own ethnic communities. As a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, these communities retreated into the jurisdictions of the national churches of their home countries. This is why, in some large cities, you will find many jurisdictions represented (Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Russian, Serbian etc). Despite the multiple jurisdictions, the Orthodox Church remains liturgically and doctrinally one Church
In 1864, Greek merchants in New Orleans established Holy Trinity Church, the first Greek Orthodox Church in America. Nearly thirty years passed until the next churches were formed, in New York City and Chicago. The arrival of more than 350,000 Greek immigrants in the first two decades of this century stimulated the rapid establishment of Greek parishes — by 1923, there were 140 churches in the U.S.
Today, 444 churches in this country, with approximately two million members, are part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, headquartered in New York City. The Archdiocese is administered by a Synod of Bishops, presided over by Demetrios, Archbishop of America. In turn, the Archdiocese is under the spiritual leadership of Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
Many Orthodox Christians in America proudly trace their ancestry to the lands and cultures of Europe and Asia, but the Orthodox Church in the United States can no longer be seen as an immigrant Church. While the Orthodox Church contains individuals from numerous ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the majority of her membership is composed of persons who have been born in America. In recognition of this, Orthodoxy has been formally acknowledged as one of the Four Major Faiths in the United States. Following the practice of the Early Church, Orthodoxy treasures the various cultures of its people, but it is not bound to any particular culture or people. The Orthodox Church welcomes all!
What does Orthodox Mean?
Christians of the Eastern Churches call themselves Orthodox. This description comes to us from the fifth century and has two meanings which are closely related. The first definition is “true teaching.” The Orthodox Church believes that she has maintained and handed down the Christian faith, free from error and distortion, from the days of the Apostles. The second definition, which is actually the more preferred, is “true praise.” To bless, praise, and glorify God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the fundamental purpose of the Church. All her activities, even her doctrinal formulations, are directed toward this goal.
Occasionally, the word Catholic is also used to describe the Orthodox Church. This description, dating back to the second century, is embodied in the Nicene Creed, which acknowledges One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. From the Orthodox perspective, Catholic means that the Church is universal and also that she includes persons of all races and cultures. It also affirms that the Church has preserved the fullness of the Christian faith.
Today, 300 million people throughout the world are Eastern Orthodox Christians. The 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches are independently administered and conduct services in dozens of native languages, yet, whether in Athens, Moscow, or Des Moines, all Orthodox Christians share the same teachings, sacraments, and liturgies and honor the Patriarch of Constantinople as their spiritual guide.