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The Orthodox Church in America

Orthodoxy arrived in North America when a band of Russian Orthodox missionaries from Valaam monastery reached Alaska in 1794. At that time, Alaska was a Russian imperial territory. A first church was built on Kodiak Island, and a number of Alaskan natives were baptized. In 1840 a diocese was erected for Kamchatka, the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, with its see at Sitka. The first bishop was Innocent Veniaminov, who was later to become the Metropolitan of Moscow. By 1867, when Alaska was sold to the United States, the Russian mission was flourishing among the natives, and the Bible and the Orthodox liturgy had been translated into several Alaskan native languages.

The headquarters of the diocese was transferred from Sitka to San Francisco in 1872. By the time Bishop Tikhon (Belavin) was appointed to North America in 1898, there had been much growth of the Orthodox population on the East Coast due to the arrival of new immigrants. Given this new situation, the diocesan see was moved to New York in 1905. Tikhon had consecrated an auxiliary bishop for Alaska in 1903 and an auxiliary for the Arab parishes in 1904 with residence in Brooklyn, New York. In 1905 Bishop Tikhon was elevated to the rank of Archbishop. After leaving America in 1907, he served several dioceses and was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 1917. He died under house arrest in Moscow in 1925 and was canonized as a confessor by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989.

A significant number of Eastern Catholics joined the Russian Orthodox Church in America in the late 19th century. This in part was the result of the disapproval of the presence of married Greek Catholic priests in their dioceses by some Roman Catholic bishops. Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, for instance, refused to accept Fr. Alexis Tóth (1854-1909) as pastor of the Ruthenian Catholic parish in Minneapolis because he was a widower. As a result, Tóth and his parishioners entered into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1891. He eventually founded 17 Orthodox parishes in the USA for erstwhile Ruthenian Catholics. Tóth would be canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church in America in 1994.

A separate Greek Orthodox Archdiocese dependent on the church of Greece was established in North America in 1921. It was later transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This marked the end of Orthodox unity on the continent, and the way was cleared for the subsequent foundation of other American Orthodox jurisdictions for various ethnic groups dependent on their mother churches overseas.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, there was a large influx of Russian immigrants into America. Many of these Russian Orthodox were intensely aware of the persecution of their mother church by the communist regime. For this reason, in April 1924 the North American Diocese declared itself a temporarily self-governing church while retaining spiritual communion with the Church of Russia.



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