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In 1846, Amvrosy of Sarajevo embraced Old Belief. An Orthodox metropolitan removed from his episcopal see by the Turks, Amvrosy consecrated several bishops for those Old Believers who remained loyal to priesthood and sacraments. From this group descends the largest Old Believer community, which is today based in Moscow’s Rogozhskoe cemetery, the spiritual center of Old Belief since the 18th century.

After Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration in May 1905, Old Believers were legally recognized and permitted to practice their faith openly. Soon after the tsar’s decree, the altars of the Old Believers’ chapels were “unsealed” and a “golden age of Old Belief” flowered, coinciding with the rise of Russia’s merchant princes, many of whom belonged to prominent Old Belief families. These merchant princes commissioned the nation’s leading architects and artists to design new churches and encouraged a revival of pre-Nikonian chant and scholarship.

This golden age ended abruptly with abdication of the tsar in 1917 and the subsequent Bolshevik coup d’état in 1918. These militant atheists saw the Old Believers as capitalists and defenders of an older order. They ruthlessly persecuted Old Believers as they did all believers. Little is known of Russia’s Old Belief communities between 1918 and 1991.

Modern developments. “The old saying that ‘schism breeds schism’ is without a doubt true,” wrote Russian Orthodox Father Pimen Simon to his parishioners last Easter. In 1983, Father Pimen and his Old Believer parish in Erie, Pennsylvania, entered into full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

“I have prayed since the first day that priesthood was restored to our parish and I became an Old Rite priest rather than an Old Believer nastavnik, that unity might be restored to the church inside and outside of Russia, and that the Old Believers could then be reconciled to [the] one, Holy Russian Orthodox Church. ”

“Certainly, false unity must be avoided, but let us be careful not to reject a healing of the divisions of the Lord’s Body when possible.”

At the end of the 19th century, the tsar’s government imposed restrictions limiting the Old Believers’ cultural and religious endeavors. Whole communities migrated to China and the Americas. Many flocked to the iron and coal regions of western Pennsylvania, where they worked the mills in the winter and migrated north to build ships in the summer. They established churches, including Father Pimen’s parish dedicated to the Nativity of Christ.

Though many Old Belief communities remain hostile to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow — the “government church” — others are working to heal the raskol that has divided a nation and a church for centuries.

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Executive Editor Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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