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The Orthodox Church in America

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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North America is a mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority — about 0.65 percent — and include no more than three million of an estimated 459 million people living in Canada, Mexico and the United States. What they may lack in volume, however, North American Orthodox Christians make up in variety. They comprise immigrants and their descendants from Asia Minor, the Balkans, Europe and the Middle East, as well as Alaska Natives and recent converts, especially from the reformed churches.

The ancient rites of the church of Byzantium unite these Orthodox Christians. Rooted in the New World for more than a century, these North American churches retain strong bonds with the Old World, are divided into a number of ethnic jurisdictions — Albanian, Arab, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian and Ukrainian — and typically celebrate the divine mysteries in their respective liturgical languages.

One body has attempted to transcend these cultural differences. Originally a jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America was established in 1970 and is led by a primate with the title of archbishop of Washington, metropolitan of all America and Canada.

Supreme canonical authority in the Orthodox Church in America rests with a synod of bishops from the 14 jurisdictions that compose this autocephalous, or independent, church. In addition, the Orthodox Church in America includes ethnic Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian eparchies and jurisdictions in Canada and Mexico.

In English-speaking Canada and the United States, English is the norm in most liturgical services. Yet other languages may be used depending on the pastoral needs of the parish.

Orthodoxy arrives. Orthodox Christianity first appeared in North America later than Catholicism or Protestantism. A handful of Alaska Natives became Orthodox after the Russian discovery of Alaska in the 17th century. A century later, a few hundred Orthodox Greeks, mostly from Asia Minor, settled in the British colony of Florida in 1768. Their settlement of New Smyrna broke up after a number of promises, including the services of an Orthodox priest, failed to materialize.

Orthodoxy officially arrived in North America on 24 September 1794, when a group of Russian monks arrived in Russian Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Led by one Father Herman, a starets (meaning “spiritual father” in Russian) from the island monastery of Valaam, the monks worked closely with the indigenous population.

Exploitation coupled with disease eliminated some 80 percent of Alaska Natives during the first four decades of Russian control. Yet, Father Herman and his companions were revered by the survivors for their advocacy and acts of prayer and service.

After the starets’s death in 1837, his tomb on Spruce Island became a holy place for Alaskans and a chapel was built over the grave. The Orthodox Church in America canonized Herman in 1970, and the chapel has become an important shrine for Orthodox pilgrims throughout the world.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Orthodox Church United States Church history Immigration