Refocused through the narrow lens of ethnic nationalism, the 10, later 15, and ultimately 32, Orthodox “jurisdictions” in North America aimed their sights at the preservation of the Orthodox faith by means of ethnic identity, and at the preservation of ethnic values by means of religious faith.
Although physically in North America, these “ethnic churches” formalized a spiritual, communal and social existence of their own apart from America. Traumatized by the events of the 1920’s, the Orthodox in North America entered a period of cultural hibernation. It is a mark of the extent of this cultural hibernation that the history of the Orthodox in North America during the last 70 years may be written without significant reference to any of the major trends in modern American religion: progressivism, the Social Gospel, neo-Orthodoxy, pentecostalism, revivalism, evangelicalism, or the charismatic movement. Only rarely would America seep into this ethnic world, as when the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs (FROC) chose “temperance” as one of their mottos during Prohibition (1927). With the seasonal exceptions of Russian Easter recipes, colorful Ukrainian eggs, Balkan line dancing, Greek parish festivals, or an occasional celebrity wedding, the ethnic churches rarely entered America.
As all Americans, however, the Orthodox suffered through the Depression (1929-1941). One priest’s laconic remembrances summarizes all the difficulties of that dark time:
In 1930 the parish numbered about 40 families, including bachelors, but only two men had their own businesses. They told me they were not able as a parish to pay a priest $105 a month as they had the former priest, and that they were able to give only $75. I accepted that.
In January 1932 this was decreased to $60, and in January 1933 it was decreased to $40. Many in the parish were without work, and if they did work, it was for only about one or two days a week. It became necessary for the priest to visit parishioners to collect the monthly dues, but very few paid. There were only about 15 or 20 who paid their dues every month, which were $1.
In October 1937 my salary was increased to $50, and in 1939 it was increased to $60. In 1942 it was increased back to $75.
Culturally isolated, financially unstable, and administratively splintered, the Orthodox came to fear any kind of change—whether linguistic, theological, liturgical, or even musical. New members were little welcomed in these ethnic enclaves. Most parishes settled into an unbroken routine of local, regional, and national ethnic activities that, to their credit, at least provided a rich social life for participants. However, so self-contained and self-perpetuating were these events, the parishes that sponsored them, and the ethnic churches that encouraged them, that the passage of time in the ethnic churches can be marked in decades rather than years.
Since 1925, every Orthodox jurisdiction has struggled to become institutionally self-sufficient. That is, each has spent great effort on acquiring and maintaining its own hierarch, diocesan headquarters, fraternal organizations, youth camps, and most prestigiously, its own seminary and monastery. Indeed the fully self-sufficient jurisdiction (and for the larger jurisdictions, self-sufficient dioceses) became the measure, means, method, goal and symbol of “success” among the ethnic Orthodox in America.
If ethnic hibernation has been the touchstone of administrative, canonical, and cultural life among Orthodox in North America, until very recently ethnarchy has been the dominant and accepted style of leadership for both parish clergy and Orthodox bishops. Ethnarchy, the combining of priestly vocation and socio-ethnic leadership, is not uncommon in the history of the Orthodox Church; but rarely has it been exercised to such great effect as in America by generations of immigrant Orthodox priests and bishops. Until 1965, with one exception, all Orthodox bishops in America were foreign-born; until the 1970’s, a majority of priests were as well. In a community that came increasingly to value its “unchanging” nature in a rapidly changing society, the change that did occur was the result of the initiative of these ethnarchs. The history of the Orthodox in North America in the era of the hibernating ethnic churches, therefore, is largely the personal stories of its foreign-born hierarchs.
Archbishop Athenagoras (Spirou)
Among the most successful of Orthodox ethnarchs was the Greek Archbishop Athenagoras (1886-1972). As late as 1930, the rabid feud between “royalists” and “Venizelists” continued to impoverish the Greek immigrant community in America. Recognizing the need for compromise after the death of Venezilos, the Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate agreed to send the young, progressive Bishop of Corfu, Athenagoras (Spirou), to the United States to reconcile the two factions. Athenagoras took up this difficult task in February 1931. Centralizing the administration of the archdiocese in his own person, Athenagoras unilaterally suppressed the separate dioceses, creating one large archdiocese under his direct control. The other Greek-American bishops were induced to become his powerless auxiliaries, or forcibly retired. Athenagoras then proceeded to skillfully coerce two, sometimes even three, splintered Greek communities into a single parish again. Parishes were reestablished where political controversy had caused earlier communities to fail. Totally new parishes in heretofore under-served areas were opened. Parochial Greek language schools were established—a trend which continued under Athenagoras’ leadership until after the Second World War. Athenagoras created a national women’s auxiliary (the Philoptochos Society, 1932) and began a bilingual national Church publication (The Orthodox Observer, 1934). He built a national Greek orphanage (St Basil’s) near New York City in 1944. The need for academically trained priests in America led Athenagoras to organize a Greek seminary in Pomfret, Connecticut, which later became Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts (1947). By implementing a nation-wide system of remittances to the archdiocese, Athenagoras created a solid financial base for future growth. Despite early opposition, Athenagoras united an entire people (in Greek: ethnos) under his personal leadership (in Greek: ethnarchia) in the course of his sixteen-year archpastorate.
In 1948, Athenagoras, like Metaxakis before him, was elected Ecumenical Patriarch. It is a measure of ethnic pride that Greek Americans still recount how President Truman ordered Air Force One to fly the Archbishop to Turkey for his installation. Athenagoras’ pastoral concern for America did not diminish in his new capacity. As Patriarch, Athenagoras appointed both his successors in America: the introspective Archbishop Michael of Corinth (1948-1958), and the pragmatic Archbishop Iakovos (Coucouzes) (1959-present). The latter has become America’s most prominent Orthodox spokesman through participation in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, ecumenical activity, and highly visible appearances with national political candidates, both Democratic and Republican. While not renouncing his role as ethnarch, the natural growth of the archdiocese to include more than 600 parishes and more than a million members has led Archbishop Iakovos to gradually decentralize personal control of the archdiocese Athenagoras established. In 1975, Iakovos, with the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, created ten regional dioceses, each led by its own diocesan bishop.
Archbishop Antony (Bashir)
Born in Lebanon in 1898, Antony Bashir came to America in 1922. For the next thirteen years the energetic Metropolitan Antony built churches, organized church societies, translated texts, and published original works in English. In 1936, he was chosen to lead the Antiochian Archdiocese of New York, the ethnic jurisdiction many of the Arab parishes of the former American diocese had joined. In his thirty years as archbishop (1936-1966), the gregarious Metropolitan Antony molded his archdiocese into the most administratively efficient, financially secure, and tight-knit Orthodox jurisdiction in America. Unlike many other ethnarchs, however, Metropolitan Antony recognized the pastoral need of the assimilated Arab Orthodox community for American expressions of Orthodoxy. Thus Metropolitan Antony took the lead in introducing the use of English in liturgical services throughout his archdiocese, in encouraging Sunday School programs, in accepting American converts into the Church, and being among the first to ordain many of the latter into the Orthodox priesthood. Between 1940-1965, the Antiochian Archdiocese took the lead in publishing in English more than 30 books on the Orthodox faith. Despite its significantly smaller size, the Antiochian Archdiocese became, through Metropolitan Antony’s efforts, one of the three major Orthodox jurisdictions in America (together with the Greek Archdiocese and the Metropolia). Following his death in 1966, Metropolitan Antony’s legacy was continued by an equally forceful Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) (1966-present). Saliba, also from Lebanon, united the feuding Antiochian Dioceses of New York and Toledo into one united archdiocese in 1975. Author, pastor, and Orthodox activist, Metropolitan Philip remains a central figure in both the Arab and Orthodox communities in America.
Bishop Polycarp (Morusca) and Archbishop Valerian (Trifa)
The history of Romanian Orthodoxy in America is intimately associated with two ethnarchs: Bishop Polycarp (Morusca) and his successor, Archbishop Valerian (Trifa). The dispersed and transitory nature of the Romanian immigration in North America hindered the establishment of specifically Romanian parishes, as well as the establishment of ecclesiastical order among them. Only in 1929—some twenty-five years after the first Romanian parish was established—was a congress of Romanian parishes throughout North America held in Detroit. There an “autonomous missionary episcopate,” under the canonical jurisdiction of the Holy Synod of Romania, was proposed. The Romanian Church elected Polycarp, a 52-year old abbot who had previously served as an assistant to the Metropolitan of Transylvania, to serve as its first hierarch.
Upon his arrival in America in 1935 Polycarp declared: “I accept you as I found you, but from now on, we shall have order and discipline..” It was not an idle promise. Despite attacks by the immigrant Romanian press, Polycarp, in the same manner as the Greek Athenagoras, united the diocese. He visited scattered parishes, established a weekly diocesan newspaper (Solia), organized women’s and children’s auxiliaries, and purchased a diocesan center (the Vatra) near Jackson, Michigan. Having put his house in order, Polycarp returned to Romania in the summer of 1939 to report on his American ministry.
The outbreak of World War II, and the subsequent installation of a Communist government after the war, prevented Polycarp from ever returning to America. In 1947, as part of a general campaign against the church, the Communist government forcibly retired Polycarp to an isolated village in the Transylvanian mountains. It officially abolished the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate in America. The Episcopate, however, refused to disband.
Bowing to the stubborn Romanian-Americans, Bucharest then appointed a new Bishop, Antim (Nica), charging him with taking control of the rebellious diocese. The Romanian parishes wanted Polycarp to return and refused to recognize the new bishop’s authority. More significantly, they did not allow Antim into the Vatra, or to visit their parishes.
To break this stand-off, the Romanian government, again bowing to the inevitable, dismissed Antim, and secretly arranged for the consecration of a Romanian-American priest, Andrei (Moldovan), to be the bishop of a “new” diocesan structure for Romanians in America to be named “The Romanian Orthodox Missionary Episcopate in America.” A series of long and costly court cases ensued as Romanian-Americans questioned the legality, legitimacy, and loyalties of the new jurisdiction.
In 1951, all but two Romanian parishes felt compelled to openly break ties with Bucharest. Rejecting Andrei, they chose a lay theologian, Viorel Trifa, to be bishop for the continuing episcopate. A well-known and controversial political figure in pre-war Romania, Archbishop Valerian (Trifa), as he came to be known, provided the leadership that rallied the episcopate. Under his direction, the number of priests and parishes grew dramatically; the diocesan center at the Vatra was expanded; religious education flourished; summer camps and annual conferences were established. In 1960, the archbishop united the Episcopate with the largely Slavic Metropolia, thereby laying the foundations for the multi-ethnic Orthodox Church in America some ten years later.
Unfortunately, Archbishop Valerian’s very public successes were the catalyst for a campaign against him. Accused by Jewish groups of inciting anti-Semitic pogroms in pre-war Romania, a charge he always vigorously denied. Trifa was branded in the American press as the “Nazi Archbishop.” Radical Jewish groups bombed Romanian Orthodox churches in New York. The archbishop was forced to go into hiding after repeated threats on his life. After years of fruitless court battles to prove his innocence, however, the archbishop voluntarily renounced his American citizenship in 1983 to spare the episcopate further financial and public difficulty. Trifa resigned as diocesan bishop and left for exile in Portugal. He died there in 1987.
Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich)
More typical of the Russian style of ethnarchy, Metropolitan Leonty (Turkevich) guided the largely-Slavic Metropolia between 1950-1965. If the Greek Athenagoras, the Romanian Valerian, and the Arab Antony all centralized their administrations, the two former in order to unite and the latter to create, the gentle Leonty remained committed to the ideal of conciliarity. Moreover, while other ethnarchs directed their energies to building up their ethnic communities, the Russian Leonty, having come to America at the insistence of the missionary Archbishop Tikhon early in the century, remained steadfast in his belief that Orthodoxy had a vocation to reach out to a broader, American audience.
The future metropolitan arrived in North America from Russia 1906 as a young priest, newly married and newly ordained. He was appointed the first rector of the new seminary in Minneapolis. As the editor of the archdiocese’s official newspaper (1914-1930), Fr Leonid, as he was then known, was one of three American delegates to the All-Russian Council of 1917. He was intensely proud that he had been asked to officially place Archbishop Tikhon’s name in nomination as Patriarch of Russia. Upon his long delayed return from war-torn Russia, through Siberia and Japan, Turkevich found the American diocese in collapse (1920). Turkevich quickly resumed his position as one of the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the now diminished Metropolia. Widowed in 1925, consecrated bishop in 1933 (with the monastic name of Leonty), Turkevich became metropolitan and head of the largest of the Slavic-American Orthodox jurisdictions in 1950. As a priest in the former American diocese, the new Metropolitan Leonty saw no contradiction in unfaltering loyalty to his Russian roots, fidelity to the Russian Church, and a commitment to an independent, multi-ethnic Orthodox Church in America.
To this end, Leonty worked to make the All-American Council an integral, rather than occasional, part of the governance of the Metropolia. In comparison with the other jurisdictions, the administrative life of the Metropolia often appeared confusing. For example, the decision of the 1937 “All-American” Council to re-establish a seminary for the training of priests in America resulted in the struggling jurisdiction’s establishing not one, but two different and often competing schools. In 1938, St Vladimir’s Seminary, a graduate school of theology, opened in New York City; while in the same year St Tikhon’s, a pastoral school for the training of parish priests, was created in conjunction with St Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.
In retrospect, perhaps Leonty’s most enduring contribution was to encourage active lay participation in the church. Other Orthodox ethnarchs kept a tight reign on any lay (or even clergy) initiatives. To the joy of some, and the chagrin of others, it was said that the aged metropolitan “blessed everything.” Such openness resulted in many creative opportunities: between 1950-1965, lay initiative opened the Metropolia to the suburbs through the creation of new, English-speaking, multi-ethnic parishes. Women were admitted to Orthodox seminaries for the first time; and women pioneered the use of English-language religious materials even as they encouraged the creation of new, formal religious instruction sessions (Sunday Schools). It is noteworthy that Leonty himself edited the first series of English language religious education materials in America back in 1935.
With Leonty’s blessing inter-Orthodox cooperation across jurisdictional lines was begun on hierarchical, clergy, and lay levels. The Metropolia became a leading Orthodox ecumenical presence through membership in both the National Council of Churches (1950) and the World Council of Churches (1954). Under lay pressure, the largely Slavic jurisdiction moved steadily towards the use of English, an academically educated, American priesthood, and a new, multi-ethnic identity. In short, Metropolitan Leonty carried forward the vision that had inspired Archbishop Tikhon of North America a half-century earlier—the vision of a church that brought together and united immigrants, ethnics, and those who were just plain American.
Metropolitan Leonty’s policies and approach were subsequently adopted and carried forward by his successors, Metropolitan Ireney (Bekish) (1965-1977) and Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor) (1977-present). Both were strongly to support the conciliar system of governance that has become characteristic of the Metropolia (after 1970, the Orthodox Church in America). Both encouraged the theological and eucharistic revival being promoted by the teachers and graduates of the Metropolia’s (OCA’s) St Vladimir’s Seminary. Both were to strive tirelessly for the creation of a united Orthodoxy in America.
The Enduring Ethnic Churches
After the multiple traumas of war, revolution and exile, nationalistic jurisdictions led by ethnarchs answered a need for identity, continuity, and purpose in the bustle of an indifferent America. For some, today, those needs remain. Thus, the ethnic churches can always count on a fundamental level of support to justify their continuing and separate existences, in direct violation of the canonical and theological traditions of Orthodoxy.
On a larger scale, however, it was decades of cultural hibernation, unbridled ethnicity and strong ethnarchs that enabled the “jurisdictional solution” to assume a life of its own beyond the immediate needs out of which the jurisdictions arose. Today, ethnic churches are no longer a “solution.” Indeed, for ever-increasing numbers of Orthodox Christians in North America, ethnic jurisdictions have become the “problem.”
 Archpriest Constantine Popoff in Orthodox America, pp 212-13.
 The one exception was Archbishop Benjamin (Basalyga), born in Olyphant, Pennsylvania to Russian immigrants in 1887. A devoted Pirates fan, Benjamin served as the Metropolia’s Archbishop of Pittsburgh (1933-1946, 1952-1963), and as head of the Japanese Orthodox Church (1946-1952).