Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC is one of the most beautiful Orthodox temples in America. It is located in a prestigious neighborhood near the Vice President’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue, just steps from the Washington National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church and Embassy Row. It was, therefore, most fitting that this majestic church, completed in the early 1960s, was designated the see of the Primate of the Orthodox Church in America when the OCA’s newest US diocese was established 35 years ago on January 1, 1981. In the early 1990s, every inch of its interior of St. Nicholas Cathedral was adorned with magnificent iconography befitting a primatial cathedral.
The Holy Synod announced its decision to create the Diocese of Washington at the 6th All-American Council in November 1980. The dual objectives were to locate the Primate’s see in the nation’s capital in accordance with historic precedent, and to unencumber the Primate by assigning him a diocese smaller both territorially and by number of parishes, thereby freeing time for him to fulfill his church-wide responsibilities. Thus, Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor), who had been elected OCA Primate in 1977, became the first ruling bishop of the diocese, and he would remain in this position for over two decades until his retirement in 2002.
Prior to the relocation of the Primate’s see to Washington, New York had been the see of the Head of what is now the Orthodox Church in America ever since the see was transferred from San Francisco at the very beginning of the 20th century. By 1980, the diocese of the OCA Metropolitan - who was then Archbishop of New York - comprised 49 parishes in four states (New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia) and the District of Columbia, and even included a dozen parishes in Florida and North Carolina prior to the creation of the Diocese of the South in 1978.
The history of the Church’s witness in the nation’s capital can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Orthodox hierarchs and other church officials would travel to meet with the President and other US government leaders to plead on behalf of the Church in Alaska and the Alaskan Natives, who were being subjected to the US government’s policies of “cultural assimilation” and “Americanization” following Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. One noteworthy event during this period was a concert for the President at the White House in February 1914 by the choir of New York’s Saint Nicholas Cathedral.
However, no significant settlement of Orthodox Christians in Washington occurred until the arrival of immigrants from Russia following the 1917 Revolution. In the 1930s, a church community formed, and its growth after World War II lead to the eventual establishment of a see in the nation’s capital for auxiliary bishops to the Metropolitan. Prior to the establishment of the diocese, the following hierarchs were auxiliary bishops of Washington, DC, with simultaneous responsibilities elsewhere:
Bishop Jonah (Stahlberg) 1951-5
Bishop Kiprian (Borisevich) 1961-4
Bishop Theodosius (Lazor) 1967
Bishop Dmitri (Royster) 1970-2
Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) 1980
Although the following hierarchs had no responsibilities within the diocese, as auxiliary bishops to the Metropolitan they were given Baltimore (which was in the Primate’s diocese) as their titular see before becoming ruling hierarchs of their own dioceses:
Nikolai (Soraich) 2001
Nikon (Liolin) 2002-3
Mark (Maymon) 2011-4
Similarly, Bishop Mark (Forsberg) was granted the title Titular Bishop of Bethesda (Maryland) when his tenure as ruling hierarch of the Albanian Archdiocese ended in 1984. Following his service as auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of the South from 1985 to 1991, Bishop Mark was again named Titular Bishop of Bethesda and continued to hold that title until 2001, although he had no responsibilities within the diocese.
Additionally, after his retirement as ruling hierarch of the Diocese of the West in 1984, Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) relocated from San Francisco to Washington, DC, where he actively continued his broadcast ministry to Russia while also serving and preaching, particularly at St. Nicholas Cathedral, until his repose in 1999.
In the spring of 2005, during the primacy of Metropolitan Herman (Swaiko, 2002-8), the Holy Synod of Bishops decided to consolidate the dioceses of Washington and New York/New Jersey into a single entity, modifying the Primate’s title to “Archbishop of Washington and New York”. However, four years later, in July 2009, after the election of Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) as OCA Primate (2008-12), the Synod reversed its decision, reestablishing the two separate dioceses.
Although the Primate’s official residence and chancery have remained at historic “Westwood” in Syosset (Oyster Bay Cove), NY, the cathedral in Washington, D.C. has been the venue for concelebration with visiting Orthodox Primates and hierarchs from throughout the world, as well as for significant gatherings and events, including the installation of new OCA Primates.
The diocese is small, consisting of only five parishes at its founding, which have since doubled in number. Being the see of the OCA Primate, the Archdiocese of Washington is unique in that its Archdiocesan Assembly does not nominate candidates for ruling hierarch of their archdiocese, as is the case in the other dioceses of the Orthodox Church in America. Instead, the ruling hierarch of the Archdiocese is nominated by the All-American Council. The new OCA Statute adopted in 2015 has permanently fixed the Archdiocese as the Primate’s see. Whereas the previous Statute had stated that the Metropolitan is to be “the diocesan bishop of one of the dioceses of the Church”, the new Statute stipulates that he “is the ruling archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington” (Article IV, Section 1). In 2015, the Holy Synod conferred archdiocesan status on the primatial see of Washington, which had been colloquially known as an archdiocese for several years.
As the Archdiocese of Washington marks its 35th anniversary this year, may it grow both spiritually and numerically under the leadership of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard), who has been its ruling hierarch since 2012. May it ever more faithfully serve Christ and continue to strengthen the witness of His Holy Church in the nation’s capital, as well as in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.