In 1898, the Russian Orthodox Church entrusted its rapidly expanding missionary diocese in North America to one of its youngest hierarchs, the 33-year old Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin). Tikhon served as the head of the missionary diocese for nine eventful years (1898-1907), during which time the missionary diocese grew into a multi-ethnic American diocese, and ultimately, an emerging immigrant Church.
Following his re-assignment to Russia in 1907, Tikhon became in succession the Archbishop of Jaroslavl, the Archbishop of Vilnius (Lithuania), the Metropolitan of Moscow, and in the after math of the October Revolution (1917), the first Patriarch of Russia in more than 200 years. Persecuted by the Communists, Patriarch Tikhon died while under house arrest in 1925. To the joy of his former flock in America, Tikhon was canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989.
From Missionary Diocese to Multi-Ethnic American Diocese
Early in his tenure in North America, Tikhon realized that the missionary diocese, as then organized, was unequal to the tasks assigned to it. The young bishop initiated a series of dramatic changes. In 1903, Tikhon consecrated an auxiliary bishop specifically for Alaska. In 1904, he consecrated a second auxiliary to administer the Arab parishes of the missionary diocese. In 1905, Tikhon moved the diocesan administration from San Francisco to New York to be closer to the centers of Uniate conversions and Orthodox immigration in the Northeast.
That same year (1905), in a report to the Holy Synod of Russia, Tikhon proposed a more fundamental reorganization of the missionary diocese. In keeping with the changes he had begun, Tikhon proposed that the Russian-supported missionary diocese evolve into a self-supporting, multi-ethnic, American diocese composed of distinct auxiliary dioceses for each Orthodox group in America. He noted that the missionary diocese
...is composed not only of different nationalities…which though one in faith, have their peculiarities in canonical order, the office ritual, and in parish life. These peculiarities are dear to each, and altogether tolerable from a general Orthodox point of view. This is why we do not consider that we have the right to interfere; on the contrary, [we should] try to preserve them, giving each a chance to be governed directly by chiefs of the same nationality.
In addition to the already existing “Russian” diocese of New York and “Arab” diocese of Brooklyn, Tikhon proposed adding a Serbian “diocese of Chicago” as well as a “Greek” diocese. In effect, Tikhon was the first to recognize that Orthodoxy in America had grown beyond a single missionary diocese, but was, in fact, an emerging immigrant church.
In keeping with the ancient practice of the Orthodox Church, and in the spirit of American democracy, Tikhon suggested that the emerging immigrant church be allowed to adopt a conciliar form of administration. This was a most radical proposal given the state-dominated, clerical and bureaucratic Orthodox churches of Europe and the Middle East. Tikhon hoped that by having clergy and laity work together, the thorny administrative and canonical issues involved with the trustee control of immigrant parishes would find their resolution. After a series of preparatory clergy conferences in 1905 and 1906, the missionary diocese finally held its first “All-American” council, composed of clergy and lay delegates, in February 1907, in Mayfield, Pennsylvania. Tikhon reluctantly sailed for his new appointment in Russia the following month.
After Tikhon’s departure, few of his remaining plans for the immigrant church could be implemented. His plan for ethnically administered dioceses was consistently postponed. The fundamental missionary vocation of the new multi-ethnic American diocese, however, did not change. Indeed, under Tikhon’s successors, Archbishop Platon (1907-1914) and Archbishop Evdokim (1914-1917), Uniate conversions and new Orthodox immigrant parishes continued to increase.
The Vision of Archbishop Tikhon
Tikhon publicly stated his belief that the emerging immigrant church would eventually possess the institutional and spiritual maturity to develop into a truly American body. At that future time the Orthodox in America would naturally require administrative independence (autocephaly) from the Russian Church. This vision of a future, independent, and indigenous Orthodox Church in North America, first articulated by Tikhon, was given institutional substance through his leadership.
When it moved from Sitka to San Francisco in 1870, the Russian mission operated 17 parishes schools and 4 orphanages throughout native villages in Alaska. No friend of Orthodoxy, the American territorial governor would complain twenty years later (1887) that the missionary diocese, now operating 43 parish schools, was still spending more on education of native peoples in Alaska than the United States government.
Education assumed a new importance in the era of mass immigration and mass conversion. “I have decided to found a seminary for young people born in America, who intend, as most of the priests from Russia, to stay there for good,” the bishop confided in 1904 to Basil Bensin, a future professor at the seminary. “This seminary would not be like the Russian ecclesiastical seminaries,” Tikhon continued. “We must establish a school to fit the needs of the people in America.”
To assist the American-born, the newly-converted, and future Russian missionaries to America, Bishop Tikhon created an Orthodox seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1905. Unlike the first Orthodox seminary in North America, created by St. Innocent in Sitka in 1840, the new seminary conducted classes in English and Russian, as well as liturgical services in both English and Slavonic. In 1912, the seminary moved east to Tenafly, New Jersey, in order to be closer to the diocesan administration in New York. From 1912-1923, St. Platon’s Seminary enrolled 78 male students. In the same period (1916), an unaccredited “Russian Women’s College” was established in Brooklyn to offer “refined, educated ladies” vocational training as nurses and teachers in the American diocese.
Many parishes also formed schools, which typically met on Saturdays or after school on weekdays (unlike the Protestant “Sunday schools”). These humble schools, conducted by the parish priest, offered instruction in religion, language, church music, and national culture. “Each row was a different grade,” remembered one immigrant:
Each desk was about six feet long with a bench attached. It would seat three large children and four smaller ones. Heat was supplied by a potbelly stove. If you had an apple you were allowed to bake it on the stove… Classes started by singing a prayer at five o’clock and closed with a prayer at seven o’clock. Classes started two weeks before the American school opened, and lasted until two weeks after the American schools closed. These classes ran five days a week. You see, you only had an hour after the “regular” school to eat supper, relax or play. There was also choir practice twice a week, which everybody attended. There were no delinquents in those days. They were too busy. Punishment was quick and often. No one complained to their parents, because if they did, they got a double dose at home. There was tuition too. It cost twenty-five cents a month, and you paid for your own books.
In tune with the Progressive Era (1905-1917), the American diocese established and sponsored the “Russian Orthodox Christian Immigrant Society of North America” (1908-1918). With offices on Ellis Island and in Washington, DC, the Society assisted new immigrants from Austria-Hungary and Russia with food, clothing, and shelter. A bank, the “Russian St. Vladimir’s National Home Private Banking Association,” (1915) was created to keep the monies of the newly arrived safe. The diocese also created an Orthodox orphanage (Brooklyn, 1914), and the first two Orthodox monasteries in the United States, “St. Tikhon’s” for men in South Canaan, Pennsylvania (1905), and “Holy Virgin Protection” for women in Springfield, Vermont (1915).
The rapid growth of Orthodox Christianity in North America between 1870-1920 can be traced through a lively and expanding immigrant Orthodox press, both ecclesiastical and secular. Specific information on Orthodox Church life in North America was first available in San Francisco’s Slavonian (1871), and later through the well-known Oriental Church Magazine (New York, 1878-1883) published by the convert priest Nicholas Bjerring. From 1897 on, the official bilingual missionary diocesan publication, The Russian Orthodox American Messenger, appeared regularly, usually on a monthly basis. Although the first English translation of the Orthodox liturgy was published by Dr. Orlov in London in 1870, by 1910, translations of all the basic services of the Orthodox Church were available in North America. The most famous collection of this era, the 1906 Service Book of the Holy Orthodox Church, translated and edited by the American Episcopalian, Isabel Hapgood, at the request of Bishop Tikhon, is still in use. Hapgood’s ecumenical gesture was typical of the warm and friendly relations that had been created between the Orthodox missionary diocese and the Protestant Episcopal Church in America.
Although most parishes constructed their own houses of worship, the expansion of the missionary diocese (growing from 10 continental parishes in 1890 to more than 350 in 1917) was financially enabled by annual grants from the Russian Church through the Imperial (Russian) Missionary Society. In 1916, the new American diocese, now among the largest of the 65 dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church, requested an annual allotment of $1,000,000; it received, however, only half that amount. No small sum in its day, these monies paid for the diocesan administration, the salaries of all parish priests, aid for diocesan monasteries and schools, missionary grants to new parishes, and the diocese’s expanding network of immigrant social services. In later, more troubled times this financial dependence of the American diocese on foreign sources was to prove a near-fatal weakness.
From Immigrant Church to North American Diocese
As a result of Archbishop Tikhon’s vision and leadership, the missionary diocese underwent significant administration changes, institutional expansion, and spiritual growth between 1898-1920. To accomplish these goals, Tikhon recruited and relied heavily on a dedicated corps of talented missionaries: among them Fr Vladimir Alexandrov, the first Orthodox missionary to Canada; Fr Alexander Hotovitzky, who was to perish in a Soviet concentration camp in the 1930’s; the Greek Fr Michael Andreades; a convert American, the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Irvine; Fr Alexander Kukulevsky; and two other Russians who would eventually become leaders of the diocese themselves, Fr Theodore Pashkovsky (as Metropolitan Theophilus, 1934-1950) and Fr Leonid Turkevich (as Metropolitan Leonty, 1950-1965). Such men, inspired by Tikhon’s vision of an eventual “American Church,” helped transform a small missionary diocese into an American diocese. Indeed, given its size, numbers, and multi-ethnic composition, the American diocese was quickly emerging as an “immigrant church” in its own right.