Orthodox wedding party on St. Paul Island, ca. 1898.
Orthodoxy in America first began to blossom in Alaska in the early 1800s. This was not, however the first attempt to bring the Church to America. The other attempts were quite feeble and half-hearted and never really got off the ground. Andrew Turnbull, a British entrepreneur tried to create a Greek Orthodox settlement at New Smyrna near St. Augustine Florida in 1768. His plans were thwarted by disease and an unbearable work environment.
The first major real inroad was made when a trading post was set up on Kodiak Island by Gregory Shelikhov, a Siberian Merchant who traded furs, and wanted a monopoly for his company. He sought help from St. Petersburg and told them that he had managed to convert many natives to Orthodoxy, which was, of course, a bold-faced lie.
St Herman of Alaska
Whatever the moral failings of Shelikhov may have been, he was the catalyst for bringing the first successful Orthodox missionaries to America. Fr Herman is the most famous of the initial eight monk missionary team sent from Valaam Monastery in Russia to Alaska, as a response to Shelikhov’s testimony. Herman was canonized in 1970 and was the first American Orthodox saint.
Fr Innocent, who was also canonized, might be compared to St Cyril, who evangelized the Slavs about 1000 years earlier by creating a language for them. St Innocent created an alphabet for the Aleuts, in order to make it easier to perform divine liturgies and read the scriptures.
St Innocent of Alaska
Orthodoxy had taken off in Alaska and it grew mostly through Alaskan converts rather than Russian immigrants. Bishop Gregory Afononksy in his History of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska writes that in 1860, a “report of a government inspector [estimated] the number of native Alaskan Christians at 12,000, in 43 communities, with 35 chapels, 9 churche…17 schools and 3 or 4 orphanages.”
Orthodox church growth outside of Alaska was slow however. Again, there were small and feeble attempts without much success at first. Surprisingly, many efforts to grow Orthodoxy in America were combined efforts from Russians and Greeks. This betrays the distinction we see today between the Greek and Russian Orthodox in America. In 1864, a local Greek consul in New Orleans gave its permission to form what The Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches considers to be “the first Orthodox parish in the mainland United States. Like other Orthodox parishes before the age of mass immigration from southern and eastern Europe, this Eastern Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity was multi-ethnic, with Greek, Russian, Serbian, and Arab members.”
St Alexis Toth
Shortly after, Russian Orthodoxy started to gain prominence in San Francisco. Major growth was spurred by the conversion of Alexis Toth, who had been a priest in the Greek Uniate Catholic church. In 1989, Toth was refused a parish by Roman Catholic bishop John Ireland, who denied that the Uniate Churches were part of the Catholic Church. This spurred Toth’s conversion to Orthodoxy and by 1917, 163 communities of Carpatho Russians joined the Russian North American archdiocese. Although the initial beginnings in San Francisco were somewhat of a joint effort between the Greeks and Russians, the churches were nevertheless under the control of the Russians. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the Russian Orthodox to balance being a missionary church and a home for Russian immigrants, while also maintaining a united Orthodox church in lieu of increasing immigration from Greeks.
According to The Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Churches, “from 1890-1904, ten Greek Orthodox parishes were established [in the United States]…By 1922, the number of parishes had swelled to 141.”
Greek immigration kept increasing until the mid-1900s when there were more than 400 parishes. By 1948, under Archishop Athenagoras Spyrou, the Greek Orthodox surpassed the Russians as America’s largest Orthodox jurisdiction.
Greek Orthodox Funeral, December 23, 1908
Other Orthodox jurisdictions that came to America during the 20s and 30s include the Serbs, the Albanians, the Antiochians, Romanians and Bulgarians.
The Communist revolution in Russia had an impact on church life in America in a number of different ways. The Serbs, who were originally under the Russian Archbishop in New York, moved into the diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church when the revolution began.
With Patriarch Tikhon imprisoned, there were many convoluted attempts to gain control of the Russian church in America, but in 1924, the Russian North American Archdiocese was proclaimed a self-governing church until a politically free Russian council could assess their status.
By the 1960s, the North American Archdiocese, also known as the “Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America” changed its name to the “Orthodox Church in America.”
Some still question the Orthodox Church in America’s (abbreviated as the OCA) status as an autocephalous church, but it has operated as such for more than forty years, and is acknowledged as canonical by several major churches in Eastern Europe.
St Tikhon of Moscow, 1865-1925
There were hopes that the OCA would help lead Eastern Orthodoxy into unity in America. Unfortunately, the OCA has not inspired any major moves in this regard.
The North American Episcopal Assembly was put together and met in May 2010 as an attempt to unify the Orthodox situation in America, but all major decisions concerning ecclesiastical life are still made by each jurisdiction’s mother church. Nevertheless, plans are in place for a Pan-Orthodox Council to take place around 2016.
 Krindatch, Alexei. American Orthodox Christian Churches. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2011, 9
 Ibid, 9
 Ibid, 9
 Afonsky, Bishop Gregory. A History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska (1794-1917). Kodiak, Alaska: St Herman’s Theological Seminary, 1977, 95
 Krindatch, American Orthodox Christian Churches, 10
 Erickson, John H. Orthodox Christians in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 56.
 Krindatch, American Orthodox Churches, 13.
 Krindatch, American Orthodox Christian Churches, 56
 Ibid, 15
 Ibid, 17