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Russian Orthodox Church in North America

Russian Orthodox Church in North America/Russkaia pravoslavnaia tserkov’ v Sievernoi Amerikie — American church of Russian origin with a large number of members of Carpatho-Rusyn background. The Russian Orthodox Church in North America was originally established in 1794 in Russia’s colony of Alaska. After Alaska was purchased by the United States (1867), the church was based in San Francisco, California. In 1891 the Rusyn Greek Catholic parish of Minneapolis, Minnesota, led by Father Alexis *Toth, “returned to Orthodoxy” and placed itself under the Russian Orthodox bishop of San Francisco. By 1909 Toth had convinced about 25,000 Greek Catholics (mostly Lemko immigrants from Galicia) to join the Orthodox Church. The number of new Orthodox parishes among Carpatho-Rusyns in the northeastern United States increased to such an extent that it was renamed (1900) the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in North America and its episcopal seat was transferred to New York City.

To accommodate the new membership, the Russian Orthodox Church created in 1916 the Carpatho-Russian subdiocese of Pittsburgh, headed by a recent Greek Catholic convert, Bishop Stephen/Alexander *Dzubay (reigned 1916-1924). He was succeeded by Bishop Adam Philipovsky (1881-1956). Philipovsky was consecrated in 1922 and later appointed archbishop of Philadelphia and the Carpatho-Russians, responsible for 30 to 40 parishes under the jurisdiction first of the Metropolia (1936) and later of the Moscow Patriarchal Exarchate (1944).

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917) cut off America’s Orthodox from the mother church in Moscow. In the absence of ecclesiastical authority, the church in the United States divided into several jurisdictions. The largest of these was the “temporary” self-governing Russian Orthodox Church, known popularly as the Metropolia. Because of its “Great Russian” orientation, the Metropolia did not attract the new wave of post-1929 Rusyn converts from Greek Catholicism, who instead formed their own *American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church (the “Johnstown Diocese”) under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1949, however, about 14 parishes broke with Johnstown and formed their own diocese, the so-called Carpatho-Russian People’s Church, administered by Father Andrew Slepecky/Shlepets’kyi (1894-1976). Within two years (1951) this break-away diocese had placed itself under the Russian Orthodox Metropolia, where it continued to function as a distinct administration until the 1960s.

The relationship of the Metropolia itself with the mother church was finally regulated in 1970, when Moscow recognized the self-governing status (autocephaly) of a new body called the Orthodox Church of America.

The Russian Orthodox Church was traditionally viewed by many Rusyn-American immigrants as a place where their Eastern traditions could be preserved, although, as it turned out, often at the expense of their own local traditions. Rusyns who joined the Russian Orthodox Church were encouraged to learn the Russian language (through church-run schools for children) and to adopt a Russian national identity. Even the traditional *Carpathian plainchant (prostopiniie) was eventually replaced with Russian choral chant in many churches. Particularly important in propagating a Russian identity were the bi-monthly newspaper published in Russian and English, Pravoslavnyi amerikanskii viestnik/Russian Orthodox American Messenger (1896-1973); church-related fraternal societies, such as the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society/Russkoe pravoslavnoe kafolicheskoe obshchestvo vzaimopomoshchi (1895) and the United Russian Orthodox Brotherhood/Hreko-kaftoliceskoje russkoje pravoslavnoje sojedinenije (1915); Orthodox missionary schools and seminaries in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1897-1912), Tenafly, New Jersey (1912-1922), New York City and later Crestwood, New York (1938- ), and at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Monastery (1905) in South Canaan, Pennsylvania (1938- ); and the popular education organization, the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs (1927).

Some Rusyn priests, like Bishop Dzubay, tried, although ultimately without success, to create a distinct Rusyn (Carpatho-Russian) diocese; others, like Alexis Toth, Stefen *Varzaly, and Peter *Kohanik, argued through sermons and publications that Rusyns were a branch of the Russian nationality whose only acceptable religious tradition was Russian Orthodoxy. Since the creation in 1970 of the Orthodox Church of America, headed by the American-born Metropolitan bishop of Lemko background, Theodosius Lazor (b. 1933), there has been a concerted effort to disassociate the church from any ethnic group. Most Orthodox descendants of the early Rusyn immigrants have no awareness of their original ethnic heritage, although one newspaper, the Orthodox Herald (1952- ), edited by Father Basil Stroyen, promotes knowledge of the Rusyn heritage, a subject that was also highlighted when the “father of American Rus’ Orthodoxy,” Alexis Toth, was canonized in 1994.

Bibliography: Iubileinyi sbornik v pamiat’ 150-lietiia Russkoi Pravoslavnoi Tserkvi v Sievernoi Amerikie, 2 vols. (New York, 1944-45); Constance J. Tarasar and John H. Erikson, eds., Orthodox America, 1794-1976 (New York, 1975).

Paul Robert Magocsi

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.
http://www.uoftbookstore.com/online/merchant.ihtml?pid=137163&step=4

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