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Nov-25-2008 16:11printcomments

Orthodox Christianity Comes to America

Members are jealous and protective of their religion. At the headquarters of the Orthodox Church in America I learned of a satellite church opened in Japan where services were being conducted in Japanese to the disapproval of the secretary.

Russian Orthodox Church in San Francisco, California
Russian Orthodox Church in San Francisco, California
Photo courtesy: lh4.ggpht.com

(PASO ROBLES, Calif.) - In one of my History classes at SFSU students were asked to write a term paper on a subject of their choice. I chose as my subject Fort Ross, the only vestige of Russian occupation in California.

The chain of Spanish Missions in California begun in the 18th Century was intended in part to prevent Russia from extending its claim in California. But Russia was interested in sea otter for commercial exploitation, not expansion. In 1841 when the otter population was virtually depleted Russia voluntarily withdrew its people from Fort Ross and resettled them to its Sitka-base far to the north. I wanted to know if, after the withdrawal any Russians remained in California, none did.

In 1789 Spain stopped a British ship in Nootka Sound off the west coast of Vancouver Island and arrested its captain who was rudely sent to Mexico City to be tried for coveting Spanish territory, an act that infuriated the Brits. Spain had claimed the Island simply by planting its flag on it and reciting a few words about God and King. A dispute arose that in 1790 became an agreement that required that, to be valid, Spain’s claim had to be justified by occupation, not just symbols.. The Nootka Sound Controversy, as it came to be known, sent ripples around the world that became the basis for settlement of numerous international disputes, and was an impetus to Spain to consolidate and complete its mission chain from San Diego in the south to San Rafael north of the golden Gate. New missions were built to fill the gaps between existing Missions, each a days ride apart, a task that was finished in about two decades.

The best source for information about Russians I was told was the Orthodox Church in America with headquarters in San Francisco; I made an appointment. I spoke first with Archbishop John who passed me off to bishop Vladimir because, I concluded, we were talking apples and oranges due to a misunderstanding. I wanted to know about Ft. Ross, but he spoke of Russian Churches in San Francisco of which there were three; (1). His dominant Orthodox Church in America established in 1863 as an autocephalous-entity [an Eastern Orthodox church governed by an elected Archbishop or Patriarch]; (2). The Patriarchal Orthodox Church, an extension of Russia’s Patriarch-Church, and (3). The Russian Orthodox Church in Exile. I spoke with leaders of all factions eventually, in favor of understanding why there were three Russian Churches, all headquartered in San Francisco, when normally one would suffice; here‘s how it happened:

Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, while gathering hides which represented the wealth of California missions, wrote of San Francisco from the deck of the ship Alert in 1835: “Six miles beyond the landing place . . . was a ruinous Presidio, and three miles to the left was the Mission Dolores, as ruinous as the Presidio. Over a region far beyond our sight there were no other human habitations, except . . . a shanty of rough boards,” etc.. Hides were scarce there too, but ”Twenty-four years after, on August 13th, 1859, he visited the bay area again and found San Francisco to be “a city of one-hundred thousand inhabitants,” - of diverse origin, some of whom were Russian - all of who responded to the lure of gold discovered in nearby foothills in 1849.

In 1863 a fleet of six Russian warships came to anchor in San Francisco Bay while the U.S. was in the throes of its civil war; Alaska had not yet been sold. Russian residents hungry for the cultural comforts of home, asked fleet-officers for equipage essential to Divine Services so they could establish an Orthodox Church on Van Ness Blvd., - still functioning when I visited it in the 1970s. It was the only Orthodox Church in America until latecomers of Orthodox persuasion preferred to have their own churches, proving religion to be both a cultural and national phenomenon.

The Orthodox Church in America chose to be self-governing, and elected its own Archbishop unaffiliated with Russia, and eventually exceeded its U.S. national bounds to include congregations in Mexico and Japan, each of which asked to be incorporated, and now may include more nationalities. I was curious to know how the Orthodox Church might deal with Guadalupe the patron Saint of Mexico, and was told she would be incorporated into the Orthodox pantheon as a deity of the Mexican religion collectively with Orthodoxy, which is Catholic after all, but a better choice than the Roman version as far as these Mexicans were concerned.

The timing of the Russian fleet’s arrival was perceived as a friendly gesture toward America, but some fifty years later Russian Archives revealed the fleet came to avoid being bottled up by the fleets of England and France should hostilities erupt. Myths are important in the making of history, but the fleet’s visit probably played an important role in paving the way for the purchase of Alaska by Secretary Seward four years later, and certainly was instrumental in introducing Orthodox Christianity to America.

The Patriarchal Church, number two of the three, is/was an attempt to maintain a connection with the Primate of the Church in Russia. Its congregation was/is very small, and when Archbishop Mark, whose name, I presume, is linked to the writer of a Gospel, succumbs, the Patriarchal wing is expected to be absorbed by the dominant Orthodox Church in America.

The outcome of the Church in Exile located at 27th Avenue and Geary Blvd. is less certain The Exiles supported a pretender to the Russian Throne and, I was told, was training a para-military group in anticipation of returning to become the church in Russia. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the need for such a plan has become moot. If the Exiles want to retain its connection to the Motherland, it might replace Archbishop Mark’s Patriarchal extension in America. Or it could merge with the Orthodox Church in America to create a single autocephalous-entity operating from the U.S., a decision that may already have been made, I wish I knew.

As part of my research, I attended a service at the Geary Blvd. Cathedral and found everything to be old-school and classical-Byzantine. The structure was new and beautiful. There are no pews, and worshippers glide casually from one spot to another during the service with tapers to light candles at icons of their choice. The mass is beautifully sung by priests of operatic skill and with voices and costume to match, supported by an invisible choir in the loft with voices every bit as lovely. No wonder the Russian people love their Church, and want to keep it to themselves.

. The Exiles were lead by their Archbishop John, now deceased, east through Russia and China arriving ultimately in the Philippines where they awaited permission to come to America. Their exodus took years. The Archbishop is entombed in the basement of the cathedral on Geary Blvd., and so far as I know, a successor had not then been named. The crypt is meticulously maintained, and my presence as an outsider was viewed as an intrusion in such a holy place; I did not linger

A friend who lived on 27th Avenue, not far from the Cathedral, dug up a hand-minted Russian coin [vintage 1860s] while I was visiting, and I took it to the Palace of the Legion of Honor to be checked, but its worth was small. It could have been made into a pendant but was lost during a “Show and Tell“ by one of my friend’s children who was allowed to take it to school. Somebody got a desirable souvenir, I wish it had been me.

At the headquarters of the Orthodox Church in America I learned a satellite-church was established in Japan where services were being conducted in Japanese, . Services are conducted in English, and I suspect in Spanish also, but the secretary at headquarters objected to the use of any tongue but Russian for services. Bishop Vladimir was very kind but failed to convince her of the value of conducting services in languages familiar to congregations. To her the ceremony and the Russian language were vital.

Comparing Orthodox to Roman Catholicism, Archbishop John - obviously a title of common usage, John being the writer of the last of the Gospels - said Orthodoxy was less “Institutional,” than is Roman Catholicism, though Orthodox Churches maintain their centuries-old traditions from before the Iconic Controversy and the Donation of Constantine, a fraud perpetrated by Rome that led to schism in the 8th Century. ------------------------------------------------
Kenneth G. Ramey was a 79-year old "writer without a Website" who is generating excellent, provocative articles on the subject of religion and world affairs. We are pleased that Ken's "lone wolf" presence as a writer in the world has been replaced by a spot on our team of writers at Salem-News.com. Raised in Minnesota and California during the dark years of the Great American Depression, Ken is well suited to talk about the powerful forces in the world that give all of us hope and tragedy and everything in between. You can write to Ken at:
kgramey@sbcglobal.net




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Henry Ruark November 29, 2008 7:58 am (Pacific time)

Ken et al: Thank you for this intriguing view into the continuing struggles always surrounding religions and their impacts on our society. I hope you will explore for us the surrounding situations which led to The Enlightenment since that is so clearly one strong foundation for our very badly needed rational, reasonable approach now so absolutely essential for all the burgeoning problems our society and our world now must face.

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