- The Orthodox Church in North America -

In the 18th Century, the great Orthodox Christian missionary work which began with Pentecost in Jerusalem, so many centuries before, finally crossed from the continent of Euro-Asia into North America. The first missionaries traveled with the explorers Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, who formally claimed Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1741. For the next fifty years, together with the exploration and economic development of this new outpost of the Russian Empire, the first attempts were made to bring the Orthodox Faith to the natives of that region (the Aleuts, the Athabascan Indians, the Tlingits, and the Eskimos).

The first formal Orthodox Christian Mission to America arrived on September 24,1794, in Kodiak. This Mission consisted of eight Monks and two Novices, together with ten Alaskan natives who had been taken to Russia by Gregory Shelikov in 1786. This Mission discovered on Kodiak Island hundreds of natives who had been taught the rudiments of the Orthodox Faith, and had been baptized by laymen. Gregory Shelikov, one of the founders of what was to become later the Russian-American Company, had himself baptized about two hundred Aleuts on Kodiak Island.

The American Mission, headed by Archimandrite Joasaph, immediately began the work of establishing the Church in Kodiak and the Islands and later on the mainland of Alaska. Despite great difficulties, this Mission was very successful, for virtually all the remaining natives of Kodiak Island were baptized in just three years. During this period, one of the missionaries, Hieromonk Juvenaly, was martyred at Lake Iliamna by natives.

The first Orthodox bishop consecrated in North America, St. Raphael Hawaweeny, was consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church in America to care for the Orthodox Arab faithful in the USA and Canada. Through his efforts, what is known today as the Antiochian Archdiocese came into being. His initial arrival in America was not to serve in the Episcopate, however, but he came as an archimandrite in 1895 at the request of members of the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society, an ostensibly philanthropic group whose primary purpose was to maintain ties between Orthodox Arabs living in America. He thus came to the US and was canonically received under the omophorion of Bishop Nicholas (Ziorov) of the Aleutians, the Church of Russia's exarch in America at the time.

Upon arriving in New York, Father Raphael established a parish in lower Manhattan, then the center of the Syrian immigrant community. By 1900, however some 3,000 of these immigrants had moved across the East River, shifting the center of their life to Brooklyn. Thus, in 1902, the parish purchased a larger church building in that borough on Pacific Street. The church was named for St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, renovated for Orthodox worship, and then consecrated on October 27, 1902, by St. Tikhon of Moscow. St. Nicholas Cathedral was later relocated to State Street in Brooklyn and is today considered the mother cathedral of the Archdiocese.

At the request of St. Tikhon, Father Raphael was chosen as his auxiliary bishop, consecrated at St. Nicholas Cathedral as Bishop of Brooklyn and given more authority for his care of Arabic Orthodox Christians in America. Not long after, he founded Al-Kalimat (The Word) magazine, published service books in Arabic which were used in America, the Middle East, and throughout the Arabic Orthodox diaspora. St. Raphael fell asleep in the Lord at the age of 54 on February 17, 1915, after short, but fruitful, years of service.

However, after the Bolshevik Revolution threw the Russian Orthodox Church and its faithful abroad into chaos, the Orthodox Arab faithful in North America, simultaneously shaken by the death of their beloved bishop St. Raphael, chose to come under the direct care of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Due to internal conflicts, however, the Antiochian Orthodox faithful in North America became divided over the next 20 years. Among the issues splitting the flock: loyalty to the patriarchate that founded them (Russia) and that of their ancestors (Antioch); and even loyalty to movements for an autocephalous American Orthodox Church (which was short-lived in the 1920s). These divisions would cease, but sadly, others arose in their stead. Eventually, in 1936, Antiochians in America were split between two archdioceses: those of New York and North America; and of Toledo, Ohio and Dependencies. This separation of the Arabic faithful resulted significantly from the division in loyalty to the bishops who would come to govern them: Metropolitan ANTONY (Bashir) of New York, and Metropolitan SAMUEL (David) of Toledo.

By the Grace of God, the rifts were eventually healed. With the signing of the Articles of Reunification by Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) and Metropolitan MICHAEL (Shaheen) in 1975, the two Antiochian Orthodox archdioceses were united as one Archdiocese of North America (now with its headquarters in Englewood, New Jersey). Metropolitan PHILIP became the Primate of the newly reunified archdiocese, and Metropolitan MICHAEL became an auxiliary archbishop. Since then the Archdiocese has experienced rapid and significant growth through the conversion of a number of Evangelical Protestants—both individually and as congregations, especially with the reception of the majority of the Evangelical Orthodox Church in 1987—and also through ongoing evangelization and the immigration of Orthodox Arabs from the Middle East.

The Archdiocese Today

Its current primate is Metropolitan JOSEPH (G. Al-Zehlaoui), who has seven other diocesan bishops assisting him in caring for the nine dioceses of the growing Archdiocese, which is the third largest Orthodox Christian jurisdiction in North America, having about 250 parishes and missions. Estimates of the number of faithful range from about 84,000 to 380,000 depending on the report and the counting method being used. The number of new Antiochian parishes in the decade between 1990 and 2000 rose by approximately 33%, and the primary membership growth in the Archdiocese has been from American converts. The Archdiocese also includes the Western Rite Vicariate, a group of about 20 parishes which worship according to the Western Rite.

On October 9, 2003 the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch granted the Archdiocese's request to be granted self-rule (as distinct from autonomy, and though the words have the same literal meaning in English, they are distinct in Arabic) to allow it to better govern itself, improve and increase its outreach efforts, internally organize itself into several dioceses, and progress further on the road to the administrative unity of the Orthodox Church in the Americas. Three new bishops were consecrated in December of 2004 to assist in the governance of the reorganized Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese also includes one monastic community, St. Paul Skete (Grand Junction, Tennessee), a community for women. It does not run any of its own seminaries, but sends its seminarians to theological schools run by other jurisdictions or overseas. The Archdiocese does run various non-seminary educational programs, however, including the St. Stephen's Course in Orthodox Theology.

The Antiochian Archdiocese is also a member of SCOBA.