The Orthodox Church in America

Orthodoxy Brought to North America

The Orthodox Church in America traces its origins to the arrival in Kodiak, Alaska of eight Orthodox missionaries from the Valaamo Monastery in the northern Karelia region of Russia in 1794. The missionaries made a great impact on the native Alaskan population and were responsible for bringing many to the Orthodox Christian faith.

In the 1820s, Father John Veniaminov arrived in Alaska and also conducted missionary work. Among his many accomplishments was the translation of Scripture and the liturgical services into the native dialects, for which he also devised a grammar and alphabet. Around 1840, Father John was elected to the episcopacy and returned to Alaska as Bishop Innocent. The Church continued to grow among the native Alaskans, but Bishop Innocent also visited California and the Orthodox community at Fort Ross. He subsequently returned to Russia as the Metropolitan of Moscow (today he is known as Saint Innocent, having been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church several years ago.) 


Growth of Orthodoxy in the Mainland U.S.

While the Church continued to grow in Alaska, immigrants began arriving in what we today call the "lower 48." In the 1860s, a parish was established in San Francisco by Serbians, Russians, and Greeks (today this parish is the OCA's Holy Trinity Cathedral.) Gradually, other parishes were established across the territory of the United States and, with the great waves of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Southern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the headquarters of the North American Orthodox Diocese was moved to San Francisco and later to New York.

By the early 1900s, almost all Orthodox communities, regardless of ethnic background, were united in a single diocese, or "jurisdiction," which was under the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, the first bishop for Arab-Americans, Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny, was also the first Orthodox Christian to be consecrated to the episcopacy in North America. He and the parishes under his direction were an integral part of the North American Diocese. 


Birth of American Jurisdictions

In 1917, the Russian Revolution began and, as a result, communications between the North American Diocese and the Church in Russia were greatly hindered. In the early 1920s, the Patriarch of Moscow, [Saint] Tikhon—for ten years he had served as Bishop of the North American Diocese—issued a decree calling on dioceses outside the borders of Russia (by then the Soviet Union) to organize themselves autonomously until such time as normal communications and relations with the Church in Russia would be possible. Shortly thereafter, at a Council of all hierarchs and clergy and parish delegates, it was decided that the Church in North America could no longer maintain strict administrative ties with the Church in Russia, especially since Patriarch Tikhon had been arrested (he subsequently died in 1925).

Concurrently, various ethnic groups that had been an integral part of the single diocese organized independent dioceses, or "jurisdictions," in most cases placing themselves under their respective Mother Churches. This gave rise to the present situation of Orthodoxy in North America, namely the existence of multiple, overlapping jurisdictions based on ethnic background, rather than following the canonical Orthodox principle of a single Church entity in a given territory. 


Autocephaly and the "New" Orthodox Church in America

In the early 1960s, the OCA—known then as the "Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America," or "The Metropolia"—entered into dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, which had grown to consider the Metropolia a schismatic body, in an attempt to "regularize" the Metropolia's status. In 1970, the Metropolia once again entered into communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, which promptly granted it "autocephaly," or administrative self-governance. 


The Many Faces of the OCA

At a Council of hierarchs, clergy and laity held at Saint Tikhon's Monastery the same year it was decided that the Church should be renamed "The Orthodox Church in America." Today, the OCA, in addition to counting the parishes of the former "Metropolia," includes the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate, the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Archdiocese. Hence, it is inaccurate to refer to the OCA as the "Russian Church" since a good percentage of its constituency is not Russian. Further, within the past two decades, the OCA has established some 125 new parishes, almost exclusively non-ethnic in origin and employing only the English language in worship (virtually all of the former "Metropolia" parishes now use a large percentage of English, or employ English exclusively in the services.) 


Canonical Jurisdiction and Communion

The Orthodox Church in America is thus a canonical entity possessing a canonical episcopacy, and it is clearly seen as the same entity as that which traces its origins to the 1794 arrival of missionaries in Kodiak, Alaska. While its autocephaly is not recognized by some patriarchates, those same patriarchates maintain communion with the OCA and faithful of the Orthodox Church in America may receive the Eucharist in parishes of the other canonical jurisdictions in North America (a quick reading of Orthodox Church history reveals that every autocephalous Church went through a period in which other churches did not recognize its status).

The Orthodox Church in America is a full member of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America.  “The purpose of the Assembly is to preserve and contribute to the unity of the Orthodox Church by helping to further her spiritual, theological, ecclesiological, canonical, educational, missionary, and philanthropic aims. To accomplish this, the Assembly has as its goals: i) the promotion and accomplishment of Church unity in the United States ii) the strengthening of the common pastoral ministry to all the Orthodox faithful of the region; and iii) a common witness by the Church to all those outside her. In addition, the Assembly has as an express goal iv) the organization of the Church in the United States in accordance with the ecclesiological and the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church.” (from the Assembly’s website:


The Primate

As a self-governing Church, the OCA has the right to elect its own Primate, or presiding hierarch, without relying on any ecclesiastical entity abroad for ratification of its decision.  The OCA Primate presides at meetings of the Holy Synod of Bishops, consecrates the Holy Chrism which is used in the parishes, and so on. He is not administratively subject to the Russian or any other Church in another country. The Orthodox Church in America is fully committed to the unity of Orthodoxy in North America. The Metropolitan—like the hierarchs of other jurisdictions—is an outspoken advocate of administrative unity among the Orthodox Christians in North America according to the canonical principle of a single, united Church in a given geographic territory. 


More Information

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