History of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

THE CITY OF ANTIOCH on-the-Orontes was the most important city of the Roman Province of Syria, and, as such, served as the capital city of the Empire's civil "Diocese of the East." The Church in Antioch dates back to the days of the foremost apostles, SS. Peter and Paul, as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Scripture refers to Antioch as the place where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called "Christians" (Acts 11.26), and records that Nicholas, one of the original seven deacons, was from that city -- and may have been its first convert (Acts 6.5). During the persecution of the Church which followed the death of St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr, members of the infant community in Jerusalem sought refuge in Antioch (Acts 11.19), and while St. Peter served as the first bishop of the city, SS. Paul and Barnabas set out on their great missionary journeys to Gentile lands (Acts 13.1) -- establishing a tradition which would last for centuries, as from Antioch missionaries planted churches throughout greater Syria, Asia Minor, the Caucasus Mountains, and Mesopotamia.

At the first Ecumenical Council, convened in the year 325 by Emperor Constantine the Great, the primacy of the bishop (patriarch) of Antioch over all bishops of the civil Diocese of the East was formally sanctioned. The Great Schism of 1054 resulted in the separation of Rome, seat of the Patriarchate of the West, from the four Eastern Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. During the reign of the Egyptian Mamelukes, conquerors of Syria in the 13th century, the Patriarchal residence was transferred to the ancient city of Damascus, where a Christian community had flourished since apostolic times (Acts 9), and which had succeeded earthquake-prone Antioch as the civil capital of Syria. The headquarters of the Patriarchate, which has jurisdiction over all dioceses within its ancient geographic boundaries (Syria and Lebanon) as well as others in the Americas, Australia, and Western Europe, are located in Damascus on "the street called Straight" (Acts 9.11).


In the late 19th century, events in their homelands forced Antiochian Christians to join the ranks of Europeans who emigrated to other parts of the world. The spiritual needs of those who settled in North America were first met through the "Syro-Arabian Mission" of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has had a presence in North America since 1794. in 1895, a "Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society" was organized by Antiochian immigrants in New York City, with Dr. Ibrahim Arbeely, a prominent Damascene physician, serving as its first president. Conscious of the needs of his fellow countrymen and co-religionists, Dr. Arbeely wrote to Raphael Hawaweeny, a young Damascene clergyman serving as Professor of the Arabic Language at the Orthodox Theological Academy in Kazan, Russia, inviting him to come to New York to organize and pastor the first Arabic-speaking parish on the continent. Fr. Raphael, a missionary at heart, went to the imperial capital of St. Petersburg to meet with His Grace, Nicholas, ruling bishop of the Russian Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America, who was then in Russia to recruit new missionaries. After being canonically received under the omophorion of Bishop NICHOLAS, Father Hawaweeny arrived in the United States on November 17, 1895.

Upon his arrival in New York, Archimandrite Raphael established a parish at 77 Washington Street in lower Manhattan, at the center of the Syrian immigrant community. By 1900, approximately 3,000 of these immigrants had moved across the East River, shifting the community center to Brooklyn. Accordingly, in 1902, the parish purchased a larger church building in that borough, at 301-303 Pacific Street. The Church, assigned to the heavenly patronage of St. Nicholas, the Wonderworker of Myra in Lycia, was renovated for Orthodox worship and consecrated on October 27, 1902, by NICHOLAS' successor, Archbishop TIKHON. St. Nicholas Cathedral later relocated to 355 State Street, Brooklyn, and is today considered the "mother parish" of the Archdiocese.

At the request of Archbishop TIKHON, Hawaweeny was elected to serve as his vicar bishop, to head the Syro-Arabian Mission. His consecration as "Bishop of Brooklyn" took place at St. Nicholas Church on Pacific Street on March 12, 1904. Bishop RAPHAEL thus became the first Orthodox bishop of any nationality to be consecrated in North America. He crisscrossed the United States and Canada, and even ventured deep into Mexico, visiting his scattered flock and gathering them into parish communities. He founded al-Kalimat [The Word] magazine in 1905, and published many liturgical books in Arabic for use in his parishes, in the Middle East, and in emigration around the world. After a brief but very fruitful ministry, Bishop RAPHAEL fell asleep in Christ on February 27, 1915, at the age of fifty-four. Not long afterwards, the tragedy of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia brought financial and administrative ruin to the Orthodox churches in North America, and shattered the measure of unity they had enjoyed. Movements arose in every ethnic group to divide it into ecclesiastical factions. Deprived of its beloved founded and bishop, the small Syro-Arabian Mission fell victim to this divisiveness, and it would take sixty years from the death of Bishop RAPHAEL -- in June of 1975 -- for total jurisdictional and administrative unity to be restored to the children of Antioch in North America. Some communities desired to remain under the jurisdiction of the Russian Church, while others opted to be received into the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch. The hierarchs of that period were: Metropolitan GERMANOS (Shehadi), Archbishop AFTIMIOS (Ofiesh), Archbishop VICTOR (Abo-Assaley), and Bishop EMMANUEL (Abo-Hatab). By 1936, all of the parishes were in one or two Antiochian archdioceses -- the Archdiocese of New York, headed by Metropolitan ANTONY (Bashir), and the Archdiocese of Toledo, Ohio, and Dependencies, headed by Metropolitan SAMUEL (David).

A pioneer in the use of the English language in the Orthodox churches in the New World, the Antiochian Archdiocese has since 1917 kept in print and available Isabel Hapgood's pioneering English Service Book; it printed the first English music books for choirs in the 1920s; and its Father Seraphim Nassar produced in 1938 the first - and still the only - comprehensive collection of texts needed for the chanting of complete services in English (The Book of Divine Prayers and Services). A full-fledged publishing department was established in 1940, and it has produced and distributed numerous titles in religious education sacred music, and liturgical services. Thousands of people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds have "come home" to the Orthodox Church and have found a spiritual home in the parishes of the Antiochian Archdiocese, joining with Americans and Canadians of Middle Eastern descent to make the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America a vibrant witness for Christ and his Church.

On June 24, 1975, Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of New York and Metropolitan MICHAEL (Shaheen) of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Toledo, Ohio, and Dependencies signed the Articles of Reunification which restored administrative unity among all Antiochian Orthodox Christians in the United States and Canada. This document was presented to the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate, which ratified the contents on August 19, 1975, recognizing PHILIP as Metropolitan-Primate and MICHAEL as Auxiliary-Archbishop. Archbishop MICHAEL fell asleep in the Lord on October 24, 1992. Auxiliary bishops serving the Archdiocese are Bishop ANTOUN (Khouri), consecrated January 9, 1983, at Brooklyn's St. Nicholas Cathedral; Bishop JOSEPH (Zehlaoui), consecrated May 8, 1991, at Damascus' St. Mary Cathedral; Bishop BASIL (Essey), consecrated May 31, 1992, at Wichita's St. George Cathedral; and Bishop DEMETRI (Khoury), consecrated March 12, 1995, at Damascus' St. Mary Cathedral.

Posted on the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
of North America website, March 25, 1999