You probably would guess that the first Orthodox Church in America would be located in New York City, Boston, or Chicago. Maybe even a small town in Virginia. But the claim to that name goes to the city of New Orleans whose complex cultural history created the crux from which the first Orthodox community in the New World sprung.
The First Greeks in New Orleans
My main story teller for this history is “Maggie” Maag, keeper of the archives of what is now a sprawling Holy Trinity Cathedral and Community Center located in Bayou St John outside the city center. In fact, it is a stone’s throw away from the spot where the first Greek pioneer to appear in the written record was apprehended by a lieutenant in charge of the waters. The story goes that in 1770 a crew member named Michel Dragon was arrested and put on trail on suspicions of piracy. When questioned during the trial, he stated he was from Athens, Greece. (Probably not; most likely he was from the Peloponnesus or the Ionian islands of Zakinthos, Corfu, but he gave this answer to the French administrator of court as an easy out as he would have known about Athens.) He was released and settled in the area. Eventually he went to work for the lieutenant in charge and proved skilled in arms. In 30 years’ time he had risen the ranks to 2nd Lieutenant fighting with the Spanish militia as a fusilier in Galvez’ Second Company against the British in Pensacola during the American Revolution. He settled in New Orleans and became a prosperous merchant. He eventually “married” (but not officially—that’s a story for another post) and had a daughter named Marianne Dragon. She might have claim to the first Greek woman to be born in the New World.
In any case, keeping in stride with the Greek custom to marry Greek, Marianne Dragon eventually marries the second Greek person to arrive in New Orleans (according to the written record)—Demas Tirisako. This was in 1799. Demas changed his name to Andrea Dimitry (another custom of immigrants) to make it easier to remember; he was from Hydra. They were married in St Louis Cathedral and had ten children. Dimitry fought in the Battle of New Orleans against the British in 1815.
But let’s get back to the original story, the founding of the first Orthodox church in America. The first hurdle was that of overcoming the Code Noir of 1724, a set of laws in colonial Louisiana that forbade any other religion other than Roman Catholicism and mandated that only Catholic marriages were valid. Andre and Marianne Dimitry, therefore, by force had to be married in a Catholic church. However, Andrea maintained a strict observance of his Hellenic identity, including his Orthodox faith. The 150th Commemorative Album for Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral tells the rest of the story:
Benachi’s home chapel and the purchase of a plot “back of town”
With the ratification of the Louisiana purchase on October 20th 1803, American religious freedom allowed the expression of other faiths. The booming New Orleans port in the mid 1800s saw the arrival of a group of Greek merchants whose families had escaped the Chios massacre by the Ottomans in 1822. Those associated with the Ralli Brothers firm, an international trading house established throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East included, Angelastro, Benachi, Fachiri, Franghiadi, Frangopoulos, Negroponte, Nicolopulos, Pateraki, Ralli and Ziffo.
With the help of some of these merchants and others, Holy Trinity soon became a reality. In 1859, Nicholas M Benachi (1812-1886) bought an empty lot “back of town.” Tulane geographer Richard Campanella estimates there were approximately 150 Greeks in New Orleans in 1860. Add the immigrants from Austria, Hungary, Egypt, Moldova, Persia, Romania, Russia, and Turkey listed in EU census, and the stage was set for the birth of Greek Orthodoxy in the New World in New Orleans.
The role of the wealthy merchants has probably been overstated in previous historical accounts of the creation of Holy Trinity. According to church documentation, New Orleans city directories, censuses, and news reports average working in middle class multiethnic or stocks immigrants made up the first Greek Orthodox parish in America. The August 4th 1873 New York Times feature story the Greeks of America describes the Greek colony in New Orleans during the first decade of holy trinity’s existence.
In 1864, with New Orleans under Union occupation at the height of the Civil War, Holy Trinity became a reality. Oral history confirms there Orthodox Christian immigrants met for religious services in Benachi’s home at 2257 Bayou Rd, “Millionaires Row” of Creole New Orleans.
Bencahi was a prominent Greek businessman who worked with the Ralli firm and was appointed Consul for Greece in New Orleans in 1854. Even before the conclusion of the Civil War on October 25th 1864, Abraham Lincoln approved Benachi’s appointment to continue as the Greek consul in New Orleans. With Benachi’s leadership and his position as Greek Consul, the orthodox Christians in New Orleans, although few in number and with the civil war ranging around them, accommodated their different nationalities and preserved and practiced their faith.
Finding a Priest
It’s one thing to buy a church; it’s a different matter to find a priest to man it. The embryo of the church had in the beginning difficulty in finding a fixed priest to serve. The first name to receive that honor dates to 1865 with Father Agapios Honcharenko, an Eastern Orthodox priest who had conducted a liturgy at the Episcopal Trinity Church Chapel on the anniversary of the coronation of start Nicholas the 2nd. He was invited to come to New Orleans to baptize “10 illyrians and four children.” But he did not stay long even though his liturgy at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans was covered by the New Orleans Daily Picayune.
But the priest’s visit sparked the efforts to solidify the church. On November 2nd, 1865 a group of diverse Orthodox created a “subscription book” to raise funds to build an Orthodox Church in America. the captured this notable moment in a document written on April 15th 1866 in the Greek council of New Orleans 4 orthodox Christians Nicholas benaki Greek council whose family originated in heels Greece dimitras poutasi New York Greek council with family origin inspects is Kathleen Constantine Keeley coffeehouse owner from Turkey and Michael draskovich coffeehouse owner from Yugoslavia wrote a declaration that established the eastern Orthodox Church in New Orleans and inscribed upon themselves their commitment to raise funds for the building of this church.
A few months later in 1866, a church and priest house were built at 1222 N Dorgenois St on the property bought in 1859 by the Benachi family finally on June 29th 1867 manaki sold the property to Holy Trinity representatives for a sum of $1200 and the eastern Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity had its first permanent location.
The fledgling church eventually found a priest, Archimandrite Stefanos Andreadis from Syros. And that came about because a merchant and newspaper publisher in Ermoupolis, Syros, Cyclades, Greece promoted the church in his newspaper, Ermoupolis. Father Stefanos gave his first liturgy on Christmas Day 1867.
There is more to this story in Part 2. Stay tuned.
Someday the archives, the stories, archival photos, and liturgical objects stored in an upper chamber in the community hall of the Church will become a museum of the First Orthodox Church in America. For now, Holy Trinity welcomes Hellenes and Phil-Hellenes as well as the pan-Orthodox, to visit, revere, and appreciate its long history.
Check them out on the web: http://holytrinitycathedral.org/