1% of the adult population in the New York City Metropolitan area identify their religion as Orthodox Christian in 2014, according to a newly released survey American Values Atlas.
The telephone survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in English and Spanish of 3,383 adults of 18 years of age or older covers the 20,1 million people in the U.S. Census’ definition of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area. The census determines the boundary, which range from parts of northern New Jersey to parts of Connecticut, according a formula that indicates a high degree of economic integration with New York City proper.
Out of the 1,043,800 Orthodox Christians in the United States about 198,000 live in the New York City metropolitan area. Today, these believers will celebrate Holy Friday, called Good Friday by other Christians, and Easter this coming Sunday.
Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, or Pascha, the week after other Christians on Sunday, April 12th. The reason is that the different branches of the Christian church use a different way of calculating when Easter should take place. This is not a conflict about when or whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ took place but a disagreement on what is the best way to honor the original events.
The Orthodox church continues to follow the older Julian calendar. The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar runs thirteen days behind the Gregorian.
An additional wrinkle is that the Orthodox church also continues to adhere to a rule set for by an early church council held in Nicea in 325 AD. Presided over by Emperor Constantine, the council was mostly focused on creating unit among the churches of the empire through settling on the Nicene Creed that Christians in all regions could agree upon. The creed succinctly summarizes the ministry and person of Jesus Christ who “…was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven…”
The council also established some rules for celebrating holidays that commemorated Christian history. One rule was that Easter should take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the relationship of Christ’s life, death and resurrection within the Jewish historical framework.
However, the Gregorian calendar set the date so that it would occur in the same place every year.
These two wrinkles: a different calendar; and a different rule for setting the date leads to the disjuncture of the dates for Easter between the Orthodox and most other Christians.
The calendar which most nations use today is the Gregorian calendar. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII wanted to implement various reforms of the church. Many of those reforms had to do with making the church operate in a more regular way. Hence, a new calendar that was more astronomically correct.
The various Orthodox churches will celebrate this Holy Friday and Easter on the same days but each will vary the style of the ceremonies according to their denominational roots.
The denominational roots of local Orthodox Christians
There are two major local variants of Christian Orthodoxy in the metropolitan New York City area and at least twenty three denominations.
The largest grouping is of those who have an Eastern Orthodox way of doing church. Within this tributary the largest denomination in the area by far is the Greek Orthodox Church, making up 28% of the metro area Orthodox churches. The Orthodox Church of America, the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church are the other larger denominations locally.
The other major way of doing church is Oriental Orthodoxy, which traces its origins to the Middle East. The largest Oriental denominations are the Coptic Orthodox Church , and two Armenian Orthodox denominations.
The geography of the Orthodox churches in Metro NYC
About 198,000 adherents of Orthodoxy attend 277 churches in the Metro NYC area (the number of churches is as of 2010). In New York City proper in 2010 there were 83,281 adherents and 94 churches, according to the Religious Congregations and Ministry Survey.
Historical roots of Orthodoxy in the NYC metro area
In March 1865 the first Orthodox service in America was conducted in Trinity Chapel in America. The next day the New York Times called this the "Inauguration of the Russo-Greek Churches in America.” It described the history that lead up to this service.
“The Rev. Agapius Honcharenko is an amiable and dignified-looking clergyman, of some 50 years of age. He is a Russian by birth, and a graduate of the Ecclesiastical Academy of St. Petersburgh. The ship Alexander Nevsksy, that some twelve months ago left this city for Athens, brought word to the Grecian capital that there was a large number of the Orthodox Church in this country without a pastor, and he came on, volunteering his services, accredited by the Metropolitan of Athens and the Holy Synod of the Kingdom of Greece…
“The Russian clergyman was dressed in the phelonion or white robe, covering the whole person, underneath which was a scarlet stole or epttrachelion. The white robe was open in front, and the red stole could be seen in the opening. The appearance of the vestments was really picturesque. The altar was that ordinarily used at Trinity Chapel, and was lighted at both ends with gas, and the chandelier, which overhangs the chancel, was also lit.
“The church, both aisles and galleries, was crowded with ladies and gentlemen to its utmost extent, although there had been no advertisement in the papers regarding the celebration. There were present upward of fifty clergymen of the city and neighborhood. The music, (only vocal,) was very fine. The ceremonies were impressive, solemn, and, to almost every one present, novel, but exceedingly interesting, and, it might be said, beautiful. We ought to say that there were some sixty Greeks and about twenty Scalvonians or Russians present, who occupied seats in front of the altar.
“The service was the usual liturgy of the Greek Church. It began with the benediction. "Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, now and forever unto ages of ages," the choir responding, Amen.”
Around 1880 liturgical Russian Orthodox services were first held in the home of Lukas Taras, who lived on North 7th St in Williamsburg. Soon, the group was able to purchase a vacant wooden Methodist Church located at North 5th St and Bedford Ave. The church was named after St Vladimir.
The Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, at 319–337 East 74th Street in Manhattan serves as the national cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the seat of Archbishop Demetrios of America. Established in 1891, it was the first Greek Orthodox Church in New York City and is the largest one in the Western Hemisphere.
In the mid 1890s, Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians from various Middle Eastern countries living in Metropolitan New York formed the Charitable Syrian Orthodox Association. In November 1895 a loft at 77 Washington Street in Manhattan was converted into the first church for the Arabic-speaking Orthodox.
The Communist takeover of Russia and other Eastern European countries caused Orthodox churches to split into competing denominations.
In 1931 The African Orthodox Church dedicated Holy Cross Pro-Cathedral in Harlem.
In September 1925, 4 immigrant men and a priest met in a lower Manhattan tenement building to lay the foundation for the first Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in New York City. They later established St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in the East Village of Manhattan.
In 1937 a small Serbian community held its first liturgy in the offices of “The Serb Benevolent Society” (founded in 1896). In 1940 the Serbs formally organized a church and in 1944 consecrated their first church.
Each nationality group that has a large number adherents to Orthodox Christianity establish their version of an Orthodox church. One of the latest Orthodox denominations to arise was the Coptic Orthodox Church. In 1972 the first Coptic Orthodox church, St. Mary & St. Antonios Church, was organized in Ridgewood, Queens.
For Holy Friday or Easter services check these twenty-three Orthodox denominations in NYC Metro
- Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America
- American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese
- Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, The
- Armenian Apostolic Church of America (Catholicosate of Cilicia)
- Armenian Church of North America (Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin)
- Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Diocese of the USA, Canada and Australia
- Coptic Orthodox Church
- Eritrean Orthodox
- Ethiopian Orthodox
- Georgian Orthodox Parishes in the United States
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Holy Orthodox Church in North America
- Macedonian Orthodox Church: American Diocese
- Malankara Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church in North America
- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
- Orthodox Church in America
- Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA
- Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in Americas
- Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia
- Serbian Orthodox Church in North America
- Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
- Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
- Vicariate for the Palestinian/Jordanian Orthodox Christian Communities
Also see our other features in the series on Metro NYC religions:
Upcoming: Muslims, Hindus and others.