Orthodox Christian Churches in the United States (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church has several variations of its names, including Holy Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Orthodox Christian, and Eastern Christian. In addition, the various communions have specific names according to location, ethnicity, or traditional allegiance.

Eastern-Rite Catholics

1. An online article from the Catholic Encyclopedia on the New Advent website; compares the Orthodox Schismatics to Eastern Catholics

2. An extensive online discussion of Eastern Christian Churches prepared in 1998 by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). Follow links from the sidebar: “Resources: Guide to Eastern Churches.” Give careful attention to the introduction which explains the divisions within the Orthodox branches and leads also to a discussion of the Eastern Catholics.

A statement to ponder within this series of articles:

Most Orthodox view these churches as an obstacle in the way of reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. They feel that their very existence constitutes a denial by Catholics of the ecclesial reality of the Orthodox Church, and that these unions grew from efforts to split local Orthodox communities. They tend to consider Eastern Catholics either as Orthodox whose presence in the Catholic Church is an abnormal situation brought about by coercive measures, or even as Roman Catholics pretending to be Orthodox for the purpose of proseytism. (“The Catholic Eastern Chruches,” CNEWA United States)

Eastern Christian Communions

Discussed are four distinct and separate Eastern Christian communions:

1. Assyrian Church of the East (not in communion with any other church)

2. Oriental Orthodox Churches (six ancient eastern churches; although each is independent, they are in full communion with one another; each has a presence in the United States)

  • Armenian Apostolic Church
  • Coptic Orthodox Church
  • Ethiopian Orthodox Church
  • Syriac Orthodox Church
  • Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
  • Eritrean Orthodox Church

3. The Orthodox Church (a communion of churches which recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as a point of unity enjoying certain rights and privileges; they share the same faith and sacraments and the Byzantine liturgical, canonical, and spiritual traditions; sometimes called the Eastern Orthodox Church to distinguish it from the Oriental Orthodox churches)

Autocephalous Churches

“Today these autocephalous Orthodox churches include the four ancient Eastern Patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), and ten other Orthodox churches that have emerged over the centuries in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.

On its own initiative, the Patriarchate of Moscow has granted autocephalous status to most of its parishes in North America under the name of the Orthodox Church in America. But since the Patriarchate of Constantinople claims the exclusive right to grant autocephalous status, it and most other Orthodox churches do not recognize the autocephaly of the American church.”

  • Autonomous Churches
  • Canonical Churches Under Constantinople
  • Churches of Irregular Status

4. The Eastern Catholic churches (all are in communion with the Church of Rome and its bishop)

Membership Statistics

American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church 80 houses of worship 13,480 members
Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of N.A. 227 houses of worship 70,000 members
Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, N.A. Dioceses 22 houses of worship 120,000 members
Armenian Apostolic Church of America 36 houses of worship 36,000 members
Dioceses of America, Armenian Apostolic Church 72 houses of worship 414,000 members
Coptic Orthodox Church 100 houses of worship 300,000 members
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America 508 houses of worship 1,500,000 members
Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India 68 houses of worship 32,000 members
Orthodox Church in America 721 houses of worship 1,000,000 members
Patriarchal Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USA 32 houses of worship 20,000 members
Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of North America 56 houses of worship 25,000 members
Russian Orthodox Church Outside of America 177 houses of worship ___?___ members
Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch 22 houses of worship 32,500 members


1054 The Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) divisions of the church split.
1768 Greek colonists landed at St. Augustine, Florida; they worshipped at “Avero House.”
1794 Eight Orthodox missionaries arrived from Russia to Kodiak, Alaska.
1820s Father John Veniaminov of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived in Alaska and conducted missionary work. In the 1840s, he was elected to the episcopacy.
1860s Immigrants of the Orthodox faith began to arrive in what today we call “the lower 48.” An Orthodox parish was established in San Francisco by Serbians, Russians, and Greeks
1864 The first Greek Orthodox community in America developed in New Orleans.
1892 The first permanent Greek Orthodox community was founded in New York City, now the site of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and See of the Archbishop of America.
1900 By the early 1900s nearly all Orthodox communities were united in a single diocese or jurisdiction, regardless of ethnic origin. They were under the Russian Orthodox Church.
1920s Various Orthodox ethnic groups organized separate dioceses.
1922 An act known as the Founding Tome of 1922 established the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, consisting of four bishoprics under the supervision of Archbishop Alexander and the Patriarchate of Constantinope.
1964 At Vatican II, Pope Paul VI promulgated sixteen conciliar documents, presenting fundamental teachings of the Church to the contemporary world. One of these documents was the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum). It was signed into official approval on November 21, 1964.
1970 At a Council of hierarchs, clergy and laity, it was decided that what had been the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America (or the Metropolia) should be renamed The Orthodox Church in America.
2000 The eighth plenary of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, ended in Baltimore MD on July 19, 2000. An expected joint declaration on progress between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches was not issued.

The Orthodox Church

Beliefs, Practices and Records

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest branch of Christianity in the world (behind the Roman Catholic Church).

The origins of both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians can be traced back continuously to the earliest Christian movement. For the first thousand years, the Eastern and the Roman were two branches of the same church. No single individual spoke for all of Christianity. To resolve matters of belief and practice there were attempts at having all of the bishops assemble at a council to debate and vote. The first such meeting was the Council of Nicea, held in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in 325 CE; only 318 bishops of the approximately 1,800 Christian bishops then in existence attended, most coming from the Eastern half of the Roman Empire

In about 330 CE, Emperor Constantine built a “New Rome” on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium (now at Istanbul, Turkey). Named Constantinople, it became the center of the largely Christian empire.

The Eastern and Western (Roman) divisions split in 1054 when the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches excommunicated each other. This formally separated the two movements.

Leading up to the formal split was a process of separation and alienation over several centuries, caused by a variety of factors. They did not share a religious language. The West used Latin; the East used Greek; the culture was similarly shaped along those lines. Theologically, Eastern Christianity was driven by Greek teachers; Western Christianity came to be dominated by the teachings of Augustine of Hippo. Still another factor was the invasion in the Balkans by the Slavs.

Orthodox Christians consider their church to be the mother church of Christendom. The word “orthodox” comes from the Greek, meaning “right belief.” The focus of the church is on worship, conducted liturgically. They share many prayers, litanies, and Eucharistic forms with Roman Catholics. Because of their belief that worship should be beautiful, Orthodox churches are richly decorated with religion art and icons meant to represent the reality of God.

The Orthodox Church has an Episcopal organizational structure. The chief ecclesiastical officers in each diocese are the consecrated bishops. In turn, they ordain priests. The church believes in Apostolic Succession (that the consecration of its bishops is traced continuously back to Jesus’ disciples). Orthodox churches do not allow women to enter the priesthood or to be ordained as a deaconess.

Within the Orthodox Church, there are many bodies, most of them along ethnic lines, with some differences in theological doctrine and practice.

The Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), established in 1960, brings together the canonical hierarchs of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. The purpose of the Conference is to make the ties of unity among the canonical Orthodox Churches and their administrations stronger and more visible.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

With over one and a half million members, this is the largest body of Orthodox Churches in the United States. Some have suggested a much larger estimate of two and a half million members, in 535 churches.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese participates in dialogue with other Orthodox bodies and is active in both the National and World Councils of Churches.

It is important to note that the word “Greek” is not used here to describe just the Orthodox Christian peoples of Greece and other Greek speaking people. Rather, it describes the Christians who originated from the Greek-speaking early Christian Church which used Greek thought to find appropriate expressions of the Orthodox Faith.

The first Greek Orthodox community in America was founded in 1864 in New Orleans although Greek colonists had landed at St. Augustine, Florida a century before; they worshipped at “Avero House” which has been restored and houses a national shrine. The first permanent community was founded in New York City, in 1892, which today has become the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and See of the Archbishop of America. By 1920, with accelerated immigration from Greece, 60 percent of today’s communities and their houses of worship were founded. Initially, they were under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the authority over diaspora communities. Then in 1908, this jurisdiction was temporarily transferred to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece. In 1922, the church shifted back to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America was established.

The beliefs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America are outlined briefly on the church's website.

Central in Orthodox life are the “mysteries” or what are called sacraments in the Western church. The Greek Orthodox Church practices the following sacraments, considered to be the visible means by which the invisible Grace of the Holy Spirit is imparted.

Four Sacraments are obligatory:

  • Baptism
  • Chrismation (anointment with holy oil)
  • Confession
  • Holy Communion

Three Sacraments are optional:

  • Marriage
  • Holy Orders (Ordination)
  • Unction (anointment of the sick)

The Orthodox Church in America (OCA)

This is the second largest group of Orthodox Churches in the United States, with over a million members. It traces its origins to the arrival of eight Orthodox missionaries from Russia to Kodiak, Alaska in 1794. Within 200 years, the Orthodox Church in America has grown in North America to more than 700 parishes, missions, communities, monasteries, and institutions. At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all Orthodox communities were united in a single diocese or jurisdiction, regardless of ethnic origin. They were under the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1970, at a Council of hierarchs, clergy, and laity held at Saint Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, it was decided that the name should be changed (from Russian Orthodox or Metropolia) to the Orthodox Church in America. In addition to counting the parishes of the former Metropolia, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) now has the following parishes:

  • Romanian Orthodox Episcopate
  • Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese
  • Bulgarian Orthodox Diocese.

From 1980 to the present, the OCA established over 220 new parishes, the majority of which are non-ethnic in origin. As a self-governing Church, the OCA elects its own Primate, or presiding hierarch, without relying on ecclesiastical direction from abroad. The Primate presides at meetings of the Holy Synod of Bishops, consecrates Holy Chrism, and carries out other duties prescribed by the office. The Orthodox Church in America is committed to the unity of Orthodoxy in North America according to the canonical principle of a single, united Church in a given geographic territory.


The Orthodox Church in America, I received this most helpful response with regard to religious records:

1. What kind of records does the Orthodox Church keep which might be helpful to genealogists?

Membership? Yes - Mainained nationally
Birth? Yes - Kept in parishes
Marriage? Yes - Kept in parishes
Death, Burial, Obituaries? Yes - Kept in parishes
Biographical Sketches for Leaders Yes

2. How would persons access these records?

All baptism, conversion, marriage, and burial records are maintained by the individual parishes in which these rites were performed. There is no centralized database. One would have to contact the parish in which the rites were celebrated to obtain information. Current membership information is maintained by individual dioceses and by the central offices of the Orthodox Church in America. Biographical data on parish clergy is maintained by the central offices.

Headquarters and Repositories

  • Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
    PO Box 5238
    Englewood, NJ 07631
  • Armenian Apostolic Church of America
    Eastern Prelacy
    138 E. 39th St.
    New York, NY 10016
  • Armenian Apostolic Church of America
    Western Prelacy
    6252 Honolulu
    La Crescenta, CA 91214
  • Coptic Orthodox Church
    5 Woodstone Dr.
    Cedar Grove, NJ 07009
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
    8 E. 79th St.
    New York, NY 10075
  • Orthodox Church in America
    PO Box 675
    Syosset, NY 11791
  • Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America
    PO Box 309
    Grass Lake, MI 49240
  • SCOBA Offices
    “Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Churches in the America”
    10 E. 79th St.
    New York, NY 10075

Orthodox Churches Website

Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

CNEWA - The Eastern Christian Churches - A Brief Survey (7th edition)

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Hall of Church History: The Eastern Orthodox

Orthodox Christian Information Center

Orthodox Church in America - About the OCA

Orthodox Church in America - Directories

Religious Tolerence - Eastern Orthodox Churches

Saint George Orthodox Cathedral (Charleston, West Virigina)

St. Ignatius Orthodox Church - A Timeline of Church History


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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