Rev. Father Agapius Honcharenko is one of the most controversial figures in the early history of Eastern Orthodox in the Western Hemisphere. While much about his life remains in question, without a doubt, this man celebrated the first two Eastern Orthodox church services ever held in the United States.
First, on March 2, 1865, Honcharenko celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Trinity Chapel of the Anglican Church in New York City. His next church service was in New Orleans on April 15, 1865, in St. Paul’s Church. It must be remembered that at this moment in time, Honcharenko was the only Orthodox priest in North America, outside of Alaska. Future research will have to determine a host of questions now surrounding Honcharenko. I will limit my survey of events here to a selected review of Honcharenko’s life before arriving in North America and then something of his stay in New Orleans.
The ever-enigmatic Honcharenko did not even begin life with the name he is best known by in Eastern Orthodox circles. Andrii Humnytsky was born on August 31, 1832, in Kryvyn, Skvyra county near Kiev to a prominent Cossack family. In 1853, Humnytsky entered the seminary at the Kievo-Pechersk (Kiev Caves) Lavra being ordained as a deacon in 1856. The following year Humnytsky was assigned to the Russian Embassy church in Athens.
Humnytsky is said to be the first Ukrainian political emigre to arrive in the United States. According to Humnytsky, he was deeply involved in political issues such as the emancipation of the Russian serfs for which he denounced both the Tsar and His Government as well as the Russian Orthodox church for supporting this system of slavery. Humnytsky began to write, anonymously, a series of articles on these topics in the socialist journal Kolokol (The Bell). In 1860, Humnytsky’s identity as author was discovered and he was sent to jail. Escaping imprisonment Humnytsky, changed his name to Honcharenko to avoid authorities.
While still unclear, Honcharenko always claimed he was ordained in Greece, sometime in 1864.
For our purposes here it is enough to say there is an ongoing debate over whether Honcharenko was ever actually ordained. On December 21, 1864 (according to the Julian Calendar) Honcharenko arrived in New York City, allegedly, with the specter of Russian authorities still pursuing him.
Nearly a month after his New York City church service, “Father Agapius, the Russo-Greek priest, now residing in this city, will leave in a few days for New-Orleans, where there are about 300 Sclavonians (sic) and others who belong to the communion of his church. The Father will make a short stay in New-Orleans for the purpose of baptizing those who desire it (New York Times March 26, 1865).”
It is generally accepted that Nicholas Benachi invited Honcharenko to New Orleans and it would seem likely that if that was the case then Demetrios Botassi also had a hand in the arrangements. On April 9, 1865, Honcharenko arrived in New Orleans abroad the George Cromwell. That very same day Robert E. Lee met face-to-face with Ulysses S. Grant to offer the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia signaling the end of the Civil War.
On April 11, 1865, New Orleans newspapers carried an Open Letter by Honcharenko announcing his intent of celebrating “the divine liturgy, according to the Orthodox Oriental Church…on Saturday next, April 15th, at 10:30AM in St Paul’s Protestant Church.” Honcharenko also invited any and all visitors to his residence “every morning, excepting on Saturday next, until 12 o’clock.” While Honcharenko stayed in an apartment at No. 7 St. Ann Street, Jackson Square near the residents of both Greek merchant Andrea Dragon and his son-in-law Andrea Dimitry, for the moment, this seems, to be only a coincidence. In this general announcement Honcharenko, also clearly states, “I intend to remain here only until the 22nd of April—through Passion and Easter weeks.”
Various New Orleans newspapers reported upon this April 15th service. One anonymous eye-witness wrote (in part): “we attended, by invitation, the service performed yesterday in St. Paul’s Church, where we found assembled a goodly congregation, including fifty or sixty persons belonging to the Oriental Church. These latter had seats near the chancel, except such as were within it, assisting in the services.
“At the appointed hour for beginning the services, the Rev. Father Agapius entered the church, robed in a white vestment much like the surplice of the Episcopal clergy, but having a small gilt cross on the back and a gilt border round the vestment. He was accompanied by the Rev. Dr. Vallas and Rev. Messrs. Guion and Hopkins, of the Episcopal Church, the first and last in surplices and the second in the black gown used by Episcopal clergymen, also by several members of the Greek Communion in plain clothes…
“At the commencement of the service, the worshipers, including the entire congregation, rose to their feet and remained standing until the end of the service. For the most part, Father Agapius faced the Altar while performing the rites, but occasionally, he turned to the people to give them his blessing…
“The attendants were ranged on each side of the church , and facing thus the altar or communion table, which was covered with a white cloth, and had upon it six lighted tapers and a small painting of two figures which we were not able to distinguish, so as to say who they represented […more details of the service are provided and then the account closes with…]
“After this the scene ended with a benediction, and the congregation were dismissed. The service of the Greek Church is much more simple and unaffected than we supposed. It was unintelligible to us, because in a tongue unknown to us; but it was in the vernacular of the worshiper for whose benefit it was held (Daily Picayune April 16, 1865).”
I find it interesting that this unnamed individual never thought to ask any of the Orthodox Faithful what was taking place.
One last point of Honcharenko’s visit to New Orleans needs discussion. In his Memoirs, Honcharenko states: “the Faithful of the Greek Orthodox Church in New Orleans requested that I visit them, and on April 1, I arrived there from New York and baptized 50 children, heard confessions and administered Holy Communion. I also blessed the location where the new Greek Orthodox Church was to be built…” Another news report states that Honcharenko baptized approximately 30 individuals. Still, another published account cites only 11 individuals being baptized.
The documents cited above as well as many others report well-beyond a reasonable doubt that Honcharenko did, in point of fact, celebrate the Divine Liturgy in New Orleans. That he performed other priestly duties such as confession and baptism seem likely but given the detailed newspaper coverage of Honcharenko’s activities up to this point it is exceedingly odd no mention is made in the public press of any other Orthodox services. This is not to say baptisms, confessions and blessings by Honcharenko were inconceivable. Anyone descended from the 1880 to 1920 waves of Greeks to the United States has seen early photographs of priests baptizing babies in people’s homes or other settings long before churches were built in this country.
Another more critical point to raise is that there is no evidence that Honcharenko was ever asked to be the first priest of the Orthodox community of New Orleans. Even by his own admission while Honcharenko asserts that he blessed the proposed future site of what was to be the Holy Trinity Orthodox church the actual building did not then exist.
On leaving New Orleans, Honcharenko returned to New York and from there continued on to San Francisco. Honcharenko later moved to Alameda County, California, and was an outspoken critic of both the Russian government and the Orthodox Church for rest of his life. On May 5, 1916, the man known as Agapius Honcharenko passed away in Hayward, CA.
While the person of Agapius Honcharenko remains in open dispute none can deny that as far as the Orthodoxy in North America is concern this individual celebrated the first two liturgies in the United States of America. Whatever else can be said for this lone man’s presence in the New World without question he inspired the Orthodox faithful in this country. So, whether a saint or a sinner, the man we know today as Agapius Honcharenko’s role in the history of Orthodox in North America is forever assured.