Within The Orthodox Church in America, the Archdiocese of Canada is the legitimate descendant in Canada of the missionary society of the Russian Empire in North America (which was similar to missionary societies in other Orthodox Christian Churches), as blessed by the Holy Synod of Russia. That mission began in North America in 1794 in Alaska, when the first monks arrived from Valaam Monastery in Russia. From the beginning, this missionary effort encountered many obstacles and many a difficulty. It took almost a year to walk across Siberia and then sail to Kodiak, Alaska. The entrepreneurial activities and work of the Russian-American Company caused misery in the lives of the aboriginal people, who were exploited mercilessly. In 1796, one of the priest-monks, Father Juvenaly, became the first Orthodox Christian martyr and therefore saint of North America. In 1799, the first bishop, Saint Joasaph (Bolotov), one of the missionaries, perished with other monks in a shipwreck on his return from Russia as a bishop. This occurred not far from Kodiak. Nevertheless, by the Grace of God, from this mission in Alaska, the presence of the Orthodox Church spread southwards to California, and then eastwards to New York, with the arrival of more and more immigrants from Europe.
The Canadian diocese, whose immigrating peoples began to organise themselves for worship in the 1890s, was first founded and incorporated by Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’, in 1903, while he was the Bishop of North America. This was achieved in the Northwest Territories, now Alberta and Saskatchewan. Following this incorporation, Saint Tikhon (Belavin) proceeded to travel across Canada (by rail, by horse-and-wagon, by horse), to bless the establishment of new communities, and to sanctify many newly-constructed Temples. These communities included peoples from all sorts of Orthodox national origins : Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Palestine, Syria and other Orthodox lands. Although they are not Orthodox in recent origin, another particular group of immigrants is important to be kept in mind : the Doukhobors. The participants in this sect prefer to be understood simply as those Christians who wrestle along with the Holy Spirit. Mostly Russian-speakers, they are pacifists. Like some Protestants, they accept only the Bible, and they reject all inherited ecclesiastical organisation, and icons. As a result of their attitude and disposition, they were repeatedly exiled by the Russian imperial government. Sometimes it was exile to remote parts of the empire, and sometimes they were expelled from the imperial territory. With the help of Leo Tolstoy and others, in 1899 they emigrated and made their way to Saskatchewan, where they settled. Many have intermarried with Orthodox Christians and some others since that time. Yet another, very much smaller group is to be kept in mind : the Russian Old-believers, who migrated from the USA and other places in the 1970s to Plamondon (in Lac La Biche county), north of Andrew, Alberta. They had previously arrived in the other locations in the course of having been exiled.
Because of the nature of its origin (and despite the administrative divisions that occurred later on in the century), the life of the Canadian diocese cannot be separated out and completely distinguished from the life of Orthodox people in other dioceses on the same physical territory. Our lives are inter-connected and inter-woven. So much is this so that (as Dr. David Goa says) to write a good and comprehensible history of the Orthodox Church in Canada would require not a historian, but rather a murder-mystery writer such as Agatha Christie !
Our beginnings are found in the responsibility of meeting the immediate needs of immigrating peoples. This early responsibility has, until now, never actually changed. True missionary work began shortly after this beginning with the arrival of laymen, priests and bishops who understood that the real labour expected of them by the Lord was not at all limited to this first work of meeting the needs of the immigrating peoples. Rather, they understood that this missionary work must also include both responsibilities : meeting the needs of those who are immigrating from Orthodox lands, and also the evangelising of Canada with the Orthodox Christian Faith, with bringing the truth about our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, to all the peoples everywhere. This balanced responsibility has continued for all the Canadian Orthodox until the present day.
There is a third element of responsibility which has been at the foundation of the consciousness of Orthodox Christians of every situation in life and responsibility, from the beginning. This element is canonicity. This element is a constant factor in decision-making throughout our history. It expresses the understanding that it is important that we, now, live our lives in harmony with the tradition of the Orthodox Church about how Orthodox Christians have always been doing this. Canonicity is not concerned with elements of law, but with elements of our way of life. This canonicity implies, therefore, that the Church be a visible expression of the Body of Christ, a single entity on any given territory. There should be one bishop leading any one portion of the flock of Christ (diocese, eparchy). There should be one Synod of Bishops harmoniously guiding the larger territorial Church. In the earliest years in Canada, this was more possible. After World War I, it was much less possible. Indeed, because of many circumstances, it has not been possible since then. There is more hope, however, after a century has passed. Much of the information regarding bishops of the Russian Mission, the “Metropolia”, and The Orthodox Church in America will be the result of contributions and writings by Alexis P Liberovsky, the OCA Archivist, on the OCA’s website, on other sites, and in some written publications.
It has been said correctly that most of those who arrived in North America in the so-called “first-wave” in the late nineteenth century moved to North America for economic reasons. This sort of motive for immigration continued until World War I. After this, there was immigration for various reasons. Some continued to move to North America for economic reasons, but the majority arrived because of displacement as the result of war and revolution. Some who arrived realised that they had arrived as refugees, and they understood that they would remain permanently. Others considered that they were exiles, and they hoped to return soon to their homelands. After World War I, the great majority of those arriving in Canada from Eastern Europe were those who were refugees, and they usually considered themselves as exiles. This stream of arriving refugees continued throughout World War II and afterwards. Those who arrived from the Mediterranean areas were, however, more likely to have been amongst the ones who came for economic reasons. If they felt that they might return to their land of origin some day, it would likely be for different reasons from those who came as refugees. It was not until rather later that the majority of those immigrating from “Orthodox homelands” were arriving primarily for economic reasons. Even so, there are still persons arriving as displaced persons and refugees, because there continue to be wars in one or another place. Even until the present, this immigration has not had missionary responsibility in mind as a priority. This sense develops only over time, and after experience with the new culture.
In time, and particularly because of the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917-1918, there came to be distinctions amongst the Orthodox peoples in Canada along national and linguistic lines. The influences, then, came from both immigration and external politics. The Canadian diocese (incorporated in 1903) eventually became identified specifically with the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America. This administration has usually been called the “Metropolia”, because it had (out of necessity) become a self-governing entity led by a bishop who was titled as a Metropolitan. During these same years, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the appearance of many bishops in exile in Serbia, Western Europe, North America, Australia, China, and elsewhere, there was established a Synod of Bishops in Exile, with its headquarters in Karlovtsy, Serbia. The “Metropolia” was a part of this Synod for a significant part of the decades following the revolution. However, there were differences of opinion about what sort of relationship would or could be desirable or possible with the Orthodox Church in Russia, now under a Soviet civil authority.
It is true that the foundation of all our Orthodox Churches in North America (except Alaska) is in immigration. In Canada, the first purpose of those immigrating has been to establish themselves and to survive, rather than to be missionaries. Nevertheless, the direction by our Saviour in Matthew 28:19-20 always remains in force: we are to baptise all nations into the Truth, Christ. The mission of The Orthodox Church in America is the same as that given by Christ, and it is the same as that of all the Orthodox Churches locally and throughout the world. We are called by God to take what we have inherited from the applied Christian life of our parent Church — in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Palestine, Syria and in other Orthodox lands, and plant the truth about the Truth, Jesus Christ, in the Orthodox manner in Canada. We do this following the example of how this Orthodox Faith was established in these lands, and how it baptised these cultures. We are told by our Saviour that we are to be as salt and yeast (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33). It is our Saviour who really does the work in and with us.
We are called to baptise Canada with the Orthodox Faith!
The great variety and diversity of our parishes and their life show the many ways in which we struggle to undertake this in faithful obedience to the Lord.
This particular overview of the history of our Canadian Orthodox Church is only a beginning. To be properly comprehensive, this history would require details of the life and work of particular priests, deacons and laymen and women who have, in their multitudes, worked hard and faithfully as Christians throughout their lives. We begin with bishops. It is they who have the responsibility to lead, to renew by the Grace of God everything that is necessary for the good of Christ’s Church, and to give the good example to follow. It is they who have shaped and are shaping the common life of Orthodox Christians in Canada, because of what they bless, how they bless, and how they live their Christian lives. It is they who are responsible before Christ for the consequences of both their good and their bad behaviour and example, and the consequences of their decisions. It is on their shoulders that there are visible divisions until now in Canada. It is on their shoulders to find in Christ the way to overcome these artificial and unnecessary divisions. However, the work that the bishops bless is accomplished for the most part by lay-persons and clergy. In a different context, when Archbishop John (Garklavs) of Chicago, of blessed memory, was asked what bishops do, he succinctly replied, “They bless”.
Regarding the work of the missionaries in Alaska, reference may be made, regarding the resulting texts from this missionary work, to this internet address: http://www.asna.ca/alaska/index.html. On this website may be found scriptural, liturgical and other translations into the aboriginal Alaskan languages made by missionary clergy from the beginning.
In 1970, the Mother Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, granted the entity known as the “Metropolia” self‑governing status, and a new name: The Orthodox Church in America. This allowed for yet more expression of local missionary activity. It allowed this entity also to try to take up her mature responsibilities amongst the autocephalous Churches throughout the world.
Over all, it is difficult to provide a hoped‑for or a linear presentation (which some might expect) of the bishops in Canada (and those in the United States who have had, and those who still have pastoral responsibility in Canada). Indeed, it is a great challenge to make a linear presentation of anyone or anything else in such a history. The confusion that developed from the time of World War I precipitated repetitions of service-periods, such as was the case with Metropolitan Platon, and overlapping of times and responsibilities. Once this war began, and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution occurred, local organisation was compromised (not only in North America). The reader must be ready to engage the challenge of being aware of these factors, and discerning who is who, where, and when. In this history project, there is an attempt to present the biographies of the bishops in some sort of order. They are presented primarily according to the century of their service. However, there is so much overlapping amongst them that it is very difficult to make a clear order. A reader must, then, try to “make the best of it”. It is not possible at present to present something which might be easier to comprehend, such as the format of a family tree.
Two of the best things that have occurred since the post-war and post-revolution confusion have been the establishment of the Canadian Council of Orthodox Bishops under the blessing (2000) of Patriarch Bartholomew I (Archontonis), and the establishment of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North and Central America (2010) (http://assemblyofbishops.org/). This establishment of the ACOBNCA was also with the Blessing of Patriarch Bartholomew, but it was as such the activation of the direction of the Consultation in Chambésy in 1993 of all the autocephalous Churches. Both of these assemblies enable greater cooperation at present amongst the different Orthodox administrations on the same territories, with a view to the future bringing of the whole Orthodox Church on the North American continent into conformity with the proper Orthodox ecclesiology, and into visible unity. South America and other regions have their own assemblies.