Although the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese for the Eastern United States was formed only in 1995, its history and antecedents go back to the 1800s. Most likely, the first Syriac Orthodox to immigrate to the United states were those who worked with American missionaries in the Middle East, in particular the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Of this period, we know of a deacon from Mosul named Micha al-Nakkar, who probably settled in or around Boston sometimes in the 1840s. Deacon Micha is listed as an honorary member of ABCFM, but hardly anything else is known about him or whether there were other Syriac Orthodox people in the area. We also know that by the mid-1890s, some Syriac Orthodox communities settled around New Jersey (mainly from Diyarbakir), Worcester, MA (mainly from Kharput), Rode Island (mainly from Midyat) and around Detroit, MI (from villages around Homs). There were also other immigrant communities in Canada (mainly from Mardin). Some of these immigrants came temporarily for economic reasons and went back to the Middle East, then part of the Ottoman Empire. For instance, when the American missionary Oswald Parry visited Mesopotamia, he was assigned one of the Suryoye who lived for some time in America as an interpreter and an assistant. While the immigrants of NJ-NY and New England were aware of each other, it seems that it took years for them to realize that there were Suryoye around Detroit.
By the early 1900s, the communities began to establish associations and even publish periodicals. In fact, the first newspaper published by a Syriac Orthodox was Intibah, edited by Gabriel (Jabbur) Boyaji of Diyarbakır. Later, Naum Faiq would become a literary figure within the NJ community and would publish a number of periodicals. He even gets listed by Patriarch Afram Barsoum in his Scattered Pearls, a history of Syriac literature, as a literary figure. Many of these publications were mostly written in Ottoman Turkish, but in the Syriac script (Garshuni). The oldest known Syriac Orthodox organization that is still functioning, Taw Mim Simkath, was established by the immigrant community of NJ. TMS continues to support schools and orphanages in the Middle East.
The immigrants were mostly laborers: New Jersey was a major area of silk production, and most of the Suryoye from Diyarbakır became workers of silk. Weavers from Midyat and the Tur Abdin Region worked as weavers in the weaving mills in Rode Island. Publications of later periods list individuals as professionals, which indicated that a good number of the children began to attend higher education. By the 1930s and 1940s, the community already had a number of lawyers, engineers and other professionals.
The First Priests
By the early 1900s, the number of Suryoye in North America increased, thus needed a priest to serve them. The first priest to be ordained specifically for North America was Fr. Hanna Koorie. He was ordained on May 20, 1907, by Mor Ivanios Elias Halloulei, Bishop of Jerusalem. Fr. Koorie must have served the entire immigrant communities and must have travelled between the NY/NJ area and New England. It is unlikely that he was able to serve the communities in Canada and Detroit. (Parenthetically, Patriarch Peter had sanctioned in 1892 the consecration of a Roman Catholic convert, one Joseph René Vilatte, as “Mor Timotheos, Metropolitan of North America.” Vilatte, however, did not have any contact with the immigrant community, and seems to have lost touch with the mother church shortly after.) During the 1910, a monk named Gabriel Anto visited Canada for six months, and he administered to the spiritual needs of the community there. In 1922, Fr. Koorie’s brother, Fr. Nahum Koorie, also arrived in the US.
By the late 1920s, the community had grown even more and the Patriarch at the time, Mor Ignatius Elias III, sent a Bishop to visit them. Mor Severus Aphrem (later to become Patriarch Aphrem I) consecrated in 1927 three churches: St. Mary in West New York, NJ (now Paramus, named after the Church of the Virgin in Diyarbakır); St. Mary in Worcester, MA (now Shrewsbury, named after the Church of the Virgin in Kharput); and St. Aphrem in Central Falls, RI. He must have also consecrated deacons for the immigrant communities. Bishop Barsoum also visited the immigrants in Detroit and established a congregation for them. A few years later, a priest would arrive from Syria to serve them. Later on, a few of the families from Detroit would move to Jacksonville and Miami, FL.
On January 29, 1949, Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, Archbishop of Jerusalem, arrived in the United States and began to tend to the families. Mor Athanasius had also brought with him the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in the hope of finding a buyer for them in the US. In 1949, Bishop Samuel consecrated a new Church for the parish in Rode Island, as the previous one was consumed by fire. During the same year, he consecrated the church of John Chrysostom in Detroit. Then Mor Samuel consecrated the first church in Canada in 1952, St. Ephrem, in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
Formation of an Archdiocese
Although the visit of Mor Athanasius, still Archbishop of Jerusalem, was supposed to be a temporary one, he continued to labor in serving the community in North America for many years. Finally, in 1952, Patriarch Aphrem Barsoum appointed Mor Samuel as a Patriarchal Vicar to the United States and Canada. The following year, a property was obtained in Hackensack, NJ, to service as a diocesan headquarter. A church under the name of St. Mark was consecrated there in 1953. (It moved later to Teaneck in 1980, and in its place the parish of Mor Gabriel was established.)
In 1957, Patriarch Jacob III, who succeeded Patriarch Aphrem that same year, established the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of the United States and Canada, and appointed Mor Athanasius Yeshue Samuel as its first Archbishop. Mor Athanasius would be the only Bishop to be appointed to this Diocese, as after his passing, the Diocese was dissolved and three Patriarchal Vicariates were established instead, in 1995. This would be the first time in history that the Syrian Orthodox Church establishes a Diocese in Western lands.
Until now, the main motivation for immigration from the Middle East was an economic one, as people aspired for a better economical life. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and especially after the division of its territories into many states, the Middle East witnessed a number of tragic wars. With each war, immigration to the US would increase: As a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War over Palestine, a number of Palestinian Suryoye immigrated to the US. This was one factor in the establishment of St. Mark’s Cathedral, named after St. Mark’s Monastery of Jerusalem. The subsequent 1967 War increased the number of immigrants from Palestine, who settled in NJ, Chicago and the Los Angeles Area. The long and tragic Lebanese Civil War followed, and as a result, many Lebanese Suryoye ended up in the United States and Canada.
In 1963, Archbishop Samuel consecrated a third church for Rode Island, as their second church was also consumed by fire. In 1966, Bishop Samuel established a parish in Los Angeles. Southern California has had a vibrant community since the 1950s, if not earlier. Many of them were from Kharput, who migrated further west from Worcester, MA. Due to some disagreements with Mor Athanasius, they never formed a congregation. Now, southern California had enough families from Palestine and Syria (the villages of Homs) and a church was consecrated for them by Archbishop Samuel in 1971.
By the mid 1960s, the community of West New York, NJ, was looking to move and in 1968 a church was consecrated in Paramus, NJ. That same year, a second parish was established in Detroit, MI, for immigrants from Iraq. In 1981, Patriarch Zakka I consecrated a church for them. Also during the 1970s, a parish was formed in Chicago under the name of St. John the Baptist. In 1981, Patriarch Zakka consecrated the church of St. Matthew in West Roxbury, MA for the Boston-based faithful.
Canada saw its own growth during the 1960s and 1970s. The parish of St. Jacques was established in Montreal, and a church was consecrated for them in 1981. Another parish was established in Toronto in 1978, when the church of Mor Barsaumo was consecrated there too. The 1980s saw the growth of the church in Canada with the formation of St. Mark parish in Hamilton, Ontario.
The last parish to be formed by Mor Athanasius was the Mor Ignatius parish in Portland, Oregon. Mor Athanasius also oversaw the establishment of a number of parishes for the Malankara churches, until a formal Diocese was established for them in 1993.
The Archdiocese for the Eastern United States
Mor Athanasius passed away in 1995. Shortly after, Patriarch Zakka I and the Holy Synod of the Church dissolved the Archdiocese of the United States and Canada and established in its stead three Patriarchal Vicariates: One for the Eastern United States, one for the Western United States and one for Canada. It was understood that the Mississippi would be the line that marks the geographical boundaries between East and West.
On January 28, 1996, a monk named Aphrem Karim, who had obtained a PhD in Ireland, was consecrated as the first Patriarchal Vicar to the newly-established Eastern Archdiocese, by Patriarch Zakka I, and was named Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim. Mor Cyril inherited a Diocese of a vast geographical area. He recognized that there was a large number of faithful who lived in small groups outside the large cities of the Eastern United States. He began to tend to these faithful, even if they were too small to form traditional parishes with an ordained priest dedicated for each one. Thus, began a new innovative tradition of priests flying across the Eastern United States on weekends, to tend to these faithful who would, otherwise, have been lost to the church. Within a short period of time, Mor Cyril established the following parishes:
- St, Aphraim’s Church (Washington, D.C.)
- The Mother of God of the Zunoro Church (Jacksonville, Florida)
- St. Jacob of Urhoy’s Church (Orlando, Florida)
- St. Stephen’s Church (Miami, Florida)
- St. John’s Church (Atlanta, Georgia)
- St. Helen’s Church (Indianapolis, Indiana)
- St. Barsawmo’s Church (Wyckoff, New Jersey)
- St. John Bar Aphtonia’s Church (Cranbury, New Jersey)
- St. George’s Church (Brooklyn, New York)
- St. James of Nisibin’s Church (Corpus Christi, Texas)
- St. Philoxenus of Mabug’s Church (Roanoke, Virginia)
Mor Cyril also recognized that he needed younger priests to tend to the new parishes, and even to some of the older parishes whose priests have aged. Mor Cyril recruited young priests from the Middle East and ordained them for various parishes. Mor Cyril also calculated that a number of monks were needed to service the smaller parishes, who could not afford the salary of a married priest. Under his tenure, no less than 4 monks came to serve in the Archdiocese.
Mor Cyril paid special attention to the youth, and he gave a new life to the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocesan Youth Organization (SOAYO), which was formed, earlier in the late 1980s, but had gone inactive for the years preceding Mor Cyril’s arrival. SOAYO’s new formation gave the youth of the Diocese a platform, and many of these youths are now leading figures within their respective parishes.
In addition, Mor Cyril was innovative liturgically. He returned the order of “Shubqono”, the service that is held at the beginning of the Great Lent, and began an annual liturgy for senior citizens. Most importantly, he concentrated on having parishioners participate in the Holy Liturgy, not as listeners only, but also to recite the prayers that were originally assigned to the congregation and in later years were taken over by deacons. A number of parishes now follow this system. Additionally, Mor Cyril sanctioned the use of shorter Diptychs.
Mor Cyril also formed an Archdiocesan Council to help him administer the affairs of the big Archdiocese. After a number of trials, the Archdiocesan Executive Council was formed. The AEC operates with a number of subcommittees, responsible for the various functional tasks of running an Archdiocese. By permitting lay people to take part in the Administration, Mor Cyril managed to have a professional organization running under his direction.
By far the largest achievement of Mor Cyril was, the purchase and renovation of the property on Midland Avenue, Paramus, to service as the center and focal point for the life of the Archdiocese. The five-story building, once a Catholic convent, would house a chapel, conference rooms, classrooms, offices, a museum, a library, bedroom suites and a dormitory for the Youth. Mor Cyril also planned to have a new Cathedral built on the premises, along with a multi-purpose hall that can be used by the Youth.
On March 21, 2014, Patriarch Zakka I passed away. The week after his funeral, the Holy Synod met to elect a new Patriarch, and they elected Mor Cyril as the 123rd Patriarch of Antioch, and named him Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. The Archdiocese held a huge banquette in his honor and the AEC announced that the Midland Avenue property would be named Mor Aphrem Center deservedly.
The Current Archbishop: Mor Dionysius John Kawak
After the departure of Mor Cyril to Damascus and his consecration as Patriarch on January 28, 1996, he left the Administration of the Diocese in the hands of a committee comprising of: The Very Rev. Fr. John Khoury as Vicar General, the Very Rev. Fr. Joseph Chamoun as Secretary General, and Rev. Deacon George Kiraz as the Archdiocesan Office Director. Along with the AEC, then headed by Mr. Semir Shirazi, the committee ran the affairs of the Archdiocese under the direction of His Holiness, the Patriarch, for some time.
In 2015 during the Worcester Convention, Patriarch Aphrem II appointed Mor Dionysius John Kawak, the Patriarchal Assistant, as a Patriarchal Delegate for the Archdiocese. Assisted by the AEC, Archbishop Kawak ran the affairs of the Archdiocese until he was appointed by His Holiness, as the second Patriarchal Vicar for the Archdiocese of the Eastern United States. Prior to this appointment, His Holiness had obtained the view of all the clergy and the Parish Councils, all of whom supported the appointment of Archbishop Kawak. He was enthroned on May 27, 2016 as the Patriarchal Vicar.
Archbishop Kawak is now overseeing the momentous project, which his predecessor Mor Cyril (the current Patriarch) has begun: the development of Mor Aphrem Center, the building of a new Cathedral and the Multi-purpose hall for the Diocese.
Archbishop Kawak looks forward to working hard in his new position, and to follow the footsteps of his predecessor.