By Menios Papadimitriou
While the institution of the Archdiocese was founded 100 years ago, Greek Orthodox Christians trod American shores as early as 1528. Spanish conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca records “a Greek Christian,” Doroteo Teodoro, among his crewmen in a chronicle of his voyage to the new world.
The earliest worshipping community of Greek Orthodox on the continent appeared in 1768, when seven British ships replete with Peloponnesian Greeks, including an Orthodox priest, landed in East Florida’s New Smyrna—Britain’s 14th Crown colony and the largest British colonization attempt in the New World. The East Florida Company obtained a land grant from the British Crown and peopled the land with Hellenes who agreed to work as indentured servants for a contractual term. British correspondence indicates that “all such Greek settlers, after the terms of their contracts are elapsed, shall be entitled to the same quantities of land as is given to His Majesty’s native-born subjects—one hundred acres to the head of a family and fifty acres for every other person of which such family consists subject to a one-half penny per acre quit rent annually.” The British also promised that Greeks who settled in Florida would be permitted free exercise of their Orthodox religion. In fact, for decades British pamphleteers advanced the proposal that the Greeks were the right fit for populating the nascent civilization in the New World. “The Greeks who profess the Christian religion,” elaborated Georgia planter and colonial government official William Knox, “I am well assured that great numbers of these might be induced to become our subjects if the mode of their worship was tolerated and the expense of their transportation defrayed.” America “has everything which one can wish for to make the Greeks happy,” Andrew Turnbull added. Colonial records show that a church was indeed built in the Florida settlement for that purpose and an annual salary of £100 and housing was allocated for the Colony’s Greek Orthodox priest.
Although the Greeks were successful in crop production, the New Smyrna colony was ill-fated. Poor living conditions and abuse triggered mutiny and rebellion. “The Greek priest was forced onto a boat with some other Greeks with whom the boat sunk and the priest was drowned,” Andrew Turnbull wrote in a 1768 letter to the Governor of East Florida. Tensions reached a breaking point in 1777 when the remaining colonists marched north, permanently abandoning the settlement for St. Augustine.
Today the first National Shrine of the Archdiocese, dedicated to St. Photios, occupies the building where the survivors of the New Smyrna Colony found refuge. The new video shares this little-known episode in Greek-American and Orthodox Christian history and invites viewers to visit the special space in America’s oldest city, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year.
While Orthodox Christians existed under the many flags of the American colonial period, the next Greek Orthodox community would not be established until nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence.
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America