Christianity has many branches, some going back nearly two thousand years. When asked if they can name some major denominations, American Christians typically think of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism (churches in communion with the Church of England). To a lesser extent some might think of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (such as that of Greek or Russia). But almost universally overlooked are the truly ancient Christian churches of the east, separated from their western brethren since well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.
There is the Oriental Orthodox Church, with its patriarch in Egypt, which encompasses Christians throughout Africa and in Armenia. There is the even more obscure Assyrian Church, or Nestorian Church, to which most of the handful of surviving Christians in the Middle East belong. And beyond these are even tinier, almost completely forgotten Christian denominations, some which can be traced back directly to the apostles. And all of these have found a home in the United States. For a real pilgrimage back in time, here are some amazing places worth seeing:
St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church
Coptic – Oriental Orthodox Communion, Jersey City, New Jersey
St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church was the first Coptic Orthodox congregation to be established in the United States. The Coptic Church is one of the oldest branches of Christianity, with roots dating back to St. Mark the Evangelist in the 1st century. After World War II, as the European powers were forced to withdraw from their colonies in the Middle East, persecutions against Copts began to increase, and many emigrated to the United States.
The first Coptic parish in the United States was established in Jersey City and its first church consecrated in 1970. This became the mother church of Coptic Christianity in America, which is now the largest such community in the world outside of Egypt. In 1977 it was visited by Shenouda III, the Coptic Pope of Alexandria, the first such visit by a major leader of any of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Ethiopian – Oriental Orthodox Communion, Washington, DC
Debre Mehret St. Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (full name) is the largest Ethiopian Orthodox church in the United States, and one of the most important centers of Ethiopian Christianity outside of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church, believed to be the second oldest in the world after Armenia, is also among the largest of the various Orthodox denominations. Its long history is related to thousands of years of tradition linking Ethiopia’s old imperial line to King Solomon.
During the 1970s and 1980s, many Ethiopian Christians fled famine and war in their home country, many relocating to the United States, in particular the Washington DC area. Several congregations were founded, including the St. Michael church in 1993. These form the heart of the Ethiopian church in America.
Holy Trinity Church
Armenian – Oriental Orthodox Communion, Fresno, California
Holy Trinity Church is home to one of the oldest and most historic Oriental Orthodox congregations in the United States, and is the oldest such church west of the Mississippi. The church of Armenia is among the oldest on Earth. It is uncertain exactly when the first Armenian immigrants arrived in America (possibly as early as the 17th century), but large waves began arriving in the 1800s.
The community in Fresno was founded by two brothers in 1881, and this grew quickly with refugees fleeing persecution and massacres in the Ottoman Empire. It has since become the heart of the Armenian diaspora, and is one of the most important communities of Armenian Christians outside of the Middle East. The church, completed in 1914, is one of the finest examples of traditional Armenian architecture in the United States.
Holy Apostolic Catholic Church of the East / St. George Cathedral
Assyrian Church of the East, Chicago, Illinois
The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East – Mar Gewargis Cathedral (full name) is the chief church of the Assyrian Church in America, and the de-facto headquarters of the church world-wide. One of the world’s oldest Christian denominations, the Assyrian Church can be traced back to the apostles in the first century, and to the patriarch Nestorius in the fifth century (for whom Nestorian Christianity was named).
Ever since the colonial era, many Assyrian Christians fled the Middle East to escape brutal persecutions. Many of these wound up in Chicago, which became a major center of the Assyrian diaspora. In 1976, the denomination’s patriarch fled to America and reestablished the patriarchal see in exile in Chicago.
Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral
Roman Catholic Communion, West Roxbury, Massachusetts
The Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral is the principal church of the Melkite Greek Catholic community in the United States. This odd denomination, which can be traced back to the ancient Middle East, originated in territory now part of the Eastern Orthodox communion. However, after the Great Schism in 1054, due to doctrinal differences and the Latin influence of the Crusades, the Melkites are not part of the Eastern Communion, but rather they are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See.
Melkite Christians began immigrating to the United States from Syria and Lebanon in the late 19th century. Many settled in the Boston area, where they became associated with the local Catholic parishes. The current church was completed in the 1960s. In 1976, the Melkite Church in the United States became an Eparchy (an archdiocese), and the West Roxbury Church was designated as the first Melkite cathedral in the country.