Orthodox Historical Society Brings the Past to Life


Growing up in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, Matthew Namee learned to love the faith, and as he grew older and began to research the Church's history in America, he eventually decided to join with other historians to form the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA). Readers of SOCHA's website, OrthodoxHistory.org, will encounter fascinating articles about, and see archived photos of, events of great interest to Antiochian Christians, such as St. Raphael's consecration, and Metropolitan Antony Bashir's ministry in the early to mid-1900's. They will also discover essays, primary sources, links to podcasts, book reviews, and tidbits discovered in the course of research, that all tell the story of the early years of Orthodoxy in America. Namee also now hosts a podcast with Ancient Faith Radio, titled American Orthodox History.

Recently, Antiochian.org chatted with Matthew Namee about SOCHA's historical sleuthing. 

1. Tell us about the Society. What is your mission and purpose?

I’ve been doing research on American Orthodox history for a number of years now, and I noticed early on that there were others like me, doing similar research, but without any knowledge of each other. Some people, like Fr. Oliver Herbel and Fr. John Erickson, are doing major scholarly work on the subject. But there are also a large number of amateur parish historians from all the jurisdictions, plus countless other people who are simply interested in our history. SOCHA was initially conceived as a way to network these people, so that they could share their findings and help each other with research. We also want to help make this exciting research available to the general public.

Anyone can be a member of SOCHA. We will open the doors to general membership in the coming months, as we gear up for the publication of our first peer-reviewed scholarly journal, which is due out sometime after Pentecost. We also plan to ultimately expand our website to include a major archive of digitized primary sources, and other resources (such as a database of historical American Orthodox clergy, which I’ve been compiling for several years). We have a lot of other long-range plans, including conferences and books. To pay for these things, we’ll ask for a small membership fee, and in return, members will have access to the journal, and, eventually, the digital archive and other resources. Our overarching goal is simply to make people more aware of American Orthodox history, and to make sources available to researchers.

2. How long has your website been in existence? Where do you get the material for the site? Tell us about your writers, and a bit about the content.

We launched the website in June 2009. Speaking just for myself for a moment – when I do research, I usually can’t resist the urge to write. In the past, I’d just write notes to myself, without ever planning to publish them. With the blog, I present my research to the public, so our readers are seeing stories and nuggets from my own notes. In terms of style, I generally just try to tell stories. Accuracy is, obviously, a necessity, but I think my job is also to be as interesting as possible. I often don’t have cut-and-dried conclusions. Instead, I try to let our readers join me in the experience of discovering these exciting stories and colorful characters. And I have to say, this is not a one-way street – I’m constantly learning new things from readers’ comments and emails.

In addition to me, our authors include Fr. Oliver Herbel, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and Nicholas Chapman. Fr. Oliver has a Ph.D. from Saint Louis University, and his dissertation was on converts in American Orthodox history. Along with Fr. John Erickson, Fr. Oliver is probably the foremost scholar dealing with American Orthodox history. Fr. Andrew did his M.Div. thesis on the former Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, and he’s done a lot of work on Ofiesh and his circle. Nicholas Chapman is doing the most exciting research of all, in my opinion – uncovering the story of Orthodox converts in colonial Virginia, in the 1700s. We plan to add more authors in the future, with specialties such as Alaskan and Canadian Orthodox history.

3. Is it difficult to get accurate historical information regarding the Orthodox Church's past here in the U.S.? What sources have been most helpful?

Oh yes, it’s difficult. I mean, there isn’t any one place to go. The various jurisdictions have their own archives, but they aren’t digitized, and they are usually pretty difficult to navigate. I place a lot of value on individual parish histories, so for those, you’ve got to talk to the parishes themselves. Some parishes have their own full-blown archives, which are invaluable. I also talk correspond with other researchers, who have been immensely helpful.

I have a large archive of historical newspaper and magazine articles on American Orthodoxy, going back to the 18th century. By now, I have many thousands of articles. These are great, because they tell us what the secular media thought about Orthodoxy in America. Also, we Orthodox haven’t been the best keepers of our own history. Often, secular sources are the only place to find information about our past.

Besides those sources, I frequently use court records and other official documents (such as censuses). Official church newsletters and magazines are important sources. The research is a lot like detective work, uncovering clues and trying to figure out what really happened.

4. Can you tell us about your background? What is your link to the Antiochian Archdiocese?

I am Lebanese, and I grew up in the Antiochian Archdiocese. My ancestors immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century. My family helped establish both St. George Cathedral in Worcester, Massachusetts, and St. Mary Church in Wichita, Kansas.

While I’m not an academic, per se, I have spoken at several conferences, and I recently coauthored a book called Wichita’s Lebanese Heritage. I’m pursuing a law degree, and I have a wife and son (and a daughter on the way), so history is my hobby, not my profession. I did major in history in college, but the man who largely taught me how to research and write (and think critically) was my former employer, a legendary baseball historian named Bill James.

5. How did your podcast come about? Which podcast so far has generated the most interest?

John Maddex (of AFR) and I spoke awhile ago, and came up with the idea of the podcast. I suspected that people might be interested in the subject, and it seems like they really are. I especially enjoy hearing people’s reactions to the various stories and characters on the program.

My talk on Fr. Raphael Morgan, the first black Orthodox priest in America, is probably the one that generated the greatest response. I've had a number of people email to offer their help in learning more about him. Fr. Raphael was originally from Jamaica, and he was an Anglican deacon before becoming Orthodox. In 1907, he went to Constantinople and was received into Orthodoxy and ordained a priest. He was sent to Philadelphia to be a missionary to black Americans. But there's a lot of mystery to his life--we don't even know when or where he died.

6. What do you hope to accomplish with the podcast, society, and website? Why do we benefit from knowing our history here, as Orthodox Christians?

There’s a great quotation from Robin Collingwood, an English philosopher who died in the 1940s: “History is for human self-knowledge ... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.”

I agree with that. For the Church, not knowing her history is like an individual person who wakes up with amnesia. He doesn’t know who he is, or how he got where he is. We have to understand our past if we want to have a proper self-understanding. So many people today want, for instance, administrative unity in America. But to get that, we first have to understand why we aren’t administratively united. How did we get this way? If we want to know that, we have to look at the past.

There are other benefits as well. As individuals, we learn from our experiences, and also from the experiences of others. How did wise people get to be wise? In part, because they had experiences, learned from them, and developed a healthy perspective. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from the past, if we approach it properly. Far too often, historians make their subject boring. That’s a shame, because in reality, the past is extraordinarily interesting. And more than that, it’s vitally important for us to know about the past, so that we can know who we are.