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Nicholas Bjerring was the first Orthodox Christian priest to establish an Orthodox church and community in the northeastern United States. He was a convert from the Roman Catholic Church. He published translations into English of a number of books and articles concerning the Orthodox faith and services.
Fr. Nicholas was born in 1831 in Vejle, Denmark. His father was an official in the city of Vejle. Fr. Nicholas was educated in Vejle and studied philosophy and theology in the University of Breslau. He was active in the Roman Catholic schools in Europe and performed missionary work in Lapland. In 1868, he came to the United States to be a teacher at St. Alphonsus in Baltimore, Maryland. It has been mistakenly thought that he was a professor of philosophy and history at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland, but he never actually taught at that seminary. He was married while still a Roman Catholic and was the father of three children when he was received into the Orthodox Church.
Fr. Nicholas left the Roman Church in 1870 in protest of the adoption of the dogma of papal infallibility, stating his position on a letter of January 24, 1870 to Pope Pius IX. Fr. Nicholas had become interested in Orthodox Christianity through reading a scholarly journal, L’Union Chretienne. After careful consideration, in early 1870 he petitioned the Holy Synod of Russia to be received into the Orthodox Church. Receiving his letter, the Synod requested him to appear in person before them. On May 3, 1870, he was received into the Orthodox Church in ceremonies in the chapel of the St. Petersburg Academy. He was then ordained to the diaconate on May 6 and to the priesthood on May 9 by Metr. Isodore of St. Petersburg and Novgorod. Fr. Nicholas served his first liturgy in German on May 17 in the academy chapel. He was then directed to establish a church in New York City.
In the meantime, in 1864, Rev. Dr. John Young Freeman had visited Metr. Filaret of Moscow on behalf of the Russo-Greek Committee of the Protestant Episcopal Church. This meeting dealt with establishment of an Orthodox center in the northeastern United States which could provide a place for Orthodox rites to be experienced in the proper setting. The assignment of Fr. Nicholas to New York was fortuitous and appeared to have supported Rev. Freeman’s request.
Bjerring served the chapel of the Holy Trinity in New York until 1883, when funding was removed from the mission he was requested to return to Russia to teach at St. Petersburg Academy. Rather than accept such a prestigious offer, Bjerring desired to remain in America and began exploring where to transfer his ecclesiastical affiliation. In 1883, he decided to join the Presbyterian Church and was subsequently received as a pastor (though after some debate). Although little is known about this period of his life, he engaged in social ministry to Germans living in tenement housing (an act consistent with work he had begun amongst Russians in 1881). The Presbyterian Church would later remove the funding from his mission and he returned to the Roman Catholic Church in 1899. It is unknown whether the Presbyterians removed funding because he became Roman Catholic or he became Roman Catholic after the Presbyterians decided to remove his funding (though the latter seems to be the case).
Regardless, in 1899 and early 1900 he published articles in Catholic World in which he clearly cites religious convictions for returning to the Roman Catholic Church and discussed the labor question. He died in September of 1900 as a Roman Catholic layman.
Upon his arrival in the United States, Fr. Nicholas was very active within the community in New York. He associated himself with men of many professions: clergy, judges and lawyers, medical professionals, military officers, presidents and professors of colleges, and many other prominent people. Fr. Nicholas was a linguist, being fluent, in addition to his native Danish, in German, English, and Swedish, as well as knowledgeable in French and Latin, but not in Russian.
Fr. Nicholas was familiar with German translations of Orthodox services and dogmatic papers, and he began translation of these works into English. In 1872, he published the English translation of Office for Admission and Reception of Converts into the Orthodox Eastern Church. In 1873, he published Fr. Hatherly’s (of London, England) translation of The Divine Liturgies of our Holy Fathers John Chrysostom and Basil the Great. This translation had been approved by the Holy Synod. In 1876, he published his own translation of Fr, F. Basaroff’s Sacrament of Matrimony.
Between November 1879 and October 1881, Fr. Nicholas published the The Oriental Church Magazine, an English language quarterly, which presented numerous translations of the church services and other articles on religion, science, literature, and art, with the purpose of spreading knowledge about Orthodoxy.
- Orthodox America 1794-1976 Development of the Orthodox Church in America, C. J. Tarasar, Gen. Ed. 1975, The Orthodox Church in America, Syosett, New York