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The first Orthodox communities in what is today the continental United States were established in Alaska and on the West Coast, as the extreme end of the Russian missionary expansion through Siberia (see above The church in imperial Russia). Russian monks settled on Kodiak Island in 1794. Among them was St. Herman (died 1837, canonized 1970), an ascetic and a defender of the natives' rights against their exploitation by ruthless Russian traders. After the sale of Alaska to the United States, a separate diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska" was created by the Holy Synod (1870). After the transfer of the diocesan centre to San Francisco and its renaming as the diocese "of the Aleutian Islands and North America" (1900), the original church establishment exercised its jurisdiction on the entire North American continent. In the 1880s, it accepted back into Orthodoxy hundreds of "Uniate" parishes of immigrants from Galicia and Carpatho-Russia, particularly numerous in the northern industrial states and in Canada. It also served the needs of immigrants from Serbia, Greece, Syria, Albania, and other countries. Some Greek and Romanian communities, however, invited priests directly from the mother country without official contact with the American bishop. In 1905 the American archbishop Tikhon (future patriarch of Moscow) presented to the Russian synod the project of an autonomous, or autocephalous, church of America, whose structure would reflect the ethnic pluralism of its membership. He also foresaw the inevitable Americanization of his flock and encouraged the translation of the liturgy into English.
These projects, however, were hampered by the tragedies that befell the Russian Church following the Russian Revolution. The administrative system of the Russian Church collapsed. The non-Russian groups of immigrants sought and obtained their affiliation with mother churches abroad. In 1921 a "Greek Archdiocese of North and South America" was established by the ecumenical patriarch Meletios IV Metaxakis. Further divisions within each national group occurred repeatedly, and several independent jurisdictions added to the confusion.
A reaction against this chaotic pluralism manifested itself in the 1950s. More cooperation between the jurisdictions and a more systematic theological education contributed to an increased desire for unity. A Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) was established in 1960. In 1970 the patriarch of Moscow, reviving Tikhon's project of 1905, formally proclaimed its diocese in America (which had been in conflict with Moscow since 1931 on the issue of "loyalty" to the Soviet Union) as the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America OCA, totally independent from administrative connections abroad. The ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, however, protested this move, turned down a request for autonomy presented by the Greek archdiocese (the largest single Orthodox body in the United States), and reiterated its opposition to the use of English in the liturgy (1970). This latest crisis of American Orthodoxy involves the very understanding of the Orthodox presence in the Western world, centring on the question of the utility of preserving the ethnic ties of the past.