The First Black Orthodox Priest in America
In 1907, a black Episcopalian deacon from Jamaica traveled to Constantinople, where he was ordained an Orthodox priest by a bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He was then sent to Philadelphia with the mission to “carry the light of the Orthodox faith among his racial brothers.”
This pioneering black clergyman was Robert Josias Morgan, who took the name “Father Raphael” after his ordination. Morgan was born in Jamaica in the 1860s. As a young man, he traveled throughout Latin America, Europe, and Africa. In 1895, he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. (The Episcopal Church in the United States is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.) He was part of a small and interesting group of black Episcopalian clergy at the turn of the 20th century.
At some point – and for reasons that remain unclear – Morgan began to doubt his Anglican faith. He embarked on a sweeping three-year study of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. He seemed to lean toward Orthodoxy from the start. In 1904, he toured Russia, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Holy Land. Everywhere he went, the Orthodox leaders welcomed him as an honored guest. After that, Morgan returned to Philadelphia. He was still technically an Episcopalian, but he started attending Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, where he became close to the priest, Fr. Demetrios Petrides.
In 1907, Morgan traveled to Constantinople with two letters of recommendation. One, from Fr. Demetrios, recommended that Morgan be received into Orthodoxy and ordained a priest. The other, from the Annunciation parish, seconded Fr. Demetrios’ recommendation and further said that if Morgan was unsuccessful in establishing a black Orthodox parish, he was welcome to serve as the assistant priest at Annunciation.
After being interviewed extensively by one of the English-speaking bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Morgan was chrismated into the Orthodox Church. On the Feast of Dormition (the repose of the Mother of God), he was ordained a priest in the presence of 3,000 people. He took the name "Father Raphael." The bishop who ordained him sent him back to America to “carry the light of the Orthodox faith among his racial brothers.”
With that charge, Morgan returned to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he appears to have been unsuccessful in his mission – there’s no evidence that he received any converts, other than his wife and children. He remained in Philadelphia into the late 1910s and died sometime between 1916 and 1924 (the exact date is unknown).
While Fr. Raphael never did establish a black Orthodox parish, the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate ordained a black priest and commissioned a mission to black Americans in 1907 is remarkable in its own right. Fr. Raphael’s story stands as a reminder that Orthodoxy is for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.