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Apostle to the Plains is the story of the first Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christian priest to be ordained in the United States: Father Nicola Yanney. This is remarkable in itself, but Father Nicola would, in this role, serve as the sole parish priest for almost the entirety of the Great Plains for over a decade, riding a circuit that would take him regularly from Kanas to Michigan, from Michigan to North Dakota, and from North Dakota back to his home in Nebraska. Along this way, he would perform over one thousand baptisms, numerous weddings, and a number of funerals, including for close relatives, and even his own daughter. His is a very American tale, sharing as it does the travails of millions of other immigrants, but his is also very much a family tale, and a tale of great personal sacrifice.
Of the many tumults of the 19th century, one that is less well remembered today is the Arab diaspora. Millions of Arabs, many of them Christians, facing poverty and Ottoman oppression left their homes in what is today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, for the better opportunities available in the New World. There are many common themes one finds in the history of immigration to the United States, and the necessary exile from one’s homeland. Some of these stories, especially in their broad ethnic arcs, are well known to us today – the Catholic Irish, Italians, and Polish, the Jewish diaspora from all over Europe – and they share much in common with the Arab-immigrant experience. In this, Father Nicola’s early story will feel familiar. In the late 19th century, Nicola and his newlywed bride Martha followed the example of many of his countrymen in leaving behind poverty and Turkish pogroms, with help from loans from others who have already made the journey and established themselves, and found themselves in central Nebraska.
Their story upon arrival is likewise familiar in its contours: Nicola worked hard in a job that also helped him learn English, he and Martha started a family, and when they could afford to do so they became farmers and moved to a sod house out on the prairie, nearer a much smaller town. There was another, sadder, familiarity – Martha died in childbirth with their fifth child, and the little girl, premature, died herself days later. During all this time, the Orthodox communities on the Great Plains had no priests or clergy or churches of their own, and had to rely on the one circuit-riding priest of the time, Father Raphael Hawaweeny. When Father Raphael was consecrated as a bishop in 1904 (the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in North America), he gained the authority to ordain others as priests, and Nicola Yanney was nominated by his community to be theirs. Given the scarcity of communities large enough to support priests and churches, Father Nicola would serve not only his home community in Carney, Nebraska, but most of the rest of the Great Plains for over a decade.