The Bulgarian Diocese in Exile

Abp. Kyrill Yonchev, 1964-2007

Abp. Kyrill Yonchev, 1964-2007


The longest-serving hierarch in American Orthodox history was Abp. Kyrill Yonchev (1964-2007), until late this past June, when his record tenure of nearly 43 years was exceeded by Metr. Philip Saliba of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Kyrill was well-known and well-loved as the OCA’s diocesan bishop for Western Pennsylvania as well as its Bulgarian diocese. What is perhaps less well-known is how the OCA came to have a Bulgarian diocese.

The OCA’s Bulgarian diocese, like one of its other ethnically defined dioceses (the Romanian), had its origins in a schism within the American jurisdiction of an Orthodox church based in a then-Communist nation. In both cases, there were factions dedicated to remaining within the canonical purview of the mother churches, but there were also factions who felt that such a stance represented capitulation to Communism, which had, to one extent or another, compromised the church authorities in the homeland. Communism split not only the Bulgarians and Romanians in America, but also the Russians and Serbs. (Of these, only the Serbs have subsequently reunited.)

In the case of the Bulgarian diocese, the dissent against Metr. Andrei Petkov, the bishop aligned with the homeland, was led by one of his clergy, an archimandrite named Kyrill Yonchev. During World War II, Andrei broke relations with authorities in Bulgaria, and then in the late 1950s petitioned the Russian Metropolia (itself then on bad terms with its mother church) for admission, but was rebuffed. In 1964, he regularized his relations with the homeland. This latter move stirred significant rancor in the Bulgarian-American ranks, and Kyrill broke relations with the aging Andrei and persuaded several parishes to follow him.

Kyrill was subsequently consecrated by the ROCOR, renowned for its anti-Communist feelings, to serve as the head of the Bulgarian Diocese in Exile. His career as a ROCOR bishop came to an abrupt end, however, when in 1976 he led his diocese of nine parishes into the OCA, where he served until his death in 2007, acquiring a second diocese (Western Pennsylvania) in 1978. At the time of this development, in the wake of the Metropolia’s reconciliation with Moscow and subsequent independence as the OCA, ROCOR/OCA animosity was perhaps at its apex.

In 1976, the energy from the OCA’s newly-proclaimed autocephaly was still flowing freely, and the entry of the Bulgarian Diocese in Exile into its ranks was regarded as another sign of the inevitability of the OCA as a catalyst for American Orthodox unity, particularly at the OCA’s Fifth All-American Council that year, which also elected Theodosius Lazor to be the new OCA primate.

St. George Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral, Toledo, Ohio

St. George Bulgarian Orthodox Cathedral, Toledo, Ohio


Since Kyrill’s death, the OCA’s Bulgarian diocese has been without an appointed hierarch, and the Bulgarian parishes under the Patriarchate of Bulgaria remain as their own jurisdiction, whose numbers were nearly doubled in 2000 with the reception of a number of parishes of the former Christ the Saviour Brotherhood. While the two Romanian jurisdictions in America have had ongoing talks regarding reunification, there has not been a parallel development in Bulgarian-American Orthodoxy.

Update Dec. 26, 2009: Fr. Alexander Lebedeff writes with some corrections to this post:

Archbishop Antony (Sinkevich) of the ROCOR was consecrated Bishop of Los Angeles in August 1951 and served until he was retired in 1995. He reposed July 31, 1996. He was a bishop for 45 years.

Of course, Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinoff) of the ROCOR was made bishop in 1951 and retired in 2001 after celebrating 50 years as a bishop (he reposed in 2006). However, he did not come to North America until 1955. Still, 1955-2001 is 46 years. There are those in offshoots of the ROCOR who consider him to have continued being First Hierarch of the ROCOR up to the point of his repose. In any case he was a bishop for 55 years and a bishop in North America for 51.

7 thoughts on “The Bulgarian Diocese in Exile

  1. I would include the Albanians, also split by politics at home. In the Albanian case, however, there is the unusual situation that the Albanian Archdiocese is acutally the Mother Church of the Church of Albania.

  2. I did have the Albanians in mind, but their genesis was a bit more complicated, as you mention.

  3. It should be noted that perhaps the chief reason behind the move of the Bulgarian Diocese from the Russian Church Abroad was not an epiphany about the mission of the newly-autocephalous Church, but rather the deaths of Archbishop Kyrill’s friends and protectors in the ROCOR Synod, Archbishops Averky (Taushev) and Nikon (Rklitsky), both of which also occurred in 1976. With both of them gone, he lacked the support he had once enjoyed from two seniors hierarchs of that Church, and was left without defenders against the increasing influence of radical elements who had the ear of Bishop Gregory (Grabbe), and through him, of Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky). One of the principal complaints of such elements was the use of the New Calendar in most (but by no means all) of the parishes of the Bulgarian Diocese. But prior to this, the Church Abroad had four New Calendar dioceses: Bulgarian, Romanian, Dutch, and French.

  4. Thanks, Esteban. I’m not quite as familiar with the history of the ROCOR, and your comment adds some important background.

    I honestly wasn’t sure what had actually precipitated Kyrill’s move into the OCA. Being from one of the anti-Communist schisms wasn’t enough (indeed, the OCA was regarded as suspiciously cozy with the Soviets!).

  5. Indeed it was so regarded, but joining them was better than the alternatives: going back to Bulgarian Patriarchate (which even today provokes alarmed cries of “Collaborators!” in the Diocese!), or going to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (which, I’ve been told numerous times, Archbishop Kyrill would dismiss by saying that no self-respecting Bulgarian would ever do that). Besides, they had a good track record with the anti-communist Romanians, which means that they largely left them alone. So in many ways, it was the natural choice.

  6. I’m not quite sure I agree with your comments about “longest serving hierarch.”

    Archbishop Antony (Sinkevich) of the ROCOR was consecrated Bishop of Los Angeles in August 1951 and served until he was retired in 1995. He reposed July 31, 1996. He was a bishop for 45 years.

    Of course, Metropolitan Vitaly (Oustinoff) of the ROCOR was made bishop in 1951 and retired in 2001 after celebrating 50 years as a bishop (he reposed in 2006). However, he did not come to North America until 1955. Still, 1955-2001 is 46 years. There are those in offshoots of the ROCOR who consider him to have continued being First Hierarch of the ROCOR up to the point of his repose. In any case he was a bishop for 55 years and a bishop in North America for 51.

    • Thank you, Fr. Alexander! I was not aware of the tenures of the ROCOR bishops you name. I’ve added your comments to the body of the post itself.

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