As I’ve probably said a hundred times now, America is a frontier region for Orthodoxy. This was especially the case at the turn of the last century, when the chaotic nature of the American Orthodox scene provided ample opportunity for imposter priests to make a good living on unwitting Orthodox immigrants. I’m sure we’ll discuss various examples of this phenomenon in the future. Today, I’m going to talk about two fundraising “monks” from, apparently, Kurdistan.
This report appeared in a number of newspapers (including the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post) on November 6, 1900:
Two priests of the Greek Church, Fathers Simeon and Joseph Nathan, from the Monastery of Oyos Caralambos, of Kurdistan, were ordered deported by the immigration authorities today. They are said to have come to this country by commission of Bishop Laveneu, the head of their order, to raise funds for the Church. Having very little money they were excluded as likely to become public charges. They said that they had passports from the authorities in Greece.
Frs. Simeon and Joseph appear to have been non-Chalcedonians of some sort or another. From later reports, it seems that they had previously visited India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Japan. They then reached the Pacific Coast of the US, where they met the Episcopal Bishop of Olympia, Washington. They traveled across the country (stopping in St. Paul, Minnesota, among other places), and eventually found their way to New York City. They claimed to be raising money for an orphanage. From the Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica, 10/30/1902):
It seems that they church to which they belong was destroyed at the time of the Armenian massacres by the Turks and their mission is to raise funds to establish a new church, and also an orphanage in connection with it, for the support of fifty orphans whose parents perished in that terrible affair.
After being deported from the US, these “Chaldeans” went to Haiti, and in the fall of 1902, they came to Jamaica. The Gleaner newspaper encouraged readers to contribute money, pointing out that the fundraisers had a letter of recommendation from (among others) the Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies. This effort appears to have been successful, and even the Acting Governor of Jamaica made a donation. After leaving Jamaica in November 1902, the “Chaldean agents” went to Colon and collected still more money.
It was only after they were long gone that the Gleaner received a letter of warning from Anglican representatives in Persia. From the December 5, 1902 issue of the newspaper:
We ask your permission to warn your readers against all persons coming from this country to England for begging purposes, whether they call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Armenians, or by any other name. Many of the most worthless of these Christians have learnt to travel to Europe to beg nominally, in most cases, for some school or other institution, but in reality for themselves. Many persons in England have been deceived by them, even those universally known to be most astute, and the amount of money that has been wasted in this way is most lamentable.
The letter went on to comment that these fraudulent fundraisers displayed “a wonderful versatility in their religion. They will one day be Baptists, the next Anglican, the third Roman Catholics, and the fourth Orthodox Easterns. No religion comes amiss to them, if they can make money by it.”
Many years later, in 1914, other Chaldean fundraisers — or perhaps the same ones — surfaced in America. St. Raphael Hawaweeny found it necessary to publish this notice in the Russian Archdiocese’s Vestnik magazine:
For a long time already, various “collectors” with counterfeit documents, written in various languages, are traveling around North America… They claim to be Syrian or Orthodox Syrian-Arabs while they are Chaldeans and Nestorians by religion… Many times I warned my Syrian compatriots… now I found out that those “collectors” act among the Russian clergy… so I warn you… that those who do not have the papers with my signature and seal are tricksters. Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn.
[I found this in Fr. Andrew Kostadis' 1999 St. Vladimir's Seminary thesis, Pictures of Missionary Life, page 39. The ellipses are in Kostadis' text.]
We’ll probably never know the true origins of these Chaldeans, or what became of them. But they were just two of many fake, or at least unauthorized, individuals who claimed to be Orthodox clergymen in America.