Fr. Antony Hill: the second black Orthodox priest in America

After a week’s worth of articles on the Archbishop Arseny criminal libel case, I thought I’d break things up a bit by looking at something completely different — the story of Fr. Antony Hill, the second black Orthodox priest in America.

By now, a lot of people know that Fr. Raphael Morgan was the first black Orthodox priest in America, ordained in 1907 and based out of Philadelphia’s Greek church. But the second black priest in America, and the first under the Russian Archdiocese, is still virtually unknown. And, while Morgan’s life is full of mystery, the man who followed him — Fr. Antony Hill — is even more of an enigma.

We don’t know when Hill was born, where he was born, or how he came to join the Orthodox Church. His given name was Robert F. Hill, and the first traces I’ve found of him are from a New York Times article dated January 3, 1921. Orthodox and Episcopalian clergy had gathered together for a prayer service, asking God to restore the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to the Orthodox. The Orthodox included Russians, Greeks, Serbs, and Syrians, and among the Russian contingent was “the Very Rev. Anthony R.F. Hill, a canon of the Russian Cathedral.” Also in the group was another recent American convert, Fr. Stephen (Geoffrey) Lang.

Several months later, in September 1921, Hill and Fr. Patrick Mythen attended the First General Synod of the brand-new “African Orthodox Church.” As we’ve discussed before, this noncanonical body was headed by “Patriarch” George Alexander McGuire, who had been consecrated by the vagante Old Catholic bishop Joseph Rene Vilatte. McGuire was an associate of Marcus Garvey, and he most likely had known Fr. Raphael Morgan.

In the 1956 book The History of the African Orthodox Church, A.C. Terry-Thompson writes extensively about the AOC’s initial General Synod. From Terry-Thompson, we know that Fr. Patrick Mythen gave a rousing speech on the Synod’s first day, comparing the AOC’s organizers to Christ’s apostles in the upper room on Pentecost, and expressing the hope that all of Orthodoxy would accept the AOC as a legitimate Church. Hill then offered a few words, “recording his earnest desire to see us launch out successfully.”

Shortly after this, Hill decided to leave the Russian Archdiocese and throw his lot in with the African Orthodox Church. He became rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which had been McGuire’s parish before he became a bishop. It was Hill who, on September 15, seconded the motion that the new ecclesiastical body be known as the “African Orthodox Church.”  The next day, he was appointed dean of the AOC’s seminary. In other words, he was a major player in the new organization.

In his book Words Like Freedom: Essays on African American Culture and History (1996), Richard Newman writes that Hill “was released by the Russians to work with McGuire and the fledgling AOC.” Further on, though, Newman says that Hill “was excommunicated by the Russians.” I find it hard to believe that the Russian Archdiocese would actually release Hill to a noncanonical body. However, in 1921, Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky was primate of the Russian Archdiocese. He was a highly ineffective hierarch, and he delegated an unusual amount of authority to Fr. Patrick Mythen. Given Mythen’s own affinity for the AOC, it’s very possible that Mythen himself granted Hill a “release,” but that later Russian leaders recognized this as irregular and went on to defrock Hill.

Hill lasted about 13 years in the AOC. According to Terry-Thompson, “Due to some difference of policy Father Anthony resigned his post late in 1934.” It’s worth noting that 1934 is the same year that Patriarch McGuire died, and it’s possible that Hill’s resignation was part of the fallout from McGuire’s death. Richard Newman writes, “When he left the AOC he founded an independent church in Harlem.” Newman adds, “This story needs to be told.” Alas, Newman died in 2003, so we can’t ask him for more information.

Hill’s career in the Russian Archdiocese must have been extremely brief. He most likely joined the Russians in mid-to-late 1920, when Fr. Patrick Mythen’s short-lived, English-speaking Church of the Transfiguration was in operation in New York City. We know that he left Orthodoxy in September 1921, when he joined the AOC. But beyond the scant details I’ve presented in this article, we know next to nothing else about Fr. Antony Hill.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]