“[I]n 1921 … without the knowledge and canonical approval of the Russian Orthodox Church, a Greek Archdiocese was founded in America.” (Patriarch Alexy I of Moscow to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, March 17, 1970.)
Patriarch Alexy’s position has been shared by many people, particularly since the OCA was granted autocephaly by Moscow in 1970. But is it true? Was the Greek Archdiocese really established against the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church? I had always assumed so, until I stumbed upon a letter from Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky — the Russian Archbishop of North America — to his Greek counterpart, Bishop (later Archbishop) Alexander Demoglou, dated November 11, 1921. The letter is included in Paul Manolis’ The History of the Greek Church of America in Acts and Documents, and I have reprinted it in full below:
Most Reverend and Dear Brother in Christ:
After taking counsel and acting accordance with our knowledge and understanding of the Canon Law, we herewith inform you that our interpretation of the duty confronting us in relation to the established intercommunion of our Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic Communion, we look to you and your Canonical Superiors as the head in America, North and South, of the interests of the Hellenic members of our Holy Faith.
By this, you will therefore understand that until further action by the Oecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople, the Russian Mission established in America with jurisdiction known as the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Isles and North America, as well as our local American work known as “The American Orthodox Catholic Church” under the immediate direction of the Right Reverend Archimandrite Patrick [Mythen], who is under obedience to us as Archbishop, are in full fellowship and communion with you, as the only valid and canonical head of the Hellenic Mission (for care of the spiritual interests of citizens and former citizens of the Kingdom of Greece).
We beg you to take note of this, our official communication and pray that together under God’s direction, we may work in fraternal harmony in the Apostolic responsibilities resting upon us.
Prayin[g] God’s blessing on you and your work, I am
Archbishop of the Aleutian Isles and North America
Abp Alexander’s letter proves that the leadership of the Russian Archdiocese of North America welcomed the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921. Contrary to Patriarch Alexy I and so many others, the Greek Archdiocese was founded with the “knowledge and canonical approval of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
Now, Abp Alexander Nemolovsky may well have been wrong to have written that letter. His understanding of canon law certainly seems peculiar, since he simultaneously claims to be Archbishop of North America and acknowledges another bishop as having the same jurisdiction. Later Russian Church leaders were free to disagree with Abp Alexander’s original position, but we cannot deny that the head of the Russian Archdiocese welcomed the creation of the Greek Archdiocese in 1921.
What does it mean? It means that we should be honest when we’re debating the sticky questions of territorial rights and so forth. Yes, the Russian Church had the original Orthodox presence on the North American continent. The Russian Church was the first to formally claim North America as its ecclesiastical territory, and it was the first to engage in large-scale missionary work on that territory (among Alaskan natives and Eastern Rite Catholics). But it is wrong to say that the Greek Archdiocese was founded contrary to the wishes of the Russian Church. In fact, I would turn the question around — and I’m very open to new information on this: can anyone point to a specific document, from the 1918-1922 period, in which a Russian Church leader declared the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese to be uncanonical?
And, just to pre-empt any questions about it — I point all this out not to argue for (or against) the agenda of this or that group in the Church, but only to correct the historical record. The Russian Archbishop of America welcomed the foundation of the Greek Archdiocese. This is a fact.