In the comments section of an old article I wrote on the first Orthodox parishes in each US state, Isa Almisry and I have recently had an interesting exchange about an Old Catholic parish in Wisconsin which discussed joining (and possibly did briefly join) the Russian Orthodox Church in 1891-92. This story involves Joseph Rene Vilatte, a former Roman Catholic priest who went on to become a prolific vagante bishop and who would reappear in American Orthodox history over the coming decades.
I don’t really have the expertise to outline the history of the Old Catholic movement, but suffice it to say that, in the latter half of the 19th century (and especially after the first Vatican Council in 1870, which promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility), a number of Roman Catholics broke away from their church.
Joseph Rene Vilatte was born in Paris in 1854. Originally, he was a Roman Catholic, but he became the quintessential religious chameleon as an adult. In the 1880s he came to the United States, where he served as a Presbyterian missionary in a Belgian Old Catholic community in Green Bay, Wisconsin. While there, he made contact with local Episcopal Bishop John Brown of Fond du Lac, who in turn recommended to the Old Catholic Bishop Edward Herzog of Bern, Switzerland that Vilatte be ordained a priest. This took place in 1886.
Soon, Bishop Brown died, and the new Episcopal bishop of Fond du Lac, Charles Grafton (the future friend of St. Tikhon), did not see eye to eye with Vilatte. Forced to make a choice between Episcopalianism and Old Catholicism, Vilatte chose the latter, and he tried to have himself consecrated a bishop in the Old Catholic Church. The church authorities in Europe declined. This is where our story begins. [Incidentally, this preliminary information on Vilatte comes from Theodore Natsoulas, "Patriarch McGuire and the Spread of the African Orthodox Church to Africa, Journal of Religion in Africa 12:2 (1981), 81-104. This is one of the only scholarly sources which discusses Vilatte at any length.]
Vilatte wanted to be consecrated a bishop, and he wanted as much autonomy as possible. That is the first thing to understand. In the paper cited above, Theodore Natsoulas says that the Old Catholics turned down Vilatte because he was “unpredictable,” and they did not want him to be their sole representative in America. Here is how Natsoulas describes what happened next:
[Vilatte's] attempts to be raised to the episcopate included approaches to the Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in America and to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Green Bay. Both turned him down, although Vladimir, the Russian Bishop, in order to incorporate the Old Catholics within his fold, did extend some form of recognition and protection to Vilatte and the Old Catholic Church. Vladimir and Vilatte, however, could not arrive at a mutually satisfactory agreement.
It all began when Vilatte traveled to San Francisco to meet with Bishop Vladimir, sometime in 1890 or early 1891. Interestingly, this coincided almost precisely with the visit of a delegation of Uniates from St. Alexis Toth’s parish in Minneapolis. It must have been amazing for Bishop Vladimir, sitting there in San Francisco, to receive near-simultaneous unsolicited visits from two Upper Midwest groups connected to Roman Catholicism and seeking reception into the Orthodox Church.
Bishop Vladimir traveled to Minneapolis in March of 1891 and formally received the Minneapolis parish into Orthodoxy. After that historic visit, Vladimir passed through Chicago, which had a sizeable Orthodox community which was determined to remain independent of the controversial Bishop Vladimir. He left Chicago on April 10, and by April 11 he was in Green Bay. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported the next day that Vladimir came for the purpose of visiting Vilatte and his Old Catholic parish in nearby Dyckesville. The Russian bishop “expressed great sympathy with [Vilatte's] work, and it is stated that he was agreeably surprised to find that the doctrinal basis of the Old Catholics at this place, and that of his own large church of 100,000,000 souls were precisely identical.”
But what, exactly, was the relationship between the Russian Diocese and the Old Catholics in Wisconsin? According to a web-published biography of Vilatte by Bertil Persson (the reliability of which is unclear), Vilatte had originally visited Bishop Vladimir in San Francisco in January 1891, at which time Vladimir “approached The Holy Synod of The Russian Orthodox Church suggesting that Vilatte should be consecrated.” I don’t doubt that Bishop Vladimir notified the Holy Synod of Vilatte’s visit, but I cannot believe that he actually suggested that the Russian Church consecrate the man.
Also according to the Persson biography, after visiting Vilatte’s parish in April, Bishop Vladimir issued the following certificate:
CERTIFICATE. The Russian Ecclesiastical Consistory of Alaska, San Francisco, Cal: May 9, 1891. By the Grace of God and the Authority bestowed on me by the Apostolic Succession, I, VLADIMIR, Bishop of the Orthodox Catholic Church, announce to all clergymen of the different Christian denominations and to all Old Catholics that The Reverend Joseph René Vilatte, Superior of the Old Catholic Parish in Dyckesville, Wisc:, is now a true Old Catholic Orthodox Christian, under the patronage of our Church, and no Bishop or Priest of any denomination has the right to interdict him or to suspend his religious duties, except the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, and myself. Any action contrary to this declaration, is null and void on the basis of liberty of conscience and the law of this country. ‡VLADIMIR, Bishop of the Greco-Russian Orthodox Ch.
I have no idea whether this document is authentic or not, and unfortunately, Persson only reprinted the text, so we can’t examine the letterhead or Bishop Vladimir’s signature.
Anyway, Bishop Vladimir was recalled to Russia soon after all this, in the wake of a series of scandals in his San Francisco cathedral. His replacement, Bishop Nicholas Ziorov, visited the Wisconsin Old Catholics in May 1892. According to Dom Augustine de Angelis in the Fond Du Lac Reporter (quoted in the Milwaukee Sentinel, 5/16/1892), “Bishop Nicholas, head of the Greek church in America, visited the Old Catholic mission at Dyckesville, last Monday. He has been in America only a month and a half, but has already made his episcopal visitation of the Orthodox and Old Catholic churches, preparatory to his annual visitation of the vast region of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. [...] His first impressions of America and Americans are very favorable, and he sympathizes with us in our hopes of seeing an Orthodox American church, in which mass shall be said in English, French, German, etc., until all have become so American that English shall be the common tongue of all…”
But the parish priest, Vilatte, wasn’t there. He was in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), awaiting his long-sought consecration to the episcopate. He had found a taker in the ancient Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the non-Chalcedonian church in India. Vilatte never seems to have considered himself to be a Malankara Syrian Orthodox; he was interested in their apostolic succession, not their actual Church. (As Theodore Natsoulas puts it, “Vilatte’s commitment to the [Malankara] Church of Antioch, or, in fact, to any other religious organization, never was very deep.”) He returned to Dyckesville in August, and on September 11, the New York Times reported that Vilatte had created the American Catholic Church. Needless to say, any connection he might have had with the Russian Diocese of the Aleutian Islands was dead by this point.
Vilatte went on to an exceedingly colorful career as a vagante bishop, and many little Old Catholic and pseudo-Orthodox groups have websites claiming “apostolic succession” through him. More importantly for our purposes, Vilatte remained in occasional contact with Orthodoxy. Robert Josias Morgan — soon to become Fr. Raphael, the first black Orthodox priest in America — was briefly a deacon in Vilatte’s church in the early 1900s. And many years later, in 1921, Vilatte consecrated George Alexander McGuire, who immediately formed the “African Orthodox Church.”
Was Vilatte’s Old Catholic parish once a part of the Russian Orthodox Church? Even if we assume that the purported certificate from Bishop Vladimir is authentic, I’m really not sure. Bishop Vladimir may have viewed St. Alexis Toth and Joseph Rene Vilatte as parallel church leaders, and he may have imagined that, just as Toth began a flood of Uniate conversions to Orthodoxy, so too Vilatte would be the first of thousands of Old Catholics to join the Russian Mission. But from Vilatte’s perspective, this whole idea would have been laughable. He was, it seems, utterly committed to becoming a vagante bishop. He wanted a mechanical, legalistic “apostolic succession,” and then he wanted to be left to his own devices. There is simply no way that he, or his Wisconsin parish, could have been effectively incorporated into the Russian Mission.
Much of this story remains a mystery, but at this juncture, I am most struck by the contrast between Toth and Vilatte, both of whom, in their own very different ways, made substantial impacts on the religious life of the United States in the decades that followed.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]