Scandal and murder: the story of Fr. Parthenios Kolonis

The following item appeared in the Washington Post (among other papers) on July 6, 1933:

Martins Ferry, Ohio, July 5 (A.P.). – The Rev. Parthenios Colonis, 72, pastor of the Martins Ferry Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, died today from hatchet-inflicted wounds. He was found unconscious in the basement of the church Saturday night, his skull fractured by blows from the blunt and sharp edges of a blood-stained hatchet.

He regained consciousness, but did not indicate who attacked him, although police say they believe he knew his assailants. It was the third time in three years that the priest was mysteriously assaulted in his church.

Archimandrite Parthenios Kolonis (or Colonis) born on the Greek island of Patmos in the early 1860s. He was ordained a priest in 1904 and immediately sailed to America, where he went to Milwaukee and established the Church of the Annunciation (Evangelismos). Kolonis served in Milwaukee until 1913; after that, he briefly stopped in Haverhill, Massachusetts before moving to Wheeling, West Virginia, where the founded the parish of St. John the Divine. In 1921, Kolonis made his final move, to Martins Ferry, Ohio, where he reportedly spent a whopping $7,000 of his own money to build the Church of Zoodochos Peghe (the Life-Giving Spring). Finally, as reported above in the Washington Post, Kolonis was brutally murdered in Martins Ferry in 1933.

Apart from his tragic death, Kolonis’ career (on the surface) seems rather ordinary for a Greek priest in early 20th century America. He founded three parishes and spent most of his career in those communities (Milwaukee, Wheeling, and Martins Ferry). He served in numerous other cities as well, among them Pittsburgh, Jacksonville (FL), Pueblo (CO), and Haverhill (MA). All in all, Kolonis had a pretty typical priestly career for his time. Except that he didn’t, because everywhere he went, Fr. Parthenios Kolonis was accused of being a predatory homosexual.

Margot Canaday tells the story of Kolonis in The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. According to Canaday, Kolonis left Milwaukee under a cloud of scandal. A parishioner had suggested that Kolonis was gay, and Kolonis himself had purportedly written a letter to a boy in Greece, suggesting that the two had engaged in a sexual relationship. Later, an investigation turned up the accusation that Kolonis had sexually assaulted a steward on the ship that  brought him to the United States. After leaving Milwaukee, Kolonis moved on to Haverhill, Mass., but he was almost immediately run out of town when multiple young men separately accused the him of sexual misconduct. (I am intentionally not providing all the gory details, but Canaday’s book is pretty explicit about the specific allegations in all of these cases.)

In Wheeling, the problem reached a tipping point. Kolonis purportedly made more advances on young men (including paying money for sexual favors), and eventually news of this reached the US Bureau of Immigration. The Bureau opened an investigation, and they found out about the Milwaukee and Haverhill allegations. In February 1916, the Secretary of Labor issued a warrant for the arrest of Kolonis on the grounds that, being a “moral pervert,” he should have been designated a likely public charge (and thus deported) when he immigrated to the United States in 1904. Kolonis’ attorneys made successful legal arguments in their clients’ favor, and the warrant was rescinded.

But the allegations were still out there. Kolonis argued that he was the victim of an “elaborate blackmail scheme” (Canaday’s description). This seems incredibly unlikely. Kolonis was accused of sexual misconduct literally everywhere he went, by numerous individuals. The accusers in one city seem to have been totally unaware of the allegations in the other cities. We can’t prove anything, certainly not a century after the fact, but I just cannot see how Kolonis could be innocent. (Oddly enough, Canaday’s narrative ends here; she appears to be unaware of Kolonis’ final years and violent end.)

Somehow, Kolonis remained in Wheeling for another five years, even after all the allegations were public. And while I don’t know much about his tenure in Martins Ferry, I think it’s safe to assume that Kolonis was accused there as well. That would certainly explain why he was “mysteriously assaulted in his church” three times in his final three years, and why he apparently knew, but would not identify, his murderer(s). In fact, when Kolonis was discovered by the police, he initially claimed that he had slipped on the basement steps and hit his head on the concrete floor. Dr. Bill Samonides did some digging in local newspapers, and offered the following findings:

According to the Steubenville Herald-Star of July 6, 1933, Fr Colonis died at Martins Ferry Hospital at 12:45 PM. He was attacked the previous night. did not die instantly, but lingered for some hours in the hospital after he was discovered. He is said to have been struck from behind by a hatchet. A skull fracture was assigned as the cause of death. He was struck in the basement of the church. He sustained a head injury in the church the previous Saturday night [July 1]. He told police that he had slipped on the basement steps and struck his head on the concrete floor.

Weirton Daily Times of July 7, 1933 reported that the Martins Ferry Coroner had arrested a Nick George of that town in connection with the murder. Witnesses told the coroner that they had seen George dining with Fr Parthenios the evening of the fatal attack. These witnesses also said that George was the last person seen on the church grounds that day. George was later exonerated and released.

Weirton Daily Times of July 8, 1933 reported that Rev Chrysostomos Papalambrou of Weirton was in charge of the funeral. It seems odd that the Wheeling priest was not in charge.

According to Dr. Samonides, that July 8 Weirton Daily Times article also noted that among Kolonis’ possessions was a painting said to have been owned by Tsar Nicholas II, and valued at a whopping $25,000 (over $400,000 today). I’d love to know what happened to that piece of art after Kolonis died.

We’ve reached the end, and it’s not unreasonable to ask the question, “Why bother telling this horrible story?” The unpleasant reality is that Orthodoxy in America has, today, a serious problem with sexual misconduct among the clergy. It’s a problem that crosses jurisdictional lines, and all ranks of clergymen. The Kolonis story demonstrates that this is, unfortunately, not a new problem for American Orthodoxy. There have always been bad priests who prey on vulnerable people and bring shame upon the Church. Kolonis didn’t really have a bishop (or at least, not one more than an ocean away), so it was easy enough for him to just move to a new city when his deeds started to catch up with him. Today, we don’t have that excuse.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

7 thoughts on “Scandal and murder: the story of Fr. Parthenios Kolonis

  1. Here we go again! Matthew, I find the fact that you did not consult any Greek-American newspapers about this subject a flaw in your research methodology. Let’s face it doing Orthodox history in America is part of ethnic studies. By 1933 the Greeks were already established in America and had their own newspapers, church organizations and clubs.
    So presently the facts only from English language newspers is not going to cut it.
    Please try to present a balanced picture. We know that the English language newspapers did not always get everything right and there was in some papers a spirit of Anglo-American nativism, anti-immigration and of couse sensationalism.

    I am not of Greek heritage and belong to the OCA so I have no axe to grind just a point of faulty methodology. I am sure that books have been written on the Greeks in America and if you consult one or two you will find the names of Greek language newspapers published in America in 1933 and can go from there. As for the future if you write about a Serbian Orthodox or a Romanian Orthodox please also check their sources in Romanian and Serbian to present a balanced picture.

  2. So if I can’t read Greek, I’m precluded from writing about Greek Orthodox history in America?

    In this article, I didn’t rely all that much on secular newspapers. I did use them for reports on Kolonis’ death, but that’s it. Mostly, I depended on Canaday’s research, and she relied heavily on US government reports. Is there more to be found? I’m sure there is. But just because there might be other good sources doesn’t mean I cannot publish what I’ve found on a given subject. And just because I can’t read Greek, or Ukrainian, or Russian, or Arabic, or whatever, doesn’t mean I can’t write about the history of those Orthodox groups in America.

    Look, unlike the critics of my article on Bp Joseph Zuk, you haven’t even pointed at other specific sources. You’ve merely speculated that such sources exist. I’d love to learn about them, and I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong. But you, and people like you, seem to have a distorted understanding of what a historian does. Historians don’t wait until they know every single thing that one can know before they assert something. Most good historians make hypotheses which are always subject to change if new information comes to light.

    If you don’t like the way I write about history, you’re welcome to stop reading. But I’m not going to quit writing simply because I am not all-knowing.

  3. Also, I contacted one of the preeminent Greek historians in America, Dr. Samonides. He actually lives in Ohio (where Kolonis died) and has done extensive archival research on Greek history in the state.

  4. Has Dr. Samonides written a book on Greek-Americans? If so you should have cited his book. Reg has made a good point for discussion: do historians have to know languages for research in primary sources or not? That is something that needs to be discussed.
    As for Matthew’s article what we can discuss about methodology since it has been mentioned: is the need to consult a good secondary source to provide the context of the story. How about a book on the history of Greek-Americans? For sure, the churches will be important chapters in any book on Greek-Americans. Research is not just checking the internet to find an articel or two in the popular press as the only basis for a story or article.

  5. “Reg has made a good point for discussion: do historians have to know languages for research in primary sources or not?”

    Depends on what he is doing. In the case at bar, Mr. Namee does know the language for research in the primary sources: English.

    The criminal investigations would be recroded in English. The Immigraton investigation would be recorded in English. The hospital record would be in English. The murder investigation would be recorded in English. The coroner’s report would be in English. And all these, along with the general press reports, are primary sources.

    Would the Greek Press turn up more? I’m sure they would, but they would be no more unbiased than the English press (I can read Greek, so I know that for a fact). Would there be Ecclesiastical records in Greek? Perhaps: would they be accessible?

    Doing the history of Orhtodoxy in North America requires knowledge of Slavonic, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, Risyn, Slovak, Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Serbian, Albanian, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Ottoman Turkish, Latin, Syriac/Assyrian, Malayam, Portuguese, perhaps Hinidi and Tamil, Amaharic along with Aleut, Kolosh, Tlingit, etc. All that is beyond the abilities of most. That’s why history is a collaborative effort. That’s why you publush what you can, so those competent in other areas can add to it and contribute to the collaborative effort.

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention that doing the history of Orthodoxy in North America also requires knowledge of Pomo Kashaya, an Amerindian language spoken north of San Francisco, which at its height, had at most 10,000 speakers (they are now 45). Valuable material about the conversion of the Amerindians around Fort Ross was preserved by those who stayed and were not evaculated to Stika when the Russians sold Fort Ross.

  7. The thing critics are also missing is that Matthew is simply making available a number of primary documents, noting holes and connections in the available reports, providing hypotheses that makes sense of the available material and that offer further avenues of inquiry.

    That is, he isn’t claiming to have told the full, true story. He’s simply providing as much of the story as he can at this time.

    So, a more constructive line of ‘criticism’ would have been asking, “Matthew, is there additional information available in contemporary Greek language sources in America? Are there any ecclesiastical records extant since the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (GOA) was incorporated in 1921 and officially recognized by the State of New York in 1922, and Kolonis only died in 1933 – thus, the GOA would have ‘missed’ allegations against him in Milwaukee, Haverhill, and Wheeling, etc.

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