The mystery of Irvine’s funeral

Photo from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary for Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, January 24, 1921

I’ve written more words about Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine than about any other historical figure. Irvine was an Episcopal priest who converted to Orthodoxy in 1905, was ordained by St. Tikhon, and played a major role in American Orthodoxy until his death in January 1921. He was a trusted assistant to St. Raphael Hawaweeny, and he was the chief advocate of the use of English in Orthodox worship. Irvine’s significance to American Orthodox history is difficult to overstate.

I’m now working on a book about Irvine. No specifics yet, but I plan to finish it by the time I graduate from law school in a year. I’ve slowly begun to review my sources on Irvine, and I stumbled onto a really, really strange bit of information.

Irvine died in Brooklyn on January 23, 1921. The first obituary was published the next day, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. This obituary seems to have been the main source for the obituaries that appeared in numerous other papers in the following days. Here’s the weird part:

The Rev. Dr. Ingram N.W. Irvine, 71 years old, in charge of the English division of the Eastern Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of America, died on Sunday, of heart trouble, at his residence, 677 Sterling pl. The funeral services will be held tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock, at Dr. Irvine’s late home, the Rev. A.L. Charles, rector of St. Mark’s P.E. Church, officiating, and the internment will follow in Greenwood Cemetery. Dr. Irvine is survived by his wife, Mrs. Emmalena Wilson Irvine, and a daughter, Mrs. Annie Chapin.

There’s not really any question that Irvine remained Orthodox to the end of his life. Even this obituary speaks of him as being the head of the “English division” up to his death. And if you know anything about Irvine, you know that he was a stubborn mule who wouldn’t just cut and run from a church at the first hint of discomfort. I’m 99.9% certain that Irvine did not revert to Episcopalianism in the month before he died.

So why was Irvine’s funeral in his home and not in a church — and why did an Episcopal priest officiate? Apart from the almost impossible prospect of a deathbed apostasy, here are the most likely scenarios I can come up with (with help from Aram Sarkisian and Fr. Oliver Herbel):

1. Irvine’s widow and/or daughter arranged for an Episcopalian funeral. This, in my view, is the most likely scenario. We don’t know much of anything about Emmalena, Irvine’s wife. Yes, she helped Irvine with his teaching ministry, but we don’t even know if she formally converted to Orthodoxy. For all we know, she remained Episcopalian even after her husband’s conversion. As for daughter Annie, she was a very dysfunctional person. It’s a story for another day, but suffice it to say that Annie stole from a lot of people, probably was a con artist, and left her children to be primarily raised by their grandparents (the Irvines). I doubt she’d demand an Episcopalian funeral, but her motives are difficult to follow. In any case, Emmalena and/or Annie may have asked Rev. A.L. Charles of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to officiate.

2. Irvine himself asked for an Episcopalian funeral, but remained Orthodox. This is less crazy than it sounds. According to Aram Sarkisian’s research, Irvine’s bishop, Abp Alexander Nemolovsky, was in Canada when Irvine died. And Irvine had just been through a bad experience with a failed convert parish led by the erratic Archimandrite Patrick Mythen (who, incidentally, was probably in Canada with Abp Alexander when Irvine died). The nearest Orthodox bishop was the Syrian Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh of Brooklyn — a man Irvine hated. Irvine may have been so upset with the nearby Orthodox authorities that he preferred to be buried in a quiet ceremony officiated (perhaps) by an Episcopal priest that Irvine respected.

3. Irvine had an Orthodox funeral and an Episcopalian memorial service. This theory, suggested by Fr. Oliver, assumes that the newspapers just didn’t know about the Orthodox service. Along similar lines, Fr. Oliver points out that the Orthodox and Episcopalians may have officiated at the same funeral service. After all, in that era, it wasn’t unheard of for Orthodox and Episcopalian priests to officiate at the same marriage ceremony. I find this suggestion somewhat less likely than the possibility of dual funerals, simply because the Episcopalian funeral reported in the Eagle took place at Irvine’s home, rather than a church. Which suggests that it was something less than an “official” event. If Orthodox clergy were involved, why not do it at a church?

Anyway, at this point, we don’t know what was going on with Irvine’s funeral. But the three of us — Fr. Oliver, Aram, and I — are trying to track down what happened.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

5 thoughts on “The mystery of Irvine’s funeral

  1. I have only one explication: This is the beginning of the fatal beginning of the “ecumenism” who was hidden already under Patriarch Tychon. He has had many contacts with the so called “Episcopalians”. Irvin himself and his sourroundings were followers of the heretical Anglican so called “Branch Theory”. His Orthodoxy was more than doubtful. Only by this way a such funeral was possible. Kyrie eleison !

  2. Those are some pretty big charges, Vinkentios. Do you have evidence, for instance, that Irvine and his “followers” believed in the “branch theory” or that St. Tikhon was an “ecumenist”?

  3. Irvine’s ecclesiology was not merely “branch theory.” I actually have a section in my dissertation in which I discuss his ecclesiology. There is an unresolved tension in his writings, in that he did believe one could be Anglican and hold to orthodox beliefs without yet being Orthodox. He did clearly write (esp in his 1906 writings) that unity was to happen on the “platform” of the 7 ecumenical councils and that Orthodoxy’s combination of dogmatic unity and ecclesial coordination was the means by which Christians ought to unite (esp the Anglicans and the Orthodox). As such, unity was presented as a one-way street.

  4. Vinkentios,

    Please also keep in mind that Orthodox themselves varied on how they viewed the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Communion was different then than it is now.

  5. I’ll second Fr. Oliver’s comment about Irvine’s ecclesiology: he definitely did not believe in “branch theory.” His ecclesiology was quite nuanced. He believed that the Orthodox Church was the true Church, and he had major issues with the Anglican Communion. However, he also asserted that, in his own Anglican upbringing and training (in High Church circles favorably disposed to Orthodoxy), he had been taught theology that was entirely Orthodox. Other than the filioque, Irvine felt that his own pre-conversion Anglican theology was totally compatible with Orthodoxy. But he also didn’t gloss over the filioque issue, and he didn’t equate doctrinal agreement with unity. He also knew all too well that the Anglicans encompassed a wide range of doctrinal beliefs; just because some Anglicans were almost identical to the Orthodox in their theology didn’t mean that Anglicanism as a whole was equivalent to Orthodoxy.

    Irvine consistently professed fidelity to Orthodoxy as what he called the “Mother Church of Christendom,” i.e. the historical Christian Church founded by the Apostles, from which all the other “denominations” had broken away. Unity, in Irvine’s view, meant conformity to Orthodoxy — not compromise.

    And, whatever his personal views on the validity of Anglican sacraments, Irvine willingly was “re-ordained” when he became Orthodox, and he (along with St. Tikhon) refused to let his personal views — whatever they might have been — take precedence over the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He was not a mere “ecumenist,” nor was his Orthodoxy “doubtful.” This, after all, was the man who called for American Orthodoxy to live by the slogan, “aggressive Orthodox Catholicity, for the truth’s sake.” He was very firmly Orthodox.

    The fact is, none of us know enough to say with any sort of confidence why Irvine appears to have had an at-home Episcopalian funeral. To judge him as some sort of heretical “ecumenist,” given all the other evidence for his consistent Orthodoxy, is terribly misguided.

Leave a Reply