Some thoughts on the Russy-Antacky schism

Yesterday, in my “This week in American Orthodox history” article, I mentioned the following event:

April 23, 1917: St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Worcester, MA became the first official “Antacky” parish, declaring its loyalty to Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. Informally, the Russy-Antacky schism began immediately after St. Raphael died in 1915, when his priests disagreed on whether to acknowledge the authority of Antioch or Russia. But the Worcester declaration marked the formal beginning of the schism, which divided the Arab Orthodox in America until the mid-1930s.

According to the parish history in its 1956 “Golden Jubilee” book, the Worcester church issued this declaration: “Just as the Disciples declared themselves dedicated to Christ in Antioch, so the people of Worcester declared themselves dedicated to the Church of Antioch.”

But Germanos wasn’t actually authorized by Antioch — he was acting independently, and Antioch wanted him to return to his see in Syria. So when the Patriarchate of Antioch created its own, official jurisdiction in America under Bishop Victor Abo-Assaly, the Worcester parish switched over, becoming one of the first churches to join the new Antiochian Archdiocese.

As you may recall, the Russy-Antacky schism wasn’t merely a simple two-way split. Well, it was originally — you had the Russy under Bishop (later Archbishop) Aftimios Ofiesh, and the Antacky under Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. But by the end of the 1920s, four bishops claimed authority over the Arab Orthodox:

  • Metropolitan Germanos, who lacked the blessing of Antioch (or anyone else, for that matter), but originally led the Syrians who preferred to be tied to Antioch rather than Russia;
  • Archbishop Aftimos, who initially led the Syrians under the Russian Church, but who later formed his own jurisdiction and was disowned by the Russians;
  • Archbishop Victor Abo-Assaly, the first primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese, which was formed in 1924; and
  • Bishop Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, a former auxiliary to Aftimios, who took over the Russy parishes after the Russian Metropolia rejected Aftimios.

It’s particularly difficult to figure out just who was under whom during this period. The 1924 book The Syrians in America, by Philip Hitti, provides a valuable snapshot of how things looked just before the Antiochian Archdiocese was created. According to a directory at the back of Hitti’s book, the score was 31 priests for Aftimios against 24 for Germanos. (These numbers don’t include the five priests of the separate “English-Speaking Department,” which was also under Aftimios.)

But what happened after 1924? As far as I can tell, there aren’t any hard numbers. We just don’t know, for instance, how many parishes left Germanos for the officially sanctioned Antiochian Archdiocese, nor do we know how many parishes remained under Aftimios after the Russian Metropolia replaced him with Emmanuel. The Census Bureau conducted its decennial Census of Religious Bodies in 1926, but I haven’t been able to find the entry (or entries) for the Syrians/Antiochians, so I don’t know if the Census reflected the complex divisions.

My home parish, St. Mary in Wichita, was founded in 1932, right before the slate was wiped clean by the death of three of the four claimants, and the marriage of Aftimos. Several years ago, Bishop Basil of Wichita asked me under which bishop St. Mary was founded, and I honestly didn’t know. I asked the surviving elders of the parish, and none of them knew, either. It’s indicative of how complex that era was. Eventually, I dug up a newspaper article from 1956 that referenced Archbishop Victor as the founding hierarch, finally settling the question.

It’s possible (probable, even), that as the original claimants (Aftimios and Germanos) were supplanted by Victor and Emmanuel, they continued to visit some of their former parishes in some kind of unofficial capacity. I’ve heard stories about Aftimios showing up at Antiochian churches for years after his marriage. To complicate matters even further, after Aftimios left the scene, one of his associated bishops, Sophronios Beshara of Los Angeles, remained at large for the rest of the 1930s, and he apparently visited parishes and even ordained some priests. So to some extent, even after the Antiochians regrouped in the mid-1930s, you still had four claimants — Metropolitan Antony Bashir of New York and his friend/rival Metropolitan Samuel David of Toledo, plus the fringe holdovers Aftimios and Sophronios.

Suffice it to say that there were a bunch of Arab bishops running around in the 1920s and ’30s, and we don’t have a clear understanding of exactly where to draw the lines. And of course, we’re talking here about just one mid-sized group of ethnic Orthodox people; the much larger Greek and Russian groups were just as divided, as were the Romanians, Ukrainians, and pretty much everyone else. Which is why it’s fair to say that we (well, me, and a lot of other people) understand the 1890-1920 period quite a bit better than we understand 1920-1960. But 1920-1960 is critical to understanding our present situation in America, and it’s a period begging for further study.

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