I had meant to write something about this yesterday, since July 24 marks the anniversary of the death of Aftimios Ofiesh, the sometime Archbishop of Brooklyn, who departed this earthly life in 1966. Aftimios was briefly the leader of the American Orthodox Catholic Church (1927-33), the first attempt to create a united, pan-Orthodox, autocephalous Orthodox Church for North America.
Aftimios has been a special interest of mine for a number of years now, particularly after I heard from the Antiochian priest in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, that he was buried there. When I heard that, I was in seminary at St. Tikhon’s at the time, and Wilkes-Barre is only about forty-five minutes from the seminary. After having heard his strange tale and being intrigued by his story’s proximity to where I was then living, I set about to find the grave of this tragic archbishop, who is buried next to his wife Mariam, just across the street from the Orthodox cemetery. My intrigue eventually led to my writing my M.Div. thesis on Aftimios.
Aftimios is of course mainly remembered for the act that effectively ended his ecclesiastical career—marrying Mariam Namey. But this successor to the great St. Raphael Hawaweeny in the see of Brooklyn was also a brilliant, energetic churchman, victim not only to his personal failings but also to the ecclesiastical turbulence of his time. Under Aftimios, the fissures that had begun opening during Raphael’s tenure widened into cracks and finally into full-blown schism, as different parties within the Syrian Brooklyn diocese aligned their loyalties with the American Russians, the renegade Antiochian Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi, or with Aftimios himself. This history is complicated, though fascinating.
What I’m remembering today, however, is an encounter I had with Fr. Herbert Nahas, whom I interviewed in the process of writing my thesis. Fr. Herb was one of the last people to visit Aftimios before he died. Following is the portion of my thesis that deals with this encounter and the death of Aftimios at the age of eighty-five:
Shortly before his death, Aftimios was paid a visit by the local Syrian Orthodox priest in Wilkes-Barre, Fr. Herbert Nahas. Nahas had not wished to see Aftimios, mainly because of the disgrace in which Aftimios and Mariam lived and also because doing so would possibly mean stirring up dissension in the parish. However, Nahas had received a letter from Metropolitan Antony (Bashir), the head of the Syrian archdiocese, instructing him to visit Aftimios to see what kind of biographical information could be had regarding the period between his marriage and the current time. There was also a personal connection between Nahas and Aftimios, as the latter had ordained Nahas’ father George.
When Nahas entered the house in Kingston, Aftimios looked up and saw him coming. When the old bishop recognized that the son of one of his priests was entering, he looked at him and bitterly said, “Now you come to see me?” Nahas showed him the letter from Antony, but Mariam, “always a tough woman,” refused to allow Aftimios to speak with him. “You just leave him alone,” she said. The priest left their home without anything to send the metropolitan. This encounter was probably Aftimios’ last contact with the Orthodox Church.
Peace does seem to have come to Aftimios, however:
One evening, shortly before his demise, Mariam asked him if she had spoiled his life. His answer was that he had been saved from a pit of corruption; then slowly looking up with a mirthful smile and laugh as at a secret joke, he quietly said the word “Ob-stack-L” at which Mariam laughed, and he fell silent, reassured.
[The mispronunciation of “obstacle” by Aftimios was the occasion of his first meeting with Mariam. This quotation is from her book about him. -ed.]
Aftimios Ofiesh died on July 24, 1966, at the age of eight-five. His will stipulated that his funeral was to have no flowers, no viewing, no gathering and no religious services of any kind. “No clergy of any denomination” were to have anything to do with his body. He was buried according to his wishes the next day at Maple Hill Cemetery in Hanover Township (near Wilkes-Barre), across the street from the Orthodox cemetery.