From 1895 until his death in 1915, St. Raphael Hawaweeny was the unquestioned leader of the Arab Orthodox in America. He was technically affiliated with the Russian Archdiocese, although he also had strong ties to the Patriarchate of Antioch. When he died, his followers split into two factions. The Russy faction, which ultimately coalesced around Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh, recognized the ultimate authority of the Russian Church. Their rivals, the Antacky, initially followed Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi, a visiting Antiochian bishop who went rogue and set up an unauthorized jurisdiction in America — a jurisdiction that had the sanction of neither the Russian Church nor the Patriarchate of Antioch.
In 1922, the Patriarchate of Antioch finally decided to do something about this mess. The Patriarch sent one of his top metropolitans, Gerasmios Messara, to America. Metropolitan Gerasimos was accompanied by Archimandrite Victor Abo-Assaly and a young archdeacon, Antony Bashir. After getting the lay of the land, Gerasimos organized the first officially sanctioned Antiochian Archdiocese of North America and consecrated Victor to be its first primate. This happened in 1924.
Archbishop Victor led the Antiochian Archdiocese from 1924 until his death from cancer in 1934. Unfortunately, his arrival did not end the division among the Arab Orthodox. A lot of the Antacky parishes under Metropolitan Germanos did migrate to Victor’s official archdiocese, and ultimately, just before his death, the Russy parishes were also transferred to Victor’s jurisdiction. For a very brief moment in 1933-34, the Antiochians in America were all at least nominally united under a single archdiocese.
After Victor’s death, the Antiochians again split, this time over the issue of Victor’s rightful successor. The majority favored Antony Bashir, while a vocal minority supported Samuel David. This led to a new schism, often referred to as the “New York-Toledo schism,” which wasn’t healed until the 1970s.
In any event, Archbishop Victor has been sort of lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the schisms of his day and the schisms that followed his death, as well as by his larger-than-life successors, Metropolitan Antony Bashir and the recently reposed Metropolitan Philip Saliba. For almost anyone, even those of us paying attention to such things, Victor is little more than a name on a list. Which is a shame.
I have long heard stories of Victor from my grandmother, Lorraine (Husson) Ferris. Victor is actually a relative of ours, a cousin of some sort on my grandmother’s mother’s side. He came from one of our ancestral villages, Aita El Foukhar, in the Bekaa Valley in what is today Lebanon. My grandmother is now in her nineties, and it occurred to me that she may be one of the last living links back to Archbishop Victor. Recently, I sat down with my grandmother and recorded some of her memories of Victor. Here they are:
He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was almost a saint. Very loving, very kind. He liked everybody – I don’t care who they were or what they were. He loved them. People gathered around him because he was such a great person. He was very gentle. I think when you look at his picture, you can see that. You can see the kindness in his face.
I was about… how old would I have been in the second grade? And I had my [school] reader, and he loved to speak English. So he’d sit in a chair like that, and I’d sit on the floor with my book, and I’d read to him. This is Archbishop Victor. And I would read my second grade book to him, so he could learn English. He loved it.
He adored my sister Beulah. And he was at my house, and it was when Franklin D. Roosevelt beat Hoover, that night. And she was sick. And he’d run me up and down the stairs to see that she was OK. Or “take this to her,” “get this to her.”
Another thing I remember is, he would go to pray for sick people. It was during the Depression when it was so bad, and nobody had any money. And he went to this lady’s house and prayed for her, and she said, “This is all I have,” and she gave him fifty cents. And he took it, and on his way out he put it under the doily, and left. Mother told me this.
The next thing I remember is when he got sick. He had cancer; I think it was of the esophagus or the throat. My mother asked him what he wanted for breakfast. He’d hit his teeth like this and said, “Two.” He put his fingers up for two.
When he died, everybody was devastated, because he was almost like a saint.
We can piece together Archbishop Victor’s biography from documents and so forth, but the essence of who he was, as a man, is quickly fading away. So I would like to appeal to our Antiochian readers: Talk to the old people in your family and in your parish, and find out of they remember Archbishop Victor. If they do, record their stories and send them to me. If you’re in Worcester or Lowell, Mass., you may have particularly good luck in tracking down people who remember Victor. But do it quickly: Victor died in 1934, meaning anyone who would remember him is probably at least 85 or 90 years old now. We’ve no doubt lost more memories than we can save, but let’s get to work now and save what we can while there is still time.
Of course, this appeal to record our elders’ memories doesn’t apply only to Archbishop Victor: it’s something all of us who care about the past, and care about our origins, should do. But I want to draw particular attention to Archbishop Victor, because from what I’ve heard, he was a great and even holy man who is at risk of being forgotten by his spiritual descendants.