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.
In the half-dozen years before his wedding on April 29, 1933, Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh had moved further and further away from mainstream Orthodoxy, setting himself up as the head of an “autocephalous” jurisdiction called the American Orthodox Catholic Church—which at its inception in 1927 had the official blessing of the Russian Metropolia in America (which would in 1970 become the OCA).
His wedding to the former Mariam Namey (no relation to our own Matthew Namee) essentially represented his final break with any official Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities. Aftimios continued to call himself an archbishop, and he even made occasional visits to Orthodox parishes, but his hierarchical career was effectively over the moment he tied the knot. He also became a pariah in the Syrian community in and around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Mariam was from and where the couple lived (among other places) for years after their wedding.Before he met Mariam, there were indications that Aftimios had planned to marry, essentially to try to make a point about his opinions on episcopal celibacy—that it was a “man-made” institution that could be abrogated at any time, especially now that he was in the New World. Even though his own synod in the American Orthodox Catholic Church officially agreed with him, they also declared him “retired” in the same message with which they congratulated him on his nuptials.
Despite the ideological premeditation of his marriage, when Mariam later recounted their meeting in her biography of her late husband, she described it in endearing, romantic terms. Their marriage lasted until his death thirty-three years later, producing a son named Paul within a couple of years after the wedding.
Aftimios never served as a bishop of the Orthodox Church ever again, although he dressed as one, and members of the Namey family remembered him as Amo Sayidna (“Uncle Master”; sayidna is the Arabic equivalent of the Greek despota or Russian vladyka). His break with Church authorities was so bitter that in his will he stipulated that his funeral and burial were to involve no clergy of any kind. He died in 1966.
Bishop Sophronios/Sophronius (Beshara) was a bishop for the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America (HEOCACNA), an enterprise started by Bishop Aftimios. For all intents and purposes, the jurisdictional unity attempt died in 1933. Bishop Sophronius, however, was the last bishop. The date of his death has been given as 1934 by Archimandrite Seraphim (Surrency) in his book The Quest for Orthodox Unity in America. Others have often followed that. Yet, his grave marker states 1940, a date noted here as well:
This begs the question of which is correct and if 1940 is correct, what was he doing during those intervening years?
Well, 1940 is correct and what he was doing was ordaining people to his American Orthodox Catholic Church (an alternative name for HEOCACNA).
Here are two examples of newspaper articles referring to him ordaining men to the priesthood:
For those interested in the beginning of his episcopal career, these might be of interest:
On today’s podcast on AFR, we discuss the American Orthodox Catholic Church, an early attempt at multi-ethnic jurisdictional unity in the United States. One of the issues brought up was that, within about a year after the creation of the AOCC by Russian Metropolia authorities in February of 1927, the Metropolia’s head, Metr. Platon Rozhdestvensky, withdrew his support from the new jurisdiction. Indeed, even within just a few months, Platon wrote to Aftimios telling the latter to cease his “steppings out” against the Episcopalians—some of Aftimios’s priests were publishing excoriating comments against the Episcopalians, who had been providing the Russian Metropolia with financial support (hoping, most likely, eventual recognition of the validity of their holy orders). Platon wrote: “I must attest before Your Eminence that without their (American Episcopalian) entirely disinterested assistance our Church in America could not exist.”
On October 29, 1928, Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh wrote a letter complaining of the withdrawal of support, including Platon’s refusal to let Aftimios consecrate Fr. Leonid Turkevich as the first auxiliary for the AOCC. (Read the full letter here.) Here are some interesting excerpts, showing how distressed Aftimios was and the strong sense of the betrayal he felt at his treatment by Platon:
It is with the deepest grief and pain that I enclose a copy of a telegram which persistent reports have forced me to send to His Grace Bishop Theophilos [Pashkovsky] since I was unable to discover your address even by telephoning to the Archimandrite Benjamin in New York. I am most deeply and sadly disappointed in having to call to the attention of Your Eminence injurious reports which I had preferred to ignore. Even in the face of the fact that Your Eminence forbid Bishop-Elect Leonid Turkevich from accepting Consecration after Your Eminence had yourself proclaimed his election and given order for his Consecration. I have wished to believe it impossible that Your Eminence should secretly attempt to destroy the work of your own hands in the creation of an American Orthodox Catholic Church founded by your order and committed by Your Eminence and the other Russian Bishops into my charge and authority. As a son to his father, I turn to Your Eminence now asking an explanation of your attitude and a final setting at rest of the ugly rumors which are a disgrace to our mutual work for our Holy Orthodox Church and Faith.
Not only was Platon apparently working against Aftimios’s new jurisdiction, but it seemed that he may also have been interfering in the parishes under Aftimios which still remained under the Syrian Mission:
At all times I have defended Your Eminence loyally and labored without ceasing for the Church and for the position of Your Eminence as Head of the Russian Archdiocese in America. Yet I hear repeated rumors that Your Eminence is dissatisfied and I do not know why. Finally it comes to me that Your Eminence has received some unauthorized and rebellious letters and requests from a few with whom I have trouble in my Diocese of Brooklyn and Syrian Mission or in the new American Orthodox Church and that Your Eminence will answer favorably these irresponsible troublemakers and will take action interfering in the Diocese of Brooklyn and Syrian Mission. I can not believe that Your Eminence will do so or that it is your intention. But I am forced to ask that Your Eminence give me formal assurance in this matter and put a stop to the rumors and reports which interfere with the peace and unity of our work together for Holy Church.
No doubt the need for money and other kinds of material support from the Episcopalians was not the only reason for Platon’s reversal on his support for Aftimios, but whatever the case, it’s clear that Platon’s loyalty to his heterodox supporters and to his own agendas was greater than his investment in the new jurisdiction he had signed into being. Aftimios, as may be imagined, reacted quite badly.
Back in June, I gave a paper at St. Vladimir’s Seminary entitled, “The Myth of Past Unity and the Origins of Jurisdictional Pluralism in American Orthodoxy.” The unwieldy title notwithstanding, the premise of my paper was simple: that the commonly-held story of a unified American Orthodoxy which fragmented after the Russian Revolution is, quite simply, not accurate. In fact, administrative division has been part and parcel of Orthodox life in the United States from the very beginning.
In my latest American Orthodox History podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, I interviewed our own Fr. Andrew Damick on the “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” which was an attempt, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to form a single American Orthodox jurisdiction. This is part of my miniseries on past attempts at administrative unity.
In that interview, Fr. Andrew explained that it was from the American Orthodox Catholic Church (henceforth, “AOCC”) that the “myth of past unity” originated. Until the AOCC came along in 1927, nobody, so far as I can tell, ever claimed that all of American Orthodoxy was administratively united prior to 1917. Sure, from time to time, Russian church leaders would claim that everyone should have been under their authority. That was the ideal, but it was obvious enough to everyone at the time that the ideal wasn’t being lived out in practice. It was only later, with the advent of the AOCC, that people started saying that administrative unity had been a fact prior to 1917.
Who first made this claim? As best I can tell, it was Fr. Boris Burden, one of the leading priests in the AOCC. In 1927, Burden wrote,
The advent of Greek-speaking Orthodox Catholics followed this establishment of the Russian Hierarchy by many years, and the early Greek churches and faithful were naturally and canonically under the protection and care of the Orthodox Catholic jurisdiction thus established by the Russian Holy Synod for all American Orthodox residents. [...]
For nearly fifty years after the Russian Hierarchy in America had thus established the first Greek church in this country [in New Orleans,] Greek churches and faithful continued to increase and multiply under the care and authority of the Russian Bishops of America. [...]
We have viewed the history of all these [ethnic groups] in outline down to the period just preceding the World War and seen them, at that time, united solidly under one Hierarchy of the Church in America established for them by the Russian Holy Synod.
Burden wrote that in the first issue of the Orthodox Catholic Review, the short-lived official publication of the AOCC. I won’t bother to refute Burden’s assertions here, since I’ve done that elsewhere. But it’s worth noting that Burden himself only converted to Orthodoxy in the early 1920s, so he wasn’t personally around during the supposed period of blissful unity.
A couple years after Burden’s article in the Orthodox Catholic Review, the head of the AOCC, Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, propounded the myth in a series of letters to Archbishop Alexander Demoglou, who was the head of the Greek Archdiocese. These letters appear in Volume II of Paul Manolis’ The History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents. On January 15, 1929, Aftimios wrote,
[...] I secured from the Synod of Russian Bishops in America, who alone exercise the sole and exclusive canonical jurisdiction and authority in America held solely by the Patriarchate of Moscow from 1764 to 1927, the right and authority to establish and conduct an independent American Orthodox Church.
Aftimios repeatedly referred to the “sole and exclusive” canonical authority of the Russian Church in America, which established the AOCC, but at the same time he spoke of the AOCC itself as the “sole canonical jurisdiction” in America. He said that, for 130 years, the Russian Church had “undisputed [...] administration over all Orthodox people in America.”
Aftimios repeated his claims in another letter, dated February 14. Echoing Fr. Boris Burden, he wrote, “[I]n 1860 the first Greek-speaking church was dedicated in the United States with its Greek Priest [...] under and by the sole and exclusive Russian canonical authority and all without ever a word of protest or claim of jurisdiction on the part of Constantinople.” He went on to say that “the first intimation of any Constantinopolitan claim of American jurisdiction” came in the 1908 Tomos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in which the EP gave over its authority in America to the Church of Greece. Aftimios continued:
In characterizing any claim to Orthodox jurisdiction in America other than the Russian as recent, uncanonical, and unhistorical no offence is intended — only the truth is stated plainly and the foundation of the true American jurisdiction derived from the Russian Bishops set forth in essential contrast to others. All others not derived from the Russian Bishops are recent, because they have appeared only during the last twenty years of more than a hundred and fifty years of American Orthodoxy, uncanonical, because they deliberately ignore the Sacred Canons [...] and unhistorical, because they ignore the fact of a long Orthodox history in America under Russian Jurisdiction still continuing and still canonically excluding their claims.
Archbishop Alexander was not impressed. On February 23, he wrote to Aftimios, “[A]s long as Alaska was a Russian territory, the Russians had jurisdiction in their own house, but it makes a great difference thence to jump to Canada, to the United States, etc.”
That logic is reasonable; unfortunately, Alexander had a claim of his own to make. He went on, “The jurisdiction over all Orthodox in the Diaspora, including the whole Western Hemisphere, which includes Alaska as well, being no more a Russian territory, belongs undisputably to the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.”
A few days later, in another letter, Alexander said,
It is not true that any group of Greeks in America did ever willingly recognize the asserted Russian jurisdiction in America. [...] And not only the Greeks, but also the most important sections of other Orthodox nationalities in America, did and do reject Russian jurisdiction. [...] Thus, your assertion that the Russian Church and its creations in America were universally accepted by the Orthodox people in America, and that they “governed the whole North American Province undisputedly, peacefuly and without opposition”, falls to pieces.
Basically, what we have here are dueling claims to exclusive jurisdiction, with Alexander appealing to Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and Aftimios holding to what might be called the “flag-planting theory.” And, to support his claims, Aftimios also espoused the myth of past unity, saying that not only did Russia have rightful jurisdiction in America, but that everyone — Greeks included — acknowledged it.
How did the leaders of the AOCC come up with this rendition of history? It makes sense that a newcomer like Fr. Boris Burden might not know the true story, but Aftimios Ofiesh had been in America since 1905. He certainly knew full well that there were numerous Greek and other Orthodox parishes which had no connection at all to the Russian Mission well before the First World War.
I suspect what was really happening was spin, pure and simple. The legitimacy of the AOCC depended entirely upon the legitimacy of the Russian Mission in America. If the Russian Mission wasn’t the “sole and exclusive canonical authority” in the New World, then the mission of the AOCC was in jeopardy. That explains why Aftimios would hold to the flag-planting theory, but why bother concocting an obviously false story about everyone actually being under one jurisdiction until 1917?
Well, really, Abp Alexander was right, partly: it was one thing for the Russians to claim Alaska, but to jump from there to Canada, Florida, and all points in between was another matter entirely. To really secure his claim that the Russians were the rightful authority, Aftimios (and Burden) had to act like everyone — the EP included — accepted this reality. He had to act like the very notion that America was up for grabs was, itself, a novel concept. Then, he could make another jump and claim that he, as head of the AOCC, held “sole and exclusive canonical authority” over all of America.
Nobody really believed Aftimios when he made that claim, but the broader myth of unity has hung around a lot longer, all the way up to the present.
ONE MORE THING: A couple of disclaimers, here at the end… I am not saying that the Russian Mission was not the rightful canonical authority in America. I’m not saying that they were, either; as I’ve said before, the question of what was is different than the question of what should have been.
Also, I promised I wouldn’t refute the myth of unity here, but I realized that using the term “myth” might cause some controversy, so I feel like I should justify myself. Here is my point:
- American Orthodoxy didn’t really exist prior to 1890. There was Alaskan Orthodoxy, and there were parishes in San Francisco and New Orleans, but the United States proper just didn’t have a significant Orthodox presence until after 1890.
- As soon as Orthodox parishes started popping up in the US after 1890, there was jurisdictional pluralism. This is a well-documented fact.
Thus, the “myth of unity” is a myth in multiple senses. One definition of “myth” is as follows:
A traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.
Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, the “myth of unity” fits this definition. It is a commonly held simplification of our past. Of course, “myth” also has negative connotations, as in, a false story, a fiction. An alternate definition of the word is, “an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.” I would argue that the “myth of unity” fits this category as well. It is based in truth — in the ideal of the Russian Mission — but it isn’t accurate, and it is often used as a bludgeon with which some American Orthodox Christians beat others over the head.