Posts tagged 1966
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.
I haven’t done a great deal of research on Metropolitan Antony Bashir, and as a result, I’ve written very little about him on this website. That said, he is a hugely important figure in American Orthodox history. Today, February 15, marks the 44th anniversary of his death, in 1966.
Bashir arrived in America in 1922, as a 24-year-old archdeacon. He and Archimandrite Victor Abo-Assaley were accompanying the Antiochian Metropolitan Gerasimos Messara, who was ostensibly coming to the US to attend a convention of the Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon. Soon, however, another agenda emerged: the establishment of an Antiochian Archdiocese in America. At that point, there were two factions of Arab Orthodox in America — the Russy, who were loyal to the Russian-backed Abp Aftimios Ofiesh; and the Antacky, who followed the rogue Antiochian Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. Although he was from the Patriarchate of Antioch, Met Germanos was not supported that Church.
Into this chaos came Met Gerasimos Messara and his two lieutenants. It’s a long story which we’ll tell another day, but suffice it to say that, by 1924, Fr. Victor Abo-Assaley was consecrated as the first official Antiochian bishop for America. Bashir had been ordained shortly after his arrival in the US, in 1922. He spent two years in Mexico; I’m not sure why. I know he did translation work, but why would a young priest disappear to Mexico? Anyway, he ended up back in America, serving as a parish priest in Indiana.
In 1933-34, a remarkable thing happened: all of the many Arab Orthodox episcopal claimants suddenly vanished. Well, not exactly vanished, but, as a friend once put it, “God wiped the slate clean.” The first to go was Bp Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, the leader of the Russy faction, who died in May of 1933 (ironically, Met Germanos Shehadi officiated at his funeral). Abp Aftimios Ofiesh, who had previously led the Russy group and then sort of drifted off into his own little world, effectively ended his episcopate by marrying a young girl a couple of months after Abo-Hatab’s death. The same year, Met Germanos Shehadi finally left the country, returning to Syria, where he soon died. Abp Victor Abo-Assaley hung on the longest, dying in September 1934. And just to make things complete, Bp Sophronios Beshara, who said that he had inherited Ofiesh’s (already dubious) claims, also died in ’34.
So suddenly, what had been an incredibly complex ecclesiastical quagmire morphed into a claim-free simplicity. In 1935, the now-leaderless (and thus at least nominally “united”) Antiochians held elections for a new hierarch. The top two vote-getters were the still-young (37-year-old) Archimandrite Antony Bashir, and a Toledo archimandrite named Samuel David. Bashir got the most votes, but a strong minority favored Samuel David.
To put it plainly, both men were consecrated as bishops on the very same day in 1936, Bashir in New York, David in Toledo. The story is so complicated that I won’t even try to explain it. Bottom line, the American Antiochians were still hopelessly divided, with the result being the establishment of two overlapping Antiochian Archdioceses, one based out of New York, the other Toledo. This “Toledo-New York schism” would last until the 1970s.
As for Bashir, he was a fascinating man. Intellectually brilliant, he was an accomplished translator and scholar. He was a strong proponent of Orthodox unity in America, and was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the short-lived Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America (or, more palatably, “the Federation). As we’ve discussed here already, the Federation was essentially a proto-SCOBA body. When it collapsed in 1944, Bashir kept it alive on life support. Into the 1950s, he was still listed as the head of the Federation, even though it did not, as a practical matter, exist at all. When SCOBA was formed in the early 1960s, Bashir was again a central player.
He also advocated the use of English in church services. Under Bashir, the convert priest Fr. Michael Gelsinger gained a great deal of influence, and numerous converts joined the Antiochian Archdiocese. Bashir founded the modern-day Word Magazine (the original Al-Kalimat having ceased publication long before; in reality, the two publications are totally distinct aside from their names). He started SOYO, the Archdiocesan youth group, as well as the Western Rite Vicariate. Many of the most distinct features of the Antiochian Archdiocese today can be traced to Bashir.
Bashir died in Boston on February 16, 1966, a month shy of his 68th birthday.
I don’t think Metropolitan Antony Bashir was a saint, by any means. But if there is ever a Hall of Fame for American Orthodoxy, he would certainly belong in it.