Posts tagged Aftimios Ofiesh
Back in July, Fr. Andrew wrote about the above photo, which depicts a gathering of American Orthodox bishops in the early 1920s: Greeks Meletios and Alexander, Russians Platon and Alexander, and Syrian Aftimios. At the time of Fr. Andrew’s original post, no one knew exactly when this photo was taken, or what occasion brought all these hierarchs together. Fr. Andrew wrote,
This photograph was found in the archives of the Library of Congress. As yet, there have been no official documents that have surfaced detailing what this 1921 meeting must have entailed. It might have been only a courtesy call, with a photo op at the end.
Fr. Andrew went on to observe that, based on the photo, the other bishops appear to have regarded Metaxakis as “first in seniority among them.” To read the rest of Fr. Andrew’s post, click here.
Why am I bringing all this up again? Becasue I believe I now know when and where this photo was taken, and why all these bishops were in the same place. On December 9, 1921, Abp Meletios Metaxakis was elected Patriarch of Constantinople. He was in New York at the time, having been deposed from his previous position as Archbishop of Athens. With Bp Alexander Demoglou, Metaxakis had come to the US to organize the Greek-American churches into a unified archdiocese. The New York Times (12/10/1921) announced that one of Metaxakis’ first acts as Patriarch would be to appoint Alexander as bishop of North and South America.
The Times also reported, “This morning at 10 o’clock the Most Rev. Alexander, Archbishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America for the Russian Church, will formally call upon the Patriarch-elect and officially present the felicitations of the 100,000 Russians who are in the Western Hemisphere, who are his spiritual subjects.”
The Russian goodwill towards Metaxakis’ election was not limited to Abp Alexander Nemolovsky. Archimandrite Patrick Mythen, the powerful convert priest, hastily organized a special ceremony. December 19 was the St. Nicholas day, the patronal feast of the Russian cathedral in New York. Invitations were sent out, in the names of both Met Platon and Abp Alexander. Besides the two Russian and two Greek bishops, the guest list included the Syrian Bp Aftimios and four Episcopalian hierarchs. Representatives of the new African Orthodox Church were also present, as well as the “Hungarian prelate [...] Bishop Stephan of Pittsburgh.” I think this was Bp Stephen Dzubay, a former Uniate who converted to Orthodoxy in 1916 and became the Russian Archdiocese’s Bishop of Pittsburgh. (Dzubay returned to Roman Catholicism in 1924.)
After the Divine Liturgy, there was a buffet luncheon for the clergy at the neighboring parish house. The above photo must have been taken during or after this luncheon. Here is another, nearly identical photo, which appeared in the New York Evening Telegram on December 20, 1921:
Comparing the two photos, it’s quite clear that they were taken at the same event, probably within moments of one another. The Evening Telegram photo doesn’t include the non-bishops, Polyzoides and Andronoff, but it’s possible that they were just cropped out before publication.
The event itself, the pan-Orthodox liturgy, is evidence of the rather friendly (or at least cordial) relations between the Greek and Russian hierarchy in 1921. Speaking to the Evening Telegram (12/19/1921), Fr. Patrick Mythen expressed what must have been on the minds of the Russian bishops as well: that Metaxakis’ election as Ecumenical Patriarch marked the first time since the fall of Constantinople that the Patriarch was elected without the consent of the Turkish sultan. He would thus be “politically free and will rule the Church as a priest and not as a politician.” Mythen meant that Metaxakis would not be bound to the Turkish state, but I’m sure many today would find his words ironic, Metaxakis being the controversial Church politican that he was.
2009 has been an eventful year for American Orthodoxy — perhaps the most eventful in our history. But it’s got competition. The year 1905 may well have been even crazier. Here is a list of the major happenings of 1905, in no particular order:
- The headquarters of the Russian Mission were transferred from San Francisco to New York. Bishop Tikhon was elevated to Archbishop, and the Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska became the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America.
- Archbishop Tikhon wrote his now-famous proposal for an American Church divided into ethnic jurisdictions, all under the authority of the Russian Archbishop.
- The first Orthodox seminary in America was founded, in Minneapolis.
- Bishop Raphael published the first issue of Al-Kalimat (The Word).
- Then-Bishop Tikhon received an honorary doctorate from Nashotah House, the famous Episcopalian seminary. Later that year, the degree would be rescinded.
- To ensure its independence from the Russians, Holy Trinity Greek church in New York City was legally incorporated — by an act of the New York State Legislature — as, “The Hellenic Eastern Orthodox Christian Church of New York.”
- Bishop Raphael consecrated the grounds of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, in South Canaan, PA.
- A fake bishop, Seraphim Ustvolsky, was operating in Canada.
- Fr. Alexander Hotovitzky, the dean of the Russian cathedral in New York, received a bomb threat, which turned out to be a hoax.
- The first Orthodox services were celebrated in Utah. Construction began on a Greek church in Salt Lake City a few months later, and by October, the church building was consecrated.
- Fr. Michael Andreades, an ethnic Greek who was educated in Russia, was ordained a priest by Abp Tikhon. He was one of a handful of Greek priests to serve in the Russian Mission.
- The first Orthodox parish was organized in Washington, DC (St. Sophia Greek church).
- The Russian statesman Sergei Witte came to the US to negotiate with the Japanese to end the Russo-Japanese War. Fr. Alexander Hotovitzky was present for the negotiations.
- Bishop Raphael was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. This crisis lasted for a couple of months, but in the end, Bishop Raphael was exonerated.
- Isabel Hapgood put the finishing touches on her English translation of the Service Book, which would be published the following year.
- Just in the month of October, Fr. Sebastian Dabovich 1) established the first Serbian church in Chicago, 2) was raised to the rank of archimandrite by St. Tikhon, and 3) laid the cornerstone for the first Orthodox church in Montana.
- Robert Morgan, a black Episcopal deacon, regularly attended the Greek church in Philadelphia.
- Ingram Nathaniel Irvine converted to Orthodoxy and was ordained a priest by Abp Tikhon. With his conversion, the “English Department” of the Russian Mission was created.
- Fr. Aftimios Ofiesh arrived in New York, beginning his colorful career in America.
And those are just the big events. An interesting book could be written, just on American Orthodoxy in 1905. Eventually, we’ll have articles on each of these events here at OrthodoxHistory.org. For now, though, it’s worth reflecting on a year that was, quite possibly, even more chaotic than our current one.
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.
“Self righteousness. Self assuredness. Emphasising unity of administration. Not understanding the importance of Church music. The Freemason Conspiracy Theory. Aggressiveness…..”
The other day, I happened upon an online discussion of Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine and his dislike of Isabel Hapgood. One commentator, whom I would credit if I knew his/her real name, said, “I understand that Fr. Nathaniel Irvine is called the ‘Prophet of American Orthodoxy’. Reading his quotes, all I can say is mores the pity for American Orthodoxy.” When asked to clarify, the commentator offered the above list of criticisms: “Self righteousness. Self assuredness. Emphasising unity of administration. Not understanding the importance of Church music. The Freemason Conspiracy Theory. Aggressiveness…..”
I found this response to be intriguing, in that it largely parallels the critiques that many of Irvine’s contemporaries would have offered against him. Was he self-righteous and self-assured? Having read a huge number of his writings (both private and public), I would certainly call him “confident,” but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say he was those other things. He did stake out a position and fight for it; what’s striking is that he usually turned out to be right.
Take the “emphasizing unity of administration” critique. Nowadays, more and more American Orthodox Christians realize that unity of church administration is extremely important. Shoot, it’s not just American Orthodox Christians — the recent Chambesy decision indicates that the Mother Churches agree, and, frankly, “unity of administration” is enshrined in the ancient canons themselves. Back in Irvine’s day, many (and probably most) American Orthodox Christians would have said that unity of administration was not really important. Ethnic and nationlistic interests were just too strong then, and only a few (such as Irvine and St. Tikhon) really got the picture. I find it odd that someone today would criticize Irvine for emphasizing administrative unity, but it would have been an unsurprising critique a hundred years ago.
“Not understanding the importance of Church music”? Isabel Hapgood certainly would have agreed with that one, but Irvine’s own response to Hapgood shows that his position was rather nuanced. He did, in fact, understand and appreciate the importance of music in the Church, but he didn’t think it should take precedence over missionary and pastoral efforts.
“The Freemason Conspiracy Theory”? I have yet to print Irvine’s entire letter against Aftimios Ofiesh’s consecration, but I can tell you that Irvine speaks from experience, having had problems with a Freemason bishop’s divided loyalties when he was an Episcopal priest. Come to think of it, that’s why Orthodox priests (and laity) are not allowed to be members of secret societies — such societies divide one’s loyalty, which should be to God and the Church.
I particularly like the “aggressiveness” critique, because, of course, Irvine was aggressive. Aren’t all prophets? Prophets speak the hard but necessary word to the people of God, and to people in power. They do so without regard for their personal well-being. This is why I referred to Irvine as a “prophet.” I didn’t mean to equate him with the Biblical prophets, but rather to illustrate (perhaps too dramatically) that he was one of those rare individuals who could see what was wrong and what needed to happen, say what needed to be said, and care not a bit about the negative consequences to himself. Irvine was “loud,” as he himself admitted; at the same time, he spoke “lovingly,” with the aim not simply to attack but to correct. He pushed for the use of English. He rebuked Syrian parents for keeping their children out of church on Sundays, and for letting them attend Protestant and Roman Catholic services rather than Orthodox ones. He spoke out against the beloved Isabel Hapgood when she claimed that a good choir was worth more than twenty “little new parishes,” and he argued against the consecration of Aftimios Ofiesh, who would indeed prove to be unworthy of the episcopate. Irvine may not have been right one hundred percent of the time, but he was right pretty darned often, and you can bet that if he were alive today, he’d be just as vocal and just as polarizing.