Posts tagged American Orthodox Catholic Church
A lot of us at SOCHA happen to be really busy right now (personally, I’m in the middle of law school exams), so rather than leave you without much to read this week, here’s an article we originally published back in August 2010.
Fr. Kyrill Johnson was one of many fascinating early American converts to Orthodoxy. He was born Arthur Warren Johnson in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1897. I don’t know what happened to his parents, but Johnson was adopted by an unmarried aunt, who raised him in Ipswich. He went to college at William and Mary in Virginia, which is probably where he first encountered the Orthodox Church. One of his classmates was a fellow named Royce Burden, and both were almost certainly students of young Professor Michael Gelsinger.
Arthur Johnson graduated in 1921. The next year, both Burden and Gelsinger were ordained Orthodox priests and assigned to serve in the “English-speaking department” of the Russian Archdiocese. This “department” had its origins in 1905, when Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine converted to Orthodoxy and was charged by St. Tikhon to do “English work.” Irvine died in early 1921, by which point another convert priest, Fr. Patrick Mythen, had taken over the English-speaking department. Mythen brought numerous Americans into the Orthodox Church, but he was wayward and immature, and many of his converts (along with Mythen himself) ultimately left the Church.
I don’t know what role Mythen played in the conversions of Burden, Gelsinger, and Arthur Johnson, but that trio, unlike so many of their fellow 1920s converts, remained in the Church for the rest of their lives. I don’t know exactly when Johnson was ordained, but he was definitely a priest by 1924. The next year, he earned a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School.
Johnson — by now Fr. Kyrill — was a celibate priest, and he doesn’t seem to have had a parish in the 1920s. He may have been under the jurisdiction of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, who oversaw the English-speaking department (and the American Orthodox Catholic Church, into which the English department morphed), but Johnson’s focus, in those years, seems to have been scholarly pursuits. In the mid-’20s, he was a key part of Harvard expeditions to Mount Athos and Mount Sinai, searching for ancient Biblical manuscripts. He also spent time in Syria, where he discovered rare proto-Semitic inscriptions.
In the early 1930s, Johnson was back in Ipswich, where he published several books on local history. In 1938, he became pastor of St. George Antiochian church in nearby Lawrence, Mass. — as far as I can tell, this was his first parish assignment in at least 14 years as an Orthodox priest. In 1940, he took on another job, becoming the head of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The organization, which today has the more palatable name “Historic New England,” owns and preserves historic homes and other buildings in New England. The next year, 1941, Metropolitan Antony Bashir elevated Johnson to archimandrite. Johnson lived only six more years, dying in 1947, at the age of just 50.
So far, I’ve basically given you a dry biography of Fr. Kyrill Johnson. What sort of person was he, though? Pat Tyler of the Ipswich Historical Society happened to know Johnson when she was young. A few years ago, she told me, “He lived across the street from me — to the Yankees in town, he was just ‘strange,’ in that black robe.” Later, she added, “I knew him in the 30′s just as the guy across the street – I was just a child. My mother, of course, knew him. She and her friend, Helen, actually spent the night at the beach (Crane’s) with Arthur. I picture the scene as teenagers spouting Shakespeare. And Platonic to the max.”
Here’s another account of Johnson, from the book Becoming What One Is, by Austin Warren: “Friends brought acquaintances; and I remember […] Arthur Johnson of Ipswich, a swarthy, lean, Byzantine-looking bachelor, who, a pure Yankee and reared a Methodist, had become (after an Anglican interlude) an ordained deacon in the Greek Orthodox Church.”
Back in college, Johnson’s class elected him “most eccentric man.” He was extremely involved in his school activities — class historian, student council secretary, associate editor of the student newspaper, editor-in-chief of the college literary magazine. He was in a drama club, manager of the debate council… I could go on, but I think you get the point. He never married, of course, and I get the sense that nobody who knew him was surprised by this fact. He was odd, friendly, bookish. He was also a talented writer.
Of the three William and Mary converts — Johnson, Burden, and Gelsinger — Johnson was clearly the least well-known, and probably the least influential. But he lived a fascinating life, and stands out as one of the few convert priests of the 1920s who remained in the Orthodox Church until the day he died.
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.
A lot of Antiochian-related events this week:
January 30, 1902: Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny, head of the Syro-Arab Orthodox Mission in America, began a pastoral journey to Mexico. Later this week — on February 3 — he made a brief stop in Cuba en route to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. St. Raphael remained in the Yucatan for a month, until March 2. To his great surprise, he found not only Arab Orthodox Christians, but also many Mexican Catholics who were interested in converting to Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, this would be the only visit St. Raphael ever made to Mexico, and the missionary potential there was never realized. Incidentally, I’ve heard that the Mexican newspapers gave St. Raphael quite a bit of publicity, so if anyone reading this has access to Yucatan papers from 1902 (and can read Spanish), please let me know.
January 31, 1938: Metropolitan Samuel David, head of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Toledo, was excommunicated by both the Patriarch of Antioch and the ROCOR Holy Synod. The backstory was this: In 1935, the Arab Orthodox in America were set to elect a new hierarch who would, it was hoped, unite the long-divided factions of Antiochian Orthodoxy in America. The majority voted for Archimandrite Antony Bashir, who was duly consecrated in New York. But a strong minority favored Archimandrite Samuel David of Toledo. That minority found some other bishops to consecrate their man on the very same day that Bashir was consecrated. This division lasted until 1975, when Met Michael Shaheen of Toledo accepted subordination to Met Philip Saliba of New York.
February 1, 1928: The future Greek Archbishop (and Assembly of Bishops President) Demetrios Trakatellis was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. May God grant him many, many more years!
February 2, 1927: The Holy Synod of the Russian Metropolia (today’s OCA) created “The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church of North America” (more palatably known as the American Orthodox Catholic Church). This body — let’s just call it the AOCC — was led by Bishop Aftimos Ofiesh, who was simultaneously the head of the Metropolia’s Syro-Arab Mission. Whatever the intent of the Metropolia in creating the AOCC in the first place (and that intent is far from clear), Ofiesh himself viewed the AOCC as the vehicle for Orthodox unity in America. The AOCC was always on the fringe in terms of legitimacy, having been the ambiguous creation of the Metropolia, which itself was on shaky canonical footing in that era. (Only a few years earlier, the Metropolia had declared itself independent of the Soviet-influenced Moscow Patriarchate.) It wasn’t long before Ofiesh and his jurisdiction ticked off their Metropolia creators, driving the AOCC even further away from the mainstream. For all intents and purposes, the AOCC experiment ended in 1933, when Ofiesh married a young girl. However, as Fr. Oliver has recently shown, the AOCC did continue on until 1940 in the person of Bishop Sophronios Beshara, its last surviving hierarch. For a lot more on the AOCC, check out my conversation with Fr. Andrew Damick over at Ancient Faith Radio.
February 5, 1873: The future Fr. Nicola Yanney was born in what is today northern Lebanon. Yanney eventually immigrated to America and settled down in Nebraska. After being widowed at a young age — and with a house full of young children — Yanney was chosen by his fellow Syrian parishioners in Kearney, NE to be their first parish priest. He traveled to Brooklyn and studied for the priesthood under St. Raphael, who had just been consecrated a bishop. In fact, Fr. Nicola was the first priest to be ordained by St. Raphael. Upon returning to Kearney, Fr. Nicola not only shepherded that community, but he was given responsibility for an immense territory — he was essentially responsible for all Arab Orthodox Christians living between Canada on the north and Mexico on the south, the Mississippi on the east and the Rocky Mountains on the west. Roughly speaking, he was the lone priest over all the territory that now comprises the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America. And he was a single parent.
Fr. Nicola was, by all accounts, an outstanding pastor. His end was a testament to his dedication: he died from influenza in 1918. Of course, that was the year of the horrible flu pandemic that killed so many millions. Fr. Nicola’s parishioners were among those dying from the disease, and rather than keep himself safe, Fr. Nicola went to his stricken people, hearing their final confessions and giving them communion. In this way, he caught the flu and soon died. It seems to me that he may be worthy of canonization. (To learn more about Fr. Nicola, read this article by Fr. Paul Hodge.)
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:
Joseph A. Zuk was the first Ukrainian Orthodox bishop in America, but little has been written about his life. I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.
Zuk was born in Eastern Galicia in the early 1870s. He graduated from the University of Lemberg, and then earned a Doctorate of Divinity at the Theological Seminary at Innesbruck. At 33, he became the seminary rector. Later, he was elevated to the rank of mitred prelate, and Pope Pius X appointed him a papal delegate and administrator in Bosnia.
In 1922, Zuk came to America. Six years later, in 1928, he and other Ukrainian Catholic clergy left Rome to join the Orthodox Church. As a priest, Zuk served in Syracuse, NY; Passaic, NJ; Allentown, PA; and McAdoo, PA. He became affiliated with the American Orthodox Catholic Church of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, and in 1932 Zuk was consecrated a bishop by Ofiesh and Bishop Sophronios Bishara in New York City. According to Fr. Seraphim Surrency in The Quest for Orthodox Unity in America, Zuk had about half a dozen parishes in his jurisdiction.
Zuk presided over the first Ukrainian diocese in America for just 17 months. On February 23, 1934, Zuk died in St. Petersburg, Florida, “after an illness since the time he was consecrated bishop” (Syracuse Herald, 2/28/1934). He was reported to be about 60 years old.
By 1934, Ofiesh had married a young girl and the AOCC was functionally dead. Archbishop Athenagoras Spyrou of the Greek Archdiocese presided at Zuk’s funeral, which took place in Carteret, NJ. Zuk was buried in Perth Amboy, NJ. Two years later, the Ukrainian diocese formally joined the Ecumenical Patriarchate — an affiliation which continues to this day.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.