Posts tagged American Orthodox Catholic Church
For a while now, I’ve been meaning to introduce Fr. Kyrill Johnson, another of the many fascinating early American converts to Orthodoxy. He was born Arthur Warren Johnson in Roxbury, Massachsetts 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. As we’ll see in the future, he was a pretty talented writer himself.
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.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
We’ve tried this before. Over the past century or so, there have been no fewer than five attempts to bring the various ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in America into some measure of administrative unity. Next week, from May 26-28, we embark upon a sixth effort — an effort which, compared to its predecessors, seems remarkably promising.
First, of course, there were the Russians. In the early 20th century, the Russian Archdiocese envisioned itself as the platform for Orthodox unity in America. Its sainted archbishop, Tikhon Bellavin, articulated an innovative vision to deal with the unprecedented diversity of ethnic Orthodox Christians in the New World. He proposed that the Russian Archdiocese be organized, not along territorial lines, but according to ethnicity — a bishop for the Russians, another for the Syrians, another for the Serbs, still another for the Greeks. St. Tikhon realized that the different ethnic groups needed their own ethnic hierarchs, and his first step in implementing this plan was to consecrate St. Raphael Hawaweeny as bishop for the Syrians. Separate, overlapping administrative units were created for the Serbs, and later for other groups (e.g. the Albanians), but St. Tikhon’s overall plan was never fully enacted. The tenuous unity that existed among the Russians, Serbs, and Syrians soon fell apart, and by 1920, any notion of American Orthodox unity under the Russians was dead.
Dead, but not forgotten. When St. Raphael, the Syrian bishop, died in 1915, he left no obvious successor. His flock divided into warring camps, one party favoring continued subordination to the Church of Russia, the other submission to the Patriarchate of Antioch. Eventually, the Russian Archdiocese consecrated Aftimios Ofiesh to be St. Raphael’s replacement. And, whatever else one might say of Archbishop Aftimios, he was nothing if not a visionary. In 1926, he proposed the idea of an autocephalous jurisdiction, the “American Orthodox Catholic Church,” which would transcend ethnicity and embrace all the Orthodox in America. The Russian Metropolia — successor to the Russian Archdiocese, and predecessor to the OCA — granted Archbishop Aftimios his wish in 1927. Archbishop Aftimios went around acting like he was the head of an autocephalous Church, but few paid any attention to him, and even the Russian Metropolia soon withdrew its support. As hopeful an idea as the AOCC might have been, it never had any real chance of uniting all the Orthodox in America.
Archbishop Aftimios effectively destroyed his already fringe jurisdiction in 1933, when he married a girl young enough to be his daughter. But two of his top assistants, the convert priests Michael Gelsinger and Boris Burden, continued to dream of a united American Orthodox Church. They spearheaded a 1943 effort that resulted in the “Federation,” which was to SCOBA what the League of Nations was to the UN. The Federation included the primary Orthodox jurisdictions in America (Greek, New York Antiochian, and Moscow Patriarchal, along with Serbian, Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Russian), with the glaring exceptions of the Russian Metropolia and ROCOR. In its short life — measured in months, as opposed to years — the Federation achieved some modest but still significant accomplishments. It managed to get Orthodoxy recognized by the Selective Service, exempting Orthodox priests from military service and allowing Orthodox Christians in the military to put “Eastern Orthodox” on their dog tags. Just as significantly, the Federation led to the legal incorporation of several jurisdictions. My own Antiochian Archdiocese is still governed by that legislation, from the 1940s.
In the end, though, the Federation fell apart. There were probably dozens of reasons for the failure, but, in my view, the biggest was simply that the bishops involved in the Federation weren’t committed enough to its success. Well, most of them. One man who was deeply committed to the vision of the Federation was the Antiochian Metropolitan Antony Bashir. He kept the Federation going, on paper only, through the whole of the 1950s. In 1960, the Federation was reborn as SCOBA, the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. The “big three” jurisdictions — Greek, Antiochian, and Russian Metropolia — were led by three larger-than-life figures, Archbishop Iakovos Koukouzis, Metropolitan Antony Bashir, and Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich. Among many, the unification of all the American Orthodox jurisdictions seemed imminent.
A decade later, though, there was still no administrative unity. The Russian Metropolia had entered into talks with the Moscow Patriarchate, and in April of 1970, Moscow issued a Tomos, granting autocephaly to its formerly estranged American daughter. The Metropolia became the “Orthodox Church in America” — the OCA, and in the words of an official brochure published at the time, “invite[d] all of the national Orthodox church ‘jurisdictions’ in America to join with it in unity.” This marked the fifth major attempt to unify the various jurisdictions.
Today, of course, there is still no administrative unity. Five decades have passed since SCOBA was created, and four since the Patriarchate of Moscow granted autocephaly to the OCA. SCOBA has been useful — it has fostered cooperation, if not actual administrative unity, and its many agencies are doing great work. For its part, the OCA did bring in Romanian, Albanian, and Bulgarian jurisdictions, although in every case the OCA group has a non-OCA counterpart jurisdiction. I think it’s safe to say that, despite the best efforts of many great people, neither SCOBA nor the OCA will be the platform for future administrative unity.
Before we get to Attempt No. 6, we should ask — why did all five past attempts at unity fail? Why could neither the Russian Archdiocese, nor the American Orthodox Catholic Church, nor the Federation, nor SCOBA, nor the OCA, succeed in bringing all the jurisdictions together into a single ecclesiastical entity? The answers, of course, are many and complex, but several common threads are apparent. The Russian Archdiocese, the AOCC, and the OCA were all unilateral efforts, led by a single group which tried to get the others to join it. The Federation and SCOBA were “pan-Orthodox” endeavors, but the leaders lacked a common vision, and, worse, the support of their “Mother Churches.” Yes, the Mother Churches may have granted permission for their American jurisdictions to join SCOBA, but they certainly didn’t share a vision of administrative unity in America.
There are two really big lessons from all these failures: you can’t have unity without getting broad-based support at home, here in North America, and you can’t have unity without the explicit support of the Mother Churches. Never, in the history of Orthodoxy in America, has an attempt at administrative unity had both of these necessities.
Until now. The Episcopal Assembly, which holds its first meeting this coming week, includes every single Orthodox bishop in America — every one. No jurisdictions are left out. And the Episcopal Assembly not only has the blessing of the Mother Churches; it was actually mandated by the Mother Churches. It wasn’t “our” idea, over here, like the Federation and SCOBA were. The Episcopal Assembly was created by the Mother Churches themselves, who essentially told us, “Get your house in order.” And the end goal is clear and explicit: “The preparation of a plan to organize the Orthodox of the Region on a canonical basis.” (Article 5:1:e of the Rules of Operation) This is not just SCOBA Part II. For the first time in history, the Mother Churches are, openly and in unison, calling for us to unite administratively.
There is no guarantee that the Episcopal Assembly will succeed, and if it does, it’s not clear whether that will be in 5 years or 15. But one thing, to me, is certain: all of us — all who share a desire for canonical unity in America — should throw our support and prayers behind the Assembly, and beg the Holy Spirit to guide its work, just as he guided the work of the Ecumenical Councils themselves. Because, make no mistake — this is the best chance we’ve ever had, or may likely have for many decades to come. May it be blessed by God.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
After a week’s worth of articles on the Archbishop Arseny criminal libel case, I thought I’d break things up a bit by looking at something completely different — the story of Fr. Antony Hill, the second black Orthodox priest in America.
By now, a lot of people know that Fr. Raphael Morgan was the first black Orthodox priest in America, ordained in 1907 and based out of Philadelphia’s Greek church. But the second black priest in America, and the first under the Russian Archdiocese, is still virtually unknown. And, while Morgan’s life is full of mystery, the man who followed him — Fr. Antony Hill — is even more of an enigma.
We don’t know when Hill was born, where he was born, or how he came to join the Orthodox Church. His given name was Robert F. Hill, and the first traces I’ve found of him are from a New York Times article dated January 3, 1921. Orthodox and Episcopalian clergy had gathered together for a prayer service, asking God to restore the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to the Orthodox. The Orthodox included Russians, Greeks, Serbs, and Syrians, and among the Russian contingent was “the Very Rev. Anthony R.F. Hill, a canon of the Russian Cathedral.” Also in the group was another recent American convert, Fr. Stephen (Geoffrey) Lang.
Several months later, in September 1921, Hill and Fr. Patrick Mythen attended the First General Synod of the brand-new “African Orthodox Church.” As we’ve discussed before, this noncanonical body was headed by “Patriarch” George Alexander McGuire, who had been consecrated by the vagante Old Catholic bishop Joseph Rene Vilatte. McGuire was an associate of Marcus Garvey, and he most likely had known Fr. Raphael Morgan.
In the 1956 book The History of the African Orthodox Church, A.C. Terry-Thompson writes extensively about the AOC’s initial General Synod. From Terry-Thompson, we know that Fr. Patrick Mythen gave a rousing speech on the Synod’s first day, comparing the AOC’s organizers to Christ’s apostles in the upper room on Pentecost, and expressing the hope that all of Orthodoxy would accept the AOC as a legitimate Church. Hill then offered a few words, “recording his earnest desire to see us launch out successfully.”
Shortly after this, Hill decided to leave the Russian Archdiocese and throw his lot in with the African Orthodox Church. He became rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which had been McGuire’s parish before he became a bishop. It was Hill who, on September 15, seconded the motion that the new ecclesiastical body be known as the “African Orthodox Church.” The next day, he was appointed dean of the AOC’s seminary. In other words, he was a major player in the new organization.
In his book Words Like Freedom: Essays on African American Culture and History (1996), Richard Newman writes that Hill “was released by the Russians to work with McGuire and the fledgling AOC.” Further on, though, Newman says that Hill “was excommunicated by the Russians.” I find it hard to believe that the Russian Archdiocese would actually release Hill to a noncanonical body. However, in 1921, Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky was primate of the Russian Archdiocese. He was a highly ineffective hierarch, and he delegated an unusual amount of authority to Fr. Patrick Mythen. Given Mythen’s own affinity for the AOC, it’s very possible that Mythen himself granted Hill a “release,” but that later Russian leaders recognized this as irregular and went on to defrock Hill.
Hill lasted about 13 years in the AOC. According to Terry-Thompson, “Due to some difference of policy Father Anthony resigned his post late in 1934.” It’s worth noting that 1934 is the same year that Patriarch McGuire died, and it’s possible that Hill’s resignation was part of the fallout from McGuire’s death. Richard Newman writes, “When he left the AOC he founded an independent church in Harlem.” Newman adds, “This story needs to be told.” Alas, Newman died in 2003, so we can’t ask him for more information.
Hill’s career in the Russian Archdiocese must have been extremely brief. He most likely joined the Russians in mid-to-late 1920, when Fr. Patrick Mythen’s short-lived, English-speaking Church of the Transfiguration was in operation in New York City. We know that he left Orthodoxy in September 1921, when he joined the AOC. But beyond the scant details I’ve presented in this article, we know next to nothing else about Fr. Antony Hill.
[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]
For a while now, I have been meaning to write about the first all-English Orthodox parish in America, founded in New York City in 1920. Today, I’m going to give a brief introduction to that parish, and the main characters involved. This is hardly the whole story; it really is just an introduction.
To start — well, you know about Fr. Ingram Nathaniel Irvine, who converted to Orthodoxy in 1905. (If you don’t know about Irvine, you can read our earlier posts about him, or listen to two podcasts I did on Ancient Faith Radio.)
So Irvine converted in 1905, and he remained an Orthodox priest until his death, in January 1921. During that time, in both the Russian and Syrian Missions, he was a strong advocate of the use of English in American Orthodox worship. He felt that, for Orthodoxy to survive and thrive in America, it was imperative that it, to some extent, “Americanize.” (This is the term that was used at the time.)
For most of Irvine’s Orthodox career, there were not many converts. Irvine spent a lot of his time working with Orthodox young people, and interacting with Episcopalians, but he didn’t actually bring a lot of people into the Church. Late in his life, however, things started to change. An Episcopal priest named James Grattan Mythen converted to Orthodoxy in 1920. He was immediately ordained a priest by Abp Alexander Nemolovsky, and he took the name, “Fr. Patrick.”
Mythen would prove to be the first of a surprisingly large number of convert priests to enter the Russian Archdiocese in the early 1920s. Irvine was quite old by this point, in his early 70s at a time when most people didn’t live past 60. He was not really capable, physically, of running his own church. But Mythen was young — just 37 at the time of his conversion — and he became the leader of a group of convert clergy.
Within a very short period of time, Mythen was joined by the following men:
- Dr. Geoffrey A. Lang, ordained Fr. Stephen
- Robert F. Hill, ordained Fr. Antony
- Fr. Paul Ihmsen
- Dr. George Gelsinger, ordained Fr. Michael
- Royce M. Burden, ordained Fr. Boris
- Arthur W. Johnson, ordained Fr. Kyrill
- Sgt. William H. Schneider, ordained Fr. A. (not sure what it stood for)
Irvine didn’t know all of these men; several of them came along after he had already died. And Irvine doesn’t seem to have been the main person driving this enterprise; Mythen was. Abp Alexander put an enormous amount of trust in Mythen. For a while, in the early 1920s and before Metropolitan Platon took over the Russian Archdiocese, Mythen basically ran the whole Archdiocesan operation, even signing ordination certificates (a task properly done by a bishop). Needless to say, Mythen supplanted the aging (and then deceased) Irvine as the leader of the English Department of the Russian Archdiocese.
And in 1920, the newly-converted-and-ordained Mythen became the rector of the “American Orthodox Catholic Church of the Transfiguration,” the first all-English, all-convert parish in history. The church was located at St. Vladimir’s Immigrant Home, 233 East 17th Street in New York City. The first services were held on July 18, 1920. This is part of an article from the New York Times (7/17/1920):
In the establishment of this English-speaking church by the Russian hierarchy the efforts of fifteen years of the Rev. Dr. Ingram N.W. Irvine, a canon of the local Russian Cathedral, have been realized.
Archbishop Tikhon, who was head of the Russian Church in America for several years, favored such a move, but he was recalled to Russia before he could organize such a branch. Appeal was then made to Archbishop Nemoloski, who agreed that an English mission would fill a need. Abbot Patrick (James Gratton Mithen), who came here from England three months ago, was designated as rector of the new branch. Dr. Irvine will be the associate rector. He and Abbot Patrick are major canons.
The other two members of the staff are minor canons. The first vicar is Canon Stephen, who came to America with Canon Patrick, and the second vicar is Canon Paul, who was ordained a priest of the Russian Church in Pittsburgh by Bishop Stephen of the Uno-Russian Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is a brother of Max Ihmsen, a newspaper editor. Dr. Irvine is Professor of the English Department in the Russian Seminary, Tenafly, N.J., and Canon Paul is his assistant.
A few things… One, I find the whole “canon,” “vicar,” language to be slightly amusing, borrowed as it is from the Episcopal Church. Is a “major canon” supposed to be an archpriest, in this context? I don’t know. I’m not aware of Irvine having ever been raised to archpriest, but it is possible.
Two, while Mythen did travel from England to the US, he was only in England for a few months. We’ll talk about his life in a separate post in the future, but he was born in Baltimore and was an American citizen. Like Irvine, Mythen was of Irish ancestry, but was an Anglican clergyman. He was very involved in politics and art — he was a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage and of Irish independence, and he moonlighted as a playwright. One of his allies in the Irish independence movement was Geoffrey Lang (aka Fr. Stephen), who, along with Mythen, helped run a group called Protestant Friends of Irish Freedom.
Fr. Paul Ihmsen — I’m not certain, but I think his given name was Charles. His brother Max, the newspaper editor, was a major figure in the newspaper industry of the early 20th century. He was a protégé of William Randolph Hearst, with titles ranging from “political manager” to “henchman.” He then went to California and ran the Los Angeles Examiner, and on the side, he became a pioneering apple farmer. The Ihmsens came from an old, prominent German family from Pittsburgh.
Another priest in these early years was Fr. Antony (Robert) Hill, who happens to be the second black priest in American Orthodox history, after Fr. Raphael Morgan. Hill was Orthodox for a very short time; he soon joined the upstart “African Orthodox Church,” about which, more in the future.
The other clergy I mentioned above — Gelsinger, Burden, etc. — came along later, after the Church of the Transfiguration had closed. And close it did, very soon — the New York Times has advertisements for the church through November 1920, but nothing afterwards. The church’s few months of existence were eventful, though. Two prominent literary figures, T. Everett Harre and Reginald Wright Kauffman (both, apparently, friends of Mythen), converted to Orthodoxy. In August, Irvine was apparently poisoned, allegedly by Bolshevik sympathizers. And in September, Abp Alexander raised Mythen (who was unmarried) to the rank of archimandrite. We will discuss all of these events, and the history of the broader English-speaking mission, in future articles.
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.