Posts tagged episcopi vagantes
One of the curiosities of studying American Orthodox history is that a number of the “firsts” are largely unknown. Matthew Namee has done a lot of work in introducing the first black Orthodox priest in America, Fr. Raphael Morgan. With this post, we’re going to look briefly at the first convert bishop in Orthodox America, Ignatius William Albert Nichols.
Never heard of him? It’s probably because his time as an Orthodox bishop lasted just about ten months (more or less). It’s probably also because the vast majority of information about him available is regarding his career as an episcopus vagans, which bracketed his brief stint within Orthodoxy.
William Albert Nichols (b. Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 4, 1877) started out his ordained ministry as an Episcopal deacon in 1908 in Arkansas, having received theological education at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest two years later in Colorado and also trained and worked as a chaplain and journalist, eventually becoming religion editor for the New York Sun and the Brooklyn Standard Union (1926-28) and later The New York World-Telegram (1929-43). He served as an Episcopal parish priest in Brooklyn for two years (1927-29).
Things were going fairly “normally” up until he decided to leave the Episcopal priesthood and was in 1929 consecrated as a bishop of the so-called “American Catholic Church” by Bp. Arthur Edward Leighton. Someone must have told him that his orders were “invalid,” however, because in 1930, he was ordained again to the priesthood and consecrated again to the episcopacy, though this time by Abp. Samuel Gregory Lines of the “Apostolic Christian Church.” Sometime between 1930 and 1932, he became interested in Orthodoxy.
From the sources I’ve read (mainly secondary), it’s not clear when Nichols was received into Orthodoxy or by whom. But we do know that in 1932, he was part of the American Orthodox Catholic Church under Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh, probably having founded with Aftimios in 1931 the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil.
The AOCC was at that time of questionable canonical status, though it had been founded in 1927 with the blessing of the Russian Metropolia in America (itself of questionable canonical status since 1924, when it declared itself independent of its mother church). By 1932, though, Aftimios had made multiple enemies within the ecclesiastical world, as well as suffering the (rather quick) withdrawal of the support of the Metropolia. Despite its isolation, it seems that communion was not broken between the AOCC and other jurisdictions (though Platon in 1930 did say that Aftimios was no longer a Metropolia bishop but a bishop in another jurisdiction), and clergy were readily received from it (typically back into the Metropolia). In any case, by 1932, the AOCC had few parishes.
Aftimios’s general vision was modeled on that of St. Tikhon, who attempted to form a multi-ethnic jurisdiction under the Russian archdiocese, with bishops for each ethnic group. Aftimios likewise appointed bishops for the Syrians (Sophronios Beshara and Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, St. Raphael’s former archdeacon) and Ukrainians (Joseph Zuk). He also attempted to appoint a bishop for the Russians, one Fr. Leonid Turkevich (whose consecration as such had been specifically blessed by the Metropolia at the founding of the AOCC, but the blessing was later withdrawn).
The last bishop whom Aftimios consecrated was William Albert Nichols, who took the name Ignatius. The consecration took place on September 27, 1932, and Ignatius was appointed as Archbishop of Washington and auxiliary to Aftimios, specially charged with evangelizing “Americans” in English. Ignatius’s work with the Western Rite via the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil continued with him as its bishop. Thus, Ignatius is also history’s first (and so far, only) modern Orthodox bishop solely dedicated to the Western Rite.
In 1933, Aftimios’s spiral away from any semblance of ecclesiastical stability finally swirled totally out of control, and in April he got married in a civil ceremony to a Syrian girl from Wilkes-Barre some 30 years his junior. A synod was held by Ignatius with Joseph Zuk (Emmanuel had since returned to the Metropolia) in which they congratulated Aftimios on his marriage and declared him retired. Ignatius later sent a message of congratulations to Aftimios, telling him, “Wind will winnow chaff out of your brave act. Orthodoxy will begin new life in America. God bless you both.”[*]
Clearly inspired by his former primate, in July, Ignatius himself married a woman named Emily Chasman. In November, Sophronios declared Ignatius deposed from the episcopacy. Totally isolated from even the fringes of Orthodoxy, Ignatius nevertheless continued his work with the Clerks Secular.
He functioned independently until the time of his death in 1947, consorting with multiple episcopi vagantes along the way (even briefly going into communion with John Kedrovsky and his son Nicholas of the Soviet “Living Church”). During this time, he (often with other episcopi vagantes) consecrated six different men to the episcopacy. One of these men was Alexander Turner, who in 1936 took over headship of the Clerks Secular. From 1959-61, Turner succeeded in bringing many of his flock into the Antiochian Archdiocese, thus founding the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate.
Through Ignatius, there are now dozens (perhaps more) of lines of episcopi vagantes who trace themselves back to Aftimios.
[*]“Marriage Wins Bishop’s O.K.,” Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, 10 May 1933, Archives of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
(The general outline for this post was taken from the biographical sketch by Bertil Persson found at this link, with some material added from my own research. I’m not sure who Persson is, exactly, but he seems to have done work on various personages in the world of episcopi vagantes and to have some academic standing in Europe. The link contains references to Persson’s sources.)
One of my odd hobbies in historical research is wandering the strange hinterlands of episcopi vagantes on the Internet. I think I first became interested in the phenomenon as I studied Abp. Aftimios Ofiesh (as previously mentioned, the subject of my M.Div. thesis). When I first encountered Aftimios’s name, it was in some offhand remark about his being an episcopus vagans himself. I later discovered that not to be true, that he had effectively retired when he got married in 1933. But right near the end of his ministry, he consecrated one William Albert Nichols as Bp. Ignatius, who almost immediately went vagans and started consecrating people left and right. It is Ignatius who is the real culprit in the ever-stretching family tree of episcopi vagantes. He does, however, have the fascinating distinction of being the first convert consecrated an Orthodox bishop in America (though he left the Church soon after). (And he also started the group that in 1959 found its way into the Antiochian Archdiocese as the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate.)
Aftimios also consecrated Sophronios Beshara (who, incidentally, is buried in the same grave as St. Raphael, though the stone gets his death year wrong—it’s actually 1934). Sophronius, it turns out, was one of the consecrators (along with Theophan Noli) of Christopher Contogeorge, who gave the Greek Archdiocese many headaches around the middle of the 20th century, and may have had some sort of status as an exarch for the Patriarchate of Alexandria. (That, my friends, is a story for another day.) Contogeorge went into communion with the Living Church for a bit (as had Ignatius some time before), consecrating Nicholas Kedrovsky (son of John Kedrovsky) to the episcopacy.
Kedrovsky eventually consecrated a man named Joachim Souris, who himself consecrated a Ukrainian immigrant named Walter Myron Propheta (regarding whom I have a number of notes-to-self to look into). Propheta was a powerhouse when it came to consecrations and is looked upon as something of a saint by many in the episcopi vagantes world. He eventually consecrated a gent named John Christian, who consecrated a fellow named Richard Morrill. (Don’t get too confused here—these sort of consecration lists account for nearly 90% of the information on the websites of episcopi vagantes.)
Now, all of this would probably be of little real interest to serious Orthodox Christians interested in historical research, except perhaps (as it is for me) as a hobby. But perhaps there is some whimsical weirdness deep within you which might find it fascinating that Morrill (who was rather flamboyant in his consecrating habits and went by “Patriarch Mar Apriam I”) in 1977 married a couple named Mike and Carolyn. In 1982, he consecrated Mike to the episcopacy. Mike’s last name? Warnke. In 1982, Warnke founded a religious body known as the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church in Kentucky, Inc.
Former Evangelicals like me probably instantly recognize the name Mike Warnke, renowned 1980s Evangelical comedian who claimed to have been a Satanist high priest and made a lot of money making that claim. His celebrity empire came crashing down around his ears after a major exposé was published on him by Cornerstone magazine in 1992. Before that happened, he had quite a lucrative career doing comedy tours, books (including his most famous, The Satan Seller), and tape recordings of his comedy. My family traveled a lot when I was a kid (my parents are missionaries), and we would listen to his tapes in the car. He’s still going strong, it seems, though with a drastically diminished audience and a festive new title (“Bishop Abbot”) and snazzy outfit.
And that’s how the tape deck from my ’80s childhood roadtrips linked up with my Orthodox M.Div. thesis.