Posts tagged Victor Abo-Assaly
Yesterday, in my “This week in American Orthodox history” article, I mentioned the following event:
April 23, 1917: St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Worcester, MA became the first official “Antacky” parish, declaring its loyalty to Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. Informally, the Russy-Antacky schism began immediately after St. Raphael died in 1915, when his priests disagreed on whether to acknowledge the authority of Antioch or Russia. But the Worcester declaration marked the formal beginning of the schism, which divided the Arab Orthodox in America until the mid-1930s.
According to the parish history in its 1956 “Golden Jubilee” book, the Worcester church issued this declaration: “Just as the Disciples declared themselves dedicated to Christ in Antioch, so the people of Worcester declared themselves dedicated to the Church of Antioch.”
But Germanos wasn’t actually authorized by Antioch — he was acting independently, and Antioch wanted him to return to his see in Syria. So when the Patriarchate of Antioch created its own, official jurisdiction in America under Bishop Victor Abo-Assaly, the Worcester parish switched over, becoming one of the first churches to join the new Antiochian Archdiocese.
As you may recall, the Russy-Antacky schism wasn’t merely a simple two-way split. Well, it was originally — you had the Russy under Bishop (later Archbishop) Aftimios Ofiesh, and the Antacky under Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. But by the end of the 1920s, four bishops claimed authority over the Arab Orthodox:
- Metropolitan Germanos, who lacked the blessing of Antioch (or anyone else, for that matter), but originally led the Syrians who preferred to be tied to Antioch rather than Russia;
- Archbishop Aftimos, who initially led the Syrians under the Russian Church, but who later formed his own jurisdiction and was disowned by the Russians;
- Archbishop Victor Abo-Assaly, the first primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese, which was formed in 1924; and
- Bishop Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, a former auxiliary to Aftimios, who took over the Russy parishes after the Russian Metropolia rejected Aftimios.
It’s particularly difficult to figure out just who was under whom during this period. The 1924 book The Syrians in America, by Philip Hitti, provides a valuable snapshot of how things looked just before the Antiochian Archdiocese was created. According to a directory at the back of Hitti’s book, the score was 31 priests for Aftimios against 24 for Germanos. (These numbers don’t include the five priests of the separate “English-Speaking Department,” which was also under Aftimios.)
But what happened after 1924? As far as I can tell, there aren’t any hard numbers. We just don’t know, for instance, how many parishes left Germanos for the officially sanctioned Antiochian Archdiocese, nor do we know how many parishes remained under Aftimios after the Russian Metropolia replaced him with Emmanuel. The Census Bureau conducted its decennial Census of Religious Bodies in 1926, but I haven’t been able to find the entry (or entries) for the Syrians/Antiochians, so I don’t know if the Census reflected the complex divisions.
My home parish, St. Mary in Wichita, was founded in 1932, right before the slate was wiped clean by the death of three of the four claimants, and the marriage of Aftimos. Several years ago, Bishop Basil of Wichita asked me under which bishop St. Mary was founded, and I honestly didn’t know. I asked the surviving elders of the parish, and none of them knew, either. It’s indicative of how complex that era was. Eventually, I dug up a newspaper article from 1956 that referenced Archbishop Victor as the founding hierarch, finally settling the question.
It’s possible (probable, even), that as the original claimants (Aftimios and Germanos) were supplanted by Victor and Emmanuel, they continued to visit some of their former parishes in some kind of unofficial capacity. I’ve heard stories about Aftimios showing up at Antiochian churches for years after his marriage. To complicate matters even further, after Aftimios left the scene, one of his associated bishops, Sophronios Beshara of Los Angeles, remained at large for the rest of the 1930s, and he apparently visited parishes and even ordained some priests. So to some extent, even after the Antiochians regrouped in the mid-1930s, you still had four claimants — Metropolitan Antony Bashir of New York and his friend/rival Metropolitan Samuel David of Toledo, plus the fringe holdovers Aftimios and Sophronios.
Suffice it to say that there were a bunch of Arab bishops running around in the 1920s and ’30s, and we don’t have a clear understanding of exactly where to draw the lines. And of course, we’re talking here about just one mid-sized group of ethnic Orthodox people; the much larger Greek and Russian groups were just as divided, as were the Romanians, Ukrainians, and pretty much everyone else. Which is why it’s fair to say that we (well, me, and a lot of other people) understand the 1890-1920 period quite a bit better than we understand 1920-1960. But 1920-1960 is critical to understanding our present situation in America, and it’s a period begging for further study.
Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!
April 17, 1907: Fr. Demetrios Petrides arrived in America from Greece. He went immediately to Philadelphia, taking charge of Evangelismos (Annunciation) Greek Orthodox Church in the city. One of his first acts was to write a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarchate recommending that a catechumen, Robert Morgan, be received into the Church and ordained a priest. This took place in August, and Morgan became the first black Orthodox priest in America. Petrides went on to have a distinguished, eventful, and admirable career in Philadelphia and, later, Atlanta, before dying of diabetes in 1917.
April 19, 1934: Archbishop Victor Abo-Assaly, the first primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, died. Abp Victor, then an archimandrite, had come to America ten years earlier, as part of a delegation from the Patriarchate of Antioch. The delegation’s task was to organize the divided Arab Orthodox in America into a single jurisdiction. This led to the founding of the Antiochian Archdiocese, but it failed to produce unity. In addition to Abp Victor, the following hierarchs claimed a piece of the Antiochian pie in America:
- Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi, erstwhile leader of the “Antacky” faction. He had come to America on a fundraising trip back in 1914, but when St. Raphael died the next year, Germanos decided to stick around and try to lead Raphael’s flock. Only a strong minority faction followed him, and this support virtually evaporated in 1924, when the Patriarchate authorized Victor’s consecration and the creation of a legitimate Antiochian Archdiocese.
- Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, former head of the “Russy” faction of Arab Orthodox who pledged loyalty to the Russians. Originally, the battle was Germanos v. Aftimios, but in the late 1920s, Aftimios created his own “autocephalous church” and fell out of favor with the Russian bishops. A handful of parishes seem to have remained loyal to Aftimios, but most switched over to:
- Bishop Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, Aftimos’ former auxiliary and, before that, the archdeacon to St. Raphael. When the Russian Metropolia pulled its support for Aftimios, Emmanuel jumped to the Metropolia himself, taking over Aftimios’ title as bishop for the Syro-Arabs.
Anyway, in the span of about a year, three of the four claimants were dead, and the fourth (Aftimios) married a young girl, which removed the last shreds of legitimacy he had in the eyes of mainstream Orthodox people. The Antiochians in America were finally in a position to unite… but of course, it wasn’t that simple, and in 1936, they re-divided into “New York” and “Toledo” factions. About which, wait just a moment…
April 20, 1934: The early 1930s witnessed a lot of deaths of prominent Orthodox churchmen in America. Just one day after Abp Victor died, Metropolitan Platon Rozhdestvensky, the longtime primate of the Russian Metropolia, himself died. Platon had first come to America way back in 1907, as the successor to St. Tikhon as head of the Russian Archdiocese. He returned to Russia in 1914, but after the Bolshevik Revolution, Platon just kind of showed up in America again, this time as a refugee. The Russian Archdiocese already had a primate — Abp Alexander Nemolovsky — but Platon hung around for a while, until the embattled Alexander moved to Europe. Platon was Alexander’s natural successor, and it was under Platon that the Archdiocese morphed into what became known as the “Metropolia” — a de facto independent jurisdiction.
Platon’s second American tenure was filled with endless legal battles with John Kedrovsky, an “archbishop” of the Soviet-backed Living Church. The Metropolia lost its cathedral, and ultimately had to accept the charity of the Episcopalians, who offered worship space in one of their churches. By the end of Platon’s life, any notion of the Russian Church as the platform for Orthodox unity in America was a faint memory.
April 19, 1936: Exactly two years to the day after Abp Victor died, his successor was consecrated. Or rather successors, plural. On the very same day, two men, representing two Antiochian factions, were consecrated in different cities. Metropolitan Antony Bashir was consecrated in New York and took charge of the largest portion of the Antiochians. Meanwhile, in Toledo, Ohio, several Russian Metropolia bishops consecrated Metropolitan Samuel David. So now, instead of the “Russy” and “Antacky” factions, you had the “New York” and “Toledo” Archdioceses. This division persisted for almost 40 more years.
On October 19, I wrote about Archbishop Panteleimon of Neapolis (today’s Nablus), a bishop of the Jerusalem Patriarchate who was active in America in the 1920s. Since then, thanks to help from some readers, I’ve learned more about Abp Panteleimon’s later years in America. Here’s an update.
Abp Panteleimon seems to roughly parallel the Antiochian Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi. Both came to America for specific, temporary purposes (Germanos to raise money, Panteleimon to attend an Episcopal Church conference and also to raise money). Both were initially quite popular and well-received. Both developed a liking for America, and decided to stick around indefinitely. Both attracted some parishes to join them. Germanos was opposed by the Syro-Arab leadership under the Russian Mission, as well as the later leadership of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Panteleimon was opposed by the Greek Archdiocese and the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And finally, both ultimately left the US in the early 1930s.
On March 12, 1924, Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory I wrote to Patriarch Damian of Jerusalem, explaining that Abp Panteleimon was meddling in the affairs of the Greek Archdiocese in America. Later that year, on September 5, the Greek Bishop Philaret of Chicago complained to his superior, Abp Alexander, that Panteleimon had come to Chicago and was “trespassing on canonical territory.” Shortly after this, in November, Panteleimon assisted the Antiochian Metropolitan Zacharias of Hauran in consecrating Abp Victor Abo-Assaly to be the first head of the new Antiochian Archdiocese.
For the rest of the 1920s, Panteleimon caused one problem after another for the leaders of the Greek Archdiocese, and successive Ecumenical Patriarchs asked Jerusalem to recall him. At one point, reference was made to a “dependency of the Jerusalem Patriarchate in New York”; this seems to refer to Panteleimon’s metochion (embassy church).
By the late ’20s, Abp Panteleimon was in Canada. On February 23, 1929, leaders of an Episcopal church in Montreal wrote to the Greek Abp Alexander:
We expect to proceed against the emissaries of Panteleimon at any moment, and hope to secure their punishment and deportation. Panteleimon himself will never again be permitted to enter this country, being now known to the Canadian Department of Immigration as an imposter and fraud one, who took part in securing large sums of money in Montreal by false pretenses.
The story wasn’t over, though. In 1930, both Abp Alexander and the Ecumenical Patriarch were trying to arrange for Panteleimon to leave North America. By November, the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate seem to have hit upon a solution: Panteleimon could be assigned to the Jerusalem Patriarchate’s metochion in Constantinople, thus removing him from America and offering him a comfortable alternative. Finally, in January of 1931, the Patriarch of Jerusalem recalled Panteleimon.
But in March, Panteleimon was still in America, apparently requesting funds in order to leave the country. The new Greek Archbishop, Athenagoras, worked with the Greek Ambassador, and they came up with the money: 100 British pounds, a small price to pay to get rid of what by 1931 was quite a migrane for the Greek Archdiocese.
At long last, on August 14, Abp Athenagoras sent a telegram to the Greek Ambassador, informing him that Panteleimon “is immediately departing from the United States.” Panteleimon initially planned to go, not to the Jerusalem Patriarchate, but to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This switch was said to be for “personal reasons.” (Interestingly enough, the Patriarch of Alexandria was none other than former Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis, the founder of the Greek Archdiocese of America.) In the end, Panteleimon doesn’t seem to have actually gone to Egypt; as best I can tell, he returned to the Jerusalem Patriarchate. I can’t find any traces of him after 1931.
Most of this information comes from Paul Manolis’ three-volume collection of primary sources, The History of the Greek Church in America in Acts and Documents. Unfortunately, most of the documents are in Greek, which I can’t read, so I’m relying mainly on the short English summaries provided by Manolis at the beginning of each document. The gist, however, is clear enough: Abp Panteleimon, who came to the US as a sort of religious ambassador / fundraiser, ended up contributing his share to the jurisdictional chaos that was American Orthodoxy in the 1920s.