Who was St. Raphael under? It depends partly on whom you ask, and it also depends on when you ask. In 1895, when Archimandrite Raphael Hawaweeny came to America to oversee the Syro-Arabs, he was most definitely under the Russian Church. In fact, at the time, he was on the outs with Antioch, which was controlled by ethnic Greeks who opposed giving any authority to the native Arabic-speaking population of the Patriarchate. (This situation exists even to this day in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)
That all changed with the election of Patriarch Meletios Doumani — an Arab — in 1899. From then on, Raphael had a close relationship with the Antiochian Patriarchate. According to Paul Garrett’s essay “The Life and Legacy of Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny,” St. Raphael was “consulted before virtually every important decision in the patriarchate and informed of the outcome directly thereafter.”
The Russian Holy Synod elected St. Raphael as Bishop of Brooklyn in 1903. In early 1904, St. Tikhon Bellavin, the Russian bishop in America, issued an ukase (decree) on the establishment of a Syro-Arab Vicariate under the Russian diocese. In the ukase, St. Tikhon instructed that the names of both Raphael and the Russian bishop be commemorated at the liturgical services in each Syro-Arab parish in America.
In March 1904, Raphael was consecrated bishop by St. Tikhon and Bishop Innocent Pustynsky, the Russian vicar bishop for Alaska. (To read about the consecration, check out this article I wrote in 2009.) Patriarch Meletios of Antioch responded with a letter to Tikhon, saying:
Since His Grace, Bishop Raphael, having received the grace of the episcopate through the laying-on of your blessed hands, became a bishop of our Syrian children within the boundaries of North America, and since we together with our brothers, the metropolitans of the holy See of Antioch, do still consider him as a member of our body, since he comes from our midst, and we number him as one of us in faith and in virtue of his responsibilities over our Syrian children, dispersed in North America, we consider it our most important duty to send the present Patriarchal Letter to you, in order to bestow our blessing, from the depth of our heart, upon that election, which occurred through the inspiration of the Most Holy Spirit…
Soon after that, the Russian Holy Synod issued a certificate of consecration to St. Raphael.
In 1905, St. Tikhon drafted a famous proposal to form an Orthodox exarchate in North America. This exarchate would include overlapping ethnic dioceses, and the ethnic bishops in charge of each diocese would come together in a national synod, headed by the Russian archbishop. It was a fairly ingenious idea, but the plan was never implemented. In that proposal, St. Tikhon wrote that St. Raphael “is the second auxiliary to the diocesan bishop of the Aleutian Islands, but is almost independent in his own sphere.”
In his magazine, Al Kalimat, St. Raphael himself wrote that his consecration was “by the order and permission of Meletios, the Patriarch of Antioch,” and that “Patriarch Meletios counted the new parish of Brooklyn, New York, as one of the parishes of Antioch.” St. Raphael went on to say that Patriarch Meletios declared that he “had instituted the new diocese as one of the dioceses pertaining to the See of Antioch and thus it is in actuality, notwithstanding its nominal allegiance to the Russian Holy Synod.” He also said, “The territorial jurisdiction of the See of Antioch became much more extensive during the time of his beatitude [Patriarch Meletios], for Syrians who emigrated to many other countries still retained their spiritual relations with and continued to acknowledge and yield allegiance to their mother church, the Holy Church of Antioch.”
A 1912 report by an official commission of the Episcopal Diocese of New England stated, “These Orthodox… are all apparently under Bishop Raphael. This Syrian Bishop derives his authority from the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, but is closely connected with the Russian Archbishop in New York.” (See page 34 HERE.)
While the relationship between the Syro-Arab mission and the Russian Archdiocese may indeed have been “nominal,” the relationship did exist, and it existed chiefly in the person of St. Raphael himself. His relationship with Russia and Antioch was ambiguous, and this ambiguity was strengthened by his own words and actions. In Hanna v. Malick, a legal dispute between factions of a Syro-Arab parish in 1923, the judge observed with some frustration,
[A]t first the writings of Bishop Raphael gave to the Patriarch of Antioch jurisdiction over the Syrian branch of the Orthodox Church in the United States, and later gave expression to language indicating that all the branches, including the Syrian branch, of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, were under the jurisdiction of the Holy Synod of Russia.
In practice, as the writings of both Ss. Tikhon and Raphael suggest, St. Raphael was pretty much independent. Neither he nor his clergy were present at the famous All-American Sobor in Mayfield, Pa. in 1907. There’s no evidence that any Syro-Arab students attended the Russian seminary.
None of this was a problem during St. Raphael’s lifetime, because no one questioned his authority, and he had good relations with both Russia and Antioch. The trouble came after his untimely death in 1915. Quoting again from the judge in Hanna v. Malick:
[A] meeting was held of the Syrian priests who were present at the funeral, and a division of minds existed and was then expressed as to whether or not Raphael, as Bishop of Brooklyn, was subordinate to the Holy Synod of Russia or to the Patriarch of Antioch, and whether the successor of Raphael as Bishop of Brooklyn should be a Syrian, or whether he might be a Russian.
That division, born pretty much the moment Raphael died, wasn’t fully healed for six decades. His flock divided into warring camps — the Russy, who pledged allegiance to Russia, and the Antacky, who preferred subordination to Antioch.
To make matters worse, there was no obvious successor to Raphael, and the Russian leadership dragged their feet on choosing a bishop to replace him. It took two years for them to pick Bishop Aftimios Ofiesh as the new bishop for the Syro-Arabs, and Ofiesh was the wrong man for the job, anyway. Meanwhile, a visiting Antiochian bishop, Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi of Baalbek, was in America already on a fundraising tour when Raphael died. Metropolitan Germanos decided to stick around and try to start his own diocese, even though the Antiochian Holy Synod ordered him to return to Syria. Eventually, the Patriarchate of Antioch established its own, fully authorized archdiocese in 1924.
St. Raphael came to America under the Russian Church, and he was consecrated by Russian bishops and received a consecration certificate from the Russian Holy Synod. At the same time, he was in close, regular contact with the Patriarchate of Antioch and told his people that his diocese was “a diocese of Antioch… notwithstanding its nominal allegiance to the Russian Holy Synod.” Given that ambiguity, it’s no surprise that St. Raphael’s flock divided into Russy and Antacky camps the moment he was gone.
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