Widower Bishops in American Orthodox History

Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich, 1952 (Los Angeles Daily News)

Everyone knows that Orthodoxy doesn’t allow married men to become bishops. This is kind of a live issue here in America, because a lot of our jurisdictions have trouble finding qualified episocopal candidates, while excellent priests are ineligible if they are married. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a revival of the married episcopate, for a whole bunch of practical reasons. But what’s often lost in the conversation about the celibate episcopate is the category of widowers. That’s what we’re going to start talking about today.

I have long been fascinated by widower bishops. They got married, often had children, experienced the challenges of family life that force a man to grow up and prioritize others over himself. They didn’t get into the clergy to become powerful bishops — they were married when they were ordained, so they knew that their ceiling was the priesthood. They all suffered immense loss — the kind of tragedy that can break a person, and often does. They all had to at least consider the possibility of leaving the priesthood and remarrying, as so many widowed priests actually do. Yet this particular group of widowed priests chose a different path — a path of celibacy for the rest of their lives.

Of course, most widowed priests who remain priests do not go on to become bishops. With some help from our SOCHA Facebook followers, I’ve been able to identify 29 widower bishops in American Orthodox history, from St. Innocent of Alaska to the six active widower bishops serving in our jurisdictions today. Without digging too deeply yet, here are some basic facts about these 29 hierarchs:

  • Over half of the widower bishops (16 of 29) were consecrated in the OCA or its predecessors (the Russian Archdiocese and the Metropolia).
  • Another five were in ROCOR, plus one in the Moscow Patriarchate. All told, 22 of the 29 bishops were in one of the Russian jurisdictions. In contrast, the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses have only had one widower bishop apiece.
  • Six active bishops are widowers: the hierarchs Nikon Liolin, Michael Dahulich, and David Mahaffey (OCA), John Abdalah (Antiochian), Ilia Katre (Albanian-EP), and Nicholas Olhovsky (ROCOR).
  • For 27 of the (future) bishops, I was able to identify the age when they were widowed. The median age of these men, at the time of they become widowers, was 54.
  • The younger group (under 54) had a median age of 42 when they were widowed and waited an average of 13 years between the death of their wives and their consecration to the episcopacy.
  • The older group (54 and up) had a median age of 64 when they were widowed and waited an average of just 2 years before becoming bishops.
  • ROCOR has been particularly willing to consecrate older widowers as bishops. The four oldest widowers on the list — ranging for 70 to 82 — were in ROCOR.

Only one of the bishops on this list — St. Innocent — is a canonized saint, but several more left behind significant legacies and are considered, at least by some Orthodox Christians, to be saints. These include:

  • Metropolitan Leonty Turkevich, longtime primate of the Russian Metropolia (predecessor to the OCA), and someone who could very reasonably be canonized in the not-terribly-distant future
  • Archbishop Arseny Chahovtsov, a Russian Metropolia bishop who is regarded by some members of the OCA’s Canadian Archdiocese as a saint
  • Bishop Basil Rodzianko, who was an active bishop (in the OCA) for only a few years, but had a long “retirement” as a traveling evangelist and teacher
  • Bishop Andrei Rymarenko, a ROCOR bishop who, as a married priest, founded a women’s monastery, and is a notable figure in the life of Fr. Seraphim Rose
  • Bishop Mitrophan Znosko-Borovsky, also of ROCOR, who was widowed at 80, consecrated at 83, and lived for another decade, regarded by many as a wise and venerable elder

On the flip side, two of the 29 widower bishops were forced to retire due to some kind of problem. No need for me to go into details, but I think it’s reasonable to characterize those cases as being on the “unsuccessful” end of the spectrum.

Probably the most striking thing about this little collection of facts is just how many of the widower bishops in American Orthodox history have been in the OCA/Metropolia and ROCOR — and how few have been in the other jurisdictions, especially the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses. This might be an indication that these other jurisdictions are not taking advantage of a potential pool of qualified hierarchical candidates — widower priests who choose to remain priests and live in celibacy. By considering these men as viable candidates for the episcopacy, the jurisdictions could, perhaps, discover a small but significant number of diamonds in the rough, for the ultimate benefit of the whole Church.

8 Replies to “Widower Bishops in American Orthodox History”

  1. In the case of the ethnic Russian jurisdictions, they wanted to stay away from foreign, mostly Soviet, influence. As for the Antiochian (Damascus) and Greek (Constantinople), it was seen as a plus to appoint bishops from monastic or synodal groups from the mother Church. Maybe to maintain levels of administrative or financial control. Appointment of widowed priests who had been born or residence in America or Canada for decades and were socially and culturally more integrated was to run the risk of a more independent daughter Church.
    Tom S.

    1. The day of daughter churches is over in America. The metropolis recognized this early on. When they departed from the playing, Theophilus, leonty, ireney model they found themselves in deep do do. Now the chiefly celibate monastic model of the Greeks and antiocians puts them in great jeapordy due to the myopic monastic vision. We are in America time to be American. American born widowed bishops, American music, clear English translations, no more pony tails and unkempt beards. There is nothing wrong in being American orthodox christians

  2. It would also be interesting to know how long, on average, these bishops were married. Bishop Dahulich, for example, was a young man only married for about a month before his wife was killed in an accident. It certainly would cause a difference in perspective between him and someone who chose to be a celibate priest in the first place, but also would be a different perspective than, someone who was married 30 years and had grown children.

    1. I don’t have the wedding dates for these bishops, but I can tell you that four of them were in their twenties when they were widowed: Firmilian Ocokoljic (21), Michael Dahulich (23), Arseny Chahovtsov (24), and Platon Rozhdestvensky (27). One more was in his thirties (Nicholas Olhovsky, 36). All the rest were over 40.

  3. Bishop Nikon Liolin I only was in his company when he was a young child at his parents house back in the 50’s his older brother John married my first Cousin Helen Nasse, I know his brother Fr. Arthur Liolin who is Dean at St.George Albanian Orthodox Cathedral. South Boston, Ma. His brother Bill was KIA in Korea during the Korean conflict in the early 50’s .

  4. Great article, Matthew. I’m wondering how the church moved to the position of unmarried Bishops when St Paul clearly says that a Bishop should only one wife, which would seem to OK married Bishops. Furthermore, Paul adds that the Bishop’s children should be well mannered… which ,again, seems to contradict an unmarried Episcopate.

    Here is the citation so you don’t have to look it up:

    1 Timothy 3:2-12 King James Version (KJV)
    2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

    3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;

    4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;

    5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

    Thanks, again.

  5. In the OCA there was Bishop Joasaph Antoniuk. In the Serbian Church in America Bishops Dionisije Milivojevic, Stefan Lastavica, and Firmilian Ocokoljic were widowers.

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