American Orthodox Catholic Church
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The American Orthodox Catholic Church (in full, The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America) is an Orthodox Church which operates in the United States of America. The church was founded in 1927 with the intention of being separated from any particular ethnic or cultural tradition.
The Church was founded in 1927 by Aftimios Ofiesh and it was originally supported by the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church. The movement gained popularity and within four years had consecrated four Bishops, with a charter granted from the ROGCC. Later that year, a constitution was drawn up for the Church. 59% of the clergy and 51% of the parishioners in the Orthodox Church of America are converts.
Reaction and Opposition
The reaction against the establishment of the new church was "swift and negative," especially from the Karlovsty Synod (ROCOR), with whom the Metropolia had broken ties shortly before in 1926 and who viewed itself as the Metropolia's rightful canonical authority.
- In letters dated the 27th of April and the 3rd of May 1927, the Synod made clear their unalterable opposition to the formation of the new Church both on the grounds that Metr. Platon and his Bishops had no power or authority to authorize the founding of the new Church (it must be kept in mind that for almost two years now there had been a break between Metr. Platon and the Exile Synod) as well as on the grounds that there was no justification or rationale for the establishment of an American Orthodox Church, at that time or at any time in the foreseeable future (p. 37).
Aftimios himself answered in June with "an equally forceful reply," denouncing the Karlovsty synod as "the uncanonical pseudo-Synod of the Outlandish Russian Orthodox Church," forbidding his clergy and faithful from having anything to do with them (ibid.). Like his estranged former associates in ROCOR, Metr. Platon himself almost immediately turned his back on his ecclesiastical daughter and became "increasingly unreliable in supporting the new Church," mainly because of its continual publication of "hard line" articles in the Orthodox Catholic Review (edited by Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael) aimed at the Episcopal Church. In a letter to Aftimios, Platon wrote: "'I must attest before Your Eminence that without their (American Episcopalian) entirely disinterested and truly brotherly assistance our Church in America could not exist' and concluded his letter by asking Abp Aftimios to order Father Boris to cease his 'steppings out' against the Protestant Episcopalians" (p. 38).
To further worsen matters, in 1924, Archbishop Victor (Abo-Assaley) of New York was sent to America by the Church of Antioch and then began to encourage Orthodox Arabs to come under Antiochian jurisdiction rather than that of the Russians or the new American church. He did not make much headway in his endeavors. In 1928, Aftimios and his group mainly focused on the establishment of their church's legal status and had some initial success. On May 26, another bishop was consecrated, Sophronios (Beshara) as bishop of Los Angeles, given responsibility "not only for the parishes who still considered themselves within the jurisdiction of the Russian Mission but also those parishes who comprise a part of the new Church and as a Missionary Bishop as well he was responsible for all territory west of the Mississippi River" (ibid.). However,
- With three Bishops fledgling the Church, a solid foundation would be achieved - but such was not the case. It became increasingly apparent that Metr. Platon had changed his mind about the wisdom of attempting to establish an American Orthodox Catholic Church. Not only were some of his Episcopalian allies against the new venture but it was increasingly clear that no recognition for the new Church would be forthcoming from any Autocephalous Church. In any case, it is known that Metr. Platon categorically forbade Archpriest Leonid Turkevitch to accept consecration in the new Church (pp. 38-39).
Early in 1929, Aftimios attempted to gain support with the Greek archbishop Alexander (Demoglou) of Rodostolou, the first primate of the newly formed Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. The archbishop's response was that he had authority over not only all of the Greek Orthodox in America, but over all Orthodox Christians there. They were apparently "vexed over the fact that the Reverend Demetrius Cassis, an American of Greek parentage, had been ordained by Abp Aftimios for the new American Church" (p. 38).
Fr. Serafim believes that Platon's opposition to the new church had shifted from being reserved to being "quite open and above board," because Aftimios, in a letter dated October 4, 1929, declared that:
- "His Eminence, the Most Reverend Platon (Rozhdestvensky), the Metropolitan of Khersson and Odessa, has no proper, valid, legal, or effective appointment, credentials or authority to rule the North American Archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in any capacity. Such being the case it follows that from the departure of His Eminence Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky) that the lawful and canonical ruling headship of the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America in the Patriarchal Russian Church has naturally been vested in the First Vicar and Senior Bishop in this Jurisdiction" therefore "the title and position of 'Metropolitan of North America and Canada' has no canonical existence in the Russian Church." It is signed by "Aftimios, First Vicar and Senior Bishop in the Archdiocese of the Aleutian Islands and North America" (p. 39).
Undoubtedly, Aftimios had in mind as he wrote such a letter that Platon had, at least in writing, already given him authority over all Orthodox Christians in North America. Fr. Serafim continues and says that Aftimios's denunciation of Platon's authority had "little or no effect" in the Russian parishes and on their clergy: "presumably they knew of the 1924 Ukaz of Patriarch Tikhon suspending Platon but specifying that he was to continue to rule the Archdiocese until such time as a Bishop was sent to relieve him" (ibid.). The announcement also had a negative effect on some members of the American Orthodox Catholic Church, as well, because two weeks after its being made public, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab) requested canonical release from Aftimios (who reluctantly gave it) and then went over to Platon and with his direction tried to bring Syrian parishes away from Aftimios and back under the Metropolia.
Despite these troubles, Aftimios nevertheless explored new opportunities and began negotiations to bring Bp. Fan (Noli) to the US from Germany to serve as a bishop in his church with jurisdiction over Albanian Orthodox Christians. (Bp. Fan eventually did come to America, but under the auspices of the Metropolia.) Aftimios continued to attempt to shore up his jurisdiction's legitimacy:
- Deserted by the Russian Bishops under Metr. Platon, with two rival Syrian Bishops, we find Abp Aftimios appealing to the successor of Greek Archbishop Alexander, Archbishop Damaskinos "as the special Representative and Exarch of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople" in view of the "present chaotic and helpless state of the Church of Russia" that the "Holy Great Church which you represent" could "bring about a united and disciplined Orthodoxy in America for greater and more profit to Orthodoxy than any other settlement of the Hellenic divisions in this country" (p. 40).
Almost at the same time (October 1930), Aftimios sent a letter to his clergy indicating that they ought to keep their distance from Bp. Germanos (Shehadi) of Zahle, who had come from Antioch (without its authorization) mainly to attempt to gather funds from Arabic Orthodox parishes but had also worked at encouraging such parishes to come under Antioch's jurisdiction. While in America, he also accepted under his omophorion one Archpriest Basil Kherbawi, "one of the most zealous and loyal priests of the Syrian Mission of the Russian jurisdiction who had been suspended by Abp Aftimios for disloyalty" (ibid.).
In 1932, by a decision of a New York State court, Aftimios's cathedral was taken from him and given over to the Metropolia, as its charter stated that it could only be used by a hierarch subject to the authority of the Russian church. Nevertheless, Aftimios consecrated two more bishops, Ignatius (W.A.) Nichols (a former Episcopal cleric who had become an Old Catholic episcopus vagans), and Joseph (Zuk) for the Ukrainians, who had the allegiance of perhaps a half dozen such parishes.
Armed with new bishops at his side but probably quite discouraged over the state of his jurisdiction both internally and externally, Aftimios then made the decision which probably was the death-knell for the American Orthodox Catholic Church:
- ...on the 29th of April 1933 Abp Aftimios, in defiance of all Orthodox Tradition and Canon Law... married in a civil ceremony to a young Evangelical Syrian girl born in America [she was actually a member of the Syrian Orthodox parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania]—and despite all the efforts of responsible parties, he refused to resign as Archbishop of the new Church (p. 41).
Three days after Aftimios's wedding, the two new bishops of the church, Ignatius and Joseph, held a "synod meeting" by themselves, and believing that Aftimios had resigned, elected Joseph as the new "President Archbishop of the Church" with Ignatius being his designated successor. They further voiced their support of Aftimios's marriage, stating that "'inasmuch as it is merely a Canon of the European and Asiatic branches of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, that a Bishop should not be married, such has no valid weight on the American Church where conditions are dramatically opposite' and 'therefore the Holy North American Synod congratulates His Eminence on the moral courage in the step he has taken'" (ibid.). Fr. Serafim then observes: "This new thunderbolt was sufficient to effectively eliminate any authority the new Church might still claim to have—particularly when there were only six parishes by the summer of 1933 still adhering to the new Church" (ibid.).
Joseph later denied making the agreement with Ignatius, "but he was already a sick man (and died on the 23rd of February 1934)" (ibid.). Ignatius then got married himself in June 1933 and began entering into relations with the representatives of the Living Church in America (the Soviet-sponsored pseudo-church), which had been competing (especially legally) with the jurisdiction of the Metropolia and the ROCOR. He eventually broke relations even with the Living Church and returned to being an episcopus vagans, dying as the pastor of a small Community Church in Middle Springs, Vermont, but not before starting multiple small religious bodies, many of whom claim apostolic succession from him.
The only bishop left to the American Orthodox Catholic Church was Sophronios (Beshara), who then appealed to Platon for assistance and had also intended to contact Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), but was deterred from doing so when Emmanuel died on May 29, 1933, being buried by Platon (his gravestone reads May 30). "Bp Sophronius, despite all the setbacks, seemed to take his new post as 'President Locum Tenens of the American Holy Synod' quite seriously, and although he wished to restore relations with Metr. Platon, he wanted to be accepted as an equal Head of a Church" (p. 42). Platon was focused primarily at that point on the arrival from Russia of the representative of the Patriarchate, Bp. Benjamin (Fedchenkov) of Saratov, who had been sent to investigate the ecclesiastical status of Orthodox America. Thus Platon "felt he could not concern himself with the crumbling new Church and so the remaining priests and parishes wandered from one authority to another or became completely independent," with the exceptions of Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael, who were received back into the authority of Moscow and the Metropolia, respectively.
Later in 1933, Sophronios officially removed and suspended Aftimios in October and deposed Ignatius in November. He still refused to submit to Platon or the Patriarchate, however: "Despite the efforts of Bishop Benjamin and Hieromonk Boris, Bp Sophronius refused to consider being subordinate to Bishop Benjamin although he would have been allowed a considerable amount of independence and would have been permitted to continue to live on the West Coast" (ibid.).
The end of the "Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" came when Sophronios died in 1934 in Los Angeles. Fr. Serafim gives the date of his death as 1934, though his gravestone reads 1940. He is now buried at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania alongside St. Raphael of Brooklyn and Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab).
Fr. Serafim's analysis of the failure of this church is as follows:
- There can be no question that while the movers of the new Church were sincere and highly motivated that nonetheless they were fostering an idea whose time had not yet come, or to use more appropriate phraseology: Almighty God in his infinite wisdom did not see fit to bless this first attempt to have an American Orthodox Church. On the human level it is clear why the movement did not succeed. The Orthodox in America were still in their own particular ghettos... [the church] was unable to attract or find clergy theologically trained in the Orthodox tradition and able to communicate with the young people with immigrant parents (p. 33).
External pressures on the movement also contributed to its demise:
- While the Russian Council of Bishops gave initial support, it was only moral support, and the first person elected to be a Hierarch of the new Church in fact turned down the nomination because it was not possible to guarantee him any kind of salary—which is indicative of another primary deficiency of the movement, no adequate financing.... [The] new Church lost its most important supporter, Metr. Platon, because of antagonism of the clergy initiators towards the Protestant Episcopal Church.... [some of whose authorities] resented the American Orthodox Church as being a challenge to... the "senior Orthodox Church in America" [i.e., the Episcopal Church], and that pressure was put on Metr. Platon to withdraw his support or the financial assistance he was receiving from the Episcopal Church... would be cut off and perhaps he would be deprived of the use, on a temporary basis, of Episcopal churches (pp. 33-34).
- ...it would be most unjust to blame the failure of the "Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" solely or even primarily on Protestant Episcopal opposition. One can state it more strongly: the various Orthodox groups in America at that time simply were not ready in terms of church consciousness for the establishment of an American Orthodox Church (p. 34).
Aftimios Ofiesh lived in relative obscurity with his wife Mariam Namey Ofiesh, fathering a son named Paul, who eventually became a Presbyterian elder in Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. After living in Wilkes-Barre, and New Castle, Pennsylvania, the Ofiesh family finally settled in Kingston, Pennsylvania. In 1937 he was asked by parishioners in Allentown to return to active leadership in the Orthodox Church and made one unsuccessful effort in response. Members of his wife's family in Wilkes-Barre record that he continued to dress as a bishop and was called by some of them "Uncle Sayedna." He died in Kingston on July 24, 1966, a few months before his 86th birthday, leaving instructions that he should be buried quietly without any clergy.
The AOCC Today
Despite many attempts to reestablish the canonical autocephaly of the AOCC/THEOCACNA, no visible continuation of the jurisdiction has existed since Archbishop Aftimios apparent retirement (it is suggested that he continued his Episcopal duties in a limited capacity until his death in 1966.) In 1964, Bishop Walter Myron Propheta reorganized the AOCC, but it again fell into decline after his death in 1972. Several attempts to restore the jurisdiction in the late 1970s and 1980s have met with limited success. Most of these attempts come from clergy whose orders derive from either Archbishop Walter Myron Propheta, Metropolitan Theofan Noli, or Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh.
- In 1965, Bishop Uladyslau Ryzy-Ryski established the "Byelorussian Orthodox Catholic Church", and incorporated the "American World Patriarchates".
- In 1972, Bishop Joseph Thaddeus (Alan Sanford) established a jurisdiction which claims to have absorbed part of the AOCC, and thereafter adopting the name "American Orthodox Church" and "North American Orthodox Church".
- In 1987, Bishop Vladimir II (F. Wilson Sehorn) incorporated the "American Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church" in North Carolina. In 1997, he amended the corporate name to "THEOCACNA-Vladimir Synod", but continues to use the "AOCAC" name. Both Eastern and Western Rites are used.
- In 1995, Bishop Victor Prentice claimed the corporate rights to the names "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" (THEOCACNA) and "American Orthodox Catholic Church" (AOCC), regarding the church itself as having been "held in Locum Tenens due to lack of clergy" from 1966 to 1995 , formed a new holy synod under Victor Prentice, and included Mariam Namey Ofiesh (whom they regarded as the locum tenens) among the members of its board of directors. It has since declared itself successively a metropolitanate (1997) and then a patriarchate (2003). In the same year, Mrs. Ofiesh retired from the board and died the following year.
- In 1998, Bishop Symeon Ioannovskij (Stephen Mark Holdridge) incorporated the "Russian Orthodox Church in America".
- American Orthodox Catholic Church incorporated and trademarked AOCC. Archbishop Roger Paul Willingham is now Primate.
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- OCCA Official site About page
- Garvey, F.J. 2014, "Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church by D. Oliver Herbel (review)", American Catholic Studies, vol. 125, no. 3, pp. 78-80.
- Garvey, F.J. 2014, "Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church by D. Oliver Herbel (review)", American Catholic Studies, vol. 125, no. 3, pp. 78–80.
- Damick, Rev. Andrew Stephen. The Archbishop's Wife: Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh of Brooklyn, the American Orthodox Catholic Church, and the Founding of the Antiochian Archdiocese (1880-1943) (M.Div. thesis, St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary, 2007).
- Gabriel, Archpriest Antony. The Ancient Church on New Shores: Antioch in North America (San Bernardino, California: St. Willibrord's Press, 1996), 44-55.
- LaBat, Sean J. The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America - 1927-1934, A Case Study in North American Missions (M.Div. thesis, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1995).
- Ofiesh, Mariam Namey. Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh (1880-1966): A Biography Revealing His Contribution to Orthodoxy and Christendom (Sun City West, AZ: Abihider Co., 1999). (ISBN 0966090810)
- Surrency, Archim. Serafim. The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (New York: Sts. Boris and Gleb Press, 1973), 32-42.
- The Life of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, from the 1995 THEOCACNA group (an altered form of an article by Fr. John W. Morris which appeared in the February and March 1981 issues of The Word)