American Orthodox Catholic Church
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The American Orthodox Catholic Church (AOCC, The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America) is an Orthodox Church that operates in the United States of America.
Aftimios Ofiesh officially founded the Church in 1927. The Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church (ROGCC) originally supported the founding of the North American Church. The purpose of the Church was to establish a new tradition in America that was separate from any other particular ethnic or cultural traditions. The movement to establish a new American tradition gained popularity. Within four years, the Church had consecrated four bishops with a charter granted from the ROGCC. After the consecration of the four bishops, the formal members developed a constitution for the Church.:78–80
Aftimios Ofiesh lived in relative obscurity with his wife Mariam Namey Ofiesh. Their son, Paul, 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, the parishioners asked Aftimios to return to active leadership in the Orthodox Church. Upon their request, Aftimios made an unsuccessful effort. Members of his wife's family in Wilkes-Barre record that he continued to dress as a bishop and that the other bishops called him "Uncle Sayedna." He died in Kingston on July 24, 1966, and left instructions that he should be buried quietly without any clergy.
Reaction and opposition
The establishment of the church inspired a reactionary movement against it, especially from the Karlovsty Synod. Although the Metropolia severed ties with ROCOR in 1926, the ROCOR still viewed itself as the Metropolia's rightful canonical authority. Aftimios replied forcefully, denouncing the Karlovsty Synod for their actions and forbade his clergy and faithful from having anything to do with them.
Like his estranged former associates in ROCOR, Metr. Platon almost turned his back on his ecclesiastical daughter due to her lack of loyalty. However, people began to doubt Platon's support of the new Church mainly because of publications in the Orthodox Catholic Review (edited by Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael) that were 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.":38
To worsen matters, the Church of Antioch sent Archbishop Victor (Abo-Assaley) of New York to America in 1924, where he encouraged Orthodox Arabs to come under Antiochian jurisdiction rather than under the Russians or the new American Church. Despite his efforts, he did not make much headway in his endeavors.
To counteract Archbishop Victor's actions, Aftimios and his group began to focus on the establishment of the Church's legal status. For a while, the Church enjoyed some success. In May 1928, Sophronios (Beshara) was consecrated as Bishop of Los Angeles. He was given responsibility for all territory west of the Mississippi River and for parishes who still considered themselves to be under the jurisdiction of the Russian Mission. However, the success did not last. It was expected that with three Bishops, they would achieve a solid foundation, but this did not happen:
"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.":38–39
In 1929, Aftimios attempted to gain Greek Archbishop Alexander Demoglou of Rodostolou's support for the new Church. Demoglou was the first primate of the newly formed Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. His response was that he had authority over not only all of the Greek Orthodox in America, but also over all Orthodox Christians in America. Aftimios ordained Reverend Demetrius Cassis, an American of Greek parentage, for the new American Church.
Fr. Serafim believes that Aftimios's opposition to the new Church had shifted from reservation to optimism. Fr. Serafim claims this shift in Aftimios's emotions because of a letter dated October 4, 1929 where Aftimios 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.":39
Undoubtedly, Aftimios wrote the letter assuming that Platon had already given him authority over all Orthodox Christians in North America. Fr. Serafim continues by saying that Aftimios's denunciation of Platon's authority barely affected the Russian parishes or their clergy. The reason for Aftimios's ineffective denunciation was that Platon would continue to rule the Archdiocese until a bishop was sent to relieve him, even though the Ukaz of Patriarch Tikhon suspended Platon.
The announcement of Aftimios's authority had a negative effect on some members of the American Orthodox Catholic Church. Two weeks after it became public, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab) requested canonical release from Aftimios, who gave it reluctantly. He went over to Platon and tried to bring Syrian parishes away from Aftimios and back under the Metropolia. Despite these troubles, Aftimioscontinued to explore new opportunities. He began negotiations to bring Bp. Fan (Noli) from Germany to serve as a bishop in the new Church, with jurisdiction over Albanian Orthodox Christians. Though Bp. Fan did eventually come to America, it was under the auspices of the Metropolia. Aftimios continued his attempts to boost the legitimacy of his jurisidiction:
- 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.':40
Around 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 the Antiochean Church's authorization, to gather funds from Arabic Orthodox parishes and to encourage such parishes to come under Antioch's jurisdiction. While in America, Bp. Germanos accepted Archpriest Basil Kherbawi under his omophorion. Kherbawi had previously been suspended by Abp. Aftimios for disloyalty.
In 1932, Aftimios's cathedral was taken from him and given over to the Metropolia by a decision of a New York State court. The charter stated that the cathedral 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). Zuk had ties to the Ukrainians, who had the allegiance of a half dozen parishes.
Aftimios's discouragement over the state of his jurisdiction caused him to make the decision that is known as 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.":41
The two new bishops of the Church, Ignatius and Joseph, voiced their support of Aftimios's marriage. In previous traditions and cultures, bishops were not allowed to marry, but since the new Church is separate from any other particular ethnic or cultural traditions, they acknowledged Aftimios's decision as courageous. Three days after Aftimios's wedding, Ignatius and Joseph held a Synod meeting by themselves. During the meeting, they elected Joseph as the new President Archbishop of the Church. Since they believed that Aftimios had resigned, Ignatius was designated his successor. Fr. Serafim observes that these leadership complications eventually undermined any authority the Church may have still had. By the summer of 1933, only six parishes remained in the Church.
Joseph later denied making the agreement that Ignatius would be his successor. His denial was not very significant because he was already sick. Joseph died soon after, on February 23, 1934. Ignatius then got married in June 1933 and began forming relations with the representatives of the Living Church in America. The Living Church had been competing with the Metropolia and the ROCOR. He eventually broke relations with the Living Church and returned to being an episcopus vagans. Before his death, Joseph started multiple small religious bodies, many of whom claim apostolic succession from him. He died as the pastor of a small Community Church in Middle Springs, Vermont.
The only bishop left to the American Orthodox Catholic Church was Sophronios (Beshara), who then appealed to Platon for assistance. He had also intended to contact Emmanuel Abo-Hatab, but Emmanuel died on May 29, 1933. Despite his challenges, Bp. Sophronius embraced his new position as 'President Locum Tenens of the American Holy Synod.' Bp. Sophronius hoped to use his new position to mend relations with Metr. Platon and to be viewed as an equal authority within the Church.:42
By this point, Platon was focused on the arrival of the representative of the Patriarchate from Russia, Bp. Benjamin Fedchenkov of Saratov. Fedchenkov's purpose in America was to investigate the ecclesiastical status of Orthodox America. Due to the new Church's lack of support, the remaining priests and parishes joined other authorities or became independent. Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael were received back into the authority of Moscow and the Metropolia.
Later, in 1933, Sophronios officially removed and suspended Aftimios in October and deposed Ignatius in November. Sophronios still refused to submit to Platon or the Patriarchate
The American Orthodox Catholic Church ended when Sophronios died in 1934 in Los Angeles. Fr. Serafim gives the date of his death as 1934, but his gravestone reads 1940. He is now buried at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania alongside St. Raphael of Brooklyn and Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab).
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.":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.":34
The American Orthodox Catholic Church Today
Despite many attempts to reestablish the canonical autocephaly of the American Orthodox Catholic Church, no visible continuation of the jurisdiction has existed since Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh's apparent retirement. In 1964, Archbishop Walter Myron Propheta reorganized the Church, but it once again fell into decline after his death in 1972. Several attempts to restore jurisdiction in the late 1970s and 1980s had limited success. Most of these attempts come from clergy members whose orders derive from either Archbishop Propheta, Metropolitan Theofan Noli, or Archbishop 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 that claims to have absorbed part of the Church, adopting the names "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 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. He formed a new holy synod under Victor Prentice, and included Mariam Namey Ofiesh among the members of its board of directors. It has since declared itself first 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 the AOCC. Archbishop Roger Paul Willingham is now Primate.
- "About OCCA". www.orthodoxcatholicchurch.org.
- 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.
- "Elder's of the Mountaintop Presbyterain Church". .epix.net. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
- Surrency, Archim. Serafim. The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (New York: Sts. Boris and Gleb Press, 1973), 32–42.
- "Yahoo Small Business – Cheap Domains, Web Hosting, Website Builder, Ecommerce Solutions". Geocities.com. Retrieved 2017-07-02.
- 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)