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American Orthodox Catholic Church

The name American Orthodox Catholic Church is the short name for The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America. This was the first attempt by mainstream Orthodox canonical authorities at the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church in North America. The church was chartered in 1927 by Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky), primate of the Russian Metropolia and his holy synod in North America, and its history in any real sense as part of the mainstream Orthodox Church continues today. The church was led by Aftimios Ofiesh, Archbishop of Brooklyn who was appointed to head the new church.

A Fr. Serafim Surrency wrote the book, The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (1973), which includes much speculation, begins its account of the formation of this body thus:

Starting in 1927 the first move was initiated to found a canonical American Orthodox Church with the blessing of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church and with the hope that world Orthodoxy would recognize the legitimacy of the new body. The initiative for this attempt belonged to Bishop Aftimios (Ofiesh) of Brooklyn and a member of the Council of Bishops in his capacity as Diocesan for the Syrians (Arabs) which acknowledged the authority of the Russian Church (pp. 32-33).

In this project, Aftimios had the assistance of two American-born Orthodox clerics who had been ordained to the priesthood in the early 1920s, Hieromonk Boris (Burden) and Priest Michael Gelsinger. At one point in time Boris fled to the protection of Aftimios when a mob was after him.

At the outset, the new venture appeared quite successful—within the space of only four years, with the support of the synod of the Russian Metropolia, four bishops were consecrated and an impressive charter was granted from said synod, titled An Act of the Synod of Bishops in the American dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The charter itself referencing the authority of a letter from Metr. Sergius (locum tenens of the Patriarchate of Moscow) which indicated that autonomous Orthodox churches could be founded outside Russia granted to the new church body the full name "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America", with "The American Orthodox Catholic Church" as its "short name." Additionally,

We hereby, on this 2nd day of February (new Style) in the year 1927, charge one of our number, His Eminence the Most Reverend Aftimios, Archbishop of Brooklyn, with the full responsibility and duty of caring and providing for American Orthodoxy in the especial sense of Orthodox Catholic people born in America and primarily English-speaking or any American residents or parishes of whatever nationality or linguistic character or derivation not satisfactorily provided with proper and canonical Orthodox Catholic care, ecclesiastical authority, teaching and ministrations of the Church or who may wish to attach themselves by the properly and legally provided means to an autonomous, independent, American Orthodox Catholic Church... a distinct, independent, and autonomous branch of the Orthodox Catholic Church... (pp. 34-35). Signed by the entire Metropolia synod at the time Metropolitan Platon, Aftimios, Theophilus, Amphilohy, Arseny, and Alexy it further named Aftimios as the primate of the new church As the first assistant to Aftimios, Platon chose Archimandrite Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), who was consecrated on September 11, 1927, by Aftimios, assisted by Theophilus and Arseny.

The constitution which was drawn up for the church by the Metropolia is twenty-eight pages long and quite detailed, indicating a great deal of thought went into its drafting. Though it was dated December 1 of 1927, it was not made public until the following spring.

Two significant passages are noted by Fr. Serafim in his book. From Article III: "This Church is independent (autocephalous) and autonomous in its authority in the same sense and to the same extent as are the Orthodox Patriarchates of the East and the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches now existing." From Article IV: "This Church has original and primary jurisdiction in its own name and right over all Orthodox Catholic Christians of the Eastern Churches and Rite residing or visiting in the United States, and Alaska and the other territories of the United States, in Canada, Mexico, and all North America" (p. 37). Fr. Serafim then comments that to anyone knowledgeable in Canon Law, these two sections just quoted are absurd while just above it states that much thought went into its drafting since it was quite detailed. This author claims the Synod had no intention of granting any such broad and unlimited authority and jurisdiction but was not party to the original synod, charter or acts in 1927 that established this Church.

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. Such action clearly shows the start of the Schism in American Orthodoxy.

In letters dated the 27th of April and the 3rd of May 1927, the (ROCOR) Synod made clear their unalterable opposition to the formation of the new Church both on the grounds that Metropolitan 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 Russian Orthodox Church," forbidding his clergy and faithful from having anything to do with them. 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) 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, however, make much headway in his endeavors. In 1928, Aftimios and his group mainly focused on the establishment of their church's legal (corporate) 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.).

With three Bishops the fledgling Church would appear to have achieved a solid foundation. It became apparent that Metropolitan Platon had changed his mind about the wisdom of attempting to establish an American Orthodox Catholic Church. It was increasingly clear that no recognition for the new Church would be forthcoming from any Autocephalous Church which added to the Schism.

Early in 1929, Aftimios attempted to gain support with the Greek archbishop Alexander (Demoglou), 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 the Greek Orthodox in America but over all Orthodox Christians in North America 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).

Aftimios wrote: "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).

It is clear that Aftimios had in mind as he wrote such a letter that Platon had given him authority over all English speaking Orthodox Christians in North America. Fr. Serafim says of Aftimios denunciation of Platon's authority 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. 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 Metropolitan 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).

At nearly the same time (October of 1930), Aftimios sent a letter to his clergy indicating they were 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".

In 1932, by a decision of a New York State court, Aftimios 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, Joseph (Zuk) for the Ukrainians, who had the allegiance of perhaps a half dozen such parishes and Ignatius (W.A.) Nichols.

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 the ethnic claim to this day was probably the death knell for the American Orthodox Catholic Church - he decided to marry.. This claim violates the canons and would punish a church for the act of one bishop. In fact the church has continued over the years and the ethnic, by their bogus claims clearly show how they created a Schism in American Orthodoxy in an effort to justify their acts of falsely claiming the church no longer exists.

On the 29th of April 1933 Abp Aftimios, in defiance of all Orthodox Tradition and a Canon the American Church never adopted married in a "civil ceremony" a young Evangelical Syrian girl born in America. He refused to resign as Archbishop of the new Church.

It has been claimed that three days after Aftimios wedding, Ignatius and Joseph, held a "synod meeting" without Sophronius, and believing that Aftimios had resigned, elected Joseph as the new "President Archbishop of the Church" with Ignatius being his designated successor. Since they voiced their support of Aftimios 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.

Fr. Serafim then falsely observes: "This new thunderbolt was sufficient to effectively eliminate any authority the new Church might still claim to have when there were only six parishes by the summer of 1933 still adhering to the new Church".

Joseph denied making such an agreement with Ignatius. He was already a sick man and died on the 23rd of February 1934. Ignatius then got married himself in June of 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 episcopi vagans, dying as the pastor of a small Community Church in Middle Springs, Vermont. It appears from the numerous claims by members of the independent movement Ignatius began assisting old catholic independents in various ordinations. These independent Old Catholics now claim apostolic succession from him which in orthodoxy is not recognized since he had already left the American Church and acted independently as an Episcopi Vagan.

Emmanuel died on May 29, 1933, being buried by Platon (his gravestone reads May 30). The ethnic orthodox, after moving the remains of Sophronius from Mount Olive cemetery in NY to Antiochian Village, claim that Bishop Sophronius became President Locum Tenens of the American Holy Synod* and although he wished to restore relations with Metropolitan Platon, he wanted to be accepted as an equal Head of a Church. Platon was focused primarily at that point on the arrival from Russia of the representative of the Patriarchate, Bp. Benjamin (Fedchenkov), 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.

Another false claim that violates the canons is that "later in 1933, Sophronios officially removed and suspended Aftimios in October and deposed Ignatius in November". It is a simple fact that one bishop cannot act against another bishop yet the ethnic orthodox claim these events in the face of the truth that is documented. Newspaper articles state that Sophronius congratulated and supported Aftimios after his marriage. The diaries of Aftimios and his wife also show the state of mind of Aftimios and Sophronius when they would meet and talk, that Aftimios was still the head of the Church and that Sophronius, according to the records kept by Aftimios and his wife, died in 1934.

Contrary to the truth and facts some claim that the end of the "Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" came when Sophronios died in 1934 in Los Angeles but no record of his death exists in L.A. (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 claim: "There can be no question that while the movers of the new Church were sincere and highly motivated but Almighty God in his infinite wisdom did not see fit to bless this first attempt to have an American Orthodox Church". It is always nice to see someone like Fr. Serafim feel he can speak for God especially when it supports lies rather than truth.

He goes on to state that on the human level it is clear why the movement did not succeed. The Orthodox in America were still in their own particular ghettos and 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). No blame is made towards the Schismatic orthodox jurisdictions who refused to recognize or help a canonical sister church. Such acts were intended to cause this church to fail and cease to exist but that did not happen. What did happen is while the Schismatic groups continued over the years to attack Abp. Aftimios and his Church with their lies Mariam help to quietly save the Church from extinction. While the Schismatics established a second American Church the first Church continued.

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.

It has also been claimed the Protestant Episcopal Church resented the American Orthodox Church as being a challenge to the "senior Orthodox Church in America" the Episcopal Church and that pressure was put on Metropolitan 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). Clearly a matter based on financial gain (Money) and not on what was right and proper.

It would be correct to blame the failure of the "Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" on the various Orthodox groups in America at that time and today who simply were not ready in terms of church consciousness for the establishment of an American Orthodox Church since they worked towards putting an end to this church. Again, no one mentions thetruth as to why the orthodox refused to recognize this church - the greed, the money or the desire to control orthodoxy in America.

Aftimios Ofiesh lived a quiet life 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, towns in Pennsylvania, the Ofiesh family finally settled in Kingston, near Wilkes-Barre. 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.

In 1995 "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America," the same body chartered in 1927 and incorporated in 1928 by Abp. Aftimios, and with the support and blessing of Abp. Aftimios' widow formed a new Synod and included Mariam Namey Ofiesh among the members of its board of trustees. It has since declared itself successively a metropolitanate (1997) and then a patriarchate (2003). In 1999 it suffered an internal schism when four of its bishops broke from it and called themselves the OCCNA (Orthodox Catholic Church in North America). They tried to claimed the church name for themselves and like the ethnic orthodox attempted to change church history. In the same year, Mrs. Ofiesh retired from the board and departed this life the following year.

In 2007, the group published a statement of canonical punishment against those who publish the false and conflicting claims they call the interpretation of the history of the American Orthodox Catholic Church (i.e., that Aftimios was deposed, the jurisdiction dissolved, etc. - all claims made without evidence and based on speculation and not based on fact.).

Their false history is based on claims without merit such as that Aftimios deposed himself by his marriage, then that he retired when he married and then that Sophronius, a canonical bishop, would act contrary to the canons and suspend his Archbishop and another bishop. All claims are without merit, proof or basis of fact. they are made to give credence to the claims of the Schismatics that the church ceased to exist.

© 2009 Victor Prentice
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