The American Orthodox Catholic Church (in full, The HOLY EASTERN ORTHODOX CATHOLIC and APOSTOLIC CHURCH in NORTH AMERICA®) was the first attempt by mainstream Orthodox canonical authorities at the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church for North America. It was chartered in 1927 by Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky), primate of the Russian Metropolia and his holy synod, and its history in any real sense as part of the mainstream +Aftimios Ofiesh, Archbishop of Brooklyn.
In 1927 a Charter was issued to found a canonical American Orthodox Church with the blessing of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate with the hope that world Orthodoxy would recognize the legitimacy of the new body. Archbishop Aftimios (Ofiesh) of Brooklyn, a member of the Synod of Bishops in his capacity as Diocesan for the Syrians (Arabs) which acknowledged the authority of the Russian Church, was named to head the new Church.
In the new Church +Aftimios had the assistance of two American born Orthodox clerics who had been ordained to the priesthood in the early 1920s, Boris (Burden) and Priest Michael Gelsinger. Both men were particularly concerned about the loss of Orthodox young people to the Roman Catholic and churches in the US the Episcopal Church was of special concern, as it was a liturgical church in some ways similar to Orthodoxy and generally enjoyed a special status of prestige in American society.
At the outset, the new venture appeared quite successful within the space of only a few years, with the support of the Russian Synod, four bishops were consecrated and an impressive charter was granted from the 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 Metropolitan 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®, and The American Orthodox Catholic Church as its short name. Additionally, the Charter read as follows:
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.
Signed by the entire Metropolia Synod at the time the Charter further named +Aftimios as the primate of the new church and elected and gave order for the Consecration of the Very Reverend Leonid Turkevitch to be Bishop in the newly founded [church] as assistant to its Governing Head. Fr. Leonid eventually did get consecrated to the episcopacy, though not in the new church body, and is better known as Bishop Leonty (Turkevich) of New York, primate of the Russian Metropolia. His refusal at the time was based mainly on pressing family obligations which led to his insistence on a specific stipulated salary which could not be met. To replace Fr. Leonid 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, 1927, it was not made public until the following spring.
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.
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 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.
Metr. Platon himself turned his back on his ecclesiastical daughter and became increasingly unreliable in supporting the new Church.
To further worsen matters, in 1924, Archbishop Victor (Abo-Assaley) was sent to America by the Church of Antioch and then, contrary to the canons, 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 focussed on the establishment of their church's legal status and had some initial success. On May 26, another bishop was consecrated, Sophronius (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.
However, With three Bishops the fledgling Church would appear to have achieved a solid foundation but such was not the case. It became more and more 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 forbid Archpriest Leonid Turkevitch to accept consecration in the new Church.
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 alone had authority over not only all the Greek Orthodox in America but over all Orthodox Christians there. This is when the Schism became public! 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
It has been stated that the Most Reverend Platon (Rozhdestvensky), the Metropolitan of Khersson and Odessa, had 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.
Aftimios no doubt 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.
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:
+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 (Contrary to the Canons) 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 without the required letters & contrary to the canons 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.
In 1932, by a decision of a New York State court (again contrary to the canons), +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, 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 to Marry and the ethnic again lie and claim it was probably death knell for the American Orthodox Catholic Church.
On the 29th of April 1933 Abp Aftimios, in defiance of all Orthodox Tradition married in a civil ceremony to a young 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, +Aftimios refused to resign as Archbishop of the new canonically established Church.
Three days after +Aftimios's wedding, the ethnic falsely claim two bishops of the church, +Ignatius and +Joseph, held a synod meeting by themselves, and believing that +Aftimios had resigned they claim that they elected +Joseph as the new President Archbishop of the Church with +Ignatius being his designated successor. Again this is false. It is also stated that they 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.
+Joseph left THEOCACNA and headed one of the Ukrainian jurisdictions in the U.S. but the ethnic caim +Joseph later denied making the agreement with +Ignatius,but 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. +Ignatus, eventually broke relations even with the Orthodox and became a Protestant pastor of a small Community Church in New England where he died. It is claimed that he started multiple small religious bodies by co-consecrating with orther clergy but without a Mandate from this Church since he had left. Many from these small groups claim Apostolic Succession from him.
Burial place of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), and Bp. Sophronius (Beshara) is Antiochian Village. It seems odd that the Antiochians would remove the remains of Bp. Sophronius and others who were originally buried in New York and move their remains to Antiochian Village to lie next to St. Raphael then claim one they moved was unaware of the canons and would attempt to violate the canons by removing other Synod Bishops in an attempt to take over the Church. Sophronius never did any of this and never claimed to be head of this Church. Also he did not die in California as they claim.
Sophronius is buried at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania alongside St. Raphael of Brooklyn and Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab).
The ethnic again falsely claim that Bishop 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. This is another example of these Schismatic Orthodox changing history to suit their needs and desires to be viewed as the American Church. They mix truth with there made up history so it sound true to those who are easily led.
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. Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael, were received back into the authority of Moscow and the Metropolia, respectively. It should be noted that the newspapers reported Boris was chased by a mob and went to +Aftimios for protection. The mob had reason to believe that Boris had "touched" a young person in an unacceptable manner.
The ethnic jurisdictions falsely claim that later in 1933, Sophronius officially removed and suspended Aftimios in October and deposed Ignatius in November. Sophronius was a canonical bishop and knew the canons did not allow one bishop to remove another bishop in any way. In fact, Aftimios was congratulated by Sophronius on his marriage (as published in the newspapers at that time).
It is also claimed that Sophronius refused to submit to Platon or the Patriarchate. They go on to claim that Bp. Sophronius, despite the efforts of Bishop Benjamin and Hieromonk Boris, 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.
The ethnic jurisdictions in America continue to claim, in an attempt to change history again in their favor, that the end of The HOLY EASTERN ORTHODOX CATHOLIC and APOSTOLIC CHURCH in NORTH AMERICA®, came when Sophronius died in 1934 in Los Angeles. Some give the date of his death as 1934 and others say 1940. Since the same Church continues today we prove their lies to be just that!
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.
+Aftimios Ofiesh lived a quiet life with his wife Mariam Namey Ofiesh, fathering a son named Paul. After living in Wilkes-Barre and New Castle, towns in Pennsylvania, the Ofiesh family finally settled in Kingston (near Wilkes-Barre). He continued to act and dress as a bishop until his death. 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.
When the 1995 Board of Trustees & Diectors were elected Mariam Namey Ofiesh, widow of +Aftimios, sat on the Church board until 1999.