As Written By:
George Augustine Hyde
Archbishop Emeritus
The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America

And Edited By:
Father Gordon Fisher


GENESIS is dedicated to the only person worthy of such honor, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was through the Holy Spirit that Joseph Rene Vilatte fought the good fight and secured for Americans their own self-governing National Church known as The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America. To Joseph Rene Vilatte we in The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America will always be indebted.


During the past 100 years, different observers and recorders of church life in America have sought to chronicle the ordering and developing of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America. Being written from the Roman, Episcopalian, and Greek Orthodox perspective, such literary exercises were not free of either jurisdictional or ethno-cultural biases. In consequence, a distorted image was given of the spiritual rebirth of long-dormant Western Orthodox consciousness, and its reintegration with the Apostolic Tradition.

In this present work, through the archival interest of Archbishop George Augustine Hyde (retired), the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America is able to present an accurate account of its history which sets at naught earlier disinformational essays which reduces earlier disinformational essays to insignificance.

Our story has not always been a happy one, but rather one fraught with obstacles from those who did not want America to have a self-governing national church the same as they have in Russia, Greece, Syria and other countries where the Orthodox Catholic faith is found. But rather they would have preferred that we in America come under the dominance of a far off Patriarch; a Patriarch that was not American but foreign in thinking and unable to see or meet the unique needs that are American in nature.

The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America is grateful to those good Christian men, in Orthodoxy and elsewhere, who have come to our aid on more than one occasion and stood with us in our attempt to make sure that all the people in America can have, hold, and follow in the footsteps with the Orthodox Catholic faithful everywhere. While it is true that we celebrate a different liturgy, in all other ways we share the same faith and theology, no different in any way from the Orthodox Catholic faith shared by our brothers and sisters throughout the world. A faith that was, is, and always will be the same. It is the faith of the Apostles as given by our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. This, then, is our story.


A chronicle of the spiritual rebirth and pilgrimage of a long dormant Western Orthodox Catholic consciousness and its manifestation since 1892 as the Orthodox-Catholic Church of American.

Re-establishing Of Orthodoxy In A Post-schism Western Environment

It is estimated that the Orthodox Church in North America numbers about three million faithful. Except for a small segment numbering between twelve and fifteen thousand, the church life of this constituency is organized along different national lines and separated into groups based on one's cultural and racial background. These different "national" groups are structured and identified as extended communities of Russian, Greek, Syrian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Serbian, etc., churches from abroad. They celebrate the Eucharist according to the Byzantine liturgy and convey the faith in a parochial setting designed to preserve the priorities and realities of church life and identity as has grown up in Eastern European and Middle Eastern cultural and geographic environments. Among the larger whole of the American population this has served to effectively identify Orthodoxy as an "ethnic faith" of Greek, Russians, Syrians and others, disinterested in placing the faith at the disposal of millions of Americans in such a meaningful way that they can respond according to their own Western cultural endowments.

In the midst of this Eastern ecclesiasticalism which reversed the catholic priorities of the Church, there has been present since the late nineteenth century a spiritual rebirth of a "Western Orthodox Catholic consciousness" dormant in the Church since being forfeited in the eleventh century by papal intrigues. This chapter in the history of the Orthodox-Catholic Church in North America is little known among the majority of the three million clergy and faithful whose interest revolves around preserving a particular ethnic identity.

With this spiritual rebirth, the liturgical traditions and ecclesiastical heritage of first millennium Orthodoxy in the West has been reintegrated with that wholeness and balance which is the Orthodox Tradition. Since 1892, this reconstitutionalized "Western Orthodoxy" has been maintained as a local Christian community, organically united with its own bishop, celebrating the Eucharist and conveying the faith in utilization of such liturgical forms, rituals, and not unmeaningful pastoral settings as was the norm in the Christian West for almost a thousand years, previous to the separation of the Eastern and Western segments of the Church in the eleventh century.

This study chronicles how it came about that in the early seventeenth century re-introduction of the Orthodox Church into a post-schism Western European environment, the Holy Spirit was presented as speaking and acting in the Church only in Byzantine terms and through the prerogatives of the "ethnic primacies" of the original patriarchal and historical local Eastern European and Middle Eastern churches. Also addressed is the response on the part of a diversity of Western pilgrims to the unenlightened and careless tribalism which has influenced Orthodoxy in America in a utterly corruptive way. This response developed into a compass, as it were, for guiding the resuscitation of historical Western Orthodox Catholicism as a local church and ecclesiastical entity, competent to exercise jurisdiction within its own cultural and geographic sphere. Also meriting brief mention is the absence of compliance by higher ecclesiastical authorities with the defined geographical limits of the patriarchates and historical national churches.

How Historical Circumstances Impacted On Church Life

It has been said that the "Great Schism" between the Western and Eastern segments of the Church, generally dated in the eleventh century, is one of the greatest tragedies of all Christian history. The Schism was rooted as much in non-ecclesiastical, historical circumstances as it was in the outgrowth of doctrinal, theological, and ecclesiastical differences. In consequence, each side in this division, taking advantage of the outward circumstances, presumed to comprehend the whole of the Church catholic in itself. Out of the imbalance, there emerged among the main body of Christians in the West, a Papal-dominated "Roman Catholic Church" which sought to limit the Church to such as acknowledged its sovereignty, while Eastward there emerged the "Orthodox Church", composed of the four patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. In our present time, side by side with these ancient patriarchal entities, are a number of self-governing national churches in sacramental fellowship with the original patriarchates, but not subject to their government and jurisdiction. The various authorities differ as to the number and location of these sovereign establishments, the difference being in the matter of recognition of asserted independent status of some, jurisdiction over which is at the same time claimed by a Patriarchate. In theory, at least, each of the patriarchs and national primates are sovereign within a limited territory, either by conciliar articulation or by local proclamation, in the absence of an ecumenical council since 787 A.D. Even though some of these different local national churches came into existence long after the last of the seven councils was held, their organization and administration is subject to decrees of the ecumenical councils. Thus, there is imposed on them to exercise ministry and authority within the limits of their respective countries. The geographical limits of the several, sovereign, local churches which existed by custom or were sanctioned by an ecumenical council, as well as that of the patriarchates, are more clearly defined.

The territorial and jurisdictional principles in the Orthodox Church have been bequeathed from the dim past, representing ancient decrees of church councils for determining to which authority any particular congregation and diocese may owe allegiance. No such councils have been held in over eleven centuries, and meanwhile both the ancient patriarchates and the historical national churches have engaged in missionary activity beyond their defined or mutually recognized boundaries, sometimes concurrently in the same place and at odds with one another. Beyond this, and particularly since the beginning of the first years of the 1600's, successive waves of immigration of Orthodox faithful from their Eastern homelands into Western industrialized countries, most of the Eastern patriarchates and national churches have, as "ethnic primacies", presumed de jure a "universal jurisdiction" over their immigrant faithful, in whatever new land they maintain residence. The result has been a chaos of mutually independent, interpenetrating congregations and dioceses, organized along "national" lines for the preservation of ethnic identity, which is a conscious rejection of both the letter and spirit of the whole canonical tradition, as well as the territorial and jurisdictional intent of the ecumenical councils. In the absence of conciliar definitions pertaining to a specific instance, it is well established that when the faith is newly planted in a continent or country outside the conciliarly defined or historically accepted boundaries of a patriarchal or local national church, all ecclesiastical organizations in the new territory are encompassed by that ecclesiastical authority which organized the first parishes and churches. In complement to this it is incumbent upon the missionizing body to help the newly converted develop their own identities and local structures as an indigenous church. The aim of every mission outreach should be to create in the new territory a self-sufficient church in fellowship with the whole church, and avoid situations of continual dependency and isolation and the implication that achieving the realm of the universal Church involves a form of cultural expatriation. The authority for this is founded on the general customs of the church of the Apostolic era and the early Church Fathers as affirmed by the seventeenth canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (of Chalcedon, 451), by which it is decreed that with regard to churches in non-Christian or (non-Orthodox) nations or in the territory lying outside the Empire or in borderlands, they "must be governed in accordance with the custom which has prevailed from the time of the Fathers" . . . "and when a particular hierarchy has been established for at least thirty years, it was forbidden to any other to intrude into its territory." The African Code when farther, and provided that "if anyone should convert any place to the Orthodox Catholic faith and retain it for three years without opposition" under his authority and jurisdiction it should remain and "it should not be taken away from him afterwards" (Canon CXIX, African Code, Carthage, A.D. 419).

In addition to a conscious rejection of the territorial norms articulated by Councils and Fathers in their formulation of the canons, the present day Patriarchates and national churches further violate ecclesiastical principles in their exercise of ministry in the Western hemisphere in presuming that henceforth the Holy Spirit would speak and act in the "true Church of God" only in Eastern European and Middle Eastern terms. Initially by happenstance, and subsequently by design, this pseudo-Byzantinism took on a centralist character dangerously paralleling the Papal pretensions that the Roman See is the source and center from which all churchly identity and ministry radiates.

At this point it is appropriate to note that from the establishing of its first bishopric in North America in the late eighteenth century to 1922, no Eastern Patriarchate or national church challenged the right of the Church of Russia to jurisdiction in America by virtue of evangelization and hierarchical establishment maintained in this Province for three times the canonical thirty years. In 1922 the Patriarch of Constantinople formally established the "Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America" and shortly thereafter other of the Patriarchates and national churches claimed the right to similarly provide for their immigrant faithful in the establishing in America of a bishopric of their particular ethnicity and national extraction. In consequence, the organizational and administrative life of the Church in North America developed as a "colonial preserve" parceled out among a multiplicity of Eastern-based ecclesiastical overlords.

Rise Of The "Church In Diaspora"

The historical starting point for an Eastern-oriented Orthodox Catholicity planted on the ground of a people of Western European legacy and culture can be identified with the founding of a Russian Church in London in 1616. The Church in England, until the Reformation in the sixteenth century, was a province of the Roman Communion, but subsequently practiced an independent pattern of faith and church order. Almost concurrently different ranking ecclesiastics in the East established correspondence with the newly independent Church of England and its Archbishop of Canterbury, which positively contributed to the creation of an atmosphere favorable to the establishing of an Eastern Church presence in England. Shortly after the first Russian parish was opened in London, a second congregation emerged in Sweden in 1617, in Berlin in 1718, in Paris in 1720, and in Vienna in 1764. The complexion of this nascent "diasporic Orthodoxy" changed in 1676 when Joseph Georgirions, Greek Metropolitan of Samos, arrived in London. With the support of the Anglican bishop Henry Compton, he founded the first Greek Orthodox Church in London. In time other of the Eastern-based Patriarchal and local National churches claimed an equal right to maintain priests and missions in Western Europe for responding to both the ethno-national cultural wants and pastoral needs of their relevant dispersed or immigrated peoples. By the end of the seventeenth century, hundreds of thousands of emigrated Greek, Russian, Balkan, and Middle Eastern faithful were making a new life for themselves in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and all the while organizing their new church life in western environment according to Eastern cultural standards. Of this situation the late Archbishop Paul of the Orthodox Church in Finland said "without going into the details of this historical development, we could simply state that the jurisdictions of various local churches now cover the whole of Western Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, like a tangled net" - a tangle not easily unraveled (lecture at Eskilstuna, Sweden, May 5, 1979). In a number of instances, at least initially, different of the immigrated national groups found accommodation in the already-established Russian and Greek parishes, until their own ethno-national identity was better established, and priests of their own nationality were secured from their respective homeland church. Inclusively, as this "Eastern Orthodoxy" developed abroad, the different "mother churches" with pastoral extensions in Western Europe ministered to the "faithful in diaspora" as if they continued to be residents of Greece, Russian, the Balkans, and Middle East, instead of transcending the historical circumstance which abnormally had rendered Orthodox Catholicity as synonymous with an Eastern geographic and cultural sphere. The expression "church in diaspora" - sometimes used to describe these original and subsequent Eastern entities in a Western setting - is a disinformational one which entered the language of the Church in response to the successive waves of immigration of Orthodox people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Western Europe and the Americas. In the most simplistic way, it implies that these thousands and hundreds of thousands of immigrants intend to return eventually to "their national homelands". Until then their church life would be organized on a temporary basis along relevant ethno-national lines.

It was not, therefore, merely by happenstance that later generations of western people came to perceive the faith and church order of Orthodox Catholicity as inseparable from Eastern culture and traditions, as a part of Christianity disinterested in accommodating the cultural heritage and legacy which non-Easterners had inherited from such pre-schism Western Orthodox spiritual forefathers as St. Gregory the Great, Germain, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and others. In England rendering "being Orthodox" as synonymous with "being Eastern" - a natural consequence of a growing "diaspora" - did not displease the Church of England, which viewed itself as the canonically authentic continuation of the Western "branch" of the Catholic consciousness, forfeited six centuries past by the Roman church. To the English ecclesiastical establishment, the growing Greek and Russian presence in England was simply an Eastern "branch" of the Catholic Church being accorded hospitality in the territorial sphere of its surviving post-schism "Western Branch" - "the on-going ancient and Orthodox Church in Britain". It also appears that in this era of the beginning of the so-called "church in diaspora", the Eastern Patriarchs said or did little to challenge such false and presumptuous ecclesiastical delusion held by the See of Canterbury. It was not until a century later when confronted by the dual problem of proselytizing by Anglican missionaries in Eastern regions and an initiative on the part of Canterbury in formally establishing "intercommunion" between the "Western branch" and the Eastern branch", that the patriarchs voiced negatively about the "branch theory" and the Anglican claims.

Clearly this organization from the seventeenth century onward of Orthodoxy in the West along national lines for the preservation of an ethnic identity could find no justification in the Canonical Tradition nor in the territorial principles articulated by the Councils and the Fathers. The resulting ethnic principle in Church administration reshaped and redefined the Lord's command to His Apostles to go forth to embrace and renew the whole world, to transfigure it into God's Kingdom, so as to accommodate certain phyletistic self-righteousness in the establishment in a Western environment of a diversity of congregations whose only function was to maintain ethnic identification.

The admonition of Jesus Christ to the Apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations presupposed a mission and ministry competent to transform old ways of life and local cultures and their ways of expression, which do not contradict the Christian faith, into means of salvation. Inherent in such admonition to the missionaries was that as different peoples embraced the faith, indigenous churches would be created, within which the faith would be conveyed according to their own endowments, with their own identities and local structures, in fellowship with the whole church, so as to avoid situations of continual dependency and isolation. This continuation of the Tradition of the Apostles was disenfranchised in rooting and reestablishing of the faith in the seventeenth century Western Europe in transplanted Eastern sod, in an atmosphere of careless tribalism. Throughout the first millennium, the Catholic criterion was that missionaries should identify with local cultures, with the faith being placed at the disposal of people in whose midst it practiced ministry in not unmeaningful parochial and pastoral settings. Thus, happily, the church was not fettered to one time or place so that it might be readily identified in all places by the Catholic criterion so clearly set forth by the Fathers and Councils.

While the eleventh century schism which alienated the Western segment of the church from its eastern segment was indeed a great tragedy, surely a parallel tragedy is how readily later Eastern elders seized on outward circumstance to narrow churchly identity and expression to conform to their Byzantine pattern. It is no less a tragedy that it was not until the last two decades of the nineteenth century that any definitive move was made to break the fetters of such pseudo-Byzantinism so that a Catholic balance might be restored through the resuscitation of a Western Orthodox Catholic legacy, heritage and consciousness, forfeited and dormant in consequence of a spiritual and pastoral disorientation long since foisted on God's people in the West by an aggressive, monarchical Papacy. It is of no credit to the evangelical spirit that it was not by initiative of Orthodox elders that this came about, but rather that it was the outgrowth of a lay apostolate.

Rise Of The Church In North America: Eastern Byzantinism Paralleled In America

By 1764 interpenetrating ethno-national entities of "Eastern Orthodoxy" were active across the whole of Western Europe. The Church was so synonymous with these extensions that the Western Christian in quest of finding a new spiritual and churchly identity through Orthodoxy found it difficult to discern the "faith once and for all delivered to the saints", limited as it was to expression and practice in pseudo-Byzantine terms. This situation and ecclesiastical mentality continued prevalent when in 1794, under the patronage of church missions from Russia to the Alaskan territory, the "Byzantinized" faith was introduced into North America.

Certain ethno-national traits indigenous to Eastern Europe and the Middle East accompanied the faith across the ocean and became an integral part of the early organization and parochial life of Orthodoxy in North America. With the passage of time, these characteristics should have disappeared, or at least they should have been transcended, with the second generation Orthodox faithful and clergy in America identifying with and striving to respond in an indigenous way to the circumstances of North American life in which, by God's will, they had been placed. Unfortunately, however, foreign nationality ideologies were to continue to dominate the life of the Church on the cultural and secular soil of America. In consequence, a distinct "Byzantine ethno-national ecclesiasticalism" came to be so emphasized and perpetuated as an end in itself that the average Westerner viewed it as the foundational mortar and stone of the Church, all of which rendered the Church ineffective as a missionary among the larger whole of the American population. The resulting organization of the Church in the North American Province as an "ethnic faith" exclusive to the Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Serbians, and others has accomplished little more than to create a multiplicity of ethnic islands to the sacrifice of blending these different voices of the East with the Western "voice", in a harmonious, American, Orthodox, Catholic doxology to God. Two centuries later we find the Church described in the ancient creed as "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" largely centered in the prerogatives of a half-dozen Eastern European and Middle Eastern ecclesiastical Sees. In turn this ecclesiastical consortium has parceled out the Church in North America into a dozen mutually independent "jurisdictions" organized along "national" lines for serving the colonial interests of an ancestral church abroad. Within this structural and administrative cartel, it is generally conceded to the Patriarch of Constantinople in Turkey the right to encompass all Orthodox in America of a Greek cultural and ancestral heritage. The Syro-Arab Orthodox in North America is similarly encompassed by an Antiochian Archdiocese which is subordinate to the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria. Those with Serbian, Yugoslavian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, etc. ancestral and national ties are similarly organized and subordinate to the church of the homeland from which their parents or grandparents immigrated. There is little held in common among this tribal cartel save the one and same Orthodox faith and the fact of their residence in America. In all other particulars of their church and cultural life, their interests, thoughts and feelings are diverse and often mutually antagonistic.

Statistics published in 1991 by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America indicates that 80 percent of all Orthodox in America are either American born or American reared from infancy. The height of audacity is that the consortium of remote "ethnic primates" insist on closeting the Church in the illusory security of a Byzantine past in ministering to this American constituency as it did to their grandparents. Given the chaotic situation of the ethnic principle in Church administration, and the actuality of a multiplicity of foreign national churches maintaining bishops, clergy, and ecclesiastical organization in the United States, it should not be unexpected that Americans of a Western culture and ancestry would view the whole as a loose, denominational enterprise disinterested in addressing and responding to their felt spiritual and pastoral needs and apathetic toward distinguishing between what belongs to the tradition of the Church and the Holy Spirit and what belongs to historical circumstance and cultural contexts.

Clearly it cannot be disputed that such ecclesiastical order which uses the Church to promote ethnic nationalism has influenced it in an utterly corruptive way, through so over-emphasizing race, cultural, and national extraction that each becomes an end in itself. This "Ethnic-Orthodox" situation is made even more dramatic insofar as there is potential for excluding from one or the other of it segments those not of a particular ethnicity, which bespeaks of racism. And obviously, by nature of its political rather than spiritual character, this "Ethnic Orthodoxy" is not able to place the faith at the disposal of Westerners in such terms that they can respond according to their own endowments and condition as Americans.

The Irregularity Of The Ethnic Principle In Church Administration

There are ecclesiastics and theologians in the East who present the Byzantinization of the Church as a legitimate development of the Christian idea, as the champion of both its orthodoxy and catholicity, as Christianity arrived at its completion. The truth is it is the negation of the evangelical idea and catholic nature of the Church. Can the negation of an idea be considered as its development? The true champions of both the orthodoxy and catholicity of the Church are those who struggle unremittingly that no differences of created nature - race, language, culture, or national origin - are allowed to redefine why the Church is historically identified as the "catholic church". The catholicity of the Church is rightly expressed in several of the same truth actualized in each particular people upon whom the Holy Spirit confers grace, with the sum of the several not being greater than a consciousness according to the whole. This being so, there are times when one is justified in challenging or opposing the ethno-Byzantine majority, so that everyone may be conscious that the catholic criterion be actualized in every consciousness. These are the true champions of both the Church's catholicity and orthodoxy who, being free from subjectivism, can say with the Apostles, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:29).

The Spiritual Rebirth Of Western Orthodoxy: A New Bud On An Ancient Tree

The resuscitation of a long-dormant Western Orthodox Catholic consciousness and its reintegration with that wholeness and balance which is the Orthodox Catholic Tradition was not too different in development from the majority of "Eastern" Orthodox ministries eventually established in the American Mission Territory, as the United States was in the nineteenth century. Basically, both American-born and recently emigrated individuals from the same cultural background and heritage formed themselves into a parochial group and then, particularly in the case of the Easterners, petitioned for a priest to be sent to them from a "mother church" or other established ecclesiastical center abroad. In the case of the re-emerging "Western Orthodox Catholics", there was no "mother church" to which the people might appeal. It was limited to requesting spiritual guidance from one or the other competent ecclesiastical authority of the Eastern Church. Nor did the re-emerging Western Orthodox have an active membership from generations past. Rather, as to its members, it was entirely dependent upon "converts" from several of the non-Orthodox western confessions, with its first generation of clergy being already ordained priest exiting the Papal obedience.

It is of no minor importance to note that the spiritual rebirth of this long dormant Western Orthodoxy did not come about in consequence of the evangelical initiatives or missionary zeal of the Easter ecclesiastics practicing ministry in America. Rather, it was solely rooted in the pilgrim initiatives of ordinary Christian lay persons, seeking after the unimpaired message of Orthodoxy. It is a sad commentary that the established church, with a clear and definite message to apply to the salvation of both souls and nations, was mute in a Western world and society perishing for need of the truth and the effectual power of Christ and His Church. The first members of the premier "Western Orthodox Mission" in America were born and reared former Roman Catholics, complemented by a number of French and Belgium immigrants, (later) some Protestant Episcopalians - converts seeking to return to the Orthodox Catholic faith of their Western forefathers - many of whom had been motivated to find a spiritual identity through Orthodox Catholicity after having become disenchanted with the Papacy in consequence of new dogmas proclaimed by the Vatican Council of 1870.

The only Orthodox hierarchy and clergy in North America at that period was from the Russian Church, which seemed disinterested in these Western pilgrims and offered no guidance out of the ecclesiastical wilderness in which they wandered. Thus it was in 1884, and surely motivated by the Holy Spirit, there was expressed the desire to re-claim a legacy bequeathed to posterity by such first millennium, Orthodox spiritual forefathers in the West as Sts. Leo, Gregory the Great, Germain, Ambrose, Jerome, and hundreds more. Believing that in the meanwhile this inheritance was held in trust by the Holy Spirit, these pilgrims claimed it and manifested it in a fruitful way as a spiritual rebirth, as their foundational mortar and stone, and constituted themselves as an "independent" religious community. Their lay minister-leader, Joseph Rene Vilatte, was a former seminarian and subscriber to the Roman confession, whose progress toward Orthodox Catholicity had been as equally troublesome and frustrating as that of those whom he had been called to lead.

Episcopalian Patronage And Approach To The European Old Catholics

The Protest Episcopal bishop of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Dr. J. Hobart Brown was much impressed by the zeal of this convert community and placed at their disposal a Protestant Episcopal chapel in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the lay minister Joseph Rene Vilatte conducted such services as were within the competence of a layman. As the community grew, both spiritually and numerically, Dr. Brown opinioned that its full potential could not be achieved as long as it was deprived of the services of a priest. He proposed this could be remedied if the lay missioner, Joseph Rene Vilatte, would accept ordination at his hands. While grateful for such an offer, Joseph Rene Vilatte responded that he could not and would not accept Anglican orders. Obviously sincere in his concern for the future of the Mission, Dr. Brown subsequently offered the influence of his office to persuade the Old Catholic Bishops in Europe to confer the priesthood on Vilatte.

A Brief Interlude With The Old Catholics

At the time there was in German, Holland, Switzerland, and adjacent regions abroad an established, ecclesiastical community identified as "Old Catholic", which grew out of masses of clergy and laity in these regions declining subscriptions to the new "Papalist insights" promulgated by the Vatican Council of 1870. Given that the "Old Catholics" appeared to be striving for the resuscitation of a Western Orthodox Catholic consciousness free of accumulated "Romanisms", along the same lines as the American pilgrims, and had preserved the episcopacy in unbroken succession from the Apostles, this proposal by Dr. Brown was far more acceptable, and the decision was made to lay the American aspirations before the Old Catholic bishops in the form of a petition asking that their lay minister by ordained an priest, under the protection of an Old Catholic hierarch.

The response of the Old Catholics was decidedly positive, with the role of ordaining bishop being assigned to the Most Reverend Eduard Herzog, head of the Old Catholic Church in Switzerland. On June 7, 1885, after having previously bestowed the minor orders of deacon, Bishop Herzog ordained the American lay minister, Joseph Rene Vilatte to the priestly ministry.

pencil drawing of Father Vilatte as a new priestThe newly ordained Father Vilatte returned to his flock in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin and embarked almost immediately in constructing a church to house a new congregation in a nearby village. Concurrently with "construction growth" the parish constituency increased numerically, with nineteen families joining the local congregation within the first month. By 1887 further spiritual and numerical growth expanded the pastoral outreach from Green Bay to Dykesville, and to a new parish at Little Sturgeon. Each of the established parishes maintained one or more mission posts. Pastors for the new parishes and missions came in the form of already ordained priests converted from Roman Catholicism to the Orthodox confession.

A Winter Of Discontent

Dr. J. Hobart Brown died in 1888. His successor in the bishopric of Fond du Lac, Dr. Charles C. Grafton, was less forthcoming than Dr. Brown in respect to the emerging Western Orthodox-American Mission. Within a few months of becoming head of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, he notified Father Vilatte that continuation of the financial support started by Dr. Brown and continued hospitality of Protestant Episcopal church buildings would be conditioned upon Father Vilatte and his associated clergy making an oath of "canonical obedience" to him. Father Vilatte responded by advising Dr. Grafton that neither he nor his brother priests had any intention of doing any such thing, since his ecclesiastical superior was Bishop Herzog and since he believed the Anglican and Protestant Episcopal church to have long since been dispossessed of an authentic ministry in the apostolic succession; therefore, its bishops could not claim any ordinary jurisdiction and ecclesiastical authority.

At about this time the European Old Catholic Bishops were seriously contemplating erecting an American Diocese, with Father Vilatte as its first bishop. When news of this reached Dr. Grafton, he began a series of letters to the Old Catholics in which he sought to dissuade them. In addition to this, he was able to persuade the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, who possessed considerable influence among the Old Catholics, to do likewise. Obviously Dr. Grafton had a personal ax to grind and used this means to balm the ecclesiastical bruises suffered in his rejection by Father Vilatte. It is a sorrowful epitaph to the memory of an otherwise responsible ecclesiastic, and one of the most exceptional Protestant Episcopal bishops of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to note that in his letters to the Old Catholics, Dr. Grafton engaged in an unwarranted assassination of the morals and character of Father Vilatte. All of this apparently caused the Old Catholic bishops to proceed more cautiously and to rethink their position vis-a-vis the American Mission. The reasoning seemed to be that Dr. Grafton was on the scene while they were thousands of miles away. Beyond this, unless there was some underlying truth, such noted and respected personages as the Bishop of Fond du Lac and the Archbishop of Canterbury would not thus express their concerns and apprehensions that in continued support of Father Vilatte, the credibility and integrity of the inclusive Old Catholic hierarchy, among other ecclesiastics, could be compromised. It did not help that Bishop Herzog, who had ordained Vilatte to the priesthood, by now had become a supporter of a plan for establishing communion between the Old Catholics and the Church of England and in such position, brought pressure to bear upon his brother Bishops to heed the "warnings" from Fond du Lac and Canterbury. In consequence, they shelved the idea of an American Bishopric.

This turn of event greatly concerned several Russian Orthodox priests in the Green Bay-Dykesville area, with whom Father Vilatte had established cordial relations. They advised that he should seek the spiritual guidance of the Russian Bishop in America and ask his guidance for resolving the untenable situation in which he had been placed.

Interaction With The Russo-American Bishopric

In the same year that Father Vilatte was ordained priest (1885), the Russian Orthodox Church in North America received a new ruling Bishop in the person of Bishop Vladimir Sokolvsky. In addition to being pastorally insightful, Bishop Vladimir was possessed of great missionary zeal. When Father Vilatte first addressed him 1889, he was already somewhat knowledgeable of the uncertainties which plagued his ministry and the deterioration of relations between the Old Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the American Mission.

An exchange of letters soon developed between the head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Consistory in America and the head of the Western Orthodox Catholic Mission of America. After the credibility of the priesthood and ministry of Father Vilatte was ascertained by the Russo-American Bishop, in subsequent correspondence he recommended Father Vilatte should visit him in San Francisco. On the occasion of this visit, Bishop Vladimir expressed that Father Villate's vocation might be better served if his missions were aligned as "Western Rite" parishes within the larger whole of the Russian American Bishopric, which already was recognized by various nationality groups: Syrians, Serbians, Greek, as well as Russians and Native Alaskan converts as the sole resident canonical authority in North America.

Father Vilatte As "Bishop-elect"

Father Vilatte pointed out that it was the vision of the Western Orthodox faithful, with which he concurred, to be structured as diocesan entity, organically united with their own Bishop, as an indigenous and self-sufficient local church, not in opposition to, but organically in fellowship with the Russo-American Bishopric. Among the first steps toward achieving this was an action earlier in 1889 by a congress of clergy and laity designating Father Vilatte as their bishop-elect. While not discouraging this quest, Bishop Vladimir noted that accomplishing the consecration of the bishop-elect and erecting a diocesan entity was beyond his competence and was a prerogative exclusive to the Holy Synod of the Russian Church. Nevertheless, in an exhibition of his unique pastoral insightfulness, he recommended addressing a Petition to the Holy Synod which outlined the vision and aspirations of the Western Orthodox-American Catholic Mission, with a request to recognize the nomination by the clergy and faithful of Father Vilatte as their bishop-elect and to accomplish his consecration as such. Bishop Vladimir graciously lent himself to Father Vilatte in constructing and dispatching such Petition to the Holy Synod.

Almost two years passed without any response from the Russian Holy Synod of the Petition dispatched in 1889. In discussing this with Father Vilatte, Bishop Vladimir encouraged patience but said that if a response was not soon received, that as an expediency he would unite Father Vilatte and his congregations with the Russian Orthodox Diocese of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska (the jurisdictional title then in use), in the parochial rank and status, if such rank and status would be acceptable to them. From this point things developed rather rapidly. Within two months an agreement was reached to place the Western Orthodox-American Catholic community of faith under the hierarchical and ecclesiastical protection of Bishop Vladimir and the Russo-American Diocese, on a provisional basis pending formal response from the Russian Holy Synod. On May 9,1891, Bishop Vladimir announced to the Orthodox Church community in America that the Western Orthodox-American Catholic clergy and faithful ". . . are now true 'Old Catholic-Orthodox Christians' under the patronage of our Church . . ." (The term "Old Catholic-Orthodox" was coined by Bishop Vladimir himself and understood to have the same meaning as "Western Orthodox Catholic" which subsequently would be prominent). Of this historical event, Father Vilatte himself wrote: "in doing this the valiant Bishop Vladimir was moved by sympathy and did not place the American Mission definitely and for all time under the jurisdiction of the Russian church, but was simply charitable aid given by a prelate in power to the outstretched hand of a weaker brother" ("Retrospect" in the American Archdiocesan Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, May 1915, p. 7). On May 11, 1891, Bishop Vladimir addressed a pastoral to the parishioners and trustees of the American community in which he termed them "members of the great body of Jesus Christ, and members of the Church of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, where are the seats and cathedrals of the Patriarchs and Holy Synods of the Church of Ecumenical Councils".

Syro-Antiochene Fraternity

Some time previous to this event it came to the attention of Father Vilatte by way of correspondence with the noted church historian Abbe Rene Guettee, who earlier had departed the Roman Church for Orthodoxy, and Father Hyacinthe Loyson who had assumed pastorate of an Old Catholic parish in France after leaving the Roman Church, that there existed in far away Syria a possible solution to the difficulties of the infant Western Orthodox Catholic Mission of America: the Ancient Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the East, particularly in light of this Antiochene Patriarchate having created a Western Bishopric for a convert constituency in India. Also we are told in the historical study, "Ecclesiastical Relations between the Old Catholic and Foreign Churches," that a former member of the Roman order of the Oblates of Mary, previously serving in Ceylon, had converted to Orthodoxy and had been serving as an assistant to Father Vilatte. "Seeing how my situation was becoming more trying than ever, as a result of no decision from the Holy Synod toward our Petition, he urged me to write to Archbishop Alvarez in Ceylon, stating our dogmatic position and my helpless situation as a result of our betrayal through the conspiracy of Dr. Grafton and Bishop Herzog. I followed his advice and wrote to Archbishop Alvarez stating fully my situation and how I was still waiting for the decision of the Russian Holy Synod. While awaiting a reply to my letter, I received the long expected Certification from Bishop Vladimir accompanied by a letter in which he stated that he was still waiting for the decision of the Holy Synod in the matter of my Petition". The Bishop Francis Alvarez mentioned by Father Vilatte had been received by the Antiochene Patriarchate from the Roman Church, and consecrated in 1888 as Bishop of a sizeable western Orthodox community in Colombo, Ceylon. Owing to the distance and that at the time international mail traveled by slow steamer, Father Vilatte reveals that "about a month after having received the May 9, 1891 Certificate from Bishop Vladimir", he received a reply from Bishop Alvarez ("Retrospect" in the American Archdiocesan Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, May 1915, p. 7). Nevertheless, since there was no certainty of a positive response from the Moscow Synod, Father Vilatte elected to circumvent the traditional order by taking advantage of an invitation issued by the Antiochene "Western Rite" prelate to visit Ceylon and to discuss his future course of action.

Father Vilatte sailed from New York enroute to Ceylon on July 15, 1891. During a period of several months in Ceylon, he engaged in extensive discourse with hierarchs and theologians of the Antiochene Patriarchate in India, all of which culminated in their recommendation to Patriarch Ignatius Peter III of Antioch that Father Vilatte was a worthy candidate for the episcopal rank and that the American Mission should be constituted a diocese. On December 28, 1891, the Patriarch issued a bull accepting not only these recommendations but Father Vilatte's 1889 nomination as bishop-elect and authorized the consecration of Father Vilatte to the Episcopal dignity "for those in America who adhere to the Orthodoxy of the undivided church". When this news reached the ears of Dr. Grafton in far away Wisconsin, he cabled Archbishop Alvarez "not to consecrate Father Vilatte on any account" ("Retrospect" in the American Archdiocesan Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, May 1915, p. 7). Archbishop Alvarez being acutely aware of the motives of Dr. Grafton, replied, "We shall consecrate Monsignor Vilatte even if he is the only 'Old Catholic-Orthodox' in America" ("Retrospect" in the American Archdiocesan Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, May 1915, p. 7).

Creation Of The Archdiocese Of America

On May 28, 1892, the Episcopal head of the Western Orthodox Catholic community in the Antiochene Church in Ceylon, Archbishop Francis Alvarez, assisted by two Syro-Antiochene Metropolitans in India, conferred the episcopate on Father Vilatte. The co-consecrators were noted personages in the Antiochene Patriarchate: Paul Athanasius, Bishop of Kottayam, and George Gregorius, Bishop of Niranam. (In recent years George Gregorius, Bishop of Niranam who died in 1903, has been enrolled in the calendar of saints of the Syro-Antiochene Church as 'St. Gregory of Parumala'.) For notarizing purposes a witness to this historic event, attended by several thousand local faithful, was Mr. Samuel Morey, United States Consul in Ceylon.

copy of the Bull issued for the consecration of Fr. Vilatte as Archbishop                        copy of the certificate issued for the consecration of Fr. Vilatte as Archbishop

The consecration of the first Archbishop of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America was unique in that it was accomplished using simultaneously the eastern and western ritual. Archbishop Alvarez conferred the episcopate according to the Western formula while the two Antiochene hierarchs conferred the episcopate using the Syrian form. The new bishop was consecrated under the title "Timotheus, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of America". Of additional interest is that the Patriarch assigned to Archbishop Timotheus the spiritual and pastoral care of such constituents of the Patriarchate as had emigrated from the Eastern regions to America.

formal portrait of Archbishop Vilatte and his Co-Consecrators and attendees
Archbishop Vilatte, Archbishop Ivaniyos, Archbishop Divanyosious, Archbishop Athanasious
Archbishop Gregorius, Archbishop Alwarez

Of footnote interest is that on his way home from Ceylon, Archbishop Vilatte received the congratulations of the Old Catholic Bishop Diependaal of Deventer, Holland, as well as the Ober-Procurator of the Russian Holy Synod, who made no reference to the fact that no answer had been sent by the Synod in respect of the 1889 Petition. The Ober-Procurator also sent the new Bishop a most handsome gift of ecclesiastical vessels.

Again Dr. Grafton (who Bishop Vladimir had termed "an eminent Protestant preacher" in one of his letters to Vilatte) intruded. With the help of another Protestant Episcopal bishop, Dr. George Seymour of Springfield, IL, he influenced the Episcopal House of Bishops to pronounce Archbishop Vilatte's consecration "null and void". Insofar as Archbishop Vilatte had never been an Episcopalian minister or bishop, this affected him not at all. Indeed, in response, the Episcopalian bishop of Buffalo, NY, Dr. A. Cleveland Coxe, wrote to Archbishop Vilatte on February 24, 1896, "Whatever the House of Bishops may say to the contrary no Roman prelate in the United Sates has an Episcopate as valid as yours". In proof of his sincerity, Dr. Coxe furnished both means and counsel to Archbishop Vilatte to come to Buffalo to incorporate into his archdiocesan pastorate a large Polish-American congregation recently throwing off the ecclesiastical and doctrinal shackles of the Roman Church. Concurrent with this, The "Catholic Champion", a journal of the "high church" party of the Protestant Episcopal Church, editorialized in opposition to Drs. Grafton, Seymour and the House of Bishops that "Vilatte as a true a bishop as ever wore a mitre". Dr. Ritchie, the writer was facile princeps among the Episcopal theologians of the day.

The Perfidy Of Antioch

In 1894, two years after the consecration of Archbishop Vilatte, the death of Patriarch Ignatius Peter III was announced. This greatly impacted on the American Archdiocese insofar as his successor Ignatius Abulnasih, who held the Patriarchate from 1895 to 1905, appeared disinterested in the Archdiocese and its distinctive liturgical life style and Western ethos. The result was that for all intent and purposes, the struggling American community was dismissed from the patriarchal mind. The greatly troubled Archbishop Vilatte who had come to depend upon not infrequent correspondence between himself and the late Patriarch Ignatius Peter III. He several times expressed his bewilderment of this latest development in regular correspondence with one of his co-consecrators, Archbishop Gregorios, and his consecrator Archbishop Alvaraez. He maintained contact with Archbishop Gregorios until his death in 1903, and with Archbishop Alvarez until his death in 1923. From the beginning, the reign of Patriarch Ignatius Abulmasih was fraught with interference by the Turkish government. It terminated in 1905 when the Turkish government successfully engineered his deposition, which was not that uncommon in that period. Preoccupation with this state of affairs, might possibly explain the patriarchal apathy toward the American archdiocese, but it does not excuse it. The precise nature of the relationship between the American Bishopric and the Antiochene Patriarchate from this point onward is difficult to define. The concord and solidarity laid dormant by the immediate successors of Patriarch Ignatius Peter III was resuscitated in 1928, during the Patriarchate of Ignatius Elias III (1917 - 1932) who sent a Bishop Severus to America as his Legate for accomplishing this. However, for reasons never explained, his successor as patriarch - Severus Barsoum, who took the name Ignatius Ephrem I - invalidated all that had been accomplished. During the reign of Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem (1933 - 1957), Antioch vented very much against the American Church and Archbishop Vilatte, dead since 1929. In a statement issued in 1938, under the Seal of Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem, there appeared the circulation of a conscious falsehood pertaining to the consecration of Archbishop Vilatte. The patriarchal Statement declared that "with effrontery" Archbishop Vilatte, his successors, and the American Church-at-large had "published statements which are untrue as to the alleged relation 'in succession and ordination' to our Holy Apostolic Church and her forefathers. We find it necessary to announce to all whom it may concern that we deny any and every relation" . . . "and repudiate them and their claims absolutely." This unfortunate disinformation was initially seized upon by many detractors in the world of Anglicanism and Romanism and even today continues in some quarters to receive uncritical acceptance.

Although generally adhering to the Anglican-Episcopalian "party line" in all references to Archbishop Vilatte, in the two editions of his book "Episcopi Vagantaes" (1947 and 1961) the Anglican pastor-author Rev. Henry Brandreth was more honorable in writing of this perfidy of Antioch, a year after its occurrence. "I fail to see how Antioch can now repudiate Vilatte . . . it seems to me that they are forty years too late . . . " He also pointed out that in consideration of the worldwide publicity which accompanied the consecration of Vilatte, it was impossible to say it did not take place. Therefore, he wondered, instead of dismissing it as non-existent, will the reigning patriarch now attempt to visit his repudiation with a pseudo-credibility by claiming that Patriarch Ignatius III was wrong in authorizing the Consecration (Manuscript letter, July 23, 1939, reproduced in Paul Schultz, "Background of the Episcopate of Archbishop Vilatte", Glendale, CA 1976). Other interested and disinterested parties have pointed out that one must not overlook the possibility that the Patriarch had at last succumbed to Anglican pressure. Ever since the Anglican "Church Missionary Society" had entered India in the early nineteenth century there was fear on the part of the Antiochene community in India about the designs of the missionaries and the probable effects of their proposed work. That the Antiochene concern was not without cause is evidenced by the Anglican-CMS establishment of schismatic "Reformed Church" known as the Mar Thoma Church", which enticed three bishops, hundreds of clergy and thousands of faithful to profess full sympathy with the Prayer Book and articles of the Church of England. For many years the Anglican authorities had been attempting to bring the Patriarchal establishment in India to heel, and in Ignatius Ephrem they obviously found a weak link. So sure were the Anglicans that as far back as 1875, when Patriarch Ignatius III visited England, Archbishop Tait of the Anglican Church "advised the Patriarch not to oppose the CMS" (Richards & Caley, op cit., pg. 7). Other students of the intrigues of Anglicanism have pointed out another possible scenario at the root of Antioch's perfidiousness. The CMS had taken to underwriting some basic needs of impoverished, patriarchal parishes in India, particularly those of the Western Orthodox in Ceylon, now deprived of the charismatic leadership of Archbishop Alvarez. The suggestion has been made in some evaluations that in issuing such a perfidious statement against Archbishop Vilatte, and the American Church, Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem was merely insuring the continuation of such material and financial support by saying what the Anglican Church and the CMS wanted to hear. At the risk of offending Christian charity, it might be said that if this be true, it would not be the first time Christian principles and integrity had been exchanged for thirty pieces of silver.

As recently as 1987, a more honorable Antiochene ecclesiastic took steps to "set the record straight", as it were. In a letter dated February 16, 1987, Bishop Paul Athanasius, representing the Antiochene Patriarchate in Kerala, India, literally repudiated the 1938 statement of Ignataius Ephrem in writing that he had personally examined six archival volumes and could confirm the "Joseph Rene Vilatte was consecrated at Colombo in Ceylon in 1892 by Julius Alvarez, and the Syrian Metropolitans Paul Athanasius and George Gregorios, as authorized by Patriarch Ignatius Peter III". His statement concluded with, "this is the position of our Syrian Orthodox Church", that Archbishop Vilatte, his successors, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America are related to the Syrian Orthodox Church in succession and ordination.

Expressed Empathy Of Russo-American Church

In 1906, long before such Antiochene perfidiousness, the head of the Russo-American Ecclesiastical Consistory, Archbishop Tikhon Bellvin, invited Archbishop Vilatte to meet with him to discuss mutual concerns for the further development of Orthodoxy in America's pluralistic culture and society, and to renew the fraternity which had existed between their two ministries during the time of Bishop Vladimir.

Shortly after this, Archbishop Vilatte embarked on an extensive mission, which culminated in a stay of several months in Canada where a growing number of Roman Catholics and Anglicans were seeking his spiritual guidance and formation as new missions of Western Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, according to a communication passed to Archbishop Vilatte by Father Ignam Irvine, Dean of St. Nicholas Russian Cathedral in New York, Archbishop Tikhon had recommended to the Russian Synod that the American Archdiocese be "received and recognized" on its own merit, as a diocesan member of the Russo-American Ecclesiastical Consistory, having a canonical relationship, rank and status, co-equal to that which the Holy Synod has conceded to an Orthodox Syrian bishopric in this country. In this instance in 1904 Archimandrite Raphael Halaweeny was raised to the episcopate by Archbishop Tikhon and put in charge of Syro-Arab parishes, as "Bishop of Brooklyn", and Vicar to Archbishop Tikhon, First Hierarch of the Ecclesiastical Consistory. Though supported by such venerable personalities as this future Patriarch of Russia, the Holy Synod continued apathetic and cautious toward embracing a Western episcopacy. Shortly thereafter, in 1907, Archbishop Tikhon was recalled to other duties in Russia. It was his fate in 1917 to be elected Patriarch of the Russian Church.

On Going Ecclesiastical Disorientation

Subsequent to the hierarchical visitation in Canada, and probably in reaction to hundreds of their faithful and scores of their clergy, and abandoning their church for the Western Orthodoxy of the Archdiocese of America, the Romanist establishment in Canada sought to forestall further loss by printing hostile articles in various journal of the Romanist press, both in Canada and the United States, voicing negatively about the American Church and Archbishop Vilatte.

It is both difficult to understand and to explain the "disinformational program" conducted against Archbishop Vilatte by either Romanist ecclesiastics or the Protestant Episcopal group. In the latter it is apparent that Dr. Grafton so engaged in order to satisfy a personal grudge. However, a report of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church also contributed to the whole situation. In this statement, the Episcopalian Protestants vaingloriously said, "We might claim that we are the original Orthodox body in this country holding jurisdiction, and that all the others who come are simply welcome guests whom we are pleased to befriend and aid in ministering to people of their own church, race and language". (Quoted from Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh in Orthodox Catholic Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 - 6, April-May, 1927, pg. 149). Were it only stated, such a position would be merely ludicrous for certainly this body, not being Orthodox Catholic in any sense, could not possibly be "the original Orthodox body in this country" nor could it hold any jurisdiction over or for Orthodox people. It seems, however, that these Protestant ecclesiastics did take this position and claim seriously and therefore viewed the emerging Western Orthodox-American Bishopric as an intruder into its territorial prerogatives. The position and attitude of the Romanist ecclesiastics was no less forcefully stated, being the fruit of the dogmas decreed by Vatican Council I in 1870, which proclaimed the Pope, or Bishop of Rome, not only to be infallible but possessors of a universal jurisdiction, and the source and center through which one achieved the realm and reality of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Archbishop Vilatte, like all other Orthodox authorities in the world, rejected such ecclesiastical position and claims as rooted in vainglorious delusions.

+Vilatte in Western Vestments of an ArchbishopA particularly vigorous "campaign" conducted in 1907 - 1908 against Archbishop Vilatte by Romanist press elicited a strong testimonial by the Very Reverend Ingram Irvine, Dean of St. Nicholas Russian Cathedral in New York, who not only participated as a theologian but as a translator for Archbishop Tikhon in his 1906 meeting with Archbishop Vilatte. Due to it public exposure, this testimonial did much to initiate the beginning of the end of such practices. Fr. Irvine stated: "Such treatment of Monsignor Vilatte by the Roman and Anglican press is a disgrace to them . . . he is an Archbishop of Christ's Church, who has served Jesus Christ, is serving , and is following Him closer, perhaps, than two-thirds of the prelates of any other church in Christendom. I am related to Archbishop Vilatte as a child of God, and therefore as a man and a priest, when the Archbishop is lied about, slandered, held up to mockery, it is my privilege and duty, who has nothing to gain by his defense, to proclaim to the world that I would prefer his position, however much persecuted, to the vaingloriously vile position held by his un-Christian persecutors" (printed in the Winnipeg Press, March 6, 1909).

Proclamation Of Autocephaly

On January 1, 1910, at the meeting of the hierarchs composing the American Consistory of Bishops, the right of the American Archdiocese to guide its own destiny, to secure its own identity and local structure as a hierarchical community competent to exercise jurisdiction in its own sphere, and to elect and consecrate its own bishops, proclaimed its autocephaly as the "Orthodox-Catholic Church of America". A protocol of the Bishops stated in part: "We are a Church open to all men of all nationalities having residence on the cultural, social and secular soil of this land, but united under the true Catholic Faith, and imbued with the genius of the western spirit and the American concept of liberty and freedom. Our reality as 'true Church of God' is not dependent on the recognition or non-recognition of any ecclesiastical authority outside the Councils of our American Ecclesiastical Consistory".

Empathy for the Western Orthodox-American Catholic community continued, however, in certain quarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the United States. As to the Russo-American Church, its positive attitude toward the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America was nobly articulated in a June 1915 letter which Father Ingram Irvine, head of the English department of St. Nicholas Russian Cathedral, addressed to Archbishop Vilatte, "Archbishop of America". Father Irvine recalled the 1906 meetings with Archbishop Tikhon, and who was present. He stated that the "documents signed on that occasion are still extant. You were then one in faith with our Russian and all other Orthodox Churches . . . and from our present attitude you are the same faithful son of Orthodoxy today'. The letter closed with the statement that "of course there is no question as to the regularity and validity of your episcopate" (Anniversary Journal of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, NY, 1962). As it happened, negatively impacting ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical influences, including the aftermath of World War I and the already festering political situation in Russian, which two years later would explode into Revolution, directly militated against the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America's relations with inclusive orthodoxy.

Strengthening Fraternal Ties With The East

For the most part, in consequence of its not always satisfactory Russian and Syrian experiences, the Western Orthodox community in America generally refrained from soliciting formal ties with any of the Eastern Patriarchal and historical National Churches based in Eastern Europe and the Middle East which maintained clergy and congregations in the United States. There is record of one exception to this. During a particularly trying period beginning in 1946, a Concordat was enacted with Archbishop Christopher Contogeorge, Exarch in America of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. A seriously weakened American Bishopric was much strengthened through participating with the Exarchal ministry of Archbishop Contogeorge in an exchange of clergy between the two bishoprics and cooperating in concerted programs of action, decision, and discipline, designed to provide spiritual guidance to the American Church. Additionally, through this fellowship other hierarchs in America of both the Greek and Russian hierarchical lineage, served as consecrators and co-consecrators of new bishops for the American Church through 1957. This both enriched and insured the continuation of the ministry of the apostolic succession within this singular Western Orthodox Catholic episcopate in America. Prominent among such cooperating Bishops was the Russo-American hierarch, Bishop Joseph Klimowicz; the Greek-American hierarch Arsenios Saltas, and the Greek hierarch, Bishop Demaskinos (sometimes vicar in American of the Synod of Greece).

A Past to Remember -- A Future To Mold

One of the bishops whose consecration on May 7, 1957, was the fruit of this convergence of the Russian, Greek, Alexandrian, and Antiochene Apostolic lineages in America was fraternally greeted on the occasion of his elevation to the Episcopal dignity by Archbishop Theophan Stylian Noli, head of the Albanian Orthodox Diocese in America, with these words: "Western Orthodoxy has a majestic past to remember and today through the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, it has an even one glorious future to mold". Archbishop Vilatte molded and guided the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America until 1924, when he retired and return to his native France. He died there on July 1, 1929. Due to some unsettling internal influences, no successor was immediately elected. Instead, from 1924 to 1932, a Consistory of Bishops presided over by a locum tenens, provided spiritual and administrative guidance. It was not until 1932 that the Consistory felt church life had stabilized enough that it could proceed with the election of a successor to Archbishop Vilatte. In that year the Bishops were to elect one of their number, Archbishop Clement Sherwood (consecrated in 1928), as successor to Archbishop Vilatte, and second Archbishop of America. It was during the episcopacy of Archbishop Clement Sherwood that an even more positive interaction with different Eastern ecclesiastics was begun, including the reception into the territorial pastorate of the American Church of a number of parishes, and clergy, and several bishops of the Byzantine-Russian and Greek tradition. Archbishop Clement Sherwood died on April 6, 1969.

In January 1970, Bishop George Augustine Hyde, Consecrated May 7, 1957, as Bishop of Washington-Atlanta by Archbishop Clement Sherwood and two other hierarchs, in the presence of the Russo-American Bishop Joseph Kimowicz, the Greek-American Bishop Damaskinos, the Albanian-American hierarch, Bishop Fan Noli, and others, was elected to succeed Archbishop Sherwood as third Archbishop of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America in succession to Archbishop Vilatte. During Archbishop Hyde's pastorate the Vicariate of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was erected, and certification was received for the establishing of the Holy Apostles Theological Seminary. Archbishop Hyde retired in 1983 and was succeeded by Archbishop Alfred Lankenau, consecrated in 1980 as Bishop of Indianapolis-Chicago. During the pastorate of Archbishop Lankenau, the Church had further established and expanded its witness, maintaining clergy and congregations in sixteen States and Canada. It was also during Archbishop Lankenau's pastorate that women were finally allowed to be ordained as deacons and priests. The first woman was ordained to the priesthood in 1995. Archbishop Lankenau retired in 1999 and was succeeded by Archbishop E. Paul Brian Carsten consecrated in July 1998. Under Archbishop Carsten, the church has continued to grow in the number of bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians and worshipping communities. The Synod of Bishops for the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America was also officially reinstated in 1999. Archbishop E. Paul Brian Carsten died in March 2009. The Synod of Bishops elected Bishop Peter (Robert Zahrt) to be elevated to the rank of Metropolitan. Archbishop Peter was installed Septermber 12, 2009.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America is conscious of the need to emphasize its absolute unity in faith with its Eastern co-religionists rather than to magnify points which differentiate Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Orthodoxy, and, while rejoicing in the axiomatic diversity which characterized the Church from the very beginning, has the desire and the readiness to share a common sacramental and community life with its Orthodox Eastern fellows, as well as the several "Western Orthodox" congregations separated from its administration, in the patronage of an Eastern Bishop, on the basis of no other criterion than a common faith and co-equally sharing membership in the same Church.

As Truly American As It Is Truly Orthodox;
As Truly Western As It Is Truly Catholic

Over the past century, thousands of people whose ethno-cultural and religious backgrounds were rooted in the Anglican, Roman, and Reformationists confessions, found a new spiritual identity and church home in the congregations of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, not infrequently being joined by American born Orthodox of an Eastern lineage, who have seen in its ministry a more compatible address to their circumstances and needs as Americans than as practiced by the Byzanto-ethnic ministries favored by their immigrant grandparents.

Today this premier expression of the Western Orthodox Catholic consciousness continues in celebration of the Eucharist and conveying the faith in a meaningful parochial and pastoral setting, in context of that Western Orthodox liturgical tradition and consciousness bequeathed by such spiritual forefathers as St. Gregory the Great, Sts. Jerome, Germain, Ambrose and scores of others of the pre-schism Church in the West, as a definitive, local American Church. In this manifestation, the faith is placed at the disposal of its contemporaries, moved by the Holy Spirit to find a spiritual and churchly identity through Orthodoxy in harmony with their western cultural ethos and customs so that they may respond according to their own endowments.

The late Father Alexander Schmemann, a priest-theologian of the "Autocephlaous Orthodox Church in America", which grew out of the original Russian Orthodox Bishopric in America, point out in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly (Vol 26, No. 2, 1982) that the absence of the Western Orthodoxy would mean the loss by the Orthodox Church of her claims to universality. This was no doubt in limited reference to the development, since the 1960's, of some of the Patriarchates and historical local Churches (Antiochian, Russian, Romanian) having been willing to accept groups of Western clergy and faithful into their jurisdiction as dependent entities functioning in the jurisdiction of an Eastern hierarch without the benefit of being organically united with their own Western Bishop. This model of a Western Orthodox Church life - which provides for celebrating a western liturgy in the jurisdiction of an Eastern Bishop - is a very much a parallel of the uniatism practiced by the Papacy in relation to different Eastern church communities, which subscribe to the theory that the reality of the Church can be reduced to the formal principle of jurisdictional subordinationism or, in this instance, Eastern centralization. The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America rejects this principle as canonically irregular.

In a very real sense, the Eastern Orthodox Church, whether abroad or in North America, needs the presence of a vibrant Western Church, not simply groups of Western clergy and faithful appended to the jurisdictional antechamber of an Eastern Bishopric, to complement its understanding of the Christian message, as was the norm during the first millennium. For a full century the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America has attempted to provide that vibrant presence which preserves the "majestic past of Western Orthodoxy", while molding an even more glorious future, as prophesied by Bishop Fan Noli . . . as a local church which is as truly American as it is truly Orthodox, as truly Western as it is truly Catholic.


Obviously since any written description of the reality of Orthodox Catholicism in it Western expression is at best an inadequate one for responding to those in search of a new spiritual identity through Orthodoxy as manifested in the liturgical sacramental and spiritual life of the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, perhaps the best advice which can be given to pilgrims in quest is that given by Philip to the questioning Nathaniel, "come and see" (John 1:46).

of the
Orthodox-Catholic Church Of America

Timotheus (Joseph Rene) Vilatte 1892 - 1924
(Administration by Locum Tenens) 1924 - 1934
Clement (John Cyril) Sherwood 1934 - 1969
George Augustine Hyde 1970 - 1983
Alfred Louis Lankenau 1983 - 2000
E. Paul Brian Carsten 2000 - 2009
Alfred Louis Lankenau (Locum Tenens) 2009
Robert Zahrt 2009 -