A Brief History of the Orthodox Catholic Church in North America

THE ORTHODOX CATHOLIC CHURCH

The Orthodox Catholic Church is "the pillar and bulwark of the Truth." (I Timothy 3:15) "Orthodox" means correct teaching, true doctrine and also correct worship. The word "Catholic" means whole and universal, teaching the whole and unchanged Faith, having no limitations in time or place. The Orthodox Catholic Church began with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the King and His Apostles at the beginning of the Christian era. There was no time in this era when the Orthodox Catholic Church did not exist, and there has been no interruption of the life of the Orthodox Catholic Church up to today. The history of the Orthodox Catholic Church began on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and it will continue into eternity. Throughout the centuries, the same teachings, the same principles, the same Head - Jesus Christ the King - have remained. It is an Apostolic Church and its age is the same as that of Christianity itself.

The Orthodox Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, on His Blood and on the blood of His disciples, so very many of whom were martyred. The Apostles preached the Gospel and organized the believers into groups which became local Churches. They spread throughout the known world. From the beginning, the Church was "ecumenical," that is, "worldwide" - it was one Undivided Church for all people everywhere. After the persecutions of the first few centuries, the second great challenge to the Church was the rise of heresies - false doctrines. Ecumenical Councils, which were the highest authoritative court of appeal for both the teaching and administration of the Church, condemned these heresies. Seven Ecumenical Councils are recognized by the Orthodox Catholic Church, from the first in Nicaea in 325, through the seventh, also in Nicaea, in 787. The dogmatic definitions of these Councils are part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church.

In the early centuries of the Undivided Orthodox Catholic Church, the Church consisted of five major centers of Church authority: the five Apostolic Patriarchates of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. North America was not dreamt of; and Russia was then barbarian missionary territory. All five Patriarchs had equal authority in their regions. Rome was called the "first in honor" because it was the imperial city. When Constantinople became the imperial city, the Church gave that Patriarchate honor equal to Rome's. At the end of the tenth century, Constantinople sent missionaries and broad-based ecclesiastical support to Kievan Rus (today's Ukraine), where the Christian faith found fertile ground and took root. Eventually, the Russian Orthodox Church became one of the largest and most powerful of all national Churches and was declared a Patriarchate. The center of the Church moved to a northern city, Moscow, and the Church became the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia. The Russian Church sent missionaries all across Asia.

For the first eight centuries, the Western Church under Rome remained Orthodox. However, in the ninth century, innovations began to arise in Rome. One innovation was the claim of Pope Nicholas I (858-867) to greater power, to "papal primacy and supremacy." The Roman Church also innovated the insertion of the "Filioque" phrase into the Nicene Creed, the concepts of purgatory and indulgences, celibacy of the clergy, deprivation of the Chalice from the laity, and ignorance of the Bible. In the eleventh century, these innovations and the related longstanding conflicts between the Western Patriarch, the Pope of Rome, and the Eastern Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, came to a tragic result, culminating in the Great Schism (1054), by which the Pope split the Western Orthodox Patriarchate of Rome, the Church of the West, away from the rest of the Church, severing sacramental and ecclesiastical relations with the other four Patriarchates in the East. The Pope became the sole head of a separate body, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which has remained in schism from the Orthodox Catholic Church since the eleventh century. In a few centuries, dissension within the Church of Rome led to yet another great division, the Protestant Reformation, from which many Christian Protestant and Anglican denominations trace their genesis. Thus, the once Undivided Church had lost its Western branch, which itself had then split again into Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other denominations; all these Christians are the spiritual descendants of Roman Catholicism. This is why the Orthodox Catholic Church came to be called the "Eastern" Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Churches remained united, and are still united in Faith, Doctrine, and Worship today, but Western Orthodox Catholicism practically disappeared from the earth for centuries to come! Despite all the persecutions and difficulties through the centuries, the Orthodox Catholic Church has established its teachings and guarded the truths of the Faith and the principles of moral life undefiled as they were pronounced by the Undivided Ecumenical Church.

The teachings of the Church are derived from the Scriptures (the Holy Bible), and from the Sacred Tradition (the unwritten truths of the Faith - see John 21:25). Sacred Tradition includes the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the sacred Icons, the lives of the Saints, and much, much more. Sacred Tradition is the continuing, living connection with the entire past experience of the Church. For nearly two thousand years, Orthodox Catholics have lived, believed, witnessed, and died according to the Scriptures and Sacred Tradition, and we have inherited the Faith unchanged from them. No other Church has kept so closely the teaching of the true Faith of the original Church. The Orthodox Catholic Church consists of many local Churches. These Churches have the same faith and doctrines, creeds and dogmas. While there are various liturgical rites in various lands, they are all consistent and all the Churches have the same seven Sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Absolution (Repentance, Confession), Holy Orders, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, and Holy Unction. Christ's Holy Church is destined to live forever and triumph. Its power is within itself. Its Head is Christ the King and its boundaries expand into the hearts of those who believe in Him. The more believers cleave together, knowing each other, and learning and living their faith, the stronger the Church becomes. The sincere calling and response of the believer in Christ is both the task and the treasure of the Church.

OUR RUSSIAN ORTHODOX ROOTS

There is in the nature of the Church the tendency to expand its boundaries and spread the Gospel, in response to the great commission given us by Christ. Mission and conversion - this is the primary privilege of the Church. The seeds of the Ukrainian and Russian Churches were planted when the Holy Apostle Andrew preached the Gospel to their ancestors, the Scythians. In 988, Saint Vladimir of Kiev in Russia sent envoys to Constantinople who brought back the Orthodox Catholic faith to the Russian people. Thousands of Russians were baptized that year in the Dnieper River, the beginning of the "Russian Orthodox Church."

Tradition gives primacy to the Orthodox Church which founds the new local Church in a mission area. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Church in Moscow sent missionaries to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, which were at that time Russian territories. The Valaam missionary monks from Russia founded the Orthodox Church in Alaska, the first North American Orthodox Church, in 1794. The missions were successful; the Church spread throughout the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese of Alaska and North America was the official Eastern Orthodox Church in all of North America, including members among the immigrants of all national Orthodox Churches, Russian, Greek, Syrian, Albanian, and so forth. The time was then ripe for the traditional foundation of a new national Orthodox Church for America.

The ninth bishop appointed for North America was Metropolitan Tikhon, who ruled in America from 1898 to 1917. Metropolitan Tikhon returned to Russia in 1917 and became the Patriarch of Moscow; in 1925 he was martyred by the Communists. In 1905, Saint Tikhon had stated in a proposal to the Moscow Patriarchate that there was a need for a new Exarchate in America. The Russian Revolution of 1917 hurried the event. The primacy and authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America was never questioned until the Church was weakened by the communist revolution in Russia. While the Russian Church was distracted by its own serious problems, national Churches of several countries, particularly Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Churches, took the opportunity to establish ethnically separate Orthodox jurisdictions in America, solely for their own countrymen, thereby violating Orthodox traditions and initiating the ethnic divisiveness which still plagues Orthodoxy in America today. Abp. Saint Aftimios Ofiesh wrote of there being at least seven nationalities and eighteen different ethnic divisions of the Orthodox Church in America during the late 1920's.

FOUNDATION OF AN INDIGENOUS ORTHODOX AMERICAN CHURCH

The Church traces its existence historically through the consecration of bishops directly back to the Apostles. This "Apostolic Succession" is a guarantee that the Church is genuine. Properly speaking, in terms of Apostolic Succession and Tradition, American Orthodox jurisdictions are nearly two thousand years old, maintaining the ancient and unbroken continuity of the Orthodox Catholic Church since the Apostolic Age, especially through the Orthodox Catholic lines of Apostolic Succession of the Bishops of the holy Patriarchate of Moscow. American Orthodox jurisdictions are simply new communities of the ancient Holy Church which was founded by our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Russian Church in America suffered greatly under the Soviet government in its homeland after the Russian Revolution; the loss of leadership, direction, and financial support from Moscow was cataclysmic for the Church abroad. Plans were hurriedly made for founding the local Church, under the Patriarchal Authority of Moscow and, in America, under the authority of His Eminence, Metropolitan Platon, the twelfth bishop appointed for America. The Church was established, on February 2, 1927, as an independent and autocephalous body, "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" (and was called briefly the "American Orthodox Catholic Church" [AOCC]). The Charter was enacted by the Synod of Bishops of the American Dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Metropolitan Platon. Full responsibility and care for the Church was given to the first Primate, the Most Reverend Aftimios Ofiesh, Archbishop of Brooklyn, of blessed memory, in whose Apostolic line of succession Bishops of the American Orthodox Catholic Church are consecrated. When Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh was elected the first Primate of the AOCC, order was given for the consecration of assisting Bishops. Abp. Aftimios consecrated only four Bishops for the AOCC. First was Bishop Emmanuel Abouhatab of Montreal; second was Bishop Sophronios Bishara of Los Angeles and the West; third was Bishop Joseph A. Zuk of New York; fourth and last was Bishop Ignatius (William Albert) Nichols of Washington, D.C..

The American Orthodox Catholic Church had a stormy history from 1927 through 1933. The Greeks, Syrians, and others promoting nationalistic and ethno-centric agendas via separatist Church jurisdictions were opposed to establishment of a national Church for all, despite the fact that this is what had always been done everywhere in countries where Orthodoxy was newly established. Archbishop Aftimios' Letter of Peace to all the Orthodox prelates was ignored or rejected. The Protestant Episcopal Church also opposed the new national Church because it had been hoping to gain approval from the ethnic Orthodox so that it could become the Orthodox Church for English-speaking people in America. When Metropolitan Platon was financially crippled, the Episcopal Church supported him heavily, but opposed the new American Orthodox Catholic Church. It is a great shame that Metropolitan Platon, under such pressures, withdrew his support from the Church which he and the whole Synod had authorized and created. The forces of divisiveness and nationalistic separatism had won the day. Bishop Emmanuel soon returned to Metr. Platon's jurisdiction, where he died in May 1933. Bishop Joseph died in 1934; Bishop Sophronios died in 1940. Only Bishop Ignatius survived to carry on the American Orthodox Catholic Church's mission; he reposed in Christ on February 6, 1947. The AOCC continued after him.

Archbishop Aftimios consecrated Bishop Joseph Zuk especially for the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians of the AOCC. Bp. Joseph's jurisdiction is today the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America (Ecumenical Patriarchate). When Bp. Joseph died, he was succeeded by Metr. Bohdan Shpilka, who was in turn succeeded by Metr. Andrei Kuschak. Archpriest Walter Propheta, Chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Metr. Bohdan, became in 1964 the Primate of the American Orthodox Catholic Church. Bishop Sophronios, before he died, consecrated a few Bishops. Assisted by Metropolitan Theophan Stylian Noli, Bishop Sophronios consecrated Bishop Christopher Contogeorge as AOCC Bishop of Philadelphia. Bishop Christopher Contogeorge and Metr. Theophan Noli consecrated Bishop Arsenios Saltas. Bishop Arsenios, assisted by Bishop Nicholas Kedroffsky and Archbishop Benjamin Fedchenkov, consecrated Bishop Joseph Klimovicz, who was elevated to Archbishop and Patriarch of the Orthodox Catholic Patriarchate of America. Archbishop Joseph Klimovicz consecrated Bishop Joachim Souris. Archbishop Joachim Souris and AOCC Archbishop Theodotus DeWitow consecrated Bishop Walter Myron Propheta in 1964 as Bishop of New York and Primate of the AOCC. Bishop Walter was elevated to Metropolitan Archbishop of New York in 1965, by Archbishop Theodotus and Bishop Theoklitus Kantaris.

Abp. Aftimios, assisted by Bp. Sophronios and Bp. Joseph, consecrated Bp. Ignatius Nichols AOCC Vicar for English-speaking Americans. Abp. Ignatius later became Primate of the American Orthodox Catholic Church. Abp. Aftimios and Bp. Ignatius founded the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil, which still has an excellent ministry, reintroducing Western Rite Orthodoxy after a centuries-long absence. Abp. Ignatius consecrated Bishop Alexander Tyler Turner to be the Superior of the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil. Archbishop Ignatius consecrated AOCC Bishop Theodotus DeWitow, who died in 1969. The Society of St. Basil continues today.

Because of the political pressures applied to Abp. Aftimios which culminated in his retirement in 1933, and because the AOCC Bishops, except Abp. Ignatius, all had died by the end of 1934, the Church was almost destroyed. However, the work of Abp. Ignatius, Abp. Georgius, Abp. Alexander, and Abp. Theodotus kept the AOCC alive, even if very small, into the 1960's.

AMERICAN ORTHODOX CATHOLIC CHURCH

The first Primate of the independent New York Jurisdiction of the American Orthodox Catholic Church was the Most Reverend Walter Myron Propheta, Metropolitan Archbishop of New York. A mitered Archpriest, he was previously the Chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America (Ecumenical Patriarchate). He was consecrated by Archbishop Theodotus DeWitow (who was consecrated by Abp. Ignatius, who was consecrated by Abp. Aftimios) and Archbishop Joachim Souris (in the line of Archbishop Aftimios and the Albanian Orthodox line of Metropolitan Saint Theophan Noli). Archbishop Walter incorporated the Church in New York as the "American Orthodox Catholic Church."

The American Orthodox Catholic Church flourished under the primacy of Abp. Walter (Wolodymyr I) Propheta. The AOCC's first cathedral in Brooklyn was lost in the fierce Church politics of the early 1930's. Abp. Walter's Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection was in the Bronx, New York. Archbishop Walter Propheta died on October 8, 1972. The AOCC formed alliances and affiliations with many other Orthodox Churches and brought some real unity to the American scene. A world wide ministry was begun under Abp. Walter which resulted in many national Churches abroad.

Archbishop Walter consecrated Bishop John Christian Arthur Chiasson as Auxiliary Bishop of New York; he later became Metropolitan Archbishop of New York and, at the death of Abp. Walter in 1972, became Primate of the American Orthodox Catholic Church. Abp. John Christian was greatly weakened by diabetes and the Church dwindled under his primacy; the Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection was lost. The next Primate of the AOCC, consecrated in 1969 as Auxiliary Bishop of New York by Abp. Walter and Abp. John Christian, was the Most Reverend Francis Joseph Ryan, Metropolitan Archbishop of New York.

ECUMENICAL ORTHODOX CHURCH

Archbishop Francis strongly promoted the renewal of the Orthodox Western Rite during his episcopate and his primacy of the AOCC. In 1974, Abp. Francis, reflecting the use of both Eastern and Western liturgical rites, reincorporated the Church in New York as the "Ecumenical Orthodox Church of Christ, Inc.". Abp. Francis established the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, for which he consecrated Bishop Leo E. Rondeau; and the Diocese of Baltimore, Maryland, both in 1985. Archpriest Denis Michel Garrison was elected to the episcopate for the Mid-Atlantic Diocese (Baltimore) by the clergy and faithful of the Mid-Atlantic province on December 23, 1984. Archbishop Francis Ryan, at Saint Francis Church in New York City, New York, assisted by Bishop Joseph Ofton and Bishop Carey Leopold Presson, on April 13, 1985, consecrated and installed Bishop Denis Garrison as the Bishop of Baltimore for the Mid-Atlantic States. Tragically, Abp. Francis Ryan suffered a heart attack and stroke on the 4th of July, 1985, from which he never fully recovered. Archbishop Francis Ryan reposed in Christ on December 4th, 1987. Memory Eternal!

ORTHODOX CATHOLIC CHURCH IN NORTH AMERICA (OCCNA)

On August 28, 1985, the See of Baltimore was appointed by the THEOCACNA/AOCC Holy Synod to be the Primatial See and a metropolitan archdiocese, and Bishop Denis Garrison was made Primate VIII of the Church. Bishop Denis Garrison was enthroned and installed as Primate and invested with the Pallium, at the Council of Baltimore. Carrying on Abp Francis Ryan's dream, Abp Denis decided that the Archdiocese of Baltimore would be Western Rite. During this Baltimore Council it was also decided to use the name "Orthodox Catholic Church in North America" [OCCNA], a shortened version of the historic name, "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America," since there were other groups using the name AOCC.

ROMAN ORTHODOX CHURCH (ROC)

In 1989, under the primacy of Abp Paul Dolan, THEOCACNA/OCCNA saw the sucess of the Western Rite of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and decided there was a need to establish a seperate juruisdiction dedicated to the Western Rite. The Roman Orthodox Church was created as a seperate jurisdiction and was given a charter declaring it autocephalous and autonomous. This Western Rite, would be centered around an Orthodox Benedictine identity, which would require all clergy to become vowed Benedictines. Abp Denis Garrison was elected the primate of this new jurisdiction.

Archbishop Denis has served five separate terms as the Primate of the AOCC (THEOCACNA); Bishop Paul Dolan of Philadelphia has served two terms.

Unfortunately, The late 90's, AOCC (THEOCACNA) experienced a schism. A deposed bishop claimed rights to the names THEOCACNA and AOCC. This individual has brought great persecution to the Church. His destructive actions in the name of THEOCACNA, have all but destroyed the reputation of the historic name. While the true and Holy Synod will continue to keep THEOCACNA alive, the primary ministry of Holy Church is now expressed through the Roman Orthodox Church which was established as a seperate jurisdiction prior to this deposed bishops schismatic actions. The ROC has absorbed the clergy and members of THEOCACNA/OCCNA.

As of June 27, 2000: Metr David Prestridge is presently Primate II of the Roman Orthodox Church. He has offered Holy Church stability and clarity. Abp Denis, Primate I of the Church, supports Metr David in many ways including offering his expertise in web page construction. Abp Paul Dolan has been on sabatical while attending college, but has kept in contact, offering us his advise and encouragment. Abp Paul Stoms had experienced two strokes, but his strength and courage are exemplery. His words of support and participation in Holy Synod are outstanding. Abp Patrick Murray has worked closely with seminarians and strives to encourage a sense of community among the clergy.

The ROC holds firm to its ethical, moral and traditional foundations, rooted in Apostolic traditions. The ROC will never become a secular Church, but instead identifies with the catacomb church, that Church of the martyred saints who held fast to their faith.