Many articles have been written about this Church but most contain errors. This article details the truth.
Many of the ethnic attempt to re-write history based on Fr. Serafim Surrency's book, The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America (1973) which offers its own version or account of the formation of the American Church "THEOCACNA" and includes numerous false claims as shown below. It also documents actions taken by the ethnic churches as well as a failure to act (tribunal) that violated the canons.
In this project, Aftimios had the assistance of two American-born Orthodox clerics who had been ordained to the priesthood in the early 1920s, Hieromonk Boris (Burden) and Priest Michael Gelsinger. Both men were particularly concerned about the loss of Orthodox young people to the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in the US the Episcopal Church was of special concern, as it was a liturgical church in some ways similar to Orthodoxy and generally enjoyed a special status of prestige in American society.
At the outset, the new venture appeared quite successful within the space of only four years, with the support of the synod of the Russian Metropolia, four bishops were consecrated and an impressive
The charter itself referencing the authority of a letter from Metr. Sergius locum tenens of the Patriarchate of Moscow indicated that autonomous Orthodox churches could be founded outside Russia granted to the new church body the full name The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, with The American Orthodox Catholic Church as its "short name." ®
We hereby, on this 2nd day of February (new Style) in the year 1927, charge one of our number, His Eminence the Most Reverend Aftimios, Archbishop of Brooklyn, with the full responsibility and duty of caring and providing for American Orthodoxy in the special sense of Orthodox Catholic people born in America and primarily English speaking or any American residents or parishes of whatever nationality or linguistic character or derivation not satisfactorily provided with proper and canonical Orthodox Catholic care, ecclesiastical authority, teaching and ministrations of the Church or who may wish to attach themselves by the properly and legally provided means to an autonomous, independent, American Orthodox Catholic Church.... a distinct, independent, and autonomous branch of the Orthodox Catholic Church...
Signed by the entire Metropolia synod at the time Metr. Platon, Aftimios, Theophilus, Amphilohy, Arseny, and Alexy it further named Aftimios as the primate of the new church and elected and gave order for "the Consecration of the Very Reverend Leonid Turkevitch to be Bishop in the newly founded [church]... as assistant to its Governing Head...". Fr. Leonid eventually did get consecrated to the episcopacy, though not in the new church body, and is better known as Metr. Leonty (Turkevich) of New York, primate of the Russian Metropolia. His refusal at the time was based mainly on a "press of family obligations" which led to his insistence on "a specific stipulated salary which could not be met". To replace Fr. Leonid as the first assistant to Aftimios, Platon chose Archimandrite Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), who was consecrated on September 11, 1927, by Aftimios, assisted by Theophilus and Arseny.
The constitution which was drawn up for the church by the Metropolia is twenty-eight pages long and quite detailed, indicating a great deal of thought went into its drafting. Though it was dated December 1 of 1927, it was not made public until the following spring.
The following should be noted:
From Article III: "This Church is (independent) autocephalous and autonomous in its authority in the same sense and to the same extent as are the Orthodox Patriarchates of the East and the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches now existing."
From Article IV: "This Church has original and primary jurisdiction in its own name and right over all Orthodox Catholic Christians of the Eastern Churches and Rite residing or visiting in the United States, and Alaska and the other territories of the United States, in Canada, Mexico, and all North America".
The reaction against the establishment of the new church was "swift and negative," especially from the (schismatic) Karlovsty Synod (ROCOR), with whom the Metropolia had broken ties shortly before in 1926 and who viewed itself as the Metropolia's rightful canonical authority.
Aftimios himself answered in June with "an equally forceful reply," denouncing the Karlovsty synod as "the uncanonical pseudo-synod of the Outlandish Russian Orthodox Church," forbidding his clergy and faithful from having anything to do with them. Like his estranged former associates in ROCOR, Metr. Platon himself almost immediately turned his back on his ecclesiastical daughter and became "increasingly unreliable in supporting the new Church," mainly because of its continual publication of "hard line" articles in the Orthodox Catholic Review (edited by Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael) aimed at the Episcopal Church. In a letter to Aftimios, Platon wrote: "I must attest before Your Eminence that without their (American Episcopalian) entirely disinterested and truly brotherly assistance our Church in America could not exist and concluded his letter by asking Abp Aftimios to order Father Boris to cease his 'steppings out' against the Protestant Episcopalians".
To further worsen matters, in 1928, Archbishop Victor (Abo-Assaley) was sent to America by the Church of Antioch and then began to encourage Orthodox Arabs to come under Antiochian jurisdiction rather than that of the Russians or the new American church. He did not, however, make much headway in his endeavours. In the same year, Aftimios and his group mainly focussed on the establishment of their church's legal status and had some initial success. On May 26, another bishop was consecrated, Sophronius (Beshara) as bishop of Los Angeles, given responsibility "not only for the parishes who still considered themselves within the jurisdiction of the Russian Mission but also those parishes who comprise a part of the new Church and as a Missionary Bishop as well he was responsible for all territory west of the Mississippi River".
Early in 1929, Aftimios attempted to gain support with the Greek archbishop Alexander (Demoglou), the first primate of the newly formed Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. The [Greek] archbishop's response was that he had authority over not only all the Greek Orthodox in America but over all Orthodox Christians in America. They were apparently "vexed over the fact that the Reverend Demetrius Cassis, an American of Greek parentage, had been ordained by Abp Aftimios for the new American Church".
One author wrote that Platon's opposition to the new church had shifted from veiled to "quite open and above board," because Aftimios, in a letter dated October 4 1929, declared that:
Aftimios no doubt had in mind as he wrote such a letter that Platon had, at least in writing, already given him authority over all Orthodox Christians in North America. Aftimios's denunciation of Platon's authority had "little or no effect" in the Russian parishes and on their clergy; "presumably they knew of the 1924 Ukaz of Patriarch Tikhon suspending Platon but specifying that he was to continue to rule the Archdiocese until such time as a Bishop was sent to relieve him". The announcement also had a negative effect on some members of the American Orthodox Catholic Church, as well, because two weeks after its being made public, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab) requested canonical release from Aftimios (who reluctantly gave it) and then went over to Platon and with his direction tried to bring Syrian parishes away from Aftimios and back under the Metropolia. This shows the uncanonical attitude of Metr. Platon and appears to have been an attempt to withdraw the Charter and authority after the fact
Despite these troubles Aftimios nevertheless explored new opportunities and began negotiations to bring Bp. "Fan (Noli)" to the US from Germany to serve as a bishop in his church with jurisdiction over Albanian Orthodox Christians. (Bp. Fan eventually did come to America, but under the auspices of the Metropolia.) Aftimios continued to attempt to shore up his jurisdiction's legitimacy:
At nearly the same time (October of 1930), Aftimios sent a letter to his clergy indicating they were to keep their distance from Bp. Germanos (Shehadi) of Zahle, who had come from Antioch (without its authorization) mainly to attempt to gather funds from Arabic Orthodox parishes but had also worked at encouraging such parishes to come under Antioch's jurisdiction. While in America, he also accepted under his omophorionone Archpriest Basil Kherbawi, "one of the most zealous and loyal priests of the Syrian Mission of the Russian jurisdiction who had been suspended by Abp Aftimios for disloyalty".
In 1932, by a decision of a New York State court, Aftimios's cathedral was taken from him and given over to the Metropolia, as its charter stated that it could only be used by a hierarch subject to the authority of the Russian church. Nevertheless, Aftimios consecrated two more bishops, Ignatius (W.A.) Nichols (a former Episcopal cleric who had become an Old Catholic and Joseph (Zuk) for the Ukrainians, who had the allegiance of perhaps a half dozen such parishes. NOTE: By taking such action in Court they violated the Canons again
Armed with new bishops at his side but probably quite discouraged over the state of his jurisdiction both internally and externally, Aftimios then made the decision that altered Orthodox Church history and tradition:
The three bishops under Archbishop Ofiesh voiced their support of Aftimios's marriage, stating that "inasmuch as it is merely a Canon of the European and Asiatic branches of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, that a Bishop should not be married, such has no valid weight on the American Church where conditions are dramatically opposite and therefore the North American Holy Synod congratulates His Eminence on the moral courage in the step he has taken".
When rumors surfaced that the bishops attempted to overthrow Archbishop Aftimios Bp. Joseph denied the rumors. He was already a sick man (and died on the 23rd of February 1934)". Ignatius then got married himself in June of 1933 and it was said he began entering into relations with the representatives of the "Living Church" in America (the Soviet-sponsored pseudo-church), which had been competing with the jurisdiction of the Metropolia and the ROCOR. He eventually broke relations even with the Living Church and returned to being an episcopus vagans, dying as the pastor of a small Congegational Church in Middle Springs, Vermont, but not before starting multiple small religious bodies[without any mandate or authority from this Church], many of whom claim "Apostolic succession" from him.
<"Burial place of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), and Bp. Sophronius (Beshara), Antiochian Village"> Burial place of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, Bp. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), and Bp. Sophronius (Beshara), Antiochian Village
The only bishop, aside from Abp. Aftimios, left to the American Orthodox Catholic Church was Sophronius (Beshara), who then appealed to Platon for assistance and had also intended to contact Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab), but was deterred from doing so when Emmanuel died on May 29, 1933, being buried by Platon (his gravestone reads May 30).
The Church came to a standstill and the remaining priests and parishes wandered from one authority to another or became completely independent," with the exceptions of Hieromonk Boris and Priest Michael, who were received back into the authority of Moscow and the Metropolia, respectively.
Some like to claim that Sophronius acted contrary to the canons and tried to remove and suspended Aftimios in October (1933) and depose Ignatius in November. This is false.
The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America continues today.
Sophronius died in 1934 in New York but some again try to rewrite Church history and claim the church no longer exists and that Sophronius died in Los Angeles. (The date of his death has been reported as 1934, though his gravestone reads 1940.) He is now buried at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania alongside St. Raphael of Brooklyn and Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab).
Aftimios Ofiesh lived quietly with his wife Mariam Namey Ofiesh, fathering a son named Paul, who eventually became a Presbyterian elder in Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. After living in Wilkes-Barre and New Castle, towns in eastern Pennsylvania, the Ofiesh family finally settled in Kingston (near Wilkes-Barre). In 1937 he was asked by parishioners in Allentown to return to active leadership in the Orthodox Church and made an effort. He continued to dress as a bishop and was busy with the many unofficial visits he received from clergy over the years. He died in Kingston on July 24, 1966, a few months before his 86th birthday, leaving instructions that he should be buried quietly without any clergy.
In 1995, A new synod was established for "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America" (THEOCACNA) and the locum tenens turned the Church authority over to this new synod. Mariam Namey Ofiesh was one of the members of the board of trustees. The Synod has since declared itself successively a Metropolitanate (1997) and then a Patriarchate (2003).
This synod has had some rough times because of its lack of ties with the old world Churches. The clergy have shared the altar with some SCOBA clergy and they have a letter that recognizes their sacramental authority to offer Holy Communion to Roman Catholics. In 1999 it suffered a minor internal schism when four of its bishops broke from it and claimed the name for themselves. In the same year, Mrs. Ofiesh retired from the board and has since departed this life.
Since the ethnic Orthodox no longer view the Canons as Sacred and Divine and have allowed priests to marry after ordination it appears the marriage of Abp. Aftimios should be acceptable. Remember Bishops were married in the early Church and the canons must consider it permissable since one canon comes to mind that states a bishop may not put away his wife...
The Russian Synod could not legally, canonically or morally close this Church after we were Chartered so they turned their back on this Church to make its existance doubtful.
Sophronius was a true Orthodox Bishop and did not attempt to remove any of the bishops of this Church. To act alone against another bishop would have violated the Canons.
Aftimios wanted to be called before a "Tribunal" but never was.
It was reported in the newspaper that Abp. Aftimios stated "God told him to marry" and this was never disproved since the tribunal was never assembled.
Since no tribunal was ever called, because the orthodox leaders were in violation of canons [before Abp. Aftimios married], a new american tradition was established.
Aftimios remained the chief bishop of this Church until his death. He did not resign and was not removed from office.
Ignatius was never removed from office either. He did leave the Church as did Bp. Joseph.
Synod Representatives spoke to cemetery officials in New York where Sophronius was originally buried. They also obtained a certified death certificate (1934) from New York. Yet it has been reported that he died in L.A. and its also been reported he died in 1940. These reports have not been documented.
Some in the Independent Movement claim Abp. Aftimios to be a saint. We do not.
The "Living Church" mentioned above also came to a standstill after a few years. The surviving clergy of that Church contacted THEOCACNA and after about a years disussion merged with THEOCACNA and took the THEOCACNA name. The reasons were mainly due to claims by some in the independent movement to be the "continuation" of that Church and a fear some might attempt to take over the Church. The clergy were old, some had already gone back overseas while others were wanting to retire. Their membership had also dwindled to a few elderly followers.