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A Letter to Fr. Oliver

Fr. Oliver,

Christ is risen!

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my criticism of your original reflections. Also, please accept my humblest apologies for any perceived impertinence. I did not mean any disrespect. Just so you know, my writing is forensic in nature, which is due to my profession. Although I am employed in the healthcare field, my practice intersects with the law and governmental bureaucracies and I am liable for my words as well as actions. Therefore I use a direct, fact-based form of writing which can be off-putting to some, especially those who don’t know me.

This is usually not a handicap as I try to look at historical events in an exceedingly critical manner. In the fine tradition of Conan Doyle’s famous detective, I often “look for the dog that didn’t bark.” I think that that is the best way to examine historical incidents and reporting of the same. I find that this is very important today because of the Internet and the profusion of claims and counter-claims. Like yourself, I am vitally concerned about myths, legends, half-truths, and outright likes that have recently been propagated by some regarding the origins of Orthodoxy in North America. I too, do not want to be held captive to “the collective mendacity of several decades” as you so eloquently put it. Neither do I want to stand idly by while a newer, less credible counter-narrative is being propagated. Please understand therefore that I will continue to be direct and to the point and that my words should be understood as such, nothing more.

Let me therefore address your concerns with my original response:

Because of my directness, whenever I come across an argument, I usually cut to the chase and ask: “What is the point?” As you and I both agree that the origin of Orthodoxy in America was chaotic, I find myself asking you, “what is your point?” Other questions flow from this: when in the history of the Church has the creation of a local church been anything but chaotic? Having asked this, let me now ask you how do you as a pastor feel about protocols and decorum in founding of new churches?

These are not rhetorical questions but impact upon my understanding of the motives of those who all of a sudden, have took it upon themselves to debunk the so-called creation myth of the Orthodox Church in America. I realize of course that you do not use these abrasive words in your own writings (to my knowledge) but you must be aware by now that certain rabid anti-OCA partisans are doing exactly that and using your research to support their hateful positions. As such, you have become an unwitting paladin for their cause. (I leave it up to you to rebuke them should you feel this necessary. If you request proof, I will gladly submit it to you.)

Let us proceed now to my defense, using both your original reflection and subsequent rebuttal: (For purposes of clarity, I will italicize your exact words.)

1. Vision vs Reality. I believe my original criticism stands. Let me quote your own words on this subject: “I am not using such an analogy to offend the intelligence of the reader but only to show very bluntly and clearly that there is a big difference between current circumstances and someone’s vision.” My original critique: “You state that the ‘vision’ of persons such as St Innocent and the ‘circumstances’ as founded in the actual missionary dioceses were different.” I’m at a loss to see how I’ve mischaracterized your critique in this regard.

2. The Rivalry between Ss Tikhon and Raphael. Your criticism of me: “…Michalopulos ‘fear[ed]’ that I made up ‘an unfortunate rivalry between Ss Tikhon and Raphael.” I still hold to that assessment. Your original words: “Is it because we fear that if we let St Raphael step forward as a visionary, we would learn that he considered himself to be the head of a diocese somehow beholden to both the Russian Mission and Antioch?” Again, what is the difference?

3. The “Relative Independence” of St Raphael, or Raphael as a “freebooter.” Your criticism of me: “I never said such things. To attribute all of this to the phrase ‘relative independence’ is to read a lot into those words. All that can be done is to note that I calmed a ‘relative independence.’” My words: “First of all, he was consecrated as a bishop in North America by the Russian hierarchs of the native archdiocese.” This means that he was a suffragan bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church (regardless of his own ethnicity). Interestingly, you did not address my other questions regarding St Raphael. Let me ask them again: how did he gather resources to undertake his pastoral journeys; did any monies come from the See of Antioch? Also, were you aware that because of his fluency in Russian and Greek he ministered to members of these immigrant groups whenever he came across them on said pastoral journeys? In doing so did he view himself as a self-conscious agent of Antioch? I’m sure he had fond feelings towards the newly independent Antiochene see (indeed, he agitated for it), but it seems to me that you use these words to try and create a wedge between his work and that of the Russian Mission. If we knew nothing else about him but the bare facts of his life, we would know that he lived, worked and died as a suffragan of the Russian Orthodox Church.

4. The Toth/Mlinar Evangelistic Effort. I find no essential disagreement between us.
Unfortunately, some rabid anti-OCA partisans are using your words to dismiss the legitimacy of the Metropolia because of this very successful mission. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so repulsive about Eastern-Rite Carpatho-Russians and Ukrainians being brought into the Orthodox faith. Am I being harsh? Let me quote your final words on this subject: “I then followed up by noting that the Eastern Catholics were the main targets of early Russian evangelization. This is just the way things were.” My response at this point is an incredulous “and?” What exactly is your point Father? Is there something about Eastern Rite Catholics that places them beyond the pale of Orthodox evangelism, especially when many of their ancestors had been beguiled into joining the Roman church under false pretenses? How else am I to interpret that your assessment that “this is the way things were” in anything but a negative light?

Moreover, your point that there was only “one church in the lower 48” during the time of this mission is neither here nor there. It is in fact disingenuous on several fronts: for one thing, there were not 48 states in the continental United States at this time (just 36); for another, this rather conveniently overlooks the reality of the scores of parishes and missions in Alaska. It also overlooks the fact that Alaska had been a territory of the United States since 1867, well before the onset of the Toth/Mlinar mission. And by this I mean a legitimate territory, not one under martial law and whose citizens had been disenfranchised by the federal government. (Let us however concede the fact that there was “only one church in the lower 48.” So what? There was only one church in Antioch at the time of St Ignatius. Did the bishop of Alexandria set up a rival church in that city?)

As to the “Russophilia” of St Alexis Toth, your point seems to be that even if there had been an established Greek exarchate, or a Serbian one, he would still have sought out a Russian bishop for his blessing. Isn’t it rather convenient (or should I say providential?) that he did not have to make this choice? Again, the correlation of facts in favor of the permanency of the Russian Mission are multiplying, not only by direct observation of the reality on the ground, but by the activities of those who were concerned about Orthodoxy on this continent. This can be proven by the fact that Toth only had to go to San Francisco to receive his blessing rather than to St Petersburg (where he would have had to go had the bishop in San Francisco not been a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church). As to Toth’s “Russophilia,” I would prefer to use Occam’s Razor and dispense with superfluous entities. As in the case of St Raphael, if one were to look at the details of St Alexis’ life, we would see that he asked for the blessing of the nearest Orthodox bishop. Indeed given the paucity of parishes in the lower 48 (one), then a better case could be made that because of his Russophilia, he should have gone to St Petersburg, where he could have received much more material support (and perhaps a bishop’s mitre as well). The fact that he did not leads me to conclude that in spite of his personal feelings, he was first a priest and one who was desirous of following the correct protocols.

5. English translations. Again, I find no essential disagreement. In fact I agree that perhaps we have been too tardy in implementing the vernacular in our liturgies. All of us are guilty in this regard, some more so than others. I still stand by my assertion that in comparison to the other jurisdictions, the Metropolia and its successor were far less tardy in this regard.

6. Evangelism. I did not denigrate the conversion of Raphael Morgan by the Greek jurisdiction. Indeed, I value it and commend us for it. My point however remains: it was not the result of a decided or robust evangelistic effort. To maintain such a claim, you carefully conflate certain facts, hoping to present a picture that coheres to evangelism as properly understood. Let me quote you in full: “My point was only that Morgan was commissioned specifically to reach out to those of African descent and that this was one example of non-Russians being open to others and considering their presence as missionary. He was not the only one. The Greeks were receiving priests through Athens and Constantinople and the priests themselves were calling their work ‘missionary.’” These statements require more reflection:

a. “Morgan was commissioned specifically to reach out to those of African descent…” Let’s consider this and compare it to other missionary efforts: was he instructed to serve the liturgies in English? If so, had the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate undertaken translations to this effect? Would they have at least pointed him in the direction of Isabel Hapgood’s fine work? Was he given money to travel and preach the Gospel to African-Americans? Did he receive a stipend? Were advertisements placed in the various black-owned newspapers informing the local black communities that he was going to be visiting them? These are not rhetorical questions and I don’t know the answers. Unless they can be answered definitively and in the affirmative, then I am at a loss to see how Morgan and his sponsors were engaging in “evangelism.”

b. “…and this was one example of non-Russians being open to others and considering their presence as missionary.” Yes, this was “one” example. In the Greek jurisdiction, this was the only example. Please understand, I do not mean to belittle any of the ethnic jurisdictions. I certainly understand that the many Orthodox churches were desperately poor at this time as were the majority of the immigrants. Evangelism was not their primary concern, survival was, as it should have been. Having been raised in an immigrant family of modest means, I can tell you that not only was my father responsible for his family, but for relatives in Greece who had been reduced to grinding poverty. If they evangelized, they did it by dint of the exemplary lives they led.

c. “…The Greeks were receiving priests through Athens and Constantinople and the priests themselves were calling their work ‘missionary.’” I never disputed the fact that the Greeks and Serbs (and others) were receiving priests from the “old country.” They were. Was their work “missionary” however? That depends on what you consider a “mission” to be. The word “mission” in the religious sense is defined by Merriam’s New Collegiate Dictionary thusly: “a ministry commissioned by a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work.” Implicit in this definition is the erection of churches, baptism of non-Christians, and of course philanthropic endeavors. Were any of these undertaken by these same priests? Again, I’m not criticizing them, just your definition of “missionary” activity. At the risk of belaboring the point, the same questions I asked of Morgan’s evangelistic efforts I can ask of these priests: were they given resources to evangelize by either their parish councils or their bishops in the old country? And so on.

You write that their self-identification as missionaries “can be gleaned from a simple reading of newspapers and letters from the time.” I take it therefore that you can read Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian and understand the nuances of these languages. Let us concede your point however, that they viewed themselves as missionaries. Did they actually set up missions? No. The churches which hired them were already established and they most assuredly did not view their role as one of evangelism. At this point I would like to quote Metropolitan Isaiah Chronopoulos of Denver, who wrote an essay entitled “The Dangers of Multiple Jurisdictions in the United States” (2001):

In regard to the Greek-speaking parishes, a good number of them were not established as churches, but as ethnic and cultural societies. One basic reason for this was that there was a virtual absence of Greek Orthodox priests in the United States in comparison to the number of parishes established. Another realistic factor was that ecclesiastical authorities both in Greece and in Constantinople were not prepared to give direction to the immigrants in America, most probably because of their own precarious positions in regard to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Greek-Turkish War that ensued.

This rather bleak picture stands in sharp contrast to the more roseate picture you paint about priests who are more enthusiastic about their evangelical calling, ostensibly at the behest of equally evangelistically inclined bishops.

7. Parish foundation/antimins. You state that I “…doubt Dabovich’s claim” as to the existence of a valid antimins for the Greek community in San Francisco. I made no such assertion. Here is what I wrote: “I’m sure that Dabovich was correct about the priest, but did he actually see the antimins for himself? Was the bishop who gave the antimins in canonical order?” Notice that I did not dispute the existence of said antimins but whether it was examined by Dabovich. That is a crucial distinction. My question remains: was it seen? Was it a valid antimins? Could Dabovich have read the Greek writing on it had he seen it? Perhaps I should have accepted your claim as it seems that St Tikhon accepted it. Regardless, these are not facetious questions or beyond the purview of a serious historian. In my own study of the Orthodox Church, I came across many claims of canonical irregularity, including confidence men masquerading as priests and bishops, defrocked priests quietly accepted because of the need for their services, and so on. The standard complaint was that the overall quality of these men –even priests who were under no canonical cloud—was that they were not fit to be “ditch-diggers or highwaymen.” Parenthetically, is it not curious that the Serbian Orthodox Church would not send a bishop to America even upon the request of St Tikhon but somehow priests were being sent? How hard would it have been to consecrate a Serbian monk as a missionary bishop? Given these questions, it is very possible that my original point is valid, that is that priests and others were coming to America without the knowledge of the various old world patriarchates.

As to antimins being regularly replaced, you are correct. My question remains: are any available for view and verification? In some churches I’ve visited, old liturgical items are often placed behind glass and proudly displayed as an ersatz museum exhibit. In other churches, the cornerstone is in plain view or if, the original church has been relocated, often placed in a place of reverence or reinserted in the newer edifice. Unfortunately, many churches simply are unaware of the basic criteria of their founding.

Permit me to go on a personal tangent, to explain to you as it were why such criteria are important to me. In my own work in helping to establish a mission, I was informed of the protocols necessary for this crucial undertaking. I simply was unaware of the propensity for scandal that can result if these protocols were not observed to the nth degree. Even when we met them in good faith, other concerns appeared as if out of nowhere (often not in good faith). It is possible that such strictures are necessary because of the jurisdictional mess that we have. So be it. Nevertheless, I think if we were honest with ourselves we could better understand the heartache that St Tikhon must have felt when he heard that the Serbian parishes were in schism from the Russian Mission or when he was pointedly asked to leave a Greek church in Chicago.

What makes this doubly hurtful was that the Russian Mission was anything but apathetic to the needs of the non-Russian Orthodox. Let me quote Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver again:

In Pueblo, Colorado, for example, the Russian Metropolitan [sic] Tikhon, who later became Patriarch of Russia, only to die in prison, established both the Greek and the Russian parishes before 1905.

Let us pause to consider the import of these words. Colorado was over 1,500 miles from New York City (the episcopal seat) and yet St Tikhon took an active role in founding a church for the Greeks as well as one for the Russians. Actions like these were repeated time and again. Even in more mundane matters, such as Greek Independence Day parades, the Russian bishops took the time to preside over them and give them their blessing.

In conclusion, you then proceed to “easily address my final five points” without actually doing so. Allow me to demonstrate:

1. My first point was that “there were no non-Russian bishops in North American prior to 1922, nor any non-Russian exarchates, dioceses, eparchies, or jurisdictions on this continent before this time…” Your words: “The fact that the Russian diocese was the first diocese in North America and the others came after the Russian Revolution proves nothing more than this simple fact.” This is not a dismissal, but a corroboration of my original point. At best, your “dismissal” is a tautology. You then state something I never said: that the “Russian Revolution caused the other dioceses to come into existence.” I made no such claim, only that they were created after the Bolshevik Revolution. (I will at this point state that the Soviets created the Renovationist Church to undercut the Russian Orthodox Church and its American Mission. It even succeeded in seizing some of its properties.) Again, let me enlist the aid of Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver in order to set the record straight:

As recent history records, Orthodox Christianity entered the American continent by way of Alaska in 1794. At the time, Alaska was a part of the Russian Empire. it was therefore a normal consequence for Russian Orthodox missionaries to travel to the farthest outpost of the Empire to plant the holy Apostolic faith among the natives.

On this foundation, and up to the end of the second decade of the twentieth century generally speaking, that is, by 1920, there was one hierarchical and canonical authority over all the newly-planted parishes in the continental United States. (Emphasis added.)

2. My words: “The only non-Russian bishop before this time was consecrated by the Russian hierarchy in New York.” You try to lessen the import of this point by stating that “this did not negate what Athens and Constantinople and Bulgaria and Bucharest were doing with their missionary communities.” Actually, it does if we understand the broader context, one which shows us that Tikhon was vitally interested in bringing non-Russian bishops to America to help him minister these newer Orthodox immigrants. As I stated at least twice before, St Tikhon specifically asked for a bishop from Serbia to come and minister to the Serbs in America. He was refused (perhaps this is why you left out Serbia from the parade of churches above?). He had earlier asked for, and received an Arab priest whom he consecrated to the espiscopate specifically for this purpose. Tikhon was clearly acting in good faith. As for the Greeks, Patriarch Joachim III refused their request for sending a bishop to minister to them independent of the Russian Mission. Metaxakis came in 1922 only because he was in exile from Greece. As far as Bulgaria and Romania are concerned, I cannot state why they didn’t send bishops before 1918. Perhaps we can try to find why the dog didn’t bark, that is to say that the old world churches felt (or hoped) that their immigrant brothers were being cared for by the Russian Mission. Which is of course the obvious answer. Of course antimins obviate the need for a bishop to be physically present, but let’s be honest here: if the Holy Synod of Russia had only sent antimins to the priests in Alaska, anti-Metropolia partisans would immediately seize upon this fact and impute apathy to the Russian hierarchy, forging yet another arrow in their never-ending quest to minimize the primacy of the Russian Mission. (This reminds me of the old joke about literacy tests in the South: a black man trying to register to vote was asked to spell “Czechoslovakia” whereas the white man next to him was asked to spell “cat.”) No matter what heroic efforts the Russian Mission enacted, they are never good enough for its increasingly shrill detractors.

3. My words: “All non-Russian mission churches established outside of the Russian mission before this time are therefore under a canonical cloud.” I still feel that way. Notice I did not say that all non-Russian churches were under a canonical cloud, only those established outside of the Russian Mission were. And even here, it is possible that some of those were canonically founded, I just don’t know which ones. (Leaving aside the issue of whether it is possible to insert foreign dioceses in a land that already has an established Orthodox presence, until this issue is resolved, my point therefore stands.). To counter my argument, you simply make a counter-assertion: “Priests were being sent with antimensia to be missionaries to immigrant flocks.” Again, you are assuming things that are not necessarily in evidence. We have already dealt with these items earlier. How do you feel about the career of Archbishop Meletius Metaxakis, the founder of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, a known Freemason. (Does this not constitute a “canonical cloud”?)

4. My words: “The creation of the ethnic jurisdictions appears to have been ad hoc.” I still believe that. Your counter-argument that “they were recognized by their patriarchates” is a non-response in that it says nothing at all about their conception (which was my point). I never questioned whether they were “recognized” by their respective mother churches. The words “ad hoc” are the most charitable ones I could find that describe their founding. At the risk of belaboring the point, there is a profound ignorance of actual details of the founding of many of these churches, including who gave the initial blessing, when they were consecrated, whose relics are contained within their altars, and so on.

The question that continues to be ignored by the anti-Metropolia partisans can be distilled to one sentence: how can an Orthodox presence be established in a land in which there is already an accepted and permanent Orthodox mission (as Isaiah of Denver and Bishop Kallistos Ware –both of whom are bishops in the Church of Constantinople—have maintained)? This question must be answered. The present attempt by partisans of the Phanar to dust off canon 28 (the validity of which you yourself question) shows the desperation to which some anti-Russian Mission zealots sink to in order to dismiss the Metropolia’s legitimacy. Let me ask you a personal question: how do you as a priest in the Antiochian archdiocese feel about the irregular creation of a Palestinian “vicariate,” a body which was created out of a schism from your archdiocese and which was appended to a non-Arab jurisdiction?

5. Your words: “I did not argue that the Metropolia could not claim any continuity to the Russian Mission that went before.” Well, then explain these words to me: “In addition, the continuity between the Russian Mission and the Metropolia did not remain so neat and tidy in the aftermath of the Revolution.” That’s like the difference between calling somebody illegitimate as opposed to stating that his parents weren’t married at the time of his birth.

I humbly reject your final assertion, that I have “not provided a single piece of evidence contrary to my initial reflection.” In re-reading my original response to your reflections, I realize that I actually did. Several of them in fact. However, rather than be disrespectful, I have taken the time to deal with them again as your presented them in your most recent response. Please let me know if I misread your reiterations or misunderstood them. Like you, I am intensely interested in missionary activity, and I do not think that conflating the wishes of a few foreign priests with actual, robust missionary activity as it has traditionally been understood is going to help the cause of Orthodoxy to be taken seriously on this continent. We can honestly say that in comparison to other missionary efforts, Orthodoxy has since the 1920s been a static, phyletistic, pastoral enterprise. Therefore it would be a grave injustice to denigrate the sacrifices of the original Russian Mission, a mission which was not only pastoral, but really was missionary.

In Christ,

George C Michalopulos



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