The Life Of The Thrice Blessed
Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh
By Archpriest John Warren Morris
On October 22, 1880, Badrah Ofiesh, the wife of Father Gabriel Ofiesh, the shepherd of the Orthodox flock in the village of Bikfaya, Lebanon, gave birth to her sixth child, the future Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh. The couple, who would eventually have ten children, named their new son Abdullah, “Servant of God.” Even as a youth, the future hierarch showed that he was indeed a “Servant of God.” Once when an epidemic of smallpox raged in the village, Father Ofiesh sent his family to safety in Beirut. As the dedicated priest, who stayed behind to care for the Faithful during the crisis, went about ministering to the sick and dying, he discovered to his horror that his ten year old son had remained behind to help care for the victims of this dreaded disease. As a boy, the future bishop seldom had money, for he frequently gave his small allowance to beggars and others less fortunate than himself.
Like his brothers and sisters, Abdullah began his education at the local village school. However, the opportunity to study Byzantine music at St. Elias Shuwaya Monastery soon attracted the attention of the boy, who wanted to learn the ancient music of his faith. Receiving the permission of his father, he enrolled as a secular student at the monastery. The life and worship of the monks so attracted him, that he decided to join them, without his father’s knowledge. Learning of his son’s decision from a traveling salesman, the priest rushed to the monastery. He arrived during the service of induction, and angrily led his son by the ear to the back of the chapel, before he could join his classmates in their profession. After chiding Father Mattias, the Abbot, for allowing his son to take such a step without his father’s permission, the enraged priest withdrew Abdullah from the monastery school.
Despite the efforts of his older brother, Dimitri, an attorney, and his brother-in-law, a tobacco merchant, to persuade him to enter a secular profession, Abdullah was determined to study for the Holy Priesthood. Finally, his father allowed him to enroll at the Middle Eastern Orthodox Ecclesiastical Seminary headed by Gavriel Shatilla, the Bishop of Lebanon and Beirut. Although an excellent student, the future Archbishop found the strict discipline of the seminary too confining. He joined several of his classmates to organize an association to influence the administration to adopt a more progressive and liberal attitude towards the students and their education. Called “The Young Syrians,” this society planned to publish a newsletter to support their cause to be entitled “The Balance of Justice.” However Father Musa Kattini, the headmaster refused to recognize the organization. After the rebels refused to abandon their efforts, the headmaster finally allowed them to form a student association with more moderate aims. This society, called “The Scholastic Flower” adopted less radical goals and published a newsletter, “Diligence,” to which Ofiesh was a frequent contributor. Thus even as a youth, the future Archbishop showed signs of a spirit that would lead to his final rebellion against the authority of the Church.
Upon his graduation from the seminary as class valedictorian, in 1898, Abdullah rejected an opportunity to study at the University of Kiev and joined the staff of Bishop Gavriel in Beirut. Taking the name Aftimios, young Ofiesh became a celibate Deacon. He served the Bishop of Lebanon for two years until the death of Bishop Gavriel in 1900. He then became Archdeacon of Latikia under Bishop Arsanius Haddad, the future Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory IV. An effective worker, the young Archdeacon distinguished himself by his able administration of the charitable institutions and schools of this important Diocese. He also attempted to end centuries of hatred between Moslems and Christians and even worked with Uniate Roman Catholics. However, as had been the case in seminary, Aftimios, who became a priest in l902, began to agitate for reform. Early in his service at Latikia, he organized a society of theology students and young clergy to work for reform within the Patriarchate of Antioch. As had been the case during his efforts to form a similar organization while in seminary, Father Aftimios chose to call his society, “The Young Syrians.” However, once again his superiors refused to allow Aftimios to carry out his plans. Despite the endorsement of Bishop Arsanius, Patriarch Meletius II threatened to excommunicate the priest and his friends if they did not abandon their efforts.
A few years later, Father Aftimios once again championed the cause of reform. Aided by Alex Attala, George and Dimitri Dumani and several other young clergymen and theology students, he formed a fellowship dedicated to the modernization of the administration of the Patriarchate and its monastic establishments. Aftimios and his friends also hoped to establish a graduate school of theology, thereby ending the dependence of the Church of Antioch on Greek and Russian institutions for advanced theological education. Once again, the young reformer met with stiff resistance from Patriarch Meletius II. Faced with a threat of excommunication, Ofiesh had no choice but to abandon his third effort to organize the young clergy to work for progressive programs within their Church. Greatly disappointed, Father Aftimios finally requested permission from his superiors to travel to North America, where he hoped to serve in a less restrained atmosphere.
Father Aftimios Ofiesh arrived in New York on December 13, l905. As he stood on the dock, contemplating his past and the new life that awaited him in a new and strange land, the young priest turned to the East. With tears in his eyes, he muttered, “poor, wretched Syria.” The next day he presented his credentials and a letter of introduction from Bishop Arsanius to his new superior Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny, the Bishop of Brooklyn. The Bishop, who was under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox authorities in the New World, had come to North America in 1895 at the request of the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society to minister to the needs of the Syrian Orthodox in the United States and Canada.
So successful were his efforts, that the Russian Orthodox authorities established the Diocese of Brooklyn to serve the Arab Orthodox communities under their care. Indeed, the consecration of Bishop Raphael on March 12, l904 was the first consecration of an Orthodox bishop to take place in the Western hemisphere. Bishop Raphael immediately recognized the abilities of the young priest and appointed him Dean of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn.
For the next year Father Aftimios served the faithful at the mother church of the Diocese and assisted Bishop Raphael. Shortly after his arrival, the Bishop asked Father Aftimios to undertake a fund raising tour of the Diocese. Near Pittsburgh, the priest asked to visit a poor widow. Despite the protests of his hosts that such a visit would be a waste of time, for she could not afford to donate to his cause, Father Aftimios insisted on seeing her. After the visit, he asked his surprised companion for the loan of enough money to travel to his next destination. He reluctantly agreed, only to learn later that the priest needed the money because he had secretly left all his funds in the home of the needy widow. The tour was a success and as a result, the Diocese obtained badly needed funds to meet its many expenses.
Within a Few weeks after the successful completion of the fund raising mission, Bishop Raphael sent Father Aftimios to Montreal to bring union to the strife-ridden community. A serious division had resulted from the efforts of one faction to remove the Pastor, Father George Mahfouz so Father Basil Kerbawy could take his place. Father Aftimios met with the leaders of both sides in an effort to persuade them that the Syrian Orthodox community in Montreal was too small to support two parishes. Able to restore peace, when it was learned that Father Mahfouz had decided to return to Syria, Father Aftimios returned to his post in Brooklyn. However, he had been so successful in winning the favor of both sides that they requested his appointment to the parish after Father Mahfouz left Montreal in July, l906.
For the next eleven years, Father Aftimios served as pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Montreal. He raised $14,000 to build a new church, and Bishop Raphael elevated him to the rank of Archimandrite at its consecration. Unfortunately, strife between rival factions once again destroyed the unity of the community. At one point, the critics of the priest charged him with attempting to separate the parish from the Diocese of Brooklyn of the Russian Orthodox Church to place it under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Summoned to New York to defend himself from this serious charge, Father Aftimios successfully convinced Bishop Raphael of his loyalty and was able to complete his ministry. However, his opponents were determined to separate themselves from his leadership. Failing to persuade the Bishop to remove him, they took the matter to the law courts. After a stormy session involving not only Father Aftimios and the members of the rival faction, but also Bishop Raphael and the Russian Consul, who represented the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, the anti-Aftimios group won the right to organize a separate parish. As a result in 1910, they formed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church of Montreal and the parish of Father Aftimios adopted the name St. George Syrian Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile the type of strife that had shattered the unity of the community in Montreal became common throughout the Diocese of Brooklyn. Despite the support given the Syrian Mission by the Russian Hierarchy, many Arab-American Orthodox considered the Patriarchate of Antioch in Damascus their true spiritual home. Indeed, even Bishop Raphael and his followers never totally renounced their allegiance to the ancient Throne of Sts. Peter and Paul. With the arrival of Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi of Zahle in 1913 to gather funds for an agricultural school in his Archdiocese, the partisans of Antioch found a willing leader. The Metropolitan, who had served as a missionary to the Arab Orthodox communities in Brazil before his elevation to the episcopate in 1900, had been a leader in the successful campaign to restore the Patriarchate of Antioch to the Arab Orthodox after centuries of Greek domination. His baritone voice was so impressive that the story is told that the Director of the Metropolitan Opera once offered him a singing contract after hearing him conduct a service.
Despite the protests of Bishop Raphael, who had originally accepted the Metropolitan and endorsed his fund raising mission, and his Russian superiors, Metropolitan Germanos traveled through the Diocese gathering support for the organization of a Syrian Orthodox diocese in North America under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch. Unwilling to sanction the uncanonical activities of the Metropolitan of Zahle, Patriarch Gregory IV demanded that he return to his duties in Syria and cease his divisive activities in the New World. However, the disruption of normal communications that followed the outbreak of the First World War gave Metropolitan Germanos an excuse to remain in North America. Eventually in 1916, he organized the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America. Significantly, even some members of St. Nicholas Cathedral, the mother church of Raphael’s Diocese, wrote the Metropolitan to express their support for his efforts. As a result of Germanos’ campaign, several parishes split into rival factions, one loyal to their Russian Orthodox superiors and the other loyal to Germanos and the Patriarchate of Antioch. His efforts were so successful that he claimed the allegiance of twenty-four parishes by 1924.
Meanwhile the death of Bishop Raphael on February 17, 1915, set the stage for further conflict. Metropolitan Germanos and his followers began a well orchestrated campaign to gain control of the widowed Diocese by securing his election to the vacant see. Those remaining loyal to their Russian Orthodox hierarchs refused to accept the election of Germanos, and began to consider alternative candidates as they gathered in Brooklyn for the funeral of the late bishop. Refusing to discuss the issue until after the burial of Bishop Raphael, Father Aftimios finally agreed to meet with several leaders of the Diocese shortly before his return to Montreal. At this important meeting all agreed to reaffirm their loyalty to their canonical Russian Orthodox superiors. Several of those present suggested that they unite to secure the election of either Father Aftimios or Archdeacon Emmanual Abouhatab as a means to prevent the capture of the Diocese by the supporters of Germanos. However, Father Aftimios announced his refusal to seek the episcopacy and returned to his pastoral duties in Montreal. Thus the Archdeacon became the leading candidate of the pro-Russian or “Russy” faction within the Diocese.
Despite the continuing efforts of his supporters to persuade him to actively seek election to the vacant see, Father Aftimios steadfastly refused to become a candidate. Once Father Aftimios agreed to meet with Metropolitan Germanos to discuss a possible solution to the disunity that plagued the Syrian Orthodox faithful in North America. The Metropolitan offered to persuade the Patriarch of Antioch to send a bishop to America to help him consecrate Aftimios to the episcopate, provided he would renounce his loyalty to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy in America and place himself and his diocese under the Patriarchate of Antioch. However, Father Aftimios refused to participate in such an uncanonical action or to renounce his Russian Orthodox superiors and Metropolitan Germanos’ efforts ended in failure. Finally, Father Aftimios agreed to meet with Archdeacon Abouhatab in Malone, New York to discuss the situation. Although Father Aftimios remained steadfast in his decision not to seek election to the vacant see, Archdeacon Emmanuel announced his decision to withdraw from consideration for the episcopate to support the candidacy of Father Aftimios.
Meanwhile, hoping to find some way to unite the Syrian Orthodox under the jurisdiction of the Russian bishops in America, the Holy Russian Synod delayed the election of a successor to Bishop Raphael for two years. During this crucial period Bishop Alexander Nemelovski, the Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska, provided episcopal ministrations for the widowed Diocese of Brooklyn, with Archdeacon Emmanuel Abouhatab and father Basil Kerbawy as his chief assistants. Finally, realizing that the followers of Metropolitan Germanos would never return to Russian Orthodox jurisdiction, Archbishop Evdokim, the chief Russian hierarch in the New World, reported to the Holy Synod of Russia that thirty-four of the forty-one priests in the Diocese favored the election of Father Aftimios to fill the vacant see. With the approval of the Synod of the Russian Church, Archbishop Evdokim, assisted by Bishop Alexander of Alaska and Bishop Stephen (Dzubai) of Pittsburgh consecrated Father Aftimios in St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York on May 13, 1917. Significantly, the followers of Metropolitan Germanos sent over fifty telegrams to the leaders of the Brooklyn Diocese in an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the consecration of Aftimios.
Reluctantly accepting the tremendous problems that faced the successor to Bishop Raphael, the newly consecrated hierarch set out at once to reorganize the Diocese of Brooklyn. He established a diocesan council consisting of the clergy and lay representatives of the twenty-eight parishes and one mission under his jurisdiction. He also instructed each congregation to elect officers and to form parish councils under the leadership of the parish priest. He also began a series of visitations to the parishes of his Diocese. In each community, he attempted to secure approval to his plan of organization and to regain the allegiance of those who had left his jurisdiction to follow Metropolitan Germanos. Despite the severe difficulties that he faced in his effort to halt the growth of the pro-Antioch or “Antacky” faction, he always found time to meet with the youth to exhort them to remain faithful to Orthodox. Where possible, the energetic bishop organized Bible study groups and laid the foundation for the training of Sunday School teachers and choirs. So successful were his efforts that Metropolitan Platon, the head of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy in North America, elevated him to the rank of Archbishop in 1923.
In addition to his work to strengthen the organization and spirituality of his Diocese, Archbishop Aftimios found time to plan social programs for the welfare of his scattered flock. In 1923, he launched this aspect of his ministry with the foundation of Holy Trinity Syrian Orphanage. In that year, Metropolitan Platon offered the Archbishop the use of 200 acres in East Green Bush, New York. Originally owned by the Russian Embassy, the Russian Orthodox had obtained the property for the establishment of a monastery. However, the serious financial problems that beset the Russian Orthodox in America after the fall of the Tsarist regime that had provided them with much of their financial backing, made it impossible for them to care for the valuable property. Thus they offered it to Archbishop Aftimios. Selling insurance policies and gathering funds from every possible source, the dedicated Archbishop spent $30,000 to renovate the facilities. Eventually forty boys and girls found a home in the orphanage which accepted any child of Arab parentage regardless of religious affiliation. The Archbishop published a newsletter, “The Orphan,” to gain support for this project, which was to be the first of a network of religious and educational institutions throughout the Archdiocese. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the continued strife among the Syrian Orthodox in North America made it impossible for Archbishop Aftimios to fulfill his dream. Although he attempted to care for the orphans at his headquarters in Brooklyn after financial problems forced him to abandon the property in East Green Bush, a saddened Aftimios had to close the orphanage in l927.
The continued division of the Syrian Orthodox between the supporters of the Russian Orthodox bishops and those who wished to affiliate with the ancient see of Antioch became the dominant theme of the episcopate of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh. Unfortunately, at the same time the effectiveness of the Russian hierarchy in America continued to decrease as they became involved in the many problems caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the victory of Communism in their homeland. Eventually, the Russian Orthodox would become so involved in their own affairs that they would be unable to assist Archbishop Aftimios in his unsuccessful effort to maintain the unity of his flock. As a result, the Archbishop would seek his own solution to the problem of Orthodox disunity in America. His attempt to found an independent American Orthodox Church would end in failure and the Archbishop would lose all credibility as an Orthodox leader by his decision to violate the traditions of his Church when he took a wife. Thus the episcopate of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh would end in 1933. However, the example of Aftimios Ofiesh, through his dedication to Orthodox unity, would earn him an important place in the history of the Orthodox Church in the New World.
The early years of the episcopate of Aftimios Ofiesh had been a period of great grown and progress for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Through his efforts the organization of Syrian Orthodox under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy in the New World grew from twenty-five parishes in 1916, the year before he became a bishop, to thirty in 1926. During the same period the budget of the Diocese grew from $28,498 to $66,971 and the value of the buildings and other property of the parishes under his jurisdiction grew from $l80,507 to $902,375. With the foundation of the Holy Trinity Syrian Orphanage in 1923, Archbishop Aftimios took the first step towards establishing a network of social and educational institutions to serve the many needs of the faithful entrusted to his care. Unfortunately, the continued strife caused by the “Russy-Antacky” conflict caused the progress to come to an abrupt halt as the Archbishop and his supporters had to devote more and more of their time and resources to fight to maintain the unity of the Diocese. As a result, the dedicated hierarch found himself unable to fulfill the many plans that he had made when he assumed the Mitre.
The decision of Archbishop Aftimios to marry in violation Of the traditions of the Church that he had served faithfully for thirty-five years led to the loss of support of the few people and parishes that had remained loyal to him.
Deserted by all but a few, the Archbishop spent the remaining years quietly with his wife and their son, Paul. Moving first to a small apartment in Wilkes-Barre, the Ofiesh family survived through the generosity of a few persons in Montreal, Canada, who sent regular contributions to their former Archbishop. However, the life of the “retired” hierarch was far from easy. A year after their marriage, a case of tuberculosis forced Mariam (his wife) to seek treatment at a county sanitarium. A short time later Paul, their son, required surgery for a double strangled hernia. Finally, after living for a few years in New Castle, Pennsylvania, the Ofiesh family moved to Kingston, Pennsylvania, where Mariam found a position in 1938 with the State Employment Service. Although he made one unsuccessful effort in response to the pleas of a few supporters from Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1937, to return to active leadership in the Orthodox Church, he spent the remaining years of his life in retirement. He died on July 24, 1966, a few months before his eighty-sixth birthday. Significantly, he left instructions that he should be buried quietly.
Meanwhile, the “Russy,-Antacky” conflict that had dominated the Episcopate of Archbishop Aftimios came to an end. In 1933, Metropolitan Germanos, the leader of the unofficial Antiochian faction returned to the Middle East. Bishop Victor, the Bishop of the official Antiochian Diocese died on April 19, 1934. Bishop Sofronios, who had functioned as an independent hierarch after the demise of the American Orthodox Catholic Church, also died in 1934. Meanwhile, Patriarch Alexander II of Antioch followed the example of his predecessor by attempting to secure the approval of the Russian Orthodox leadership to unite the warring factions of Orthodox Christians in the New World under the Apostolic Throne of Sts. Peter and Paul. As a result of his efforts, Metropolitan Platon informed Bishop Emmanuel on March l0, 1933 of the decision of the Council of Bishops of the Metropolia to release the Diocese of Brooklyn from their authority so that all Arab Orthodox in America could be united under the Patriarchate of Antioch. However, Bishop Emmanuel died on May 30, 1933 before the official unification could take place. After several years of negotiations between the leaders of the various groups of Arab Orthodox in America, Metropolitan Theodosius, the future Patriarch of Antioch, and two Russian Bishops consecrated Archimandrite Antony Bashir to the episcopate on April 19, 1936. Unfortunately, the elevation of Metropolitan Antony did not bring unity to the troubled Syrian Orthodox community in North America. On the very day of Metropolitan Antony’s consecration another group of Bishops elevated Samuel David of Toledo, Ohio to the Episcopate. As a result, the spiritual sons and daughters of the Patriarchate of Antioch in North America remained disunited until 1975.
Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh presided over the Diocese of Brooklyn during one of the most difficult times in the history of Orthodox in the New World. However, despite the many problems that faced him, he never ceased to work for the welfare of the faithful that had been entrusted to him. Realizing the harm that disunity had done to the Orthodox Church in the New World, he did not hesitate to take bold steps to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, he attempted to establish a united independent American Orthodox Church at a time when few were prepared to break their ties with the Church in the homeland of their ancestors. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Bishops became so involved in their own problems in the wake of the Russian Revolution that they failed to provide the leadership necessary to prevent the disintegration of Orthodoxy into separate ethnic jurisdictions, or to minister to the needs of the non-Russians that had been under their jurisdiction before the tragic events of 1917. Significantly, they originally endorsed the plan of Archbishop Aftimios, only to desert him a few years later when they realized the consequences of their actions. Finally, after all but a few loyal supporters had left him, the embattled Archbishop lost all credibility by marrying despite the canon laws of the Church that forbid clergy from entering into Holy Matrimony after ordination to major orders. However, despite his failure, Aftimios Ofiesh deserves a place in the history of American Orthodox as a man of great vision who did not fear to take the steps he considered necessary to end the separation of the Orthodox faithful in North America into rival groups. He also was farsighted enough to recognize the mission of the Orthodox Church to bring the ancient faith of the Apostles to all North Americans regardless of their ethnic heritage.
For a long period of time, not much had been said about the Episcopacy of Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh, It is only during the past Few years that we have been able to gather some information about the bishop and his ministry to the Church in North America. We have rediscovered one of the great luminaries of Orthodoxy man who was before his time. He envisioned necessary institutions for the Church, worked closely with the poor and struggling immigrants, established missions and parishes, and the greatest gift of all – Orthodox administrative unity in the New World for all people, of all ethnic backgrounds. We owe a great deal to his wisdom and vision. If in the later part of his life he felt rejection and failure, it was not because of him; rather it was because we were not ready to share his vision. May the Lord God grant him MEMORY ETERNAL!
Reprinted from THE WORD; June, 1995, pp. 4-8.