An Unusual Orthodoxy
We aren't your average Oklahoma Church. We aren't Evangelical. We aren't even Protestant. But we aren't Roman Catholic either. The history of our church has roots all the way back to Jesus and the Apostles. Our particular branch grows out of the Eastern Orthodox Church. On July 16, 1054, legates from the Pope of Rome interrupted the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and placed a papal bull of excommunication on the altar. The Pope excommunicated the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Ecumenical Patriarch responded by excommunicating the Pope. This divided the Church into the Western (Roman) Catholic Church and Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church. This is known as the Great Schism. It has still not been healed.
The Western Church is divided into Catholic, Anglican, and Protestants, who range from fundamentalist to mainline. While Western Christian theology is dominated by rational philosophy under the influence of Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, Eastern Orthodox theology is based on the mystical experience of Divine Truth. Influenced by the monastic traditions of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Gregory Palamas. In Eastern theology, salvation is understood as a process of union with God. The sacraments, called mysteries, unite us to each other and the Creator in very real and mystical ways. The Liturgy, largely unchanged since the fourth century, uses incense, candles, and icons, and is full of multilayered symbolism and meaning.*
The history of North America provided a unique conundrum for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Canon law, or the regulations decided by the Church in synods or councils, permits only one bishop in any particular territory. But when Orthodox immigrants came to America from Russia, Greece, Syria, and elsewhere, they brought allegiance to their bishops and their church structures with them. Because of this, in the Americas and other “New World” territories there are many bishops with many overlapping dioceses. In the 1920’s an attempt was made to create a unified, self-governing American Orthodox Catholic Church.
Archbishop Aftimios (Ofiesh) of Brooklyn, the immediate successor to St. Raphael of Brooklyn, was consecrated in 1917 by Archbishop Evdokim (Meschersky) of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was elevated to the rank of archbishop in 1923 by Metropolitan Platon (Rozhdestvensky). In 1927, Metropolitan Sergius, locum tenens Patriarch of Moscow, established an autonomous, independent, American Orthodox Catholic Church and Archbishop Aftimios was selected as its first Presiding Bishop.
On September 11, 1927, Archbishop Aftimios consecrated Fr. Emmanuel (Abo-Hatab) as Bishop of Montreal. On May 26, 1928, Archbishop Aftimios consecrated Fr. Sophronios (Bishara) as Bishop of Los Angeles and the West. But the new church faced difficulties from the start. In 1929, internal disputes in the Russian Church, which established the American Orthodox Catholic Church, and an argument between Metropolitan Platon and Archbishop Aftimios, led to open hostility between the two Orthodox groups. In 1930, Bishop Emmanuel left Aftimios and rejoined the Russian Metropolia under Platon. In a certain jab, Emmanuel was given Aftimios's former episcopal see of Brooklyn.
In 1932, unwavered by the Russians, Archbishop Aftimios added two more bishops; Joseph (Zuk) as Bishop for the Ukrainians and Ignatius (Nichols) as Bishop for Western Rite groups. But the fledgling Church struggled to find congregations for their Bishops. Hostility from the Russians, a new Syrian mission from the Patriarch of Antioch, and the Ecumenical Patriarch’s refusal to recognize the new Church created significant obstacles for the American Orthodox Catholic Church.
Problems worsened for the Church in April 1933 when Archbishop Aftimios married. This normally joyous occasion was a violation of Orthodox tradition and canon law. Three days after the wedding, Bishops Ignatius and Joseph issued a statement declaring that Archbishop Aftimios had resigned while voicing their support of Aftimios's marriage, stating, "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 Holy North American Synod congratulates His Eminence on the moral courage in the step he has taken.” Bishop Ignatius married in June 1933. Bishop Joseph denied ever making the statement with Ignatius. Bishop Sofronios deposed Archbishop Aftimios in October and Bishop Ignatius in November of 1933.
On November 7, 1933, Bishop Sophronios consecrated Fr. John Chrysostom (More-Moreno) as Bishop of New York. In February 1934, Bishop Joseph (Zuk) was poisoned on orders from Joseph Stalin. In September 1934, Bishop Sofronios retired from church activities due to health issues, which may have also been linked to Stalin. Bishop John Chrysostom (More-Moreno) succeeded Sofronios as Primate of the Church. Bishop Sofronios died on October 8, 1940. In 1989, his remains were transferred, along with those of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, to the Antiochean Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.
As a priest, Fr. John Chrysostom (More-Moreno) had established the Church of the Redeemer, a predominantly Black congregation on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. As Bishop, he relocated to the Cathedral of Our Savior in Manhattan. In 1951, the name of the Church was changed to the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church in America (EOCCIA). In 1955, one of its priests, Fr. Gregory R.P. Adair, established the American Review of Eastern Orthodoxy, a journal which ran until 1973. On June 22, 1958, Bishop John Chrysostom (More-Moreno) consecrated Gregory and his brother John R.C. Adair as Bishops in the EOCCIA. Later that year, Bishop John Chrysostom (More-Moreno) reposed in the Lord. Bishop Gregory (Adair) succeeded him as Primate.
In 1959, the Cathedral of Our Savior in New York City was sold to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Bishop Gregory moved the congregation to a church in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Bishop John moved to Florida where Three Hierarchs Seminary was established as well as the Church of St. John Chrysostom in Maitland, Florida.
In the mid 1970s, disagreement as to the future of the EOCCIA led to a division of influence. Bishop Gregory would oversee the churches in Dobbs Ferry, New York; New Haven, Connecticut; and Amherst, Massachusetts. Bishop John would oversee the congregations in Florida, with Fr. Mark Schulz, Fr. Dismas Markle, and Fr. Nicholas Bellos as priests.But Bishop John was called to a new vision of church as poustinia, and soon set off on a quest to find a suitable location to establish a place of welcome and rest for all spiritual seekers.
In 1976, construction began on our Farm House, which Bishop John dedicated to providing a place of refuge for anyone God sent along. In 1978, John married Kay Kerr who shared his vision of welcome and the two worked together to build St. Francis of the Woods. Bishop John retired from activities in the EOCCIA and on September 27, 1981, Bishop Dismas Markle, was elected Presiding Bishop of the EOCCIA. In 1990, Bishop Dismas ordained Fr. Jim Riggs who served as St. Francis of the Woods' priest for many years. In 2015, Bishop Dismas ordained Fr. Columba "Brad" Wilson to serve as priest at St. Francis of the Woods. On September 1, 2019, Bishop Dismas consecrated Fr. Columba as Bishop Aidan of the Prairie. The Church was renamed the Ecumenical Orthodox Catholic Church in America, as an acknowledgement of its open and inclusive theology and practice.
A generous donation was made by the EOCCIA toward the construction of St. Francis Chapel at St. Francis of the Woods, but St. Francis of the Woods has always been an independent ecumenical church and nonprofit organization, governed by a Board of Directors. We don't pretend that our history makes us important or gives us canonical legitimacy within the Eastern Orthodox Church. But our history provides an inseverable link to this ancient tradition.
At St. Francis of the Woods, our vision is to build a radically inclusive ecumenical community united in the healing work of love and service to one another, to the Creator, and to this land, by reflecting Franciscan ideals and honoring our roots in Eastern Orthodoxy. Everyone is welcome here.
*For more on the Eastern Orthodox Church or its theology, check out The Orthodox Church by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware - we have a copy in the Cimarron Heights Library.