A Condensed History of the Orthodox Western Rite

Any history of the Western Rite movement of the Orthodox Church should properly begin with Saints Cyril and Methodius, who operated during the ninth century in Moravia and Dalmatia. With the blessing of Pope Adrian II, later confirmed by Pope John VIII, these saintly brothers offered the Roman Mass in the vernacular to the people they were evangelizing. When offering the Roman Liturgy, they employed what is sometimes called “The Liturgy of St Gregory,” whose liturgical forms were set by the 6thcentury and codified by Pope St Gregory the Great (known as Dialogus). Since Ss Cyril and Methodius they did not know Latin, they relied on a Greek-language 7thcentury Gregorian Sacramentary. Evidence of their work includes the seven Glagolytic (the pre-Cyrillic alphabet) leaves brought from Jerusalem to Theological Academy of Kiev in 1874. These date from 9th century, and are the oldest relics of the Roman Liturgy in Slavonic. This Roman Liturgy was still in use in Dalmatia (perhaps updated and revised) until the 1970s when the Novus Ordo liturgy came into use.

A few centuries later, in 985 AD, a Western Rite Benedictine Monastery was founded on Mount Athos. This monastery was located just north of the great Lavra, but not so far up as Philotheou. It was not an insignificant house, but a ruling monastery, and so part of the governing council of the peninsula. 

More recently, in 1865, Dr. Joseph J. Overbeck, who was a Priest of the Roman Church, converted to Orthodoxy in London. Dr Overbeck was a German, teaching on the Theological Faculty in Bonn. Upon converting, he began publishing the “Orthodox Catholic Review” which appeared in 1867. He also petitioned the Holy Synod of the Russian Church in St Petersburg to allow him to use the Western Liturgy [i.e., the Missale Romanum, together with the Rituale and Breviary] for missionary purposes. In September 1869, the Holy Synod approved the Liturgy [Missale Romanum] with the addition of the Epiclesis from St John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, as well as the Trisagion, at least twice in Greek, “in memory of the union with the Orthodox Church.” 

In 1870-1871, the Church of Rome experienced its third major schism when the “Old Catholics” rejected the novelty of papal infallibility. In order to strengthen a mission to the newly formed Old-Catholic movement, in August 1879 Dr. Overbeck went to Constantinople to plead for a statement from them similar to the one granted by the Holy Synod of Moscow. In 1882, based on a favorable report from the liturgical committee, the Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III and the Synod of Constantinople approved the use of the Latin Liturgy and the Benedictine offices, as had Russia, but with the provision that other Orthodox Patriarchs needed to give their approval as well. Overbeck continued to work from England where, most unfortunately, the Anglican Church began working against him. Through government contacts, they succeeded in preventing any monetary support from Russia for his mission. Overbeck died in 1905 without seeing any real growth from his movement. However, his work made all subsequent work possible.

In 1890-1891, in the United States, Fr. Joseph Rene Vilatte was pastoring a parish of Swiss Old Catholics and Episcopalians in Fond du Lac Wisconsin. Wishing to regularize his canonical status, Vilatte asked to be received under the omophorion of Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky, the representative of the Russian Church in the United States. The Episcopalian Bishop of Fond du Lac, Charles Chapman Grafton, opposed Vilatte, suspending him. Bishop Vladimir wrote to "announce to all clergyman of different Christian denominations and to all Old Catholics, that The Reverend Joseph Rene Vilatte, Superior of the Old Catholic Parish of Dyckesville, Wisconsin, is now a true Old Catholic Orthodox Christian, under the patronage of our Church, and no Bishop or Priest of any denomination has the right to interdict him or suspend his religious duties, except the Holy Synod of the Russian Church, and myself. Any action contrary to this action is null and void on the basis of liberty of conscience and laws of this country.” (Source). What is significant for our purposes is that Fr Vilatte used the Overbeck liturgy in the vernacular. In 1892, in the Spring, the new Russian Bishop Nicholas Ziorov of Alaska made a pastoral visit to this first American Western Rite parish. Fr Vilatte left, however, to become a Bishop of the Jacobite Indian Church and form any number of non-canonical parishes.

In 1898, a Western Rite Diocese was organized in Czechoslovakia under the Russian Synod. After World War I, Bishop Gorazd Pavlik was received into Orthodoxy in Prague as the head of a Western Orthodox Diocese. In order to survive the political situations leading up to World War II, the diocese became Eastern Rite, and Bishop Gorazd was martyred. He was later glorified as a Saint and is commemorated on September 4 in the Western Rite Vicariate. On August 8, 1926, Bishop Alexis of Grodno was received with several parishes of Western Rite Orthodoxy in Poland, only one of which survived World War II. After World War II, Fr Andrew Gushko was received into the Orthodox Church in Poland under the Ecumenical Patriarchate with six Western Rite parishes.

In 1904, at the request of Bishop Raphael (Hawaweeny) and the instigation of Bishop Tikhon of New York (later to become Patriarch of Moscow and martyr under the Communist yoke), the Russian Holy Synod reviewed the 1892 edition of the American Book of Common Prayer. They approved its use by Western Rite parishes with the addition of the Epiclesis, and the insertion of the historic Western prayers which the Reformation had deleted (specifically, prayers for the intercessions of the Virgin and the Saints), and other additions from the 1869 Western Rite Liturgy.

In 1911, Bishop Arnold Harris Mathew, Old Catholic Bishop of London, was received into Orthodoxy by Bishop Gerassimus Messara of Beirut who acted as agent for the Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarch of Alexandria also formally recognized Bishop Mathew and his diocese. Bishop Mathew published the periodical, “The Torch,” which advocated Western Orthodoxy. Once again, the Anglican Church brought political power to bear to contain and diminish the movement. Even though pressured and bribed, however, the Eastern Patriarchs would not revoke their endorsement of Bishop Mathew.

In 1922, Metropolitan Gerassimus Messara came to America with his Deacon Antony Bashir. While here, the Metropolitan made many overtures to the Episcopal Church which, at that time, bore no fruit. His Deacon, however, later become Metropolitan of New York and in May 1958 welcomed the Western Rite into his Archdiocese. 

On February 2, 1927, the synod of bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in America authorized the formation of the “American Jurisdiction,” which included a Western Rite missionary outreach under the direction of Archbishop Aftimios Ofeish of Brooklyn. On September 29, 1932 Bishop Ignatius Nichols was consecrated as the Bishop of Washington DC and given oversight of the Western Rite parishes. In 1934, Bishop Ignatius was elevated to Archbishop by the Holy Synod of Moscow. After the Russian Church in the United States separated from Moscow formally at the 1934 Cleveland Sobor, the Western Rite Diocese was de-facto independent. 

In June 1936, Metropolitan Sergius Stragorodsky (later Patriarch) received 1500 French Western Rite faithful into Orthodoxy. In 1960, some of these were under the Synod of the Russian Church in Exile. Others were received by the Roman Patriarchate where they remain today.

In that same year, Archbishop Ignatius incorporated the semi-independent diocese of Western Rite parishes as the Holy Orthodox Church in America in order to provide for the security, preservation, and continuance of the parishes. In November 1936, Archbishop Ignatius consecrated Alexander Turner as assistant Bishop for the Diocese. Nine years later, Bishop Alexander succeeded Archbishop Ignatius when the latter reposed.

In 1953, Bishop Alexander Turner and three parishes with one monastery were received “on probation” from the Holy Orthodox Church in America by Metropolitan Antony Bashir of the Syrian (Antiochian) Orthodox Archdiocese. Five years later, Patriarch Alexander III of Antioch requested Metropolitan Antony to welcome these parishes into the Archdiocese, forwarding to the latter the 1936 Ukaz of the Russian Synod saying, “take the same action.” A few months later, at the Archdiocese Convention in San Francisco, Metropolitan Antony issued his “Western Rite Edict,” formally establishing the Western Rite Vicariate of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.

During Holy Week 1961, after several years of “provisional status,” chrismations and ordinations took place bringing these Western Rite parishes fully into the Archdiocese. Their former bishop, the Rt. Rev. Alexander Turner, served as the first Vicar General under Metropolitan Antony. The Metropolitan appointed a “Western Rite Commission” consisting of Fr. Paul Schneirla, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and Fr. Stephen Upson. During this time, some other Western Rite parishes were received into the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. 

When Fr Alexander reposed in 1971, the V Rev Paul Schneirla was appointed in his place and administered the Vicariate. During his tenure, the Vicariate grew steadily and Incarnation Church in Detroit became, with the blessing of Metropolitan Philip in 1977, the first parish ever to use the revised 1892 American BCP liturgy as edited by the 1904 Holy Synod of Moscow. 

When Fr Paul retired in 2009, his assistant, the V Rev Edward Hughes, was appointed Vicar General by Metropolitan Philip.

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