History of the MTOC - THE ST. THOMAS CHRISTIANS IN AMERICA
1889 A.D. - PRESENT
The St. Thomas Christians in America can be generalized into two distinct groups: the independent catholic and orthodox churches established by Archbishop Joseph Mar Timotheos I Vilatte in 1892 (often labeled as “Old Catholic”), and the Syro-Indian ethnic churches (Malankara/Mar Thoma) established primarily by immigrants from the Middle East and India since the 1960’s.
The Orthodox and Catholic jurisdictions in America that claim the common Thomasine tradition include: the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Indian Orthodox Church, The Mar Thoma Church, The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, The Malabar Independent Syrian Church, The American Church of the East, The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church, and the Federation of St. Thomas Christians.
There exists also many other independent churches that derive their apostolic succession from St. Thomas, but these do not specifically identify with the Syro-Indian tradition. Our emphasis here will be those American churches that have a specific historical connection with the Thomasine lineage.
The first Thomasine lineage in America was established in 1892, long before the arrival of Indian and Syrian immigrants. Due to a variety of historical factors, the first St. Thomas Christian Church in America developed its own identity over the course of the last 100 years, separate and distinct from its eastern counterpart. Today there is a small, but growing, number of this American group of St. Thomas Christians that specifically hold to the Thomasine and Syriac traditions. Other groups in this lineage worship according to western rites and customs. This is primarily because most of the original St. Thomas Christians of America were of European and African descent and consequently converts from either Roman Catholicism or various Protestant denominations.
Each of these respective groups have had limited relations with one another, but as will be demonstrated below, there have been some significant interactions between them. Before examining these American St. Thomas jurisdictions, we will first mention their common ancient and apostolic roots.
We should also mention here that the recently popularized Gospel of Thomas is not recognized as Holy Scripture by most Thomasine Churches, including the MTOC. This is stated so that readers do not confuse modern movements associated with gnosticism with the historic Oriental Orthodox tradition. The Gospel of Thomas is read with great interest by most scholars of Christianity, and it is an important discovery from a historical perspective and the development of ancient Christian doctrine. St. Thomas Christians are those who share a common lineage with Indian Christianity, but there are no direct links between this historic church and the now popularized Gospel of Thomas.
While the Church in India was struggling to maintain its Thomasine identity, the colonial landscape in North America presented different, yet related, challenges. European immigrants in North America were accompanied by their respective Christian traditions, primarily Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. During the formative years of the United States, virtually all Christian traditions in America were of western origin. Christians who identified themselves to be orthodox catholics had only the Roman Catholic Church or the (Anglican) Episcopal Church in which they could worship. It was in this context that a Frenchman named Fr. Rene Vilatte (later Mar Timotheos I) came on the scene.
Joseph Rene Vilatte was born near Paris, France on January 24, 1854. His parents, Joseph Rene Vilatte Sr. and Marie Antoinette Chaurin, were members of the Petite Eglise, a non-Papal Catholic Church in France. Such churches, often referred to as “Old Catholic”, maintained the historic episcopate, Latin rites, and often appealed to pre-Vatican I practices of the Roman Church.
Both of Vilatte’s parents died while he was very young and he was raised in an orphanage in Paris run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. After the Franco-Prussian war, the young Vilatte witnessed the bloody massacres between religious factions, which undoubtedly influenced his decision to emigrate to North America.
Vilatte received training for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church St. Laurent College near Montreal, Canada. However, the young seminarian had theological objections to some of the dogmas that were ratified in the Vatican I Council in 1870. Vilatte especially renounced the notion of papal infallibility. After three years at St. Laurent College, he decided that he could no longer personally reconcile his views of apostolic catholicity with those being promulgated by Rome. In his memoir Vilatte wrote, “The teaching of the seminary was so rabidly Romanist that all other beliefs were condemned as heresies, which brought eternal damnation to all that accepted them.” This universal condemnation by Rome included any Church outside of its jurisdiction, including the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches, despite the fact that these ancient traditions share common apostolic origins.
It was at this point in his vocation that Vilatte envisioned a church in America that would return to the ancient apostolic roots of Christianity, while at the same time remaining independent (autocephalous) and self-governing. Vilatte fervently believed in the historic episcopate, sacraments, and conciliar ecumenicism. This understanding of the apostolic faith is congruent with the longstanding history of the Church Universal in which the common union was held together by mutual consensus of the local Church with its counterparts from other geographic locations. The Church was one, not because of obedience to a single hierarchical magistrate, but by declaring the common faith as handed down through Holy Traditions through the historical episcopate.
Villate was concerned that the Roman Church traditions had obscured the ancient faith, and in turn, the Protestant religion had abandoned it completely. “I saw plainly while on the one hand Romanism has added much error and corruption to the primitive faith, Protestantism had not only taken away Roman errors, but also a part of the primitive deposit of faith.”
As Vilatte was confirming these discoveries, he attended ministerial training program at McGill University and graduated in 1884. Prior to his resignation from the Roman Catholic Church, Vilatte had served as a catechist and teacher, working closely with several ethnic groups that had recently immigrated to the Midwestern United States. Most of these ethnic groups were from Europe and did not speak English. At that time there were no priests or bishops ministering to the settlers in their native languages, and it was Vilatte who supported them with religious education.
Anglican Bishop, J.H. Hobart Brown, of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin befriended Rene Vilatte and supported his mission to the ethnic settlers in the region. Initially, Bishop Brown tried to convince Vilatte to join the Anglican (Episcopal) Church as a priest. Despite his friendship with Bishop Brown, Vilatte expressed his reservations in joining the Anglican Communion. His primary objection was that Anglican Orders were considered invalid by Rome, and the ethnic settlers that Vilatte was serving at that time were Roman Catholic. They would not accept a priest with Anglican Orders. Additionally, Vilatte did not accept some of the reformation teachings of the Protestant church. Through further discussions, Bishop Brown and Vilatte determined that the best way to facilitate ministry to the ethnic settlers would be to bring these congregations into the jurisdiction of the Old Catholics, a self-governing Catholic Church that began in Europe.
The Old Catholic Church originated with mainly German-speaking groups that split from the Rome in the 1870s because they disagreed with the solemn declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility. The term "Old Catholic" was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht who were not under papal authority. As the groups that split from Rome in the 1870s had no bishop, they joined Utrecht to form the Union of Utrecht. This Old Catholic Church still exists today and it is recognized as an autocephalous jurisdiction by Rome and the World Council of Churches.
It seemed best to both Vilatte and Bishop Brown, that his ordination into the priesthood would be best facilitated under the auspices of the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht. This would provide Vilatte with Holy Orders considered valid by the Roman Catholic settlers that he was to serve. This would also help to fulfill Vilatte’s dream of an independent American Catholic Church. On behalf of Rene Vilatte, Bishop Brown composed a letter to Bishop Herzog of the Old Catholic Church in Switzerland.
My Dear Brother,
Permit me to introduce to your confidence and esteem the bearer of this letter, Mr. René Vilatte, a candidate for Holy Orders in the diocese of Fond du Lac. Mr. Vilatte is placed in peculiar circumstances. Educated for the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, he found himself unable to receive the recent Vatican Decrees, and for a short time associated himself with the Presbyterian communion, but, at last, by the mercy of God, was led into contact with this branch of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. He resided for a while at Green Bay, a city of this diocese. In the neighborhood of this place there are settled about 30,000 Belgians. Of these a large number, probably 8,000, are believed to be inclined to the principles of a pure and primitive Catholicism. Several delegations of these Belgians have waited on Mr. Vilatte, and besought him to become their priest. Mr. Vilatte’s character for piety, sobriety, purity, intelligence and prudence has been attested to the satisfaction of the authorities of this diocese. Our canons, however, require a longer probation as a Candidate than the exigency of the circumstances will bear. At the suggestion of Pere Hyacinthe [Loyson] approved by the Bishop of Connecticut and other Bishops, and by the Faculty of Nashotah Seminary, and by me, Mr. Vilatte approaches you, requesting you to ordain him to the priesthood, as speedily as you can find possible that he may enter upon the great work to which he seems specially summoned. It has been expedient to us to send him to you that he may learn personally something of the aims and spirit of the great movement of which you are a recognized leader and to be fitted to co-operate with you in some degree in this country. Mr. Vilatte’s pecuniary means are limited and he desires to be absent from this diocese as short a time as possible. I ask you to ordain him to the priesthood and attest his character, briefly but sufficiently, by saying that I am willing to ordain him, if it should not seem expedient to you so to do.
Truly and lovingly your brother and servant,
in the Holy Church of our Lord,
J. H. HOBART BROWN,
Bishop of Fond du Lac
Bishop Herzog and the Holy Synod in Utrecht agreed to this letter of nomination, and Joseph Rene Vilatte was ordained into the priesthood in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Bern, Switzerland on July 7th, 1885. Fr. Vilatte returned to the United States where he immediately began to establish missions in the Midwestern States including the Church of the Precious Blood in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
These new American Catholic missions served settlers from countries such as Belgium, France, Poland, and Italy. Fr. Vilatte also attracted the Francophone (French speaking) settlers by offering church services in their native tongue. While the Roman Catholic Churches still conducted services in Latin, a language the common people did not understand, Vilatte used the French version of the Swiss Catholic liturgy, issued by Bishop Herzog in 1880.
Fr. Vilatte’s missionary work in America quickly proved to be successful. Bishop Brown continued to support Vilatte's ministry until his death in May 1888. After Bishop Brown’s demise, there was a mounting opposition to the new American Catholic Church. The new Anglican Bishop, Dr. Charles Chapman Grafton, was not as amicable and sought to impede the mission of the church that was free from Anglican jurisdiction. Bishop Grafton even used his political influence to seize several of Fr. Vilatte’s church properties. He did this by breaking an earlier promise to hold these properties in trust on behalf of Vilatte.
It was also during this time that the Anglican Church and the Old Catholic Church were considering the possibility of some type of union. The issue of Fr. Vilatte’s disputes with the Anglican Church became a point of contention between these jurisdictions. Due to such pressures, the Old Catholic bishops decided to withdraw from any further development of the American Catholic Church with Fr. Vilatte.
Further persecutions were initiated by he Roman Catholic Bishops who engaged in relentless attempts prevent further growth of his missions. However, Fr. Vilatte was vigilant in his belief that the New World needed its own orthodox catholic church. Thus, Fr. Vilatte began to look eastward for an apostolic body that would support his missionary work in America. This search finally led him to India where he found the support of Mar Julius Alvarez, Archbishop of the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa, and India.
The Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon, Goa, and India was formed in 1888 under Mar Julius I, who was consecrated in 1889 by St. Gregorios of Parumala, Metropolitan Athanasius Paulos of Aluva, and Malankara Metropolitan Dionysius Joseph II. This church maintained relations with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (Mar Ignatius Peter III), and was permitted to continue its Latin or Western rite liturgical practices.
Support for Vilatte's consecration came from this church, through Father Bernard Harding, a priest in Roman orders who had been a missionary there. Fr. Harding petitioned the Synod who in turn recommended the consecration of Fr. Vilatte. Mar Julius gave a positive answer to their request and stated that he had to consult with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius Peter III, to whom he owed his obedience, and with his colleagues, the Syrian Malabar bishops of India.
The patriarch gave his permission for Vilatte’s consecration in a bull that was issued in Mardine, on December 29, 1891. The consecration took place in the Cathedral of Our of Good Death, in Colombo, on May 29, 1892. Indian Malabar bishops Mar Paul Athanasius (Kottayam) and St. Gregorious of Parumala (Niranam) acted as co-consecrators. U.S. Council, William Morey acted as official witness. The new Archbishop was given the name “Mar Timotheos I, Archbishop of North America.”
It is important to recognize that the Indian consecrators designated Mar Timotheos I as the presiding Archbishop over an independent American Orthodox Church. There has been much subsequent debate over this fact, some claiming that Vilatte must have sworn loyalty to the See of Antioch, but thus far no such evidence has surfaced to substantiate anything other than the approval of an autocephalous jurisdiction. At this time the Indian and Syrian churches were in no position to oversee such a mission in the New World. Mar Timotheos I was clearly commissioned by his consecrators to be qualified to lead the newly established American Catholic Church, knowing the inevitable opposition he would face from the Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) Churches.
Returning to Wisconsin, Mar Timotheos I established his see at Duvall at the pro-cathedral of St. Mary’s.
The Thomasine “American Catholic Church” 1892-1915
Mar Timotheos I founded many churches during his 23 years of ministry in America. However, his work continued to be met with heavy suspicion and persecution by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. This persecution in some ways resembled the situation in India. There is no doubt that the troubles the church faced during this period continued to affect the growth, security, and unity of the faithful for many years to come.
The church established by Mar Timotheos I became known as the “American Catholic Church.” However, the Archbishop’s efforts also produced other continuing jurisdictions such as the Polish National Catholic Church, The African Orthodox Church, The Christian Catholic Church of Canada, and the American Church of the East. Today the Polish National Catholic Church remains a vibrant tradition and fully recognized by Rome. Mar Timotheos was also instrumental in founding St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
The American Catholic Church (Mar Timotheos I) did not maintain close ties with the Independent Catholic Church of Goa or the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. At this time in history, political and religious turmoil in both the east and the west predominated the lives of the faithful throughout the world. The eastern churches were engulfed in their own struggles and pressures which posed a continual threat to its survival and identity.
The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Mar Ignatious Peter III, died in 1894, just two years after his historic mandate to consecrate Mar Timotheos I for the American Archdiocese. Mar Ignatious Peter IV was succeeded by Mar Ignatius Abdul Masih II in 1895. This was a very turbulent time for the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Patriarch was deposed in 1905. This caused a split in the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, which continues to this day.
World War I was approaching, and with it a plethora of dangers, which also greatly affected the Syrian Orthodox Churches. The Eastern Thomasine church continued to struggle with internal conflict and colonial pressures, while the American church, realizing its need for inculturation, continued its distinct mission in the west. Although they shared a common apostolic lineage, communication between the American Church and the Syrian-Indian Church ceased.
The St. Thomas Christians of America continued to develop its own identity and had to deal with its own internal challenges. This important point in history is often overlooked by those who challenge the American Church’s autonomy. Conciliar dialogue, unfortunately, has often been overshadowed by polemical redaction and glossing over this challenging historical period by those that wish to portray their own tradition as certain and superior.
In 1915, Mar Timotheos I organized “The American Catholic Community Church Council”. He wrote the “Faith and Order Declaration and the Episcopal Succession of the Christian Catholic Church Rite”. Mar Timotheos I also wrote the Episcopal oath that was to be adhered to by succeeding bishops. It later became part of the 'Council' Constitution.
By this time, it was clear that the American church was established as an independent jurisdiction of the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Accordingly, Mar Timotheos I took measures to ensure the continuation of the episcopacy, and to expand the missions of the American Catholic Church. The American context, however, proved to be ground upon which sustained challenges to identity and growth continued.
Missions growth and Succession - 1915-1963
On December 19, 1915, the English speaking office of Mar Timotheos I passed to Frederick E. Lloyd (1859-1933), consecrated as Mar Timotheos II. Mar Timotheos I (Vilatte) also consecrated bishops for the French, Polish, and Italian speaking communities. African Americans, due to many years of oppression and slavery, were also without Episcopal leadership. In a very progressive move for the time, Mar Timotheos I consecrated the first African-American bishop to serve this struggling community. This church became known as the African Orthodox Church.
Each of these new dioceses serving particular ethnic communities maintained their own clergy, rites, and succession. For example, the French speaking church under Bishop C.F. Durand continued to establish communities primarily in Canada. In cooperation with Mar Timotheos I, this Canadian jurisdiction was also instrumental in founding the International Community of Christian Churches, which is now a full member of the World Council of Churches.
In 1922 Mar Timotheos I resigned from the American Catholic Community Church Council and appointed to the office, Mar Timotheos II. As the new Archbishop of the American Catholic Church, Mar Timotheos II established more missions in Chicago, New England, and upstate New York.
Mar Timotheos I (Vilatte) returned to France and lived for three years in Paris; and in 1925, entered the Common Observance Cistercian Abbey of Port Colbert, near Versailles. He died there from a heart attack on July 1, 1929 and was buried the following day at Godard Roman Catholic Cemetery in Versailles. Mar Timotheos I was buried with full honor and dignity of a Bishop. Abbot Janssens of the Cistercian monastery ordered that he lie in sate in his episcopal vestments and mitered. (Ref. B. Vignot, Les Églises parallèles, Le Cerf, Paris, 1991, p.36).
Mar Timotheos II was succeeded by Mar Gregory (Samuel Gregory Lines) in 1923, whose primary focus was establishing a viable community on the West Coast (Archbishop of the Province of the Pacific for the American Catholic Church). During his episcopacy, the American St. Thomas Churches continued to grow. The American Catholic Church under Mar Gregory facilitated cooperation among the various ethnic dioceses. Mar Gregory’s own Episcopal jurisdiction served the English population. Then in 1933, Mar Gregory Lines consecrated Fr. Howard E. Mathew who assumed the name of Mar Houardus.
1933-1963 The Federation of St. Thomas Christians of America
Mar Houardus succeeded Mar Gregory Lines, and he maintained a long episcopacy. He was known as a stern conservative orthodox archbishop who worked tirelessly to bring cohesion and dignity to the apostolic lineage of the American Church. He was opposed to the liberal changes taking place in the Episcopal Church during that time. Under Mar Houardus, the American Churches grew stronger and he established educational facilities on both coasts. The American Apostolic University was founded in the State of Oregon and maintains its headquarters in Santa Cruz, CA.
It should be mentioned here that the church remained primarily Latin rite from its inception. However, some changes began to occur in the 1960’s when many clergy in the Vilatte lineage began to take interest in their Thomasine and Antiochian identity.
The American Church Rediscovers its Eastern Heritage
On August 26, 1963, Mar Hourdas consecrated the Rev. Dr. Joseph L. Vredenburg as Mar Narsai. Before joining the St. Thomas Christians, Mar Narsai was a scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary and a clergyman in the Dutch Reformed Church. Mar Narsai recognized the need to affirm the Thomasine heritage for the American Church, and he was an instrumental founder of the Federation of St. Thomas Christians during the same year of consecration.
For several decades, Dr. Joseph Mar Narsai served congregations in New York and California culminating in a year's work in British Samoa (1977-78). Upon his return from Samoa, Vredenburgh settled in Santa Cruz, California to resume his oversight of The Federation of St. Thomas Christians, an ecumenical umbrella organization for Thomasine churches in the United States. The Federation increased its ecumenical efforts to reconcile the various independent jurisdictions by allowing each to govern itself while subscribing to a common declaration of faith and doctrine. Each community was allowed to continue their distinctive expression of worship (eastern or western) and to ordain their own clergy. A number of small jurisdictions, many of which have derived from the Church of Antioch, affiliated with the federation. By 1983, there were approximately 30 ministries and churches in the federation.
Mar Narsai also made sincere attempts to attain positive relations with Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions, including the East Syrian Church (Chaldean). Such ecumenical efforts led to a fraternal relationship with Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun of the Assyrian Church of the East. Mar Narsai maintained regular correspondence with Mar Eshai Shimun whose steadfast friendship was maintained until the Patriarch’s death.
While acknowledging the importance of ecumenical relations with other apostolic jurisdictions, Mar Narsai believed that the independence of the American Archdiocese is essential to serve in its distinctive cultural context. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Mar Narsai worked to promote the study of Syriac, the spiritual language of the ancient churches of Antioch and India. While most of the Federation churches continued to be western rite, some churches sought to reappropriate eastern oriental rites with Mar Narsai’s blessing.
From left to right: Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Koorilose (India), Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Enoch, and Deacon Avi Penhollow (now Mar Abraham) in Fresno, California 2001. Mar Koorilose was a close friend of the MTOC and worked closely with the clergy to establish ecumenical relations and educational programs regarding Syriac Orthodox Christianity.
Mar Timotheos I (Rene Villate) was consecrated in 1892 by Syrian Orthodox Metropolitans in India. His consecration was ordered by the Patriarch of Antioch. He was appointed to be the self-governing Metropolitan Archbishop of North America.
Patriarchal Bull of Mar Ignatius Peter II commissioning the consecration of Rene Vilatte as Mar Timotheos I of North America in 1891
St. Gregorios of Parumala
Mar Gregorios is a celebrated saint in the Indian Orthodox Church and one of the three Bishops to consecrate Mar Timotheos I. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church believes it was the divine will that brought such a great servant of God to see the wisdom in elevating Fr. Vilatte to oversee the new American Archdiocese.
Mar Paulos Athanasios of Kottyam
Metropolitan of Kottayam in the Syrian Orthodox Church and co-consecrator of Mar Timotheos I.
kkMar Julius I Alvarez
Archbishop of the Independent Catholic Church of Ceylon and one of the three bishops to consecrate Archbishop Rene Vilatte (Mar TImotheos I) as Metropolitan of North America.