Who We Are
The History of the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church
A Brief Sketch by Metropolitan Archbishop Avi Mar Abraham Penhollow
“When all will love each other and work together for the social well-being, spiritually united to Christ, under the bond of love (Luke 14:23), God Reigning in their consciences, then union on disputed points will be achieved.”
Rene Mar Timotheos I Vilatte (1854 - 1929)
First Metropolitan Archbishop of North America
“Until the Church is one, it does not have the right to determine absolute doctrine. As long as the Church remains divided, it is unable to make a declaration on absolute doctrine”
Veron Mar Enoch Ashe (1968 - 2014)
Founding Metropolitan Archbishop MTOC
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."
Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan
Hidden among America's rich cultural and religious diversity is the ancient Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. This historic lineage came to North America from India where the tradition traces its origins all the way back to the first century. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church is a part of this great story. To understand how our modern spiritual family is connected to the original church of the apostles who were enlightened and empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost, we must travel back to the first century and the dusty roads of Jerusalem.
After the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, He commissioned his twelve apostles to go throughout the world preaching the gospel. As they established communities throughout the Roman Empire, the apostles appointed overseers of these churches who each maintained the teachings and presided the celebration of Holy Communion. This pattern of worship and leadership is what the ancient churches considered to be “apostolic”.
This may surprise some Protestant Christians who are mostly familiar with their own reformation history which came out of Roman Catholicism. Many Christians still do not know that one third of Christians worldwide are Orthodox, and that these churches are the oldest expressions of the faith in the world. By appearances alone, modern Christians often assume that Orthodox Christians are the same as Roman Catholics in belief and practice. As we continue our journey to uncover the history of the MTOC, we will set aside most of this discussion of doctrine and address it at it arises in the telling. However, if you cannot wait to learn what Orthodox churches believe, you may check out some of the websites on our resources page. Let us now turn back to our history.
All Catholic and Orthodox churches today claim that they can trace their organic lineage back to at least one of these apostles of Jesus Christ. This is true for the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and several other Christian jurisdictions including the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church. The concept of this transmission of doctrine, tradition, and lineage of bishops is known as apostolic succession.
"Mar Thoma" means "Master Thomas" who was one of the Twelve Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Thomas Christians are those who belong to the apostolic churches that trace their lineage back to 52 A.D. in India where tradition holds that St. Thomas established seven churches on the Malabar Coast (Kerala). These churches are sometimes known by the name "Malankara".
Remember that apostolic succession means that the lineage can be traced back to Jesus Christ through one of his apostles. In the case of the MTOC and other St. Thomas Christians, there is also another line of succession which comes from St. Peter the Apostle. This disciple of Jesus was established as bishop of Antioch. It was here that the ancient patriarchate of Antioch was formed and still exists today. The Orthodox church of India has St. Thomas as it’s founder, but it later established strong ties with the “See of St. Peter in Antioch.” This is a very generalized and short version of the story, but our goal is to establish a quick understanding before going more in depth.
Here we highlight that the descendants of these St. Thomas communities claim a 2000 year old tradition that continues to this day, and it is from this great tradition that the seeds of all St. Thomas Christians in America are derived. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church maintains it's succession from it's historical relationship with the Indian church since 1892 when the first Archbishop of North America (Mar Timotheos I) was consecrated by Syrian Orthodox bishops in India. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church can trace it’s list of bishops all the way back to St. Peter the Apostle through its connection with the ancient Syriac church in India.
The American lineage timeline for the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church is as follows:
1889 – Mar Julius Alvarez (Archbishop of India)
1892 – Mar Timotheos I Vilatte (First American Archbishop)
1915 – Mar Timotheos II Lloyd
1923 – Mar Gregory Lines
1933 - Mar Houardus Mather
1963 – Mar Narsai Vredenburg
1998 – Mar Enoch Ashe
2014 – Mar Abraham Penhollow
Our story is far from complete without mentioning Archbishop Veron Ashe (Mar Enoch). Archbishop Ashe is widely known in Protestant churches for his dynamic and prophetic preaching (see videos of Archbishop Ashe in our resources section). Before becoming an Orthodox bishop, Veron Ashe pastored communities in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. He invited many to join him on the journey into the ancient faith, and this became what is now the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church. We will explore this modern history later and how Archbishop Ashe became Mar Enoch. You can choose to jump to that section of our history now or continue to learn about how the St. Thomas tradition developed over the centuries.
Explore more history:
Mar Timotheos I (Rene Vilatte)
Mar Enoch (Veron Ashe)
Mar Abraham (Avi Penhollow)
Mar Enoch with His Holiness Mar Baselios Mathews, then Catholicose of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India.