HISTORY OF THE MAR THOMA ORTHODOX CHURCH
“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.”
Mar Timotheos I
(Joseph Rene Vilatte)
First Archbishop of North America
"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 known my the
name "Malankara". The lineage (apostolic succession) of the MTOC
is primarily derived
from the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church of India. Although St.
Thomas is the apostle from which the Indian Church was derived, certain
historical events formed a strong relationship between the Malankara
and the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (Syria). The
importance here is that the Indian church maintains an apostolic
succession all the way back to both St. Thomas and St Peter. The
Mar Thoma Orthodox Church maintains
it's succession from it's historical relationship with the Indian
church since 1892.
The following history is only a brief sketch, written by Presiding
Bishop of the MTOC, Dr. Avi Mar Abraham Penhollow. It's
purpose is to
provide a context for those interested in the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church
and it's relationship to the greater community of St. Thomas Christians
I. The American Churches of St. Thomas, Antiochian
lineage since 1889
II. Introduction: The Thomasine Tradition in America
III. Syro-Indian roots of Thomasine Christianity
IV. Origins of the American Lineage
V. First American Archbishop, Mar Timotheos I
VI. The Thomasine “American Catholic Church” 1892-1915
VII. Missions growth and Succession - 1915-1963
VIII. The American Church looks East
IX. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church of America
I. The American
Church of St. Thomas, Antiochian Lineage since 1889:
By the order of Patriarch Mar Ignatious Peter III, Supreme head of the
Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, St. Gregorios of Parumala,
Metropolitan Athanasius Paulos of Aluva, and Malankara Metropolitan
Dionysius Joseph II consecrated Mar Julius Alvarez as Primate of the
Independent Catholic Church of Goa. Mar Julius Alvarez,
along with Mar Gregorios of Parumala consecrated the first American
Primate, Mar Timotheos I (Rene Vilatte) in 1872.
The American lineage timeline for the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church is as
1889 – Mar Julius Alvarez (Independent Catholic Church of Goa)
1892 – Mar Timotheos I Vilatte (American Catholic Church)
1915 – Mar Timotheos II Lloyd
1923 – Mar Gregory Lines
1933 - Mar Houardus Mather
1963 – Mar Narsai Vredenburg
1998 – Mar Enoch Ashe
2008 – Mar Abraham Penhollow
The Thomasine Tradition in America
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 Thomasine tradition in the west is
still largely unknown and limited to polemical speculation by both Old
World Orthodox and adherents to the splintered Old Catholic Movement in
the western hemisphere. However, the story of America’s St.
Thomas Christians is emerging as a fascinating tradition that has
survived over a century of tumultuous persecution, search for identity,
and indigenous inculturation.
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
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
as Holy Scripture by most Thomasine Churches, including the MTOC.
This is stated so
that readers do not confuse modern movements associated with gnosticism
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.
III. The Syro-Indian
Roots of Thomasine Christianity
After the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,
He commissioned his twelve apostles to go throughout the world
preaching the gospel. All Catholic and Orthodox churches today
claim that they can trace their 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 St. Thomas Churches of India.
According to tradition, it was from the ancient city of Antioch in
Syria, that St. Thomas the Apostle was commissioned to take the gospel
eastward. On a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar
Coast, St. Thomas the Apostle reportedly arrived in Kodungallur in 52
AD. It is also commonly believed that St. Thomas established seven
churches in South India before being martyred in Mylapore (near Madras)
in A.D. 72. The descendents 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
The ancient Thomasine tradition thrived in India without significant
interference from western influence for nearly 1500 years. During
much of this long period, the "Mar Thoma" Christians maintained a close
relationship with the Church of the East, also known as the East Syrian
tradition of Edessa (Persia) and the West Syrian orthodox tradition
(Jacobite) of Antioch. Each of these ancient church jurisdictions
shares a connection with St. Thomas the Apostle.
Much has been written on the Thomasine Christian tradition in India.
However, there are several differences of opinion regarding the
ecclesiology (church leadership) and history of the Indian Church.
These divergent views are still hotly debated by the St. Thomas
Christians. For our purposes here, we shall only touch briefly upon
The primary source of ecclesial divisions has to do with jurisdiction,
and to which apostolic See did the St. Thomas Christians originally
belong. Some claim that, since the Indian Church was first established
by St. Thomas, that it has the apostolic right to govern itself
(autocephalous). Others point toward the connection between India and
the East Syrian Church or with the West Syrian tradition of Antioch.
Finally, since the arrival of Western colonial powers, there are many
St. Thomas Christians that came under the jurisdiction of the Roman
Catholic Church and others influenced by Anglicanism.
Despite these differences in ecclesiology and historical perspective,
it can be positively ascertained that the original Christian tradition
in India was rooted in both Middle Eastern and native Hindu culture.
Certainly, there were St. Thomas communities that very early on formed
relationships with Christians from the Middle East. South India was an
important trade destination, bringing many travelers from other
regions. Some of these travelers remained in India, among them were
East Syrian (Persian/Chaldean) Christians. The extent to which these
relationships determined the identity and autonomy of the St. Thomas
Christians is debatable, but it is clear that the presence of the
Syriac tradition was established early in Indian church history. This
all began to change when the western colonial powers arrived in India,
bringing with them their respective religions, cultures, and political
Colonialism caused great confusion to the Indian church as the new
powers attempted to replace the traditions of St. Thomas with Roman
Catholicism (via the Portuguese), and later with Anglican Protestantism
(via the British Empire). Colonialism did manage to divide the
Indian Church, but despite many attempts to destroy or alter the St.
Thomas tradition, it had managed, by the grace of God, to survive.
During the years of colonial occupation of India, various church
jurisdictions emerged, but many of them maintained their identity as
St. Thomas Christians. In their struggle to preserve their autonomy,
some St. Thomas Christians sought the help of the West Syrian
Patriarchate of Antioch. However, the self-determination of these
Syriac Christians was often threatened by the overwhelming influence of
the Roman See, backed by the colonial political powers. This
struggle for identity and autonomy has been longstanding and remains to
this day. It was in the midst of this turbulent period that the
American Church of St. Thomas was born.
For our purposes here, we shall only briefly mention that currently in
North America, there are many St. Thomas Christians of Indian and
Syrian descent. Since their arrival in the latter half of the
21st century, these communities have built many churches throughout the
United States and Canada. They have organized themselves
according to their respective native jurisdictions and have brought
with them their own clergy and Episcopal representatives.
Interactions between these communities and the indigenous American
church have been few, but some relationships have developed.
There have even been some non-Indian clergy who have joined with
Malankara (Indian) jurisdictions. However, we will turn now to
the story of those St. Thomas Christians that trace their roots to the
earlier period beginning in 1872.
IV. Origins of the
American St. Thomas Lineage
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.
Mar Timotheos I (Vilatte)
Archbishop of North America
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
V. The First
American Archbishop Mar Timotheos I
Mar Julius I
of the Independent Catholic Church of India
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
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 Mar Gregorius (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
Bull of Mar Ignatius Peter II (1891) commissioning the consecration of
Mar Timotheos I
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
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.
A photo taken
in 1892 - Bishops of Malankara
VI. The Thomasine
“American Catholic Church” 1892-1915
Sitting from Left: Mar Timotheos I (Rene Vilatte), Mar Ivanious
(Catholicose Basalios Paulose I), Malankara Metropolitan Mar Dionysius
Joseph II, Mar Athanasious Paulose of Aluva, Mar Gregorios Geevargheese
of Parumala, Mar Julios Alvaris of Goa (Picture from the archives of
the Malankara Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam).
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'
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
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
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.
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 Celebrates 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
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.
Archbishop Mar Enoch
and The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church
In 1996, a young Protestant Pastor named Veron
Ashe joined the Federation of St. Thomas Christians. After many
years of travel, study, and ecumenical dialogue, Fr. Ashe was ordained
into the Holy Priesthood and came under the jurisdiction of Mar Narsai.
Fr. Ashe soon proved himself to be a proficient scholar of the orthodox
tradition and he established his congregation as St. Mary of Magdala in
Fresno, California. Fr. Ashe had previously been an overseer of
several other churches in the United States and the West Indies.
On January 25th, 1997 he was consecrated as Bishop Mar Enoch into the
Thomasine lineage by Mar Narsai with co-consecrator Mar Melchizedek
(Greek Orthodox). Mar Enoch immediately began working to strengthen his
congregations into the orthodox faith, and he was very zealous to
appropriate the Syriac tradition, specifically that of the Malankara
Orthodox tradition of India. He was befriended by the late Dr.
Thomas Mar Makarios and Chorepiscopa Fr. K.C. Mathew (Malankara
Orthodox Church) both of whom instructed Mar Enoch in the Syriac
liturgy and history. Mar Makarios, was the Senior Metropolitan of
America and Metropolitan of Canada and Europe for the Indian Orthodox
Mar Makarios brought Mar Enoch to Kerala, India in 1997 to meet with
H.H. Baselios Mar Thoma II, Catholicose for the Malankara Orthodox
Church. During this same trip, Mar Enoch traveled to Thozhiyur where he
met H.E. Joseph Mar Koorilose of the Malabar Independent Syrian
Church. Mar Enoch was received warmly by the Indian Churches and
recognized as a serious ecumenical representative of the Independent
Thomasine church of America. Despite many cultural differences, a
new relationship was growing between the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church and
the Mother Church of India.
After returning to the United States, Mar Enoch organized ecumenical
conferences at St. Mary of Magdala Orthodox Cathedral in Fresno,
CA. Among the guest lecturers were Dr. Thomas Mar Makarios and
Joseph Mar Koorilose, who instructed the clergy on Oriental Orthodox
Many of Mar Enoch’s congregations came from a Protestant background, so
there were great pastoral challenges he had to consider as he led the
flock into a new tradition. With the counsel of Dr. Thomas Mar
Makarios, he instituted an English translation of the Holy Qurbana,
according to the rites and customs of the West Syrian tradition.
The Malankara representatives frequently visited and observed the
transitions implemented by Mar Enoch. Mar Makarios and Fr. K.C.
Mathew both celebrated Holy Qurbana at St. Mary’s and complimented the
work of the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church.
In 2003, H.E. Mar Koorilose (Thozhiyur Sabha) was the distinguished
guest at St. Mary’s and established an ecumenical center with Mar
Enoch. He was attended to by Bishop Avi Mar Abraham Penhollow
(then Deacon Severus) and Dr. Jacob Mar Mathew Olasael of the Mar Thoma
Syrian Church. Mar Koorilose lectured on the Syrian tradition and
exhorted the people to continue in establishing positive relations with
the Indian Churches. At the same time, the Archbishop
acknowledged that there would be many cultural challenges on both sides
as the two churches worked toward full communion.
Mar Koorilose traveled with Mar Abraham to Santa Cruz to meet with the
head of the Federation of St. Thomas Christians, Mar Narsai, who was
supportive of these new relationships with the Thomasine Churches of
India. Mar Koorilose responded with enthusiasm to this historic
meeting and he graciously offered his thoughts on how the churches
should work to resolve their historical and theological
The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church has continued to send ecumenical
delegates to India as an integral part of its mission and identity in
the Western context. Avi Mar Abraham Penhollow served as a Deacon and
assistant to Mar Enoch. Prior to joining the Mar Thoma Orthodox
Church, Avi served as a Protestant minister with an academic background
in Religious Studies and Education. Along with Mother Naomi
Windom and other clergy at St. Marys, Fr. Penhollow often traveled with
Mar Enoch on his ecumenical visits. Avi was ordained a priest in
2004 and served parishes in California and Denver, Colorado.
During his time serving at St. Mary’s Cathedral, he traveled to India
in 2003. There he met with several hierarchs of the Indian
Churches including his friend Mar Koorilose of Thozhiyur.
The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church Today
On January 18th, 2014 Mar Enoch entered into his eternal rest in San
Francisco, California. Prior to his passing he was attended to by
Avi Mar Abraham, who for several months discussed the issues facing the
Mar Thoma Orthodox Church today.
The bishops confirmed that The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church should remain
self-governing while continuing its ecumenical work with the Malankara
Church and other Christian jurisdictions. Mar Abraham agreed
to carry on the vision of reconciling the MTOC with the Church of
India, without neglecting the unique pastoral needs of the American
congregations. This includes continuing the work of Mar Enoch in
outreach to other American churches interested in learning about the
Mar Abraham presided over the Holy Qurbana at the Interfaith memorial
service for Mar Enoch on February 13th, 2014. The service was
attended mostly by Protestant Christians who were deeply impacted by
the preaching ministry of Mar Enoch.
In March of 2014, the bishops of the Mar Thoma Orthodox Church
reaffirmed the mission and published the canons for this independent
jurisdiction. The MTOC acknowledges itself as an ambassador
church to all Churches and jurisdictions worldwide. The House of
Bishops also confirmed Her Grace, Mar'ta Naomi Windom-Davis as
Co-adjutor of the Archdiocese. Mar'ta Naomi served for many years
as a priest in the MTOC and she is widely known as a dynamic voice in
the Church today. She was ordained by the late Mar Enoch and her
epicopacy affirmed by His Beatitude, Joseph Mar Narsai, Ph.D in Santa
The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church is convinced that women are to be full
participants at all levels of church leadership and that the feminine
voice is essential for the true witness of the gospel throughout the
world. We are fully aware that this progressive perspective is
not the accepted practice of other Orthodox jurisdictions, and we
respect their right to maintain the traditions they uphold. We
pray that one day our affirming presence will be the universal practice
of the Church.