History of OCCA

Previous René Vilatte

Jurisdictional Uncertainty

Bishop Brown was willing to recommend Vilatte to Eduard Herzog, the Old Catholic Bishop of Bern. This decision came after Vilatte reported to Bishop Brown that his flock did not wish to be associated with the "Protestant" Episcopal Church, as it was known at the time. Accordingly Bishop Brown sent Vilatte to Switzerland where he was ordained deacon and priest on June 6 and 7, 1885. Bishop Herzog was forbidden by Swiss law to exercise jurisdiction outside Swiss borders, so Vilatte returned to Wisconsin under no bishop at all, although he maintained good relations with Bishop Brown until the latter's death in 1888.

The new Bishop of Fond du Lac, Charles Chapman Grafton, was not, however, pleased with the loose association between Vilatte's mission parish and his diocese (including financial support) that his predecessor had allowed. He was determined to bring Vilatte into full subjection to his authority. The ensuing dispute was to last for quite some time. Long after Vilatte returned to the United States as Metropolitan of North America for the Syrian Orthodox Church, Bishop Grafton was busy sending letters denouncing him as a charlatan.

Meanwhile, apprised of Bishop's Grafton's expectations by Vilatte, the Old Catholic Bishops of Utrecht and Deventer wrote in late 1889 insisting that he break off relations with the Episcopalians, as they did not yet recognize the Protestant Episcopal Church as having a valid episcopate. At one point Bishop Grafton suggested they consecrate Vilatte to the episcopate to serve as a suffragan bishop of Fond du Lac. This, of course, went nowhere, but the continued wrangling left Vilatte high and dry. Not surprisingly, one of the issues was money: neither Bishop Grafton nor the European bishops wanted to continue supporting Vilatte's mission (which by now had three parishes and a second priest) financially.

Vilatte realized that his canonical situation needed to be regularized, and turned to Archbishop Vladimir (Sokolovsky) the Russian Orthodox Bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska, whose see city, despite his title, was San Francisco, asking to be received under his omophorion. (This is the Eastern Orthodox phrase that indicates one operates under the protection - symbolized by the bishop's stole or omophorion - of a particular bishop.) The initial response was encouraging. Bishop Vladimir was a proponent of English liturgy and of expanding the reach of Orthodoxy in North America beyond the Russian presence here. Some sources report a visit by Archbishop Vladimir to Vilatte's mission in Wisconsin. While this visit is not confirmed, this is made more plausible by the uncontroverted fact that in March 1891, Vladimir was in Minneapolis to receive Fr. Alexis Toth, a Greek-Catholic priest, into Orthodoxy along with his parish. Fr. Alexis is now Saint Alexis Toth for the Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions. In a letter dated March 11, 1891, whose authenticity is in dispute, Vladimir wrote that he had been asked by "the pious Old Catholic parishioners and trustees of the church at Dyckesville [sic]" to "defend their priest against the Bishop of Fond du Lac, other Protestants and those who could not be regarded as true brothers on [sic] Christ, because of their heresies and lack of apostolic succession." It may be that this letter was the result of the rumored visit. In late April 1891, Grafton formally suspended Vilatte. Vladimir once again wrote (May 9) 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." (This last sentence is an interesting sidelight into Archbishop Vladimir's attitudes toward his adopted country.) [www.concentric.net/~cosmas/vilatte.htm>]

However, Archbishop Vladimir himself was soon engulfed in controversy, opposition, and innuendo, and was first suspended and then recalled to Russia. The issue of three small French-speaking parishes in Wisconsin dropped off the radar of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Coincidentally, or providentially, not long before the Old Catholic bishops' ultimatum, a similar series of secessions from the Roman Catholic Church was taking place in southern India, resulting in the consecration of a Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Bishop of the Latin Rite with the title of Metropolitan of Goa, Ceylon, and India Excluding Malabar. To these developments and their decisive effect on Vilatte's subsequent career we now turn. After a synod of his three parishes duly elected him to be their bishop, Vilatte left via New York for Colombo, in what was then British Ceylon, on July 15, 1891. He was gone for a year.

It is not certain how Vilatte learned of these developments in South India. Possibly an associate of his, Bernard Harding, who had been a missionary in India and whom he was to leave in charge of his Wisconsin flock, told him. The chronology of events suggests that the idea may have been percolating even while negotiations were going on with the Russian Orthodox.

Next The Indian Background