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St. John''s Greek Catholic Hungarian Russian Orthodox Church of Rahway v. Fedak

Decided: September 30, 1965.

ST. JOHN'S GREEK CATHOLIC HUNGARIAN RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF RAHWAY, NEW JERSEY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, ALSO KNOWN AS ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST RUSSIAN ORTHODOX GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH, REVEREND THEOPHIL D. KREHEL, RECTOR OF ST. JOHN'S GREEK CATHOLIC HUNGARIAN RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF RAHWAY, NEW JERSEY, SIMEON FINZELL AND EUGENE ALESHIN, TRUSTEE AND AUDITOR, RESPECTIVELY, OF ST. JOHN'S GREEK CATHOLIC HUNGARIAN RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH, JOHN WANKO, IRENE ALLEN, JOSEPH MAGDA, HELEN MAGDA, MARY KAMINSKY, HELEN MEHALICK, STEPHEN MEHALICK, AL BABICH, HELEN BABICH, HELEN NICHOLAS, MILDRED STEPICH, MICHAEL STEPICH, EUGENE ERWINSKI, ALICE ERWINSKI, AND GEORGE SEKEL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MICHAEL FEDAK, MICHAEL SUDIA, JOHN PETRONKO, SR., WILLIAM WANKO, EDWARD GOLINSKI, MARY KAPPEL, MARY KOCHAN, MICHAEL PETRIN, ANTHONY VANUK, ALEXIS MOCKOS, MICHAEL ZSIDISIN, THOMAS RUSTICK, AND PHILIP YURCHUK, DEFENDANTS



Mintz, J.s.c.

Mintz

This is an action to determine, inter alia, the right to the use and control of church property. In essence, this case involves a schism among the membership of St. John's Greek Catholic Hungarian Russian Orthodox Church of Rahway, New Jersey (hereinafter referred to as St. John's). Plaintiffs contend that St. John's is an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (hereinafter sometimes referred to as the Metropolia) and that the faction loyal to this body is entitled to the use and control of the property in question. Conversely, defendants claim that St. John's is not and has never been an integral part of the Metropolia and that the parish by majority vote may sever whatever ties it has with the Metropolia and join another jurisdiction. They further urge that Reverend Krehel, the pastor assigned to St. John's, was properly dismissed.

This dispute arose out of conflict between Reverend Krehel, the pastor of St. John's, and most of the elected officials of the parish. Reverend Krehel was assigned to St. John's by the Metropolia on February 24, 1958. His appointment was in response to a recommendation made by the St. John's church committee and obviously met with the approval of the parish, though there is some dispute whether a formal vote approving his appointment was taken.

Friction between the parties began in 1960 when Reverend Krehel offered the 1955 statutes of the Metropolia to the parish for their approval. Despite his support of the statutes, the parish refused to pass a resolution accepting them. The parish found objectionable the extent of clerical supervision of parish affairs granted by article VI of the statutes. This issue of the statutes continued to be a source of dissension between the parties.

Events came to a head starting in the latter part of 1963 when certain of the defendants became increasingly dissatisfied

with Reverend Krehel's rectorship. On at least two or three occasions in November and December of 1963 a group of delegates from St. John's appeared before representatives of the Metropolia in New York and petitioned, in vain, for Reverend Krehel's removal.

In January 1964 Reverend Krehel sent a list of St. John's newly elected officers to the bishop of the diocese for confirmation. He called attention to the fact that five of the officers were not qualified for office under the Metropolia statutes. The bishop confirmed all but the five and sent the pastor a copy of an oath to be administered to the officers. The officers objected to the oath because of a clause requiring conformity to the statutes of the Metropolia. In addition, certain officers objected to having to take the oath each year of a term of two years. This controversy was accompanied by a great deal of argument and bitterness. The result was that the five excepted officers were confirmed after they reluctantly complied with the religious qualifications required by the statutes. The Metropolia authorities insisted that the oath be taken every year regardless of the officer's term of office. Some of the officers took the oath, others merely mouthed it, and some did not take it at all.

On March 24, 1964 the Chancellor of the Metropolia circulated a resolution among the New Jersey parishes denouncing participation in a so-called President's Club. This was an organization made up of members of various parishes which met to discuss their mutual problems. Apparently, the bishops thought this organization was usurping power and handling matters properly within the scope of the hierarchy. By a bulletin circulated on May 28, 1964 the officers of St. John's parish called a special meeting to be held on June 7, 1964 to get approval from the parishioners to continue their association with the President's Club. The hierarchy declared this proposed meeting unlawful and directed the pastor and the parishioners not to attend. The meeting was held as scheduled. The minutes make it clear that those in attendance had become displeased with the amount of control the hierarchy

was exercising over local affairs. By secret ballot, two motions were carried by a vote of 62 for and none against. The first motion was to empower the church committee to continue to conduct the parish affairs, which, in essence, was a vote of confidence. The second motion empowered the church committee to seek legal advice, with the church as a whole bearing the expense.

On June 11, 1964 the hierarchy declared all of the actions of this June 7 meeting to be void and resolved to summon all those concerned to appear before the Diocesan Ecclesiastical Court to answer charges. On June 15 the officers sent a letter to the parishioners thanking them for their vote of confidence and informing them of the regular semiannual meeting to be held on July 12, 1964.

The parish meeting was held on the date so fixed. After discussion of their dissatisfaction with the Metropolia, a motion was made to disaffiliate. Reverend Krehel protested that this meeting was incompetent to take such a step, but the motion was carried. According to the minutes of the meeting, 52 secret ballots were cast, with 33 in favor of the motion. The church committee was instructed to investigate the possibilities of joining another orthodox jurisdiction.

On September 6, 1964 the church committee notified the congregation by bulletin, which announcement was subsequently repeated weekly, that a special parish meeting would be held on September 20, 1964 for the purpose of voting on the committee's report on the "new Orthodox jurisdiction."

In the meantime, an order to show cause issued out of the Diocesan Court of the Metropolia on September 11, directing each of the defendants to show cause why he should not be suspended from his office. The hearing was set down for September 17, 1964 at 2 P.M. At this point defendants secured legal counsel for the first time. Counsel, desiring to secure time to investigate, sought a postponement of the hearing. In face of the impending church meeting, the Diocesan Court felt it urgent to hold the ecclesiastical hearing as scheduled. Thus, upon defendants' defaults, the Diocesan Court suspended

them from office and granted Reverend Krehel extraordinary powers to carry on the proper functions of the parish.

Reverend Krehel denounced the special meeting proposed for September 20. From the pulpit he admonished the members not to attend the unauthorized meeting. However, the meeting was held and the church committee reported that they could not resolve their differences with the Metropolia. A motion was made to disassociate from the Metropolia and to join the jurisdiction of Bishop Charnock. By secret ballot the motion was carried 72 votes for and 4 against. St. John's has between 250 and 300 members eligible to vote. A motion was also carried to give Reverend Krehel 30 days' notice of termination of his services. Thereafter, this action was commenced. While a hearing was pending upon plaintiffs' application for an interlocutory injunction, the Diocesan Court excommunicated all the defendants ex parte.

The plaintiffs are the pastor, a trustee, auditor and several other individuals said to be members of the parish. In addition, the church corporation is a named plaintiff, although the remaining 13 officers and trustees of St. John's are defendants. Defendants strongly urge that St. John's, a corporate body, is not a proper party plaintiff and should have been joined, if at all, as a party defendant. The elected officers and trustees of St. John's (allegedly suspended from office by the Metropolia) did not authorize the joinder, nor did the membership at large. There may be merit to this argument, but the error, if any, is not significant. The essential fact is that St. John's is an indispensable party to these proceedings, has been given the requisite notice, and will be bound by the judgment to be entered herein.

The complaint seeks to enjoin the defendants from interfering with the affairs of St. John's by acting as officers and members thereof. It further seeks a declaration that Reverend Krehel is St. John's rightful pastor and to have the books, records and bank accounts turned over to him and the other plaintiffs as the persons properly entitled to their possession.

Defendants counterclaim for injunctive relief protecting their position as the duly elected officers of St. John's and restraining Reverend Krehel from acting as the parish priest, claiming he was dismissed by a valid vote of the parish.

There was considerable testimony presented on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Metropolia. It will not be necessary at this time to set forth a detailed account of this history, as it has already been extensively spread upon the law books of this and other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Ryszko v. Kaimakan, 108 N.J. Eq. 34 (Ch. 1931), and St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church v. Kedroff, 302 N.Y. 1, 96 N.E. 2 d 56 (Ct. App. 1950); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 73 S. Ct. 143, 97 L. Ed. 120 (1952).

The Metropolia was organized in 1924 at a sobor (convention) held in Detroit, with some 115 of approximately 300 Russian Orthodox Churches in America in attendance. Since 1917 the status of the Russian Orthodox Church in America had been quite unsettled due to political conditions in the Soviet Union. It was in response to these pressures that the separate Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (Metropolia) was organized as an autonomous body with Platon as its Metropolitan or head. The Metropolia does claim orthodoxy based upon the actions of a sobor of the mother church held in Moscow in 1917-1918 and the Ukase of Patriarch Tikhon, No. 362 of November 20, 1920. There have continued to be competing Russian Orthodox jurisdictions in America.

Clearly, from the testimony adduced, it appears that the Metropolia is a hierarchically structured church. "Hierarchical churches may be defined as those organized as a body with other churches having similar faith and doctrine with a common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head. * * *" Kedroff v. St. Nicholas ...


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