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

Decided: September 12, 1967.


Gaulkin, Lewis and Labrecque. The opinion of the court was delivered by Labrecque, J.A.D.


Defendants appeal from a judgment of the Chancery Division which (1) adjudged that St. John's Greek Catholic Hungarian Russian Orthodox Church (St John's) was an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America (hereafter the Metropolia) and, as such, subject to its laws and discipline; (2) set aside the attempted discharge of Reverend Theophil D. Krehel (Father Krehel) as pastor of the church; (3) held void a resolution by St. John's to affiliate with another Orthodox jurisdiction; (4) ordered a new election of officers and trustees, and (5) restrained defendants from being candidates for any elective office and from acting as trustees and officers of the church. See St. John's Greek Catholic Church v. Fedak, 89 N.J. Super. 65 (Ch. Div. 1965).

Plaintiffs are the church corporation itself, Father Krehel the pastor, a trustee, an auditor, and a group of individual members of the parish. The defendants are the remaining officers and trustees.

The present appeal does not involve claims by rival hierarchies to jurisdiction over the parish of St. John's. In essence, we are confronted with a disagreement among the members of the congregation, plaintiffs contending that St. John's is part of the Metropolia and defendants contending that it is a self-governing autonomous parish which never agreed to be bound by the Metropolia's rules and discipline and hence could by majority vote join another Orthodox jurisdiction.

St. John's was founded in 1915 and incorporated in the following year under the General Religious Society Act of 1875, 3 Comp. Stat., p. 4307 et seq., now R.S. 16:1-1 et seq. It is not disputed that until some time in 1924 it was a constituent church of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The latter was an autocephalous member of the Eastern Orthodox Greek Catholic Church which sprang from the Church of Constantinople. By the 16th Century its autonomy

was recognized. It remained a hierarchical church with a patriarch at its head until the time of Peter the Great. Thereafter, until 1917, it was governed by a group of ecclesiastics known as the Holy Synod.

The history of Orthodoxy, with relation to the North American Diocese, has been extensively treated in a number of judicial opinions. See Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 73 S. Ct. 143, 97 L. Ed. 120 (1952); St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church v. Kedroff, 302 N.Y. 1, 96 N.E. 2 d 56 (Ct. App. 1950); reversed 344 U.S. 94, 73 S. Ct. 143, 97 L. Ed. 120 (1952); Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church v. Burdikoff, 117 Ohio App. 1, 189 N.E. 2 d 451 (Ct. App. 1962); Ryszko v. Kaimakan, 108 N.J. Eq. 34 (Ch. 1931). It first came to North America in the form of missionary activities in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, spreading slowly southward and then eastward. By 1904 the Orthodox Diocese of North America and the Aleutian Islands was functioning, with Archbishop Tikhon as its first head. His appointment, together with those of his successors Platon and Evdokim, came from the Holy Synod.

With the onset of the Russian Revolution Evdokim went to Russia and never returned. At an All Russian Sobor (convention) held in Moscow in 1917 the control exercised by the Holy Synod was terminated and Archbishop Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow. Following the establishment of Bolshevik control in late 1917 he was first restricted and later imprisoned.

On November 20, 1920 Tikhon, as Patriarch, issued a Decision (Ukase) which granted, subject to "confirmation later to the Central Church Authority when it is re-established," a considerable degree of autonomy to the Orthodox churches outside of Russia in cases where the ruling authority might be unable to function because of the troublesome times. In such cases authority was given to set up a "temporary highest Church Government or a Metropolitan District."

In 1924 a sobor of the American churches was held in Detroit at which 115 of the 300 American Orthodox churches were represented. The sobor resolved (1) to "leave Metropolitan Platon as the head of our church here" (he was functioning as Bishop by appointment of the Holy Synod), and (2) to "recognize" ourselves as a self-governing church. Subsequent resolutions implementing the foregoing made provision for the administration of the American church under what came to be known as the Metropolia or the American Metropolianate. Archbishop Platon was elected as its first Metropolitan or Primate. At the time of most of the events here involved his successor as ruling Metropolitan was Archbishop Leonty. He was succeeded by Archbishop Ireney in September 1965.

In 1945, following the appointment of Archbishop Alexi (Alexy) as Patriarch of Moscow, reunion with the Moscow Patriarchate was the subject of negotiations between representatives of the Patriarch and the Metropolia. See Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church, supra, 73 S. Ct., at p. 143, 97 L. Ed., at pp. 130-131. At the 1946 All American Sobor it was resolved that the Metropolia should carry on as a self-governing church until certain conditions respecting the autonomy of the American church demanded by it were accepted by the Patriarch. At a sobor held in 1955 a formal "Statute" or set of rules and regulations for its government and discipline (hereinafter the Statute) was adopted. There were some amendments to the Statute at subsequent sobors held in 1959 and 1963. Resolution of the present controversy depends, in great part, upon whether the Statute is binding upon St. John's.

In January 1960 Father Krehel, who had been pastor since 1958, presented the Statute to the congregation for approval. The matter was carried over until the June meeting when, after much discussion, the Statute was overwhelmingly rejected. The principal objection was the extent of clerical supervision of parish affairs authorized

by article VI of the Statute. In May 1963, pursuant to a suggestion previously made, proposals for amendment were submitted to the Metropolia on behalf of the congregation but were not accepted. The church continued to withhold approval.

In January 1964 Father Krehel sent a list of the newly elected officers of the church to the Metropolia Bishop for confirmation, calling attention to the fact that five of them had not fulfilled the requirement of partaking of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion as required by the Statute. The trial judge found that the five excepted officers were confirmed after they had "reluctantly complied" with the religious qualifications mentioned.

On March 24, 1964 the Chancellor of the Metropolia circulated "Resolution No. 486" among the parishes in New Jersey, disapproving participation in a so-called President's Club, an organization made up of members of various parishes, presumably for the purpose of discussion of their mutual problems. The response at St. John's was a special meeting of the congregation, held on June 7, 1964, at which the church (executive) committee was authorized to continue to conduct the business affairs of the parish and to seek legal counsel. Four days later "all parties involved" were summoned to appear on September 15, 1964 before the Diocesan Ecclesiastical Court of the Metropolia.

At the regular meeting of the congregation held on July 12, 1964 it was determined to join another Orthodox jurisdiction. The church committee was detailed to investigate and report. The committee's report was to be submitted to the congregation on September 20. In the meantime an order to show cause was issued out of the Diocesan Court directing each of the defendants to show cause on September 17, 1964 why he should not be suspended from office. A request by defendants for an adjournment was denied and the court, after an ex parte hearing, entered an order suspending defendants and authorizing Father Krehel to appoint

such officers as might be necessary to carry on parish functions and pay necessary salaries and expenses.

At the September 20 meeting of the congregation the committee reported with a recommendation to disassociate from Metropolia and affiliate with the Carpatho-Russian Diocese of Bishop Orestes Charnock (Chorniak). The motion to do so was carried and a second motion to give Father Krehel 30 days' notice of termination of his services as pastor was likewise passed. The present action followed.

Before proceeding to the merits we take cognizance of defendants' contention that it was error to permit St. John's and Father Krehel to remain as parties plaintiffs in the suit. We hold that Father Krehel was properly joined as a party plaintiff. Skinner v. Holmes, 133 N.J. Eq. 593, 596 (Ch. 1943); Whitecar v. Mechenor, 37 N.J. Eq. 6 (Ch. 1883). See also New Jersey Annual Conference of First Episcopal District v. Lattimore, 6 N.J. Super. 348, 352 (App. Div. 1950). As to St. John's, it was a necessary party and had it not been joined in the first instance a motion to join it as a defendant would have been in order. Defendants have suffered no prejudice by reason of its inclusion as a plaintiff.


It is conceded that no formal approval of affiliation with the Metropolia was ever voted by the congregation of St. John's. In concluding that it had nevertheless become "an integral part" of the Metropolia the trial judge relied on certain actions on the part of St. John's or its officers. These were its (a) continued relationship with Archbishop Platon after the Detroit Sobor of 1924; (b) dependence upon the Metropolia for most of its priests during the ensuing period; (c) financial donations to the Metropolia over the years; (d) participation by either delegates or observers at certain of the sobors of the Metropolia, and (e)

acceptance of the authority of the Metropolitan and consultation with him concerning various parish matters. We hold that they are not sufficient to establish the affiliation necessary to support that conclusion.

The trial judge found, and we agree, that the Metropolia is a hierarchically structured church of the Orthodox communion. See Ryszko v. Kaimakan, 108 N.J. Eq. 34 (Ch. 1931). Its doctrine, discipline and worship are set forth in the Statute as those of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, as taught by Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the Holy Fathers, and as kept by the Orthodox Churches of the East. It is a member of the World Council of Churches, which accepts into its membership only autonomous church bodies. Its superior authority is vested in the All American Sobor, the periodic convention of the clergy and laity of its constituent churches. The sobor passes on all church matters but the bishops must approve all resolutions. It elects the Metropolitan who is the highest ranking official of the church and its spiritual leader. He is assisted administratively by the Metropolitan Council and by the Bishops' Sobor. The Bishops' Sobor is the supreme ecclesiastical authority and supervises church schools, seminaries and colleges. The basic constituent level of the Metropolia is the diocese, which ordinarily is governed by a bishop assisted administratively by a diocesan assembly, a body composed of representatives of the clergy and laity. The assembly elects a diocesan council as a permanent administrative body for the diocese. The diocese is subdivided into deaneries presided over by a dean dealing directly with the parish. The latter is the smallest component of the church and the lowest level of the hierarchy.

As noted, St. John's was incorporated under the General Religious Society, Act of 1875, 3 Comp. Stat., p. 4307 et seq., now R.S. 16:1-1 et seq. During the 90 years since the original act went into effect there has been, almost without any exception here pertinent, a consistent strengthening

of the property rights of the local incorporated "religious society or congregation."

By R.S. 16:1-4 a religious society incorporated under the act is vested with power to:

"* * *

d. Appoint such officers, agents and employees as may be required for its properties, institutions and business;

e. Make by-laws and rules consistent with law, for the regulation and management of its affairs, ...

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