The Secret War in the OCA:
The Battle Over Alaskan Land
Much of the tension in the OCA's Holy Synod, manifested in the recent exchange of letters between the Primate and Bishop Nikolai of Alaska, is a result not only of the Alaskan Bishop's disapproval of the Primate's recent administrative decisions in Syosset,
but has its origins in an ongoing controversy between the two hierarchs concerning ownership, administration and profits from the OCA's Alaskan patrimony. An exchange of letters between +Herman and +Nikolai from 2003, obtained by OCANews, reveals the nature of the controversy and raises more troubling questions about the administration and finances of the OCA, in a battle that has lasted decades.
The Current Controversy Begins
In October 2003, only eighteen months after his installation as ruling Bishop in Alaska (March 2002) Bishop Nikolai refused a request by Metropolitan Herman for a report on the OCA's Alaskan holdings. Furthermore, +Nikolai, in the third person, informed the Metropolitan that "the existence of the Lands Commission is no longer recognized by the Hierarch and the distribution of funds will be made according to Diocesan Tithing Standards". A fight over money had flared anew; money which most people in the OCA had no idea even existed, from leases that were never disclosed, from land sales that were never made public.
In his response to this challenge, Metropolitan Herman wrote:
"Your Grace, dear brother in Christ:
I have received your letter of October 30, 2003, which was in response to the request for a report concerning the Alaska Lands Commission.
As ruling hierarch, you have been entrusted with overseeing the life and well being of the Diocese of Alaska. That you have exercised good stewardship of the Diocese is not in question. Indeed, you restored good order to the Diocese in the midst of very difficult circumstances. However, your statement that 'the existence of the Lands Commission is no longer recognized by the Hierarch and the distribution of funds will be made according to Diocesan Tithing Standards' does not reflect the status of the Church's properties in Alaska, properties that are owned by the Orthodox Church in America. During the years that archbishop GREGORY and Protopresbyter Joseph Kreta administered the lands, prior to the establishment of the Alaska Lands Commission, there was never any question that the lands were held by the Orthodox Church in America.
As I previously informed Your Grace in a letter dated August 27, 2003, the Commission is an official Church body that has been established by the Metropolitan Council. As an official Church body, it cannot be dissolved without the consent of the Metropolitan Council and the confirmation of its decision by the Primate. Until such time as this transpires, the Alaska Lands Commission will continue to oversee the administration of the OCA-owned properties within Alaska.
I respectfully request Your Grace to reconsider your present stance in this matter. Please do not view the Lands Commission as an outside force that is somehow intruding upon your rights as ruling diocesan hierarch, for this is clearly not the case. Rather, the purpose of the Lands Commission - of which you are a member - is to administer the Orthodox Church in America's lands within Alaska in a manner that is supportive of your archpastoral ministry and also beneficial to the Diocese of Alaska.
Confident that Your Grace will reconsider this matter,
With brotherly love in Christ,
If the name is unfamiliar, that is because although the OCA's Alaska Land Commission is "an official Church Body" established "by the Metropolitan Council" there has been been little or no public mention of it since its creation in the 1990s. It offers no triennial report to All American Councils, no annual report to the Metropolitan Council (although it regularly sold, and continues to sell church land, a statutory prerogative of the Metropolitan Council.) Its members are not listed in the annual Church directory; nor is the existence of the Commission itself even acknowledged in that official publication.
With the purchase of Russian Alaska in 1867, all assets of the Russian-American Company which managed the province for the Russian Empire devolved by treaty to the Orthodox Church. Comprising thousands of acres across the territory, these lands were only begun to be officially recorded by deed in 1914, and then in a welter of names: some in the name of the local parish, some in the name of the ruling Bishop, some in the name of the Diocese, some in the name of the North American Metropolia. Through the decades much of the land was lost by adverse possession - i.e. squatters. Beginning in the mid 1950s some land began to be sold off locally to pay for reconstruction of damaged churches. This process was accelerated in the early 1970s by the Diocese of Alaska itself for the restoration of St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka and support of the Diocese. This included the sale of an entire island. Since 1972 the OCA has been selling land first for the the creation and later the maintenance of St. Herman's Seminary in Kodiak.
While much of the OCA's Alaskan patrimony was of marginal value, portions were indeed valuable; including lands that had gas and oil leases, as well as shore land that could be leased for fish processing factories and seaside canneries. By the 1980s a system had been established under Archbishop Gregory and Protopresybter Joseph Kreta whereby the profits from the sales and lease of Alaskan Church lands were divided three ways: one third to the Seminary, one third to the Diocese and one third to the OCA. However, it was not until the mid 1990s that a process was put into place to inventory the properties in a systematic manner, that regular financial reports accounting for the lands revenue were given at Diocesan Council meetings of the Alaskan Diocese and the meetings of the Metropolitan Council by then-Chancellor Fr. Nicholas Harris.
In 1995 an attempt was made to expand the newly named "Alaska Lands Commission" from its original membership (consisting of only the Bishop of Alaska and his own appointee, his Chancellor) to include a representative from each deanery in Alaska and a representative from Syosset as well, in this case, OCA Treasurer, Protodeacon Eric Wheeler. After the first meeting failed to reach any type of consensus the attempt was abandoned. An ad hoc commission took over, which included the Bishop, the Chancellor, Wheeler and two lay persons. For three years this group did report to each Alaskan Diocesan Assembly, and through an ocassional Diocesan report, to the Metropolitan Council. After the dismissal of OCA Treasurer Eric Wheeler, Fr. Eugene Vansuch (currently Director of FOS) represented the OCA on the Land Commission.
At its height from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the monies from the sale and lease of Alaskan Church lands resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of income. One parcel of Church land in Kodiak alone sold for over $300,000 in 2001. Little of this income was disclosed by Syosset. Some was reported to the Metropolitan Council under the misleading heading of "Assessment Income" on financial reports, credited to the Diocese of Alaska, as if Alaska was paying assessments like every other US diocese. (In fact, the Alaska diocese has never paid monthly assessments to the OCA.)
+Nikolai refuses to back down
Selling and leasing Alaskan Church land was and remains big business in the OCA. Who was to control
it became a question that achieved unexpected prominence following the installation of Bishop Nikolai in Spring 2002. In reply to +Herman, +Nikolai wrote in early December 2003:
"Your Beatitude, Dear Vladyka HERMAN, Brother and Concelebrant,
I am in receipt of your letter dated November 4, 2003 asking me to consider my position on lands in Alaska.
Dear Vladyka, I was elected by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America to be the ruling Bishop of the Diocese of Sitka and Alaska. At no time and never was I told that lands on this territory belonged to someone else, namely you as the Metropolitan of the OCA.
There is a clear understanding of my faithful and clergy that these lands belong to this Diocesan the same that I claim today. Indeed, shorty after my arrival, the Gula/INNOCENT litigation was filed, and although there is much irrelevancy to the litigation, it did, and does, represent an underlying suspicion by the Alaskan faithful as to the stewardship of Diocesan lands. Having the lands directly under the control of ruling Hierarch leaves no doubt as to where the 'buck stops,' as is appropriate and lawful, legally and canonically.
I am bothered too, that excerpts from my correspondence was read to members of the Metropolitan Council on November 5, 2003. I vividly recall your letter of chastisement to the Holy Synod on Thursday, October 16, 2003 making a point that certain discussions in confidential and closed sessions were leaked outside the Holy Synod. I understand that there was also mention that some members of the Holy Synod wanted to do away with the All American Council and Metropolitan Council. Even if this was stated in our closed session it should not have been brought to the attention of the Metropolitan Council. Moreover, if I am to be quoted, or have portions of my letter read, then I ask that in fairness, the entire letter be read. Comments and innuendo, with only partial information, only leads to more confusion. I have not written anything that does not reflect my personal belief as to what is correct and just. If you do chose to share our correspondence, I ask that you share it completely, and unabridged.
Diocesan boundaries are defined by the Holy Synod and the Holy Synod declared me as the Bishop of this territory. To my knowledge, there has been no limitation as to the diocesan boundaries, nor my administration of its assets. In my view, you should be supporting me and the good order of the Church here in Alaska, as well as throughout North America. I ask that you reconsider your position and support the good order as is canonically appropriate.
The canonical order is as I stated, there is no Alaska Lands Commission with any members other than whom I may decide (or not) to appoint to counsel me on what Almighty God will surely hold me accountable.
Assuring you of my constancy in prayer and asking your holy prayer, I remain,
By asserting his control over all Church lands in Alaska, +Nikolai was dismissing both Syosset's claims, as well as those of his own parishes to control and profit from the OCA's Alaskan patrimony. Unfortunately, the native parishes are culturally loathe to enter controversy; especially with a Bishop from the lower 48. So, too, was Syosset, given +Herman's conciliatory reply:
Your Grace, dear Brother and Concelebrant of the Holy Mysteries:
I have received your December 10, 2003 letter written in response to my letter concerning the lands owned by the Orthodox Church in America within the territory of the Diocese of Alaska.
At the time of your election by the Holy Synod to the See of Sitka, Your Grace was given full canonical and administrative authority over all lands owned by the Diocese of Alaska. No one questions this in any way whatsoever. However, within the Diocese of Alaska there exist properties that are owned by the Orthodox Church in America. The legal title to these properties remains in the name of the Orthodox Church in America or its various predecessors, having been deeded to the Church by the American government. Although the Church's name was officially changed in conjunction with the granting of autocephaly, it remains the successor to the entities whose titles are utilized in the various deeds and other pertinent legal documents.
You refer to an underlying suspicion of the Alaskan faithful concerning the administration of church assets within the Diocese of Alaska. Under Your Grace's archpastoral leadership, there should be no suspicion on the part of anyone within the Diocese concerning these properties. I am confident that Your Grace, aided by the Alaska Lands Commission established by the Metropolitan Council with the blessing of the Primate, is assuring that all administration of these lands is for the benefit of the entire Orthodox Church in America as well as that of the Diocese of Alaska. I assure Your Grace that the Diocese of Alaska has always been and will remain the primary beneficiary of any income generated from these lands.
I am somewhat surprised that your question that the Metropolitan Council was informed of your position in this matter. As the Alaska Lands Commission is an administrative body of the Metropolitan Council which exercises its role within the Church under my presidency, I felt it necessary to share with its members the portions of your correspondence concerning the Alaska Lands Commission. Only the portions of your letter that were relevant to this topic were shared-and were prefaced by my own remarks so that they would not be taken out of context. Not to inform the Metropolitan Council of your thoughts concerning the Lands Commission would have been for me to disregard good administrative order as well as the stewardship for which I am accountable as the Church's Primate.
In your letter, you mention that you were informed that confidential discussions of the Holy Synod were reported to the members of the Metropolitan Council.
I do not recall any such discussion whatsoever. Whatever else may have been said within the context
of the Metropolitan Council meeting or whatever may have been erroneously reported by those present can only be speculation on their part.
I wish to reiterate what I previously wrote in my November 4, 2003 letter to Your Grace: 'Please do not view the Lands Commission as an outside force that is somehow intruding upon your rights as ruling diocesan hierarch, for this is clearly not the case. Rather, the purpose of the Lands Commission - of which you are a member - is to administer the Orthodox Church in America's lands within Alaska in a manner that is supportive of your archpastoral ministry and also beneficial to the Diocese of Alaska.'
Assuring your Grace of my prayers fraternal esteem as we approach the celebration of Our Lord's Nativity, I remain.
With Brotherly love in Christ,
There the issue has stood since 2003. Bishop Nikolai has continued to sell Church lands in Alaska, although no information or profits are passed on to the OCA. No longer receiving its share, which had help cover its deficit spending for more than a decade, Syosset turned to cannabalizing temporarily restricted funds (such as the Charity Appeal Funds, Special Appeal funds such as the 9/11 Fund, etc) to make up part of the difference. Syosset even began withholding designated charitable funds collected for Alaska itself, amounts reported to total some $13,000, in order to cover operating expenses. In short, the ongoing Alaska land controversy is an integral part of the story of the financial scandal that has engulfed the OCA.
Lambrides Lamos and Malthoup LLP have been charged with auditing the financial records of the OCA for the past two years. Proskauer Rose LLP has been charged with investigating financial misconduct in Syosset for the past ten years. Who is going to investigate what has been going on in Alaska?