Crunch time for the Archdiocese of America
The clergy and laity of the Archdiocese of America are anxiously awaiting the decisions of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which meets October 9-11, amid widespread speculation among community leaders that a change is imminent after reports that Patriarch Vartholomaios has twice recently urged Archbishop Demetrios of America to step down.
The names heard most frequently in informed circles for his replacement are metropolitan bishops Emmanuel of France and Elpidophoros of Bursa. Sources say that none of the metropolitans born or raised in America are seen as serious contenders, though some of their names have occasionally surfaced.
The synod is expected to appoint a locums tenens this week and elect a new archbishop a month later. However, there are concerns that more time may be needed to resolve the outstanding problems and issues that have weakened Demetrios’s support before a new archbishop arrives, especially if he comes from outside the United States. If a change is decided, there is some support among leaders in the community for Demetrios to then be named archbishop emeritus.
While Greek-American media is rife with speculation about the leadership crisis in the influential Greek Orthodox Church in America, the evidence points to a series mundane and serious issues that pre-dated Demetrios’s tenure that had not been adequately addressed, like a bloated staff subject to few financial and administrative controls and dependence on a handful of major benefactors who have now passed away.
Originally appointed to overcome divisions that appeared during the tumultuous three-year tenure of former archbishop Spyridon, Demetrios was initially hailed for the changes and improvements he introduced. It was also evident from quite early on, however, that he was essentially an academic – a distinguished and popular professor both at the archdiocese’s Holy Cross School of Theology and at Harvard University – with no administrative experience.
“Demetrios is a priest, not a businessman,” sympathetic observers note, arguing that the archbishop did not have the heart to make staff cuts that would hurt families. Some observers add that there could also have been greater involvement from the Archdiocesan Council.
By the summer of 2017 word leaked that the archdiocese was in serious financial trouble. After numerous volleys of newspaper allegations and official denials, four drastic developments demonstrated the depth of the problems: 1) it laid off 30 percent of its staff in September 2017; 2) it abruptly halted construction on the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox National Shrine; 3) it had to mortgage its headquarters near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to obtain a $7.5 million loan from Greek-American owned Alma Bank this spring, and 4) it had to contend with the problems in the Holy Cross School of Theology.
These events, each more shocking than the last, served to steadily undermine support for the 90-year-old archbishop.
Supporters say Demetrios behaved responsibly in the fall of 2016 when the severity of the situation became clear. He recruited the highly-respected Michael Psaros, managing partner of KPS Capital Partners, and George Tsandikos, a Managing Director of Rockefeller & Co., and appointed them treasurer and vice chairman of the Archdiocesan Council, respectively, ordering them to undertake immediate reforms and create a blueprint for the future based on the reports of independent auditors.
However, the biggest storm resulted from the St Nicholas project at Ground Zero, where the cost of the church designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava skyrocketed from $20 million to more than $80 million.
The archdiocese responded by authorizing a three-phase forensic audit for the project. Phase 1, released last May, demonstrated that there had been some confusion between $12 million pledged but not yet collected, and that no money had gone missing. Phase 2, which was due September 1, addresses what went wrong, including details of costly design changes. Phase 3 is the plan for moving forward.
The reports are crucial for donors to regain faith in the project, though it is said that they are also insisting on a new archbishop.
Constantine S. Sirigos is an Athens-based journalist who specializes in Greek-American community affairs.