Appeal from decree of Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, April T., 1964, No. 3846, in case of St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Church of Pittsburgh et al. v. Nicholas T. Elko et al.
Michael Hahalyak, for appellant.
John A. Metz, Jr., with him Richard M. Sharp, and Metz, Cook, Hanna & Kelly, for appellees.
Bell, C. J., Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Eagen. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts.
This is an appeal from the final decree of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County holding that St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Church of Pittsburgh is, and always has been since its founding in 1910, united spiritually and hierarchically with Rome. The appellant, a member of the congregation and one of several plaintiffs in the court below, contends that St. John's was founded as an independent church, and that it has always been autonomous in its government. The appellees are Nicholas T. Elko, Bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh,*fn1 and Reverend Andrew Pataki, Pastor of St. John's Church. The appellees, of course, contend here, as they did successfully in the lower court, that St. John's is a constituent part of the Greek Catholic Church united under the Pope.*fn2
The parties and the lower court all agreed that the exact issue here relates to the ecclesiastical nature of St. John's in 1910 when it was founded. This is so because the law of Pennsylvania prevents a diversion
of church property from a use to which it was originally dedicated to another inconsistent use. See the Act of April 26, 1855, P. L. 328, § 7, 10 P.S. § 81, as amended. See also Schnorr's Appeal, 67 Pa. 138 (1870); and Gabster v. Mesaros, 422 Pa. 116, 220 A.2d 639 (1966). Thus, if St. John's was founded as a church under the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must remain that way. Conversely, if St. John's was founded as an independent church, beyond the mandate of hierarchical authority, but possessing for itself the full measure of control and governing powers, then it must remain independent.
After an extended hearing the chancellor entered an adjudication and decree nisi ruling that St. John's was founded as a church in union with Rome. Exceptions to this adjudication and decree nisi were dismissed by the court en banc and the chancellor's decree was made final.
The chancellor looked first to the documents bringing St. John's Church into legal existence, but found them inconclusive as to the Church's nature. The chancellor then examined the rituals and practices of St. John's for all of its existence, and concluded that it was under the authority of Rome.
The appellant propounds a series of arguments, but analyzed closely, they all contest the criteria used by the lower court to determine St. John's nature. Thus, the appellant asserts that in this dispute, where the similarities between Greek Catholic independent churches and Greek Catholic Uniate (united with Rome) churches are pervasive, and where dissimilarities are obscure, ritual and practice are not valid determiners of St. John's governmental nature. The only real test, argues the appellant, is to determine the ultimate authority in St. John's; to determine whether St. John's relations with the Uniate hierarchy existed because
of St. John's convenience and administrative need, or because St. John's had no choice in the matter, just as a son cannot choose his father.
The appellant, in effect, argues that the chancellor should never, in his search for the ultimate authority at St. John's have gone beyond the application for a corporate charter for St. John's filed in 1910; the exceptions filed to that application by Reverend Vasochik, a Uniate priest; the corporate charter as granted in 1910; and the bylaws, deeds and minutes of St. John's Church.
On September 3, 1910, the founders of St. John's applied for a corporate charter for the purpose of practicing religion according to the faith, doctrine, and usages of the Greek Catholic Church. On September 30, 1910, Reverend Theodosius Vasochik, who was a Uniate priest in charge of a local Uniate parish, excepted to the application, stating that the founders of St. John's were not truly Catholic, i.e., under the authority of the Pope. On November 12, 1910, a Charter was granted to St. John's in the name of "St. John Chrysostom Autonomic Greek Catholic Church of Pittsburgh" (emphasis supplied), the name having been arrived at after Reverend Vasochik excepted to the original application which bore the name "St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Church of Pittsburgh." The chancellor did not assign much significance to the name change, but rather surmised that it came about as a typical agreement of counsel. The lower court noted that no evidence was produced to show that Reverend Vasochik had authority from anybody to contest the original charter application, and in the absence of that kind of proof, the chancellor was reluctant to decide the present issue on the basis of the consequences of Reverend Vasochik's exceptions. Also attesting to the inconclusiveness of the Charter on the issue of St.
John's governmental nature, said the court, was the action of St. John's parishioners just a little more than one year after the Charter was granted, when, on December 23, 1911, the parishioners petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County to amend the corporate name to "St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Church of Pittburgh", which the court did on January 22, 1912. Thus the lower court, quite correctly we think, refused to decide this very important dispute by the mere recitation of the name in the Charter as granted in 1910. We agree that the several proceedings concerning the Charter must be considered together, and so considered, they are silent on the question of St. John's governmental nature.
In the above regard, the appellant asserts that the doctrine of "res judicata" establishes for all times that St. John's is independent. The argument conceptualizes the grant of St. John's Charter in 1910 as St. John's " Autonomic " Church as a judicial recognition and decision on the very question of St. John's independence. The grant of the Charter was hardly conclusive upon the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of St. John's. The decree of incorporation merely decided that St. John's was a proper subject for incorporation under Pennsylvania law, and that it had fulfilled all of the mandatory conditions precedent to incorporation under the law of Pennsylvania.
Furthermore, we agree with the chancellor that an isolated consideration of St. John's bylaws and minutes cannot answer the jurisdictional question at hand. The records, to be sure, contain infrequent assertive statements directed against certain aspects of the Uniate influence at St. John's; for example, in 1931, the parishioners placed an interdict against the mention in the Mass of the name of Bishop Takach, the Bishop of the Pod Carpathian Diocese, because of his stand on
the issue of priestly celibacy, and because of the permission given by him to certain of St. John's parishioners to start a new parish at a different location which, of course, resulted in a diminution of St. John's population. The records of such incidents seem to us, however, to be no more conclusive as to St. John's governmental nature than the very facts of such occurrences, all of which were not only well known to the chancellor, but were also considered by him in arriving at his decision. But besides the fact that the recordation of some facts does not make them weightier than others, another reason precludes the bylaws from being the determiner of the real authority at St. John's. Until 1935, church property was held, by force of the Lay Control of Church Property Act, Act of April 26, 1855, P. L. 328, § 7, 10 P.S. § 81, subject to the direction and control of the lay members of the congregation. This control could not have been accomplished without bylaws and the bylaws could not help but reflect the authority and power actually reposed in the lay trustees by the statute. These assertions, however, are not inconsistent with hierarchical control, and hence cannot be relied upon to decide the question. The lower court so held, and we agree.
The chancellor, having concluded that St. John's records failed to locate its legitimate and ultimate authority, looked to and examined the entire history of the church to locate that authority.*fn3 That examination
resulted in extensive findings, the most important of which ...