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ST. MICHAEL AND ARCHANGEL RUSSIAN ORTHODOX GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH ET AL. v. UHNIAT ET AL. (03/16/73)

decided: March 16, 1973.

ST. MICHAEL AND ARCHANGEL RUSSIAN ORTHODOX GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
UHNIAT ET AL., APPELLANTS



Appeals from decree of Court of Common Pleas, Trial Division, of Philadelphia, Dec. T., 1962, No. 3343, in case of St. Michael and Archangel Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, a Pennsylvania Corporation v. Peter Uhniat.

COUNSEL

Paul Matzko, with him Erskine, Wolfson, Matzko & Pierson, for plaintiffs.

John S. Manos, for defendants.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Eagen. Mr. Justice Roberts and Mr. Justice Manderino concur in the result.

Author: Eagen

[ 451 Pa. Page 177]

These appeals are from decrees of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia and constitute the second round of litigation between the parties. Presently at issue is the ownership of certain property claimed by each side.

[ 451 Pa. Page 178]

Litigation between rival factions of the congregation of St. Michael and Archangel Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation [St. Michael's] began a decade ago. In 1968 an appeal reached this Court wherein the question raised was whether the church was subject to the patriarchal jurisdiction of the Moscow-based general Russian Orthodox Church [Patriarchate], or whether its hierarchical allegiance properly lay with "The Russian Orthodox Church of America", known as the "Metropolia". At the time of our decision [ St. Michael and Archangel Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church v. Uhniat, 436 Pa. 222, 223, 259 A.2d 862 (1969)], we said, "[u]pon the determination of the proper jurisdiction hinges certain property rights."

Reversing the decree of the Court of Common Pleas, we held that St. Michael's was subject to the control of the Patriarchate. The impact of such a determination on the property aspects of the case was adumbrated at pp. 237-38:

"Here . . . we are confronted with a dispute over church property originally dedicated to the Russian Orthodox Church. . . . St. Michael's property cannot be transferred simply because a majority of its parishioners so desire. If that were permitted, then no real protection would be afforded to hierarchical religious systems. It seems to us that a logical reading of the relevant decisions of the United States Supreme Court produces the conclusion that the constitutional protection of hierarchical organizations precludes not only legislative and judicial action which would destroy church government, but also action by church members themselves which effects a transfer of church property from the control of one hierarchy into the hands of a competing hierarchy . . . .

[ 451 Pa. Page 179]

". . . The lower court has shown no authority for its conclusion that a dedication of a local congregation to a hierarchical general church organization is binding on the local church only until some other hierarchy, administratively and judicially independent of the first but embracing the same religious faith and precepts, comes along."

Following remand by this Court, the Court of Common Pleas entered a final decree on February 16, 1970, pertinently providing that St. Michael's was subject to the hierarchical jurisdiction of the Patriarchate and that all property of the church "shall continue to be the property of said corporation."*fn1

Curiously, the Metropolia group appealed this final decree. [Appeal No. 449 January Term, 1970, presently consolidated.] The appeal is utterly devoid of merit. The decree in question simply recites that St. Michael's is a Patriarchal Church and, as such, the corporation is entitled to all of its property [without any specification of what that property was]. As framed, the court's directive is unerringly faithful to our opinion of November 11, 1969, and any appeal therefrom is frivolous.

On March 1, 1970, the Metropolia pastor, Rev. Federonko, turned over the keys to the church building, as well as a number of religious articles, to a designated Patriarchal priest. On May 6, 1970, the Patriarchal group filed a petition and rule to show cause why Rev. Fedoronko should not turn over possession of a certain building located at Veree Road and Shady Lane, Philadelphia [used as a rectory by the Metropolia faction], as well as certain other religious items, church funds and records.

After conducting extensive hearings, the chancellor filed a petition in this Court on June 23, 1970, requesting

[ 451 Pa. Page 180]

    permission to appoint a master and auditor to assist in resolving the claims asserted by both sides with respect to the rectory and ...


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