Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

Last fall, I spoke at a conference at Hellenic College-Holy Cross, commemorating the centennial of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. I’ve already posted my main paper from that conference, on the “barbarian lands” theory of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. At that conference, I also spoke briefly about Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, who, prior to becoming Patriarch, was the Greek Archbishop of North and South America. The text of that talk is below.

It’s impossible to do justice to a giant like Athenagoras in ten minutes – he deserves a whole conference. In the time I have, I’m going to focus on one particularly distinctive aspect of his tenure in America: his relationship with the United States government and his ideal of “America.”

One of the most important things you can understand about Athenagoras is that he absolutely loved America – the mythos of America, what, in his view, America stood for. He believed in a divinely-appointed, almost messianic destiny for the United States. In 1951, when he was Ecumenical Patriarch, he had a meeting with the U.S. Consul in Istanbul. Here’s how the Consul described what Athenagoras said: “As usual, he talked at some length of his belief that the United States must remain in the Near East for several centuries to fulfill the mission which had been given it by God to give freedom, prosperity and happiness to all people.”

In March 1942, then-Archbishop Athenagoras met with an agent of the OSS (which was the precursor to the CIA). Athenagoras told the agent, “I have three Bishops, three hundred priests and a large and far flung organization. Every one under my order is under yours. You may command them for any service you require. There will be no questions asked and your directions will be executed faithfully.” He was deeply concerned that the Allies should be victorious.

A month later, Archbishop Athenagoras – who was 56 years old – attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was turned down, but he continued to work closely with the OSS. One of his tasks was to identify eligible Greek-Americans to serve in the military. Under orders from Athenagoras, the bishops and priests of the Greek Archdiocese collected something like a hundred thousand names in short order, which astonished the OSS. This caught the attention of William Donovan, the head of the OSS, who began direct communications with the Archbishop. In May 1942, Athenagoras wrote to Donovan, “I think I don’t do very much for the U.S., to whom I am deeply indebted. I am ready though to submit myself to any duty and to make every possible sacrifice for our beloved Country, which is fighting for Universal freedom and justice and for the New Day which is to come.”



  1. Interesting! My father who was born in here, raised in Greece, then returned here as adult to go to college, war broke out and he’s was drafted to the Army. He barely knew English and was in the OSS. He never talked about the war, because it was secret. He passed away around the time they unclassified some things. I found out years later from someone who was in the Army and wrote a memoir, there were two sets of Greeks, those who were U.S. raised and those raised in Greece. The two groups went to different places to fight the war. My dad went over to Greece and was a guerila and paratrooper during the war. His mother and some siblings were still in Greece and had no idea he was there(he planned to bring entire family to U.S. before war…they eventually came over afterwards). He had nightmares from the war until he was put on meds to ease the pain from cancer at the end of his life. He never complained about what he had to do, and I can’t imagine what he endured. My mom told me he saw a lot of his Army buddies killed. I’m crying writing this…


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