The Case of Palmer v. Marmon or How The Greek Community Lost St. George’s, Blythwood and A Lot of Money
The Greek Community of Toronto is the largest and oldest organization of immigrants from Greece in Ontario. It was organized in 1909 and has had its ups and downs including some bruising fights in court. It was involved in some serious litigation recently with its priests and his Eminence Sotirios, the Archbishop of Canada that was settled on terms that may be judged as a triumph for one side and as a less sanguine result for the other side.
That, however, is the subject of another article. In this piece I will deal with another painful and expensive lawsuit, that of Palmer v. Marmon, named after its two protagonists Peter Palmer and Gus Marmon.
Before I give the background, the reasons for judgment of Judge O’Driscoll and the result, I will give you the judge’s comments about the litigation. It is a scathing indictment of the parties involved and in language that is seen infrequently in legal proceedings.
He found that a group of successful and wealthy immigrants from Greece “embarked upon an ego trip seeking to build a civil and political power base upon an ecclesiastical and religious structure, their Greek Orthodox Church. Indeed, the actions of some of these power-hungry parishioners were in absolute defiance of properly constituted ecclesiastical authority and appear to have been designed to neutralize and perhaps destroy -- for their own aggrandisement -- all ecclesiastical authority in the Greek Orthodox Church in the Toronto area. The end result of these "power trips" is chaos, brother against brother and a factual and legal maze which has engulfed the Greek community in Toronto since the mid-1950s.” [emphasis is mine]
Some background history. The first big step taken by the growing Greek community of Toronto was the purchase in 1937 of the Holy Blossom Synagogue on Bond Street, Toronto, which became St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church. Ownership of the church was taken in the name of trustees, then transferred to the Greek Community of Toronto Incorporated and again to trustees but it remained a religious organization under the Uniform Parish Regulations of the Archdiocese of North and South America.
St. George’s Church could not meet the needs of the growing community and a lot was purchased in 1957 at 573 Blythwood Road, North York for the purpose of building another church. About that time serious conflicts arouse between members of the congregation. Judge O’Driscoll summarizes the situation in his judgment in Palmer vs. Marmon stating Peter Bassel, the president was accused of “dominating the actions of the directors and officers of the Greek Community of Toronto Incorporated and … treating the corporation as a personal fiefdom.”
A lawsuit began against Bassel in 1959 and it was settled in 1961. There were some convoluted transfers of the Blythwood and St. George’s properties but the Minutes of Settlement resulted in both properties being transferred to Guaranty Trust Company in trust for twenty trustees. The intention clearly set out that a church was to be built on the Blythwood property. It was not and the person accused of thwarting the construction of a church was Peter Palmer, the plaintiff in the Palmer v. Marmon case under discussion.
Some of the twenty trustees bought land on Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto in December 1964 and proceeded with plans to build St. Dimitrios Church on the site.
This action was commenced in March 1965, about three and a half years after the 1961 settlement. Palmer sued Marmon who represented the Trustees of which Palmer was a member. In other words, Palmer was Plaintiff and Defendant at the beginning at least.
What did Palmer and his followers want? They wanted to build a church on the Blythwood property. The other trustees replied that they wanted to do the same but they could not because of the 1959 lawsuit and the 1965 lawsuit. In July 1965, Palmer, Thomas Balles and Ted Manetas incorporated The Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc. and proceeded to take control of St. George’s and the other churches of the Greek community as they were built.
The case of Palmer vs. Marmon represented two diametrically opposed views of the Greek Community of Toronto. Is it strictly a religious organization or a civil organization representing Canadians of Greek origin in all aspects and operates churches that accept the authority of the Greek Orthodox Church in ecclesiastical and religious matters only?
There were negotiations for settlement between 1965 and 1970 with no result. The action was set for trial in October of 1974. Judge O’Driscoll delayed giving judgment in the hope that the parties could negotiate a settlement. They did not. He gave judgment in May 1978.
He examined numerous legal aspects argued by the parties but he paid particular attention to what he called the “ecclesiastical-secular dichotomy” which I believe is the crux of the case. He paid particular attention to the Uniform Parish Regulations which were issued at that time by the Archdiocese of North and South America. He quoted extensively from them and the regulations leave no doubt that each church is a Parish. It is not a community and it has a Parish Council and not a board of Directors. To be precise: The Parish is the local congregation of the Church in a given locality, organized and administered under the jurisdiction and authority of the Archdiocese, and headed by a canonically ordained and duly appointed Priest. Remove some of the verbiage and the message is clear that the priest and ultimately the Archbishop run a parish.
Palmer tried to argue that the Greek Community can pick and choose from the Uniform Parish Regulations and in effect was looking for a civil community with churches. There are no parishes but communities, he believed.
But the Regulations have no wiggle room. More emphatically: The Parish shall have absolute title to and control of all real and personal property acquired by it…. Each Parish shall be administered by the Priest and a Parish Council….The Priest as head of the Parish, by virtue of the ecclesiastical authority vested in him, shall guide and oversee the total Parish program, and is ultimately responsible for the whole life and activities of his Parish.
Consequently, Judge O’Driscoll made the following finding:
The evidence discloses that Peter Palmer and his fellow plaintiffs are disenchanted with the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church parishes in Toronto are part of the diocese of North and South America; they seek an archdiocese for Canada. Mr. Palmer in his evidence said "when the present Archbishop dies, then we can separate".
On the evidence before me, Mr. Peter Palmer for many years has sought to acquire more authority for the office of president of the parish council (which office he held on numerous occasions) while simultaneously attempting to relegate the parish priest to the position of a "paid employee". Attempting to classify the parish priests as employees of The Greek Community as was done even recently is out of the question.
He called The Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto a secular corporation that “proceeded to blur all distinctions between that corporation and the parish council of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church; indeed Palmer and the others set out upon a course to acquire power for their secular corporation.”
In the end Judge O’Driscoll declared “that the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto as well as the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Incorporated, does not now have and never has had prior to and/ or after incorporation, any authority in, over or upon the Greek Orthodox Church or any right to exercise any control over the priest and parish thereof.”
In the end The Greek Community of Toronto Inc., as it then was, lost St. George’s, Blythwood and the money on deposit for the building of a church at Blythwood.
Litigation is very costly and the loser usually pays some, most or, in the worst-case scenario, all of the winner’s costs. Palmer lost and the judge did not mince his words when it came to awarding costs. “In my view, Peter Palmer initiated, promoted, fuelled and prolonged this lawsuit from 1959 onwards” he stated and ordered Palmer to pay Marmon’s legal costs personally on what was known as on a solicitor and his own client scale. It meant that Palmer had to pay all of Marmon’s legal costs.
By 1978, when O’Driscoll issued his judgment, the Greek community had grown and The Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc.(GCT) had four churches, including St. George’s with St. John’s on the way. The GCT was far from a strictly religious organization or merely a parish. It had education with thousands of students, social services, sports, cultural events, celebrations of national holidays and a presence in Canadian life. That is a community and not just a parish.
In other words, the GCT has espoused Palmer’s vison of a civil community with churches. O’Driscoll dismissed Palmer’s vision with contempt and was even perfectly content to ignore his evidence. His contempt reached the apogee in this statement: In my view, if Peter Palmer and his followers do not wish to adhere to the beliefs and tenets of the Greek Orthodox Church as represented by the Archdiocese of North and South America, they have the right and the privilege of going elsewhere and founding a church that does meet with their approval.
O’Driscoll went further stating that “Peter Palmer and his followers have no right in law or from any source, to engineer a coup and take over the operation of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church with this secular corporate vehicle known as the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc. and use that corporation as a power base for a united secular Greek community.”
This is vitriol that is not supported by the evidence. Palmer stated that “We recognize the Archdiocese in Ecclesiastical matters, we accept the Priests they appoint, and we accept part of the Articles.” He wanted a community organization not just churches.
Again, Palmer never indicated that he did not want to adhere to the beliefs and tenets of the Greek Orthodox Church. He objected to control from New York and wanted Canada to have its own archbishop and not be under the control of the Archdiocese of North and South America. (In fact, this is exactly what happened afterwards and Canada gained its independence with His Eminence Archbishop Sotirios being appointed the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Canada.)
Palmer did not express himself particularly well but what he wanted was clear enough. In his evidence in court and under oath in his examination for discovery he held that the Greek community in Canada had grown and he wanted the GCT “eventually to break away and have a Canadian Archdiocese, that is coming.” He did not dispute that the Canadian churches belonged to the Archdiocese of North and South America but he wanted “to petition the Holy Synod to create the Canadian Church or give it to us.” Those are hardly the words of a rebel who wants to destroy and there is nothing in Palmer’s position to justify O’Driscoll’s contempt for the man or his vision of the Greek community. O’Driscoll accused Palmer of engineering a coup to take over St. George’s with a secular corporate vehicle known as the Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto Inc. and use that corporation as a power base for a united secular Greek community. This was patently untrue and contradicted by the evidence.
Despite O’Driscoll’s view of the GCT as strictly a religious organization under the absolute authority of the Bishop and subsequently the Archbishop and despite the loss of St. George’s Church, the Blythwood property and the money, it continued to grow and thrive. St. John’s Church and Community Centre was built, and the GCT tried to unite other parishes to create a strong Greek community.
Trinity Greek Orthodox Church expressed a desire to join the GCT and an overwhelming percentage of its members voted at a general meeting to do so. The Archbishop through a representative immediately started a lawsuit and the amalgamation foundered.
When St. Irene Chrisovalantou Church expressed the same desire, the Board of Directors of both organizations were more careful. The meetings were held in secret as much as possible and the need of transferring the church’s property was registered on Monday morning following the general meetings on Sunday. The amalgamation was successful but the Archbishop did not hesitate to open a competing church on Donlands Avenue contrary to his own regulations about the proximity of Orthodox churches. In the interests on full disclosure, I note that I was on the Board of Directors of the GCT during some of these events.
The fight for what type of organization the GCT is has not ceased. The differences between the Archdiocese and the GCT reached a peak and the GCT stopped paying its priests in December 2014. In August 2015, the priests started a lawsuit against the GCT which in turn sued the Archbishop. The litigation dragged on until last fall when Minutes of Settlement were signed.
But that is another story.