By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Metropolitan Laurus, who led the overseas branch of the Russian Orthodox Church to a historic rapprochement with the Moscow mother church, from which it split after the Communist revolution in 1917, died Sunday at a monastery in Jordanville, N.Y. He was 80. Nicholas Ohotin, a church spokesman, said no cause had been determined. News reports from Russia made much of the day of his death: it was the Feast of Orthodoxy, when those who have given greatly to the church are venerated.
Metropolitan Laurus's most historic moment occurred last May in the great rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which Stalin had once destroyed to build a swimming pool. As leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, he exchanged kisses on the cheek with the Patriarch of Moscow, Aleksei II.
The gesture symbolized a momentous step toward ending a feud that began three years after the Bolshevik revolution, as the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union wilted under intense government pressure. By 1927, the Moscow patriarch had pledged loyalty to the Communist authorities, and the overseas church, in disgust, cut all ties with its Russian parent.
But last May, eight decades after the final break, the churches avowed spiritual unity. Bishops from the overseas church -- which has 400 parishes in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Britain and South America -- must now be approved by a council in Moscow.
Metropolitan Laurus emphasized that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia remained administratively independent. And some issues are still sticking points: prominent among them, there is no unity on how best to cooperate with other religions.
Four years before the historic accord, other kisses dramatized the new, welcoming attitude of Russia's post-Communist rulers toward the Orthodox Church. While visiting New York, the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, kissed Metropolitan Laurus three times.
Saying that the Kremlin is Russia's spiritual, as well as political, center, Mr. Putin invited Metropolitan Laurus to Moscow to lay the groundwork for reunification with the original Russian Orthodox Church.
Orthodoxy arrived in Russia from Byzantium in 988 A.D. at the invitation of Grand Prince Vladimir, who had searched the world for a faith for his people. Russians loved their new religion, and after the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, they became the strongest defenders of Orthodoxy.
In 1472, Ivan III, the grand duke of Moscow, married the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. Ivan then took the title of czar, an adaptation of Caesar, and Moscow called itself "the third Rome."
The Communist revolution changed everything. According to Nathaniel Davis's "A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy" (2003), there were more than 50,000 churches before the revolution and no more than 300 functioning ones by the late 1930s. More than 80,000 priests, monks and nuns were killed.
The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia became the defender and bearer of traditions that went beyond religion. The foreign church canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1981, something the Russian church did only when it was absolutely safe, in 2000. That canonization helped pave the way for the churches' rapprochement.
Princess Olga Kulikovskaya-Romanova, a member of the House of Romanovs, said in an interview on Monday with Itar-Tass, the Russian news service, that the reunification owed much to Metropolitan Laurus's "very delicate and cautious" approach.
She said the cleric had "many opponents who didn't want to part with their stereotyped perceptions of Russia."
Vassily Mikhailovich Skurla was born on Jan. 1, 1928, in present-day Slovakia. At 8 or 9, he went to a nearby monastery and asked to become a monk. His father -- poor and a widower with three other children -- agreed, a church biography said. By law, the boy also had to attend public school.
He and other monks fled advancing Soviet troops and, by a circuitous route, arrived at the Jordanville monastery in 1946. He graduated from an associated seminary there and then taught the Old Testament and other subjects. He did the work of a monk, cooking, milking cows, packing books and digging graves. He also edited church publications.
He ascended the church hierarchy, from dean of the seminary to bishop of Manhattan to archbishop to metropolitan of the eastern United States and New York. In 2001, he was elected first hierarch, or top leader, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. He won on the first ballot, something that had not happened in 65 years.
Metropolitan Laurus left no immediate survivors.
Reports from Russia on Monday said church leaders there were pushing to name streets and a church, perhaps a cathedral, for him.