ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

America’s Eastern Rite Catholics: Living Witnesses to Faith

Eastern Catholics from around the world continue to celebrate their ancient liturgies on America?s shores.

At the turn of the century they boarded ships for America, clutching their children, possessing only the clothes on their backs and their faith. Today their children and grandchildren are living proof that the faith of Eastern rite Catholics withstood the tests of time.

During a four week trip last Fall, Cardinal Wladyslaw Rubin, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, visited hundreds of Eastern rite Catholics living in the United States and Canada. The Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches has jurisdiction over Eastern rite Catholics throughout the world.

Thus it was that Cardinal Rubin told the members of the Eastern rite churches that they are “called upon to manifest a twofold fidelity: fidelity to their own tradition and fidelity in meeting the challenges facing the Church today, joyously collaborating with their brethren in the faith to the edification of the Mystical Body of Christ” when he addressed the Maronite community in Brooklyn, New York.

In the centuries following Christ, churches established by the apostles were under the jurisdiction of patriarchs in Antioch (located in Syria), Alexandria (in Egypt) and Jerusalem. The Byzantine (Constantinople) church grew indirectly from the Antioch community.

Other liturgies developed from these early communities. For instance, the Armenian liturgy derives from the old Byzantine rite with Syrian influences. The Maronites can trace their roots back to Antioch and western Syria. Originating in Antioch, but with Eastern Syrian influences, are the Chaldeans.

Today, there are more than half a million Byzantine Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics in America. The ancestors of the Ruthenians emigrated from the Hungarian section of the Austro-Hungarian empire; Ukrainian immigrants came from the Austrian section as well as the Ukraine.

The Slavic immigrants who entered the United States between 1850 and 1950 settled in midwestern and New England states. Poor economic conditions in their homelands, along with religious and political persecution, forced them to leave for factory and steel mill jobs here.

Naturally, the immigrants wanted to worship in their own rite. They wrote to the archbishop of Lviv in the Ukraine, promising to build a church if a priest would be sent. Archbishop Sylvester Sembratovitch sent the Rev. Ivan Volanski and a year later, in 1886, St. Michael the Archangel Church was opened by the Byzantine community in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

By 1907 there were 350,000 Slavic Byzantine Catholics living throughout 21 states. Nine years later Pope Pius X divided the growing Byzantine Church in America into the Ruthenian and Ukrainian dioceses.

In the ensuing 65 years, the Ruthenian rite has expanded to an archdiocese (archeparchy) in Pittsburgh and dioceses (eparchies) in Passaic, New Jersey; Parma, Illinois and Van Nuys, California, with about 300,000 parishoners throughout.

There are approximately a total of 528,000 members of the Ukrainian archdiocese (archeparchy) in Philadelphia and dioceses (eparchies) in Chicago and Stamford, Connecticut.

The freedom and opportunities in America beckoned not only to Slavic Byzantine Catholics but also to Melkite Catholics who were fleeing Turkish persecution. Melkites, arriving in 1860 from Egypt and Greater Syria, settled in the industrial cities of Michigan, New York and Massachusetts where they worked in factories.

They worshipped in Latin rite churches or rented buildings. The first Melkite community with its own church, St. John the Baptist, was established in the 1890’s in Chicago. However, it wasn’t until 1896 that the Patriarch of Antioch sent Fr. Abraham Bashawata to the fledgling community in America and formed what was to be specifically the first Melkite church in New York.

Today, the Melkite community is estimated to have 100,000 members with 26 parishes. In 1966, under the jurisdiction of Archimandrite Justin Najmy (later, bishop), an exarchate was formed in Newton, Mass. Two years later, he died and Archbishop Joseph Tawil was nominated to head the Melkites in America. Under his jurisdiction, the exarchate was elevated to a diocese in 1971.

Most of the Eastern rite churches have an Orthodox counterpart of the Melkites (Greek Catholics) are the Greek Orthodox.

The only Eastern rite Catholics with no Orthodox counterpart are the Maronites. They have held onto their faith without a heresy even though they have been greatly persecuted. Of the 500,000 Maronites here today, many are descendents of those who emigrated to the U.S. in 1891. The immigrants left Lebanon, a beautiful country of pine forests, and established small businesses or worked in mills. Many became quite successful. In 1895, Fr. Peter Korkahmas arrived and opened the first Maronite church in New York.

To meet the growing needs of the Maronite church, spread throughout 48 parishes in the U.S., an exarchate was created in 1966 and was elevated to a diocese (eparchy) in 1971. Originally based in Detroit, the diocese moved to Brooklyn in 1978 and is under the jurisdiction of Bishop Francis Zayek. Today, there are growing numbers of Maronites leaving war-torn Lebanon and settling where communities are established.

One of the most persecuted peoples on earth, the Armenians have kept their faith and customs alive. As early as the American colonial period, Armenians came to the U.S. It is recorded that there was an Armenian in the Virginia colony of Jamestown and a few in New Amsterdam, now known as New York. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s, while fleeing Ottoman persecution, that large numbers of Armenians entered America, settling in Boston and Worcester, Mass.

As a result of their growth, an exarchate was established recently. In ceremonies in Philadelphia, in December 1981, the Most Reverend Nerses Setian became the Apostolic Exarch of the 4,000 Armenian Catholics in the U.S. and Canada.

In the early 1900’s the majority of peasants leaving the eastern provinces of Hungary and particularly Rumania for jobs in the U.S. steel mills and factories were Orthodox. The Rumanian Byzantine Catholics, although they were a small group, also came and settled throughout the Midwest and East.

They kept each other informed of their progress in America by an eight-page newsletter and today there is a monthly paper linking the approximately 4,000 Rumanian Catholics living in the U.S. throughout the Midwest and New Jersey.

In 1904, the first Rumanian Byzantine Catholic priest, Rev. Dr. Epaminondas Lucaciu, came to the new land and two years later St. Helena’s Church was dedicated in Cleveland. Mainly because of Fr. Epaminondas’ efforts, churches were built in Scalp Level, Pennsylvania, in 1908 and a year later in Aurora, Illinois, and Youngstown, Ohio.

A land of forests and pastures, Byelorussia is a western Soviet republic. From this scenic setting came farmers at the turn of the century who couldn’t make a living at home. Passage to America for many of the immigrants was paid by sponsors to whom they owed service. After fulfilling their service obligations, they were free to start their own farms and many settled in the areas around Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo and New York.

Christ the Redeemer Church, the only Byelorussian Church in the western hemisphere, was organized under the auspices of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill. and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago.

While most Byzantine Catholics came to America for economic reasons, Russian immigrants fled because of religious persecution. In the late 1800’s Russians who became Catholics met opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Catholic group wanted to keep their own rite and, despite hardships, small groups of Byzantine Russian Catholics were formed.

For one small group of Russian Byzantine Catholics who arrived in America, St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Chapel was formed in 1935 under the direction of Protopresbyter Andrew Rogosh, a former assistant secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The majority of Russians who fled the religious persecution were naturally Orthodox. However, there are 300 Russian Catholics in Montreal, Los Angeles and New York, 50 of whom are parishoners at St. Michael’s.

The Chaldean rite Catholics who emigrated to the U.S. from Iran and Iraq settled in Detroit and Chicago in the early 1900’s. Later they moved to California because of its warm climate. Today, despite the disparity in climates, the remaining 40,000 have chosen to stay in parishes in Chicago and Detroit. There are four parishes in California with about 10,000 members.

The immigrant Chaldeans of the 19th century worked as merchants and factory workers; leaving Iran and Iraq because of poor economic conditions. Many continue to try to leave today because of the situations in both countries.

Eastern rite Catholics have enriched the diversity of America’s religious heritage, and by practicing their ancient customs and traditions they have given us a glimpse of those lands where our faith first began to grow. By living their faith, they did more than pass it on to future generations. They contributed to the colorful blend that makes the Church truly Catholic.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español