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

Diaspora: America’s Ruthenian Catholics

At the 350th anniversary of the Union of Uzhorod, a historical review of Ruthenian Catholicism in the United States.

On an early spring day in 1646, in the chapel of the Uzhorod castle in present-day Ukraine, 63 Orthodox priests professed fidelity to the See of St. Peter before the Latin bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Eger, Hungary. Known as the Union of Uzhorod, this profession of faith has endured as a defining force of the Ruthenian people and culture.

Today more than 1.3 million Ruthenian (also known as Carpatho-Rusyn) Byzantine Catholics, scattered throughout North America, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and southwest Ukraine, are preparing to celebrate the 350th anniversary of this historic event.

Eastern Europe has had a tumultuous history. Among those most affected by the ever-changing borders have been the Rus: the Eastern Slavs of the Middle Ages. In the modern age, they have been classified Belorussian, Russian, Ruthenian and Ukrainian. Unlike their Eastern Slav kinsmen, the Ruthenians have never governed the upper slopes and valleys of their Carpathian homeland.

From the late 10th century until the dissolution of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Ruthenians were dominated by the Hungarians. In late 1918, with the creation of the Czecho-slovak Republic, most Ruthenians were incorporated within the autonomous province of Carpatho-Ruthenia. The remainder were absorbed in the Slovak region of Presov. After Nazi Germany dissolved Czecho-slovakia in 1939, the Hungarians reestablished their command of Carpatho-Ruthenia, while the Nazi-controlled Slovak Republic retained Presov. Since the final days of World War II, the Ruthenian homeland has been divided between Ukraine and Slovakia. In short, a 20th-century Ruthenian villager could identify himself as Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak or Ukrainian – without ever leaving his home!

These geopolitical conditions, coupled with almost constant ethnic suppression, were not conducive to nurturing a distinct Ruthenian identity. It was sustained, nevertheless, by Byzantine Christianity, which the Ruthenians accepted from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century. The unique Ruthenian consciousness was bolstered further by the Union of Uzhorod. However, it was in the blue-collar towns of the American Northeast – especially in Pennsylvania and New jersey – that the concept of a unique Ruthenian identity bore fruit.

Towns like Hazleton, Homestead, McKeesport and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, and Passaic and Jersey City in New Jersey, were the primary destinations of many Ruthenian immigrants. Mostly illiterate and not particularly nationalistic, they were lured by the comparatively large salaries of the mines and factories. As the need for cheap labor increased the number of immigrants multiplied.

Although the desire to return to the old country soon faded, contacts with the homeland did not. And cultural and political events in the old country contributed to the ethnic consciousness developed by the Ruthenian community in the United States.

Like most Eastern European agrarian peoples, the Ruthenians centered their lives on the church. Once in the New World these immigrants continued this pattern, even though they settled in the cities. At first, they worshipped in local Latin Catholic churches. As their numbers increased they petitioned their home eparchies for priests to celebrate the liturgy according to their Byzantine tradition.

The Greek Catholic Union, a fraternal organization founded in 1892 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., provided economic and moral support to the emerging church. Contrary to the usual practice of the Latin church in the U.S., the Ruthenian laity, with the backing of the Greek Catholic Union, built and owned their houses of worship. And the priests who were hired to celebrate the liturgy were, in keeping with the norms of the Byzantine tradition, often married.

Some Latin bishops, unfamiliar with the Byzantine traditions of the Ruthenians, would not allow the married priests to function. This prompted the Byzantine Catholic community to petition the Holy See for a Byzantine hierarch. A bishop, they reasoned, would be able to represent their church with equanimity and defend the rights and prerogatives of the Byzantine Catholic Church, which had been conferred after Uzhorod.

Meanwhile, agents of the Russian Empire, sensing dissension in the Ruthenian-American community and eager to weaken the Hungarian hold, initiated programs to entice the Ruthenians into the Russian Orthodox Church. In Europe Russian agents also led the pro-Orthodox movement, which prospered due to the anti-Byzantine, ethnic assimilation policies of the Hungarian government.

In 1890, in Minneapolis, Minn., the Latin Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul suspended the Rev. Alexis G. Toth (1853-1909), a widower who led a parish of more than 360 people, for his refusal to support a decree limiting the privileges of the Byzantine Catholic Church. A few months later, Father Toth and his entire parish were received into the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus began a large-scale pro-Orthodox movement among Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics. By the time of Father Toth’s death in 1909, more than 20,000 Ruthenians had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Ironically, acceptance of Russian Orthodoxy also meant Russification and the suppression of a distinct Ruthenian character.

In May 1907, perhaps in response to the pro-Orthodox movement in Europe and the U.S., the Holy See appointed the Basilian Father Soter S. Ortynsky (1866-1916), a Ukrainian, as the Vicar General for the Byzantine Catholic community in the U.S. However, the selection of Father Ortynsky was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Ruthenian-American community.

The lack of support, indeed hostility, demonstrated by some members of the community may be traced to yet another development in European culture and politics: the revival of ethnic nationalism.

Awakened by the success of the Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian nationalist movements in the early 19th century, Europe’s ethnic minorities clamored for similar nationalist rights from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Croats and Slovenes, Czechs and Slovaks. Ukrainians and Poles all hungered for independent nation-states.

The Ukrainian nationalist movement which was centered in the virulently anti-Russian province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, did not tolerate the concept of a distinct Ruthenian community. And it did not help that many Ruthenians had adopted a pro-Russian posture to assist in throwing off their Hungarian oppressors.

Bishop Ortynsky, although a gifted preacher, was nevertheless a friend of the Ukrainian nationalist movement fearing the suppression of their national and religious traditions in the New World, the Ruthenians, led by the Greek Catholic Union protested. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 people sought refuge in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Following the Bishop’s death in 1916, the Holy See established two separate Byzantine Catholic administrations. One jurisdiction was established in Philadelphia for those Byzantine Catholics who emigrated from Galicia (Ukrainians). A second was created in Pittsburgh for those Byzantine Catholics from Hungary (Ruthenians).In 1924, the Holy See elevated each administration to the dignity of apostolic exarchate. A priest of the Eparchy of Munkacs in Czechoslovakia, Father Basil Takach, was consecrated in Rome as bishop of the new Ruthenian exarchate. Ironically, this exarchate did not embrace Ruthenians alone. One of the Bishop’s first tasks was to take a census of each parish. Where the majority of parishioners were of Ruthenian, Slovak, Hungarian or Croatian origin, parishes were to be governed by the Ruthenian Catholic Exarchate of Pittsburgh. Those parishes in which the majority were of Ukrainian descent were placed under the mantle of the Ukrainian Catholic Exarchate of Philadelphia.

The apparent calm that settled with the erection of the exarchate did not last. In 1929, the Holy See issued a new decree, Cum Data Fuerit, which considered the administration of the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church. Cum Data Fuerit enforced clerical celibacy and the episcopal ownership of property.

This decree precipitated widespread dismay in the entire Eastern Catholic community. An assembly of priests, led by the Rev. Orestes Chornock (1883-1977), met in Pittsburgh in 1937. In a petition to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople, they asked to be received into the Orthodox Church as a distinct eparchy. The ecumenical patriarch granted the request and placed them under the spiritual care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. At present, the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Diocese, led by Bishop Nicholas in Johnstown, Pa., numbers more than 110,000 Ruthenian-Americans.

An estimated 250,000 Ruthenian-Americans – the descendants of those immigrants who embraced the pro-Russian movement – belong to two additional Orthodox jurisdictions: the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States.

Despite these bewildering conflicts, the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church in the U.S. has flourished. Interestingly, and perhaps in response to its ethnic trials, the bishops of this church have emphasized its American and Byzantine Catholic character.

A historian of the Ruthenian community, the Rev. Athanasius B. Pekar, O.S.B.M., notes that 1950 was a turning point for the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church in the U.S. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life, which have been attributed to the efforts of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Conception and the Basilian and Benedictine sisters, were numerous. A sign of the church’s prosperity and maturity was the opening of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Pittsburgh in 1951.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, however, the Americanization of the Byzantine Catholic Church frequently suggested latinization. The Divine Liturgy, which had been celebrated in Church Slavonic, was now said in English. And a recited, abbreviated version of the liturgy was also offered. In many churches the iconostasis, or wall of icons separating sanctuary and nave, was removed. Side altars with Byzantine-style images (instead of statues) were erected. Nevertheless, participation in church activities was highly enthusiastic.

In 1963, Pope Paul VI divided the Apostolic Exarchate of Pittsburgh into two eparchial sees. One eparchy was established in Pittsburgh and a second in Passaic. A third eparchy was created in 1969 in Parma, Ohio. And that same year Pope Paul VI established the Eparchy of Pittsburgh as a Metropolitan See, with Passaic and Parma as suffragan sees. In 1981, Pope John Paul II created a third suffragan see, the Eparchy of Van Nuys, Calif. More than 200,000 people now belong to the Byzantine Catholic Church in the U.S.

The bishops of the church, while not returning to the ethnocentric policies of the past, have promoted cultural and spiritual renewal. Standardized texts of the Divine Liturgy have been promulgated. Liturgical services that once fell out of use, including the proper administration of the sacraments of Christian Initiation – baptism, chrismation and Eucharist – have been resurrected. Icons and icon screens have been restored and, in some parishes, entire churches have been transformed into traditional Ruthenian structures.

In a letter to all Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics commemorating the Union of Uzhorod, Pope John Paul II called for the “Ruthenian community to be invigorated by this celebration and to fulfill with new apostolic vigor the mission entrusted to it…by means of prayer [and] example, by the scrupulous fidelity to the traditions of the East, by better knowledge of each other, by working together and by a brotherly attitude toward all persons and things.

“The affirmation of one’s proper identity,” the Pontiff continued, “ought to serve as proof that there are places open in the Universal Church for different traditions.”

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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