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The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church

An Eastern Slavic people akin to Belarussians, Russians and Ukrainians, the Rusyns – whose homeland lies south of the Carpathian Mountains in the heart of central Europe – have always lived under the governance of another people. They toiled the soil, kept livestock or cut timber, usually as serfs or tenant laborers of their Hungarian, German or Polish masters, landholders who eagerly imposed their identity on their subjects.

An estimated 200,000 Rusyns immigrated to the United States, beginning in the late 19th century, settling in the industrialized areas of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia and Indiana. Lured by employment agents of the mines and mills, they quarried coal and forged steel, enriching their employers while building a nation. And though working conditions were wretched, many Rusyn immigrants, once married, believed they lacked nothing except a church in which they could worship God in keeping with the traditions of their forebears.

The desire of Rusyn-Americans to maintain their Eastern Christian faith, or stara vira (old faith), and the privileges and rites associated with it, would eventually split the community. Yet this resolve would also hinder its assimilation. The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, an eparchy (diocese) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, echoes this Rusyn-American fidelity to faith and forebears.

The old country. While often confused with their Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian kin – with whom they also share the Eastern Christian faith – Rusyns were, until recently, submerged in the socioeconomic, geopolitical dynamic of central Europe, an often violent whirl of Germanic and Hungarian antagonism. Such conditions, coupled with waves of forced assimilation and serfdom, hardly favored the development of a distinct Rusyn identity. Nevertheless, such an identity developed, sowed by a language like Ukrainian, nurtured by Byzantine Christianity, which the Rusyns accepted from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century, and reinforced by unia, their full communion with the Church of Rome.

As the churches of the East and West parted company – particularly after the Great Schism in 1054 – Rusyn peasants, who lived in tiny villages scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains in Roman Catholic Hungary, remained attached to the Christian faith as practiced by the Orthodox East.

Though they shared the same Byzantine rites and traditions as their neighbors to the north and east of the Carpathians (modern Ukrainians), Rusyns adapted these rites, making them their own. Fortified by the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, located near Mukačevo (a town in modern Ukraine), Rusyns built their unique wooden churches, wrote their icons and sang their plainchant, or prostopinije, all contributing to the creation of a distinctive Church of Mukačevo.

In lieu of a secular ruling class, Rusyn bishops stepped in, serving as both secular and spiritual shepherds. Bishops came from the local community, were elected by a council of monks from St. Nicholas Monastery (of which they were members) and were consecrated by bishops in communion with the (Orthodox) ecumenical patriarchate.

Cataclysmic events in the late 16th and early 17th centuries – the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman Turkish invasion of central Europe, the decline of the Hungarian kingdom and the rise of the Hapsburg dynasty – altered the fortunes of the Rusyns and the confessional dynamics of the region.

Constant clashes ravaged the countryside and destroyed estates and villages. Disease and war devastated the Rusyn population, which declined precipitously. Meanwhile, the Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian churches grew, particularly among the Rusyns’ Hungarian, German and Polish landlords. Alarmed, central Europe’s Orthodox leaders turned to the vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, the Jesuits, who promised the Orthodox that they would retain their liturgical rites, customs and privileges, including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops, in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy. In addition, their clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy – important considerations in realms governed by Catholic dynasties.

In April 1646, in the chapel of the castle in Užhorod (now located on Ukraine’s border with Slovakia), 63 Rusyn Orthodox priests professed their allegiance, and that of their parish communities, to the Church of Rome. Less than 20 years later, the Orthodox bishop of Mukačevo, Parfenii Petrovych, roused by his priests’ profession in Užhorod and fueled by the zeal of the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, led his entire church into full communion with Rome.

But until Pope Clement XIV erected the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukačevo in 1771, Rusyn bishops of Mukačevo functioned as vicars of the (Hungarian) Roman Catholic bishops of Eger. Their priests – most of whom were married – were subordinate to (Hungarian) Roman Catholic pastors. In 1780, the seat of the Rusyn Greek Catholic bishop, while retaining its ancient name, moved from Mukačevo to nearby Užhorod, where a seminary for the formation of priests had been established a few years earlier.

Rusyn awakening. The 19th century, particularly after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, ushered in an intellectual movement – Romanticism – that sparked the rise of national movements throughout Europe, including that of the Rusyns.

Led largely by Rusyn Greek Catholic priests from the eparchies of Mukačevo and Prešov (erected in 1818), this stirring of Rusyn consciousness inspired the publication of the first Rusyn-language primer, the documentation of ancient folk songs and hymns, and the creation of lyric poems and stories. Works such as “The Song of the Evil Landlord” and “Life of a Rusyn” give some understanding of the lives of the Rusyns, particularly as the Hungarian government, with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867, unleashed an aggressive program to wipe out the very kind of ethnic awakening among Rusyns that had inspired a Hungarian uprising challenging the Austrian Hapsburgs. Though most Rusyn Greek Catholic leaders opposed this campaign of assimilation, several bishops (particularly those in Prešov) went along with it, asserting the adoption of a Hungarian identity and suppressing the use of Rusyn in schools.

Distressed by this assimilation policy and eager to destabilize the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire, the self-appointed Godfather of all Slavs, the Russian tsar, encouraged Greek Catholic Rusyns to return to Orthodoxy, which he claimed would uphold Rusyn traditions.

This “back to the old faith” movement outlived the Dual Monarchy, Hungarian sovereignty of the Rusyn Carpathian homeland and the tsar. It reached a climax in the 1920’s, when tens of thousands of Greek Catholic Rusyns – now citizens of the newly created Czechoslovakia – embraced Orthodoxy.

Emigration.“It’s sometimes difficult to imagine … what it was like for our ancestors as they made the perilous journey … to this new promised land,” chronicles an unsigned history of St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Barton, Ohio.

“No doubt many of them had been told that the streets in the United States were paved in gold, and that opportunity existed at every turn. Then they arrived here … strange people with strange customs in a strange land.”

Yet, what the average Rusyn immigrant (a man in his late teens or early 20’s) encountered in the New World seemed an improvement to what he left behind, where life remained almost feudal. His parents were not unlike their ancestors: Most were illiterate peasants who tilled small plots as subsistence farmers in the least developed counties of Hungary; 80 percent lived in hamlets of 2,000 people and married their neighbors, nearly all of whom shared their Greek Catholic faith; and practically all died in the villages of their birth, rarely venturing beyond the nearest provincial market town.

While torn from the land of his birth, the Rusyn immigrant in the United States found employment, settled in company housing with other men from his village, sent money back to his parents and even saved enough to buy a berth on a ship for his beloved and a small plot of land on which to settle. Yet, it was not enough. The churches in the United States were not the familiar structures cluttered with icons and filled with plainchant hymns, but the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches he associated with his parents’ landlords. He wanted his own.

Empowered by success, fueled by faith and freed from the oppression choking the homeland, Rusyn immigrants banded together. They formed associations and, from the collected dues, donations and interest-free personal loans, they built their churches, modest reminders of home.

“It’s hard to appreciate what it must have been like trying to start a new church in the early 1900’s,” records Barton’s Church of St. Nicholas. “There was no bishop in this country to whom a request for a priest could be made. This may not sound important, but building a church without knowing whether or not a priest would be sent is like building a new home for someone that one can only hope will come and live in it. There were no guarantees that once the church was built a pastor would be secured. Obviously, this did not stop the people of this community.”

The Greek Catholic Union, a fraternal organization founded in 1892 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, provided economic, legal and moral support to many emerging Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes. Contrary to the usual Roman Catholic practice in the United States, however, the laity, with the backing of the Greek Catholic Union, not only built but owned their churches. And the priests who celebrated the sacred mysteries, while sent by their bishops, were solicited, retained and supported by the trustees of the parish. Also contrary to usual U.S. Roman Catholic practice, most of these priests were, in keeping with the norms of the Greek Catholic tradition, married.

Crisis and schism.Wounded by cries of “Americanism” and “Modernism” hurled by critics in Europe – and unfamiliar with Greek Catholic traditions – some U.S. Roman Catholic bishops (who in the absence of Greek Catholic bishops guided Greek Catholic parishes) denied married or widowed priests the faculties necessary to carry out their ministries.

Father Alexis Toth (1853-1909), the son of a Greek Catholic priest, a former seminary professor and a widower from the Rusyn Greek Catholic Eparchy of Prešov, sought the jurisdiction of a Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco after Roman Catholic Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul denied Father Toth the faculties to guide a Rusyn Greek Catholic parish in Minneapolis.

In 1891, the parish, some 360 people, accepted Orthodoxy, launching a pro-Orthodox movement among Rusyn Greek Catholics. By the time of Father Toth’s death, more than 25,000 Rusyns entered the Russian Orthodox Church. Ironically, their acceptance of Russian Orthodoxy also implied their acceptance of a Russian identity – Father Toth had become an apostle of Russification – and the loss of Rusyn traditions that characterized Rusyn Greek Catholics.

This movement prompted the U.S. Greek Catholic community (which in addition to Rusyns included Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks and Ukrainians) to petition the Holy See for a Greek Catholic hierarch. A bishop, they reasoned, would be able to represent their church with equanimity and defend their rights and prerogatives.

Bishop Soter Ortynsky arrived following the August 1907 publication of “Ea Semper.” This apostolic letter delineated the new bishop’s duties (a vicar to Roman Catholic bishops) and modified several Greek Catholic privileges. These included withholding confirmation from infants at baptism (the sacrament was to be conferred on persons of suitable age by bishops, not priests, as in the Roman Catholic tradition) and the stipulation that married priests were not to be ordained in the United States or sent from abroad.

Sensing the erosion of their Greek Catholic traditions, rites and privileges, Rusyn-Americans, bolstered by their fraternal societies, protested the appointment. They identified the bishop with the apostolic letter and as a friend of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and, therefore, their foe. Following the bishop’s death in 1916, the Holy See established two separate Greek Catholic administrations (in 1924 these were made apostolic exarchates); erecting one in Philadelphia for Ukrainians and a second in Pittsburgh for Greek Catholic Rusyns, Croatians, Hungarians and Slovaks. By 1929, there were some 150 Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes throughout the United States, embracing almost 300,000 members.

The calm that followed the erection of the exarchates, however, did not last. In 1929, a new decree, “Cum Data Fuerit,” enforced not only clerical celibacy but called for the legal transfer of all church properties to the respective Greek Catholic bishops. The decree’s contents shook the entire Greek Catholic community, regardless of ethnic background, but it would divide Rusyn-Americans. Though the Rusyn Greek Catholic Exarch of Pittsburgh, Bishop Basil Takach, requested that Rome reconsider its stand on the ordination of married clergy in the United States, some 37 parishes rebelled.

A new church is formed. In November 1937, an assembly of priests and laity, led by Father Orestes Chornock (1883-1977), met in Pittsburgh. After repealing the unia that bound their ancestral Church of Mukačevo to the Church of Rome nearly 300 years earlier, the assembly elected Father Chornock bishop. Fearing further loss of identity should they enter the Russian Orthodox Church, the group established itself as an eparchy, petitioned the ecumenical patriarch based in Constantinople, Benjamin I, to receive it into the Orthodox Church and requested Father Chornock’s ordination to the episcopacy. Nearly a year later, in September, the ecumenical patriarch consecrated Father Chornock bishop and formally erected the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Eparchy as a diocese of the ecumenical patriarchate.

Soon after, Bishop Orestes set up a seminary in New York City, but he eventually moved it to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where in 1950 the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was founded. Johnstown remains the seat of the eparchy.

Of the estimated 75 parishes and missions that make up the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church (numbering some 50,000 people), nearly half are located in Pennsylvania. Most of the remaining parishes are scattered throughout the rest of the Rust Belt. The churches of these parishes, many of them simple structures garnished with onion domes and three-bar crosses, stand as relics of a bygone age when Slavs carved coal from the earth or fueled furnaces that belched soot and fashioned steel.

Following waves of north-to-south migration, which has emptied once-thriving communities throughout the Northeast, Metropolitan Nicholas of Amissos (elected in 1985) erected parishes and missions in Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia. While Rusyn-Americans make up the majority of these communities, they are not ethnically homogeneous.

Typically, “mixed marriages” advance assimilation, threatening the integrity of ethnic and religious identities, the very trend that compelled the founders of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church to go it alone that November day in Depression-era Pittsburgh. While marriages between Rusyn-Americans and non-Rusyn-Americans, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, often result in the loss of the Orthodox spouse (and their children) to another faith, conversions to Orthodoxy are common and welcomed. While drawn to the faith and liturgies of the church, which are celebrated in English, converts often cite the warmth and kinship of the parish – elements lacking in an increasingly mobile and uprooted society – for their embrace of Orthodoxy.

Back in the “old country” (Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and southwestern New York), Rusyn-American Orthodox parents and grandparents remain, lovingly tending their churches and cemetery plots, boiling peroghi and baking nut rolls for church fund-raisers. And while first Communions still reveal their Greek Catholic legacy, classes in even the oldest parishes reinforce Orthodox spirituality and tradition.

Guided by the ecumenical movement and bolstered by the foundation of nonpartisan societies dedicated to the study of Carpatho- Rusyn genealogy, history, literature and religion, relations among Rusyn-Americans of all faiths press forward. On the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the first printing of the prostopinije (late June 2006), the apostolic administrator of the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukačevo, Bishop Milan Sasik, invited all eparchies rooted in the Church of Mukačevo, Catholic and Orthodox, to a conference in Užhorod.

“Our liturgical plainchant tradition identifies us, unites us and distinguishes us as one church in the Byzantine tradition,” he said. “The testimony of this common usage is an important reason to celebrate together.”

There is reason to celebrate: Last August, on the feast of the Dormition of Mary, Metropolitan Nicholas proclaimed that the second Sunday after each Pentecost “shall be celebrated as the Synaxis [assembly] of the Carpatho-Rusyn Saints.” The ruling hierarch of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church included two 20th-century Greek Catholic martyrs in the list of saints, Blesseds Pavel Gojdic and Teodor Romzha, recognizing them for their “holiness, witness and supreme sacrifice for the Christian faith and for the Rusyn people.”

This extraordinary yet little-known gesture acknowledges not only the common faith uniting all Rusyns, but symbolically calls for the healing of all Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Executive Editor Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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