St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church

Photograph by Nick Kupensky (2015).

Establishing St. Mary’s

When Carpatho-Rusyns began to settle in Mahanoy City during the 1880s, they discovered that while the area had plenty of work, it lacked a place for them to worship in their own tradition. The vast majority of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants were Greek Catholic, but unlike Roman Catholics, the Carpatho-Rusyns’ liturgy was in Church Slavonic, they observed the Julian Calendar, and their priests were married. American Roman Catholic bishops, who had never encountered the Eastern rite and viewed it as an heretical practice of Catholicism, often refused to allow Greek Catholic priests to serve their emerging congregations, and many of the Roman Catholic priests who lived in the same communities as the Greek Catholics were openly antagonistic towards this “foreign” form of their religion. Without the institutional support of the American Catholic Church, Carpatho-Rusyn communities were often left to fend for themselves. Typically, it was a board of trustees formed by the wealthier members of the population who funded the construction of churches, invited priests from Europe to serve in them, and directed their day-to-day operations.

The first Greek Catholic church in the United States was St. Michael’s in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and after it opened its doors in 1884, many Carpatho-Rusyns from Mahanoy City walked the five miles out of town to attend the divine liturgy there on Sundays. Gradually, they began to hold their own services in town and met at Gorman’s Hall (formerly at the corner of what now is Linden and Market Streets). Under the leadership of John Žinčak Smith, Mahanoy City’s first Greek Catholic church was constructed at the present location in 1891. The church was consecrated by Father Augustyn Laurishin on October 13, which fell on the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, and thus was named St. Mary’s.

Oldest known photograph of the first church constructed in 1891. In St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).
Oldest known photograph of the first church constructed in 1891. In St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).

An iconostasis was brought to the parish from Hungary in 1895, and when it was installed that August, a large, diverse crowd gathered to congratulate the Carpatho-Rusyn community on their new church. As the American Rusyn Messenger reported, the residents of Mahanoy City expressed great interest and pride in St. Mary’s:

To see how successful the march was, one only had to observe the parade crossing the main streets, the citizens in a loud applause expressing their happiness, the English-language newspapers full of praises for the accomplishments of our Mahanoy City brethren, our faith, rite, and people. (August 15, 1895: 3)

While organizing, building, and furnishing the church took only a few years, finding a permanent priest was considerably more difficult. After a number of priests served short-term appointments, Father Kubek arrived in 1904 and became its spiritual leader for the next 36 years.

Emil Kubek in Europe

Sketch of Emil Kubek.
Sketch of Emil Kubek.

Emilij Anton Kubek was born on November 23, 1857 in the village of Štefurov, Hungarian Kingdom (now Slovakia), where his father, Anton, served as a Greek Catholic priest. The young Emil began reading the works of the great Carpatho-Rusyn poet Alexander Duchnovych at the age of five, and by the age of six he was able to recite the entire liturgy by heart. When Anton Kubek suddenly died in 1866 at the age of 45, he left the nine-year-old Emil, his mother, and three siblings (Maria, Anton, and Alžbeta) in dire financial circumstances. “How my poor mother was able to feed, clothe, and educate us,” Kubek writes, “I have no idea” (“Autobiography” 1930: 7).

Kubek finished elementary school and went on to study in the Alumneum of St. John the Baptist in Prešov, Slovakia, with the help of his older sister Maria, her husband, and his great uncle. He was ordained a Greek Catholic priest in Prešov in 1881. Before his ordination, he married Maria Shirilla, the daughter of a Greek Catholic priest from Ruzsóly, Hungarian Kingdom (now Kružlová, Slovakia), and the young couple would go on to have four children together: Maria, Anton (Anthony), Anna, and Alžbeta.

After serving in a number of villages in the Prešov Region, Kubek ultimately settled in the village of Snakov in 1885. He quickly went to work to repair and expand the Snakov parish; he led the renovation of the old chapel, built a new parish building, and opened a village school. Kubek’s work wasn’t limited to the church, for he also generally developed the village infrastructure and agriculture by prompting the construction of a new road into town, introducing fruit trees, taking up beekeeping, and teaching the impoverished villagers about new farming methods to increase their harvests (Dancák 2004). He also began to develop his talents as a writer and scholar and published the extensive comparative dictionary Church Slavonic-Hungarian-Russian-German Dictionary for Holy Writing (1906).

Snakov today
Snakov, Slovakia

In 1904, he was reassigned to the United States, but the reasons for Kubek’s emigration are still unclear. Some have speculated that he was sent to Mahanoy City to “eliminate anti-Hungarian sentiments among American immigrants,” even if “he wasn’t aware of this himself” (Dancák 2004). This could very well be true, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire used their consulates and the Trans-Atlantic Trust Company in New York City to attempt “to keep Carpatho-Rusyns loyal to Hungary and separated from fellows Slavs, especially from Slovaks and Galician Rusyns” (Magocsi 1984, 80).

Whatever the case may be, Snakov was sad to lose their priest who helped their community in so many different ways. The entire village held a teary-eyed procession to wish him a safe journey, and we can feel the depth of Kubek’s attachment to his homeland in his poem “My Native Land” (1916).

“My Native Land”
By Emil Kubek

The Rusyn land, my native land,
From the depths of my heart I salute you!
These thoughts of mine, from foreign climes,
Wander back to the snow-capped Carpathians, —
There is where my native hut stands!
Where my youth passed by,
Mother sang lullabies.
My native land,
I salute you!

My Uhro-Rusyn native land!
With the love of my heart I salute you!
Down the rocky mountain crags,
Rush the bubbling streams of the Tysa,
The Poprad, Ung, and Torysa,
Where the multi-colored Danube flows
Teal Latorica, rapid Laborec.
My native land,
I salute you!

My native Subcarpathian land,
I am parting with you now forever!
When I left you that spring with tears in my eyes,
The wind of the plains then whispered goodbye,
Its sound saw me off to my immigrant life.
With sadness now I remember you well,
And wish your children all the best,
My native land,

Kubek Arrives in Mahanoy City

St. Mary's first rectory and Kubek's first home. The new rectory is located immediately behind St. Mary's Church.
St. Mary’s first rectory and Kubek’s first home. The new rectory is located immediately behind St. Mary’s Church.

After Kubek arrived in Mahanoy City in 1904, St. Mary’s grew rapidly under his leadership. Like in Snakov, he immediately opened a parish school and reading room alongside the church (where the present St. Mary Center is located). The “Greek School,” as it was known, was directed by the church’s first cantor, Professor Michal Bilansky, who taught first through eighth grades six days a week. “He was a really good professor,” remembers Mary Sabol: “He taught us everything: reading, writing, declamation, long poems. And we had to recite them. The Cyrillic alphabet too!” (St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People 1991). The opening of the school drew praise from the newspaper Svoboda, which called for all Carpatho-Rusyn priests “to follow the example of Father Kubek” in tending to the spiritual and cultural enlightenment of their parishioners (December 22, 1904: 1).

Students at St. Mary's Greek School (c. 1900s). In St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).
Students at St. Mary’s Greek School (c. 1900s). In St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).
Playbill from one of St. Mary's theatrical performances
Playbill from one of St. Mary’s theatrical performances

The arts flourished during Kubek’s tenure at the church, as St. Mary’s produced numerous concerts, dances, and plays. He was active in charitable causes and led a drive in 1919 to provide financial support for the Lemko Region, which was devastated after the war. Amidst all of his commitments as a priest, community leader, husband, and father, Kubek nonetheless found time to establish himself as one of the most powerful literary voices in the Carpatho-Rusyn diaspora.

Kubek wrote numerous articles for Rusyn-language newspapers on cultural, political, and theological topics. He published his poetry and prose in a variety of media, including calendars, literary magazines, newspapers, and in standalone editions. In 1915, he wrote the first Carpatho-Rusyn novel, Marko Šoltys, which was published, along with a selection of his poetry and short stories, in his four-volume collected works, People’s Tales and Verses (Narodny povísti i stichi, 1922-1923) — to this day, the only books of his available in some American libraries.

Cover of People's Tales and Verses (1922).
Cover of People’s Tales and Verses (1922).

What distinguishes Kubek’s literary production is its generic, tonal, and thematic diversity. His literary personality is at once that of a nineteenth-century epigone and a twentieth-century modernist, and his work straddles the border between being traditional and experimental, nostalgic and forward-looking, romantic and realistic, rural and urban, serious and satirical, high and low, European and American.

While these opposed tendencies stem from the two stages of his priestly career (pre- and post-immigration), what unites them is that Kubek was first and foremost a Carpatho-Rusyn writer. He was strongly influenced by the titans of the first Carpatho-Rusyn Renaissance, such as Alexander Duchnovych (1803-1865) and Alexander Pavlovych (1819-1900), and like these priest-poets before him, Kubek handled nationalistic, moral, and theological subjects with the seriousness of a cultural awakener. That he drew upon his experiences in Snakov to create one of the most expansive representations of pre-War village life in Marko Šoltys aligns him with a European nineteenth-century realist tradition as well.

After his immigration to Mahanoy City, Kubek found himself in an environment that forced him to address issues common to early twentieth-century American naturalism and social realism: assimilation, capitalism, labor, poverty, and urban life. He parodied the discourse of local newspapers, incorporated Rusyn-American speech patterns, and saturated his prose with code-switching and bilingualisms common in the work of other émigré writers (the most famous being Vladimir Nabokov).

Finally, what allowed Kubek to shift between these multiple registers was his sharp wit and dry, often sardonic, sense of humor. While many of his works upon a first reading appear simplistic or naïve, his texts frequently reveal unresolvable tensions and ambiguities. His prose often is subtly focalized through different narrators, employs temporal shifts, and uses textual repetitions to give the same passage multiple interpretations.

The American Rusyn Messenger occasionally published Kubek's work horizontally across the bottom of the page, which allowed readers to cut out the individual pages and assemble them into a book. This is the first installment of Kubek's theological treatise Our Father. In the American Rusyn Messenger (August 9, 1917): 7.
The American Rusyn Messenger occasionally published Kubek’s work horizontally across the bottom of the page, which allowed readers to cut out the individual pages and assemble them into a book. This is the first installment of Kubek’s theological treatise Our Father. In the American Rusyn Messenger (August 9, 1917): 7.

Although Kubek invested a great deal of energy into his writing, he encountered a number of difficulties in bringing his literary output to a general public. First of all, a large portion of the Rusyn-American community was illiterate, and many of those who could read had difficulty with the Cyrillic alphabet, which forced him, much to his chagrin, to write in Latin script. Furthermore, the readership that did exist generally lacked an appreciation (and the time) for literature. Money was hard to come by for the publication of his longer works, and he often had to resort to publishing them as detachable sections within Carpatho-Rusyn newspapers, which were easily damaged and quickly decayed. Kubek himself speculated that one third of his works ended up in the fireplace, the second third existed only in manuscript form, and the final third were published but almost immediately lost (Perovič, “Preface” 1930: 4).

Nonetheless, those who knew his work immediately acknowledged its quality. In fact, by the end of his life, Kubek’s reputation as an author was well-enough established that the sentiments expressed in his poetry and prose, he later wryly joked, even “were endorsed by many who had never read my writings” (“Autobiography” 1938).

The Growth and Prosperity of St. Mary’s

As St. Mary’s increased its numbers, Kubek initiated two major renovations to the church property. In 1931, the church underwent a wide-reaching expansion, which included a complete reconstruction of both the exterior and interior of the church and the building of the present parish house. The new architectural design of the church was overseen by Father Anthony Kubek (Emil Kubek’s son) and Michael Kolessar (the church president) and executed by the Bastress Company. The Tiffin Manufacturing Company of Ohio supplied the pews, Ornamental Art Works of New Jersey installed the fixtures, a new altar was built by the Daprato Statuary Company of New York, and the Munich Studios of Chicago furnished the art glass windows.

When St. Mary’s reopened that November, the Record American with great enthusiasm praised the grandeur and European charm of St. Mary’s new look:

Of the Romanesque style of architecture, the building possesses an individuality that distinguishes it from other churches of the region. Among the most striking features of the brick-veneered structure are the twin towers mounted by the triple cross long associated with Russian churches, the beautiful fresco of St. Mary and the Christ Child, which is the work of Rev. Anthony E. Kubek, assistant rector of the church, and the handsome terra cotta designs above the main doors, which were also designed by Father Kubek. The wide approach to the new church, which is reminiscent of the plazas before old world cathedrals, is also one of the distinctive architectural features of the church building. (November 27, 1931: 1)

The day began with a street parade led by two local marching bands, after which the procession led into the church for the first liturgy. The crowd was so large that an amplifying system had to be installed to broadcast the service to those left standing in the street.

Photograph of the dedication of the new church. In St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).
Photograph of the dedication of the new church (1931). In St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania: Its History and Its People (1991).

After Anthony Kubek and Walter Boettcher of Brooklyn, New York, redecorated the iconostasis and the murals in 1939, St. Mary’s renovations were complete, and the church looks much the same today as it did during Kubek’s tenure as priest.

Walk Inside St. Mary’s.

West End Walking Tour - FINAL

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