St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Photograph by Nick Kupensky (2015).

A Bishop and a Rift

Although major rifts had been forming in the fraternal organizations and their newspapers, Carpatho-Rusyns from north and south of the slopes still largely continued to worship in the same Greek Catholic churches during the first years that Kubek served in Mahanoy City. However, these divisions quickly resulted in an institutional split within the church when the Vatican appointed Reverend Soter Ortynsky to be the first American Greek Catholic bishop. While the appointment of a bishop should have been a joyful event for the Carpatho-Rusyns, who had pleaded with Rome for years to send a hierarch to tend to the American Greek Catholic churches, Carpatho-Rusyns were very displeased not only with the Vatican’s selection of a Galician Ukrainian to lead the church but also with the politicized effect that Ortynsky’s leadership had on the wider American Greek Catholic community.

Soter Ortynsky

Soter Ortynsky
Soter Ortynsky

Born Stephen Ortynsky in the village of Ortynychi, Galicia (now Ukraine) on January 29, 1866, he took the name Soter upon entering the monastic order of St. Basil the Great in 1884. Ortynsky went on to earn a doctoral degree in theology at the University of Graz in Austria, and then was ordained a priest in Lviv in 1891. As the years went by, he earned a reputation as a “dedicated missionary” and a “Ukrainian patriot” (Procko 1973: 516). His appointment was announced on March 8, 1907, and he was ordained a few months later on May 12. On August 27, the new bishop arrived in New York, where he was greeted by a delegation of Greek Catholic priests and representatives from the laity.

When Ortynsky assumed his duties, he entered an atmosphere that presented insurmountable challenges. The lack of a bishop had left Greek Catholic parishes to their own devices for many years, which made individual churches quite resistant to interference from above. The disputes between the communities from Galicia and Hungary meant that any bishop (whether from Galicia or Hungary) would be immediately perceived as a foreigner by half of the Greek Catholics. Furthermore, a month after he arrived, Rome published the apostolic letter Ea Semper, which stipulated that he was an auxiliary of Latin-rite bishops (that is, not the head of an independent Greek Catholic diocese), that Greek Catholic priests were forbidden to confirm the sacrament of baptism, and that married priests were not allowed to be sent to new American Greek Catholic Churches. All of these edicts were poised to infuriate American Greek Catholics of all orientations.

Indeed, while Ukrainian Greek Catholics celebrated the selection of Ortynsky, the new bishop was met with strong resistance within the Carpatho-Rusyn community. The Carpatho-Rusyns from Hungary were particularly upset at the choice of Ortynsky, as they had hoped the Vatican would appoint a bishop from the Hungarian Kingdom. Some Lemko-Rusyns were skeptical about the Ukrainianzing tendencies emboldened by his selection. And everyone was upset, including Ortynsky himself, that he was prevailed upon to enforce Ea Semper. It was the Carpatho-Rusyns from Hungary, though, who launched the most rhetorically aggressive fight against him, and the American Rusyn Messenger quickly became the source of an “anti-Ortynsky” campaign.

The Anti-Ortynsky Campaign

Paul Zhatkovich's article entitled
Paul Zhatkovich’s article entitled “The Terrorism against the Editor in Chief of the American Rusyn Messenger, the GCU’s Newspaper” published in the American Rusyn Messenger (October 8, 1908).

On a weekly basis, Paul Zhatkovich lambasted Ortynsky on the pages of ARV. Zhatkovich accused Ortynsky of attempting to “Ukrainianize” the Carpatho-Rusyns and “Latinize” the Greek Catholic Church and even accused him of promoting ethnic and religious “terrorism” against the ARV and its readership. In an article entitled “The Terrorism against the Editor in Chief of the American Rusyn Messenger, the GCU’s Newspaper,” Zhatkovich writes:

Disgraceful Ukrainian, radical politics are being carried out under the protection of Bishop Ortynsky, and all the Ukrainian radicals, the greater and lesser “luminaries,” have received the strength and courage from Bishop Ortynsky to attack and damage everything that is Uhro-Rusyn, to rebel against and agitate the people, and to carry out acts, by any shameful means necessary, among the Uhro-Rusyn people for the sake of creating a Ukraine in America that is dangerous to our Church, our rite, and our people. (October 8, 1908, 4).

While Zhatkovich held nothing back in his editorials, Kubek seems to have been willing to give Ortynsky a chance, at least initially. Kubek was the first to speak at a luncheon in Ortynsky’s honor held shortly after his arrival. An article in Liberty reports that Kubek “raised a toast to the health of the bishop as sign of gratitude that by the will of God a Ruthenian priest had come to American Rus'” (September 5, 1907, 4). However, Kubek became more and more concerned with the impassioned fights breaking out between Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians over Ortynsky’s tenure, and we can hear his frustrations in a series of short articles collected under the general title of “Our Ancestral Curse” (1909).

Having grown tired of the in-fighting between Uhro- and Lemko-Rusyns, Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians, Kubek’s article is an impassioned appeal for cooperation amongst all Carpatho-Rusyns and a stern rebuke of the Ukrainianizing forces attempting to operate under the aegis of Ortynsky. In one section (not included below), Kubek is particularly critical of the publication of school books written based upon vernacular Ukrainian in a phonetic transcription (that is, not their etymological spelling), a project which was overseen and implemented by the bishop.

The following excerpts are from the first installment of “Our Ancestral Curse” published on April 1, 1909 in the American Rusyn Messenger.

 “Our Ancestral Curse”
By Emil Kubek


 “Do Other Peoples Act the Same Way We Do?”

I was having lunch here [in Mahanoy City] in a German hotel. At the neighboring table there were ten to twelve Germans, and clearly not of the same religion. I didn’t hear even two of them speak in the same dialect. And – behold my Rusyn – they didn’t mention their faith, they didn’t argue, they didn’t exchange harsh words, they didn’t mock each other, they didn’t renounce their common German nationality … even though there is as much of a difference between the Viennese dialect and Swabian German as between Russian and Ukrainian.

They remembered their native land with respect, they amused themselves over their new government with civility, and each of them proudly called themselves a German; and they warmly parted and left for their homes! Would this happen with us, if our people came together? Sweet God! Would your poor people ever take a step towards brotherly love?

And now imagine some type of establishment or event where by chance our Rusyns, Russians, Galician Ukrainians, a pair of Uhro-Rusyns, and a few of those best-small, new radical parties – could sit down at the same table? Would it be enough to have a policeman for each of them? It’s hard for me to believe it.

“Who is to Blame?

The people? No, entirely not! Give the people good, honest, conscientious leaders, and they would make miracles! The guilty ones are those self-appointed leaders and enlighteners who have stirred up and divided the people, not only into political and literary parties but into faiths … they rebel and now Rusyns are pitted against other Rusyns … and from this business they stir the people up with utopias, fictions, castles in the air, dreams, which they know all too well that they will never be able to realize them or bring them into being, and especially not in America! In other words, this is our ancestral curse!

The poor people piously believe everything that is proposed to them in print: because the printed word holds the status of Holy Scripture … And those leaders, as if crafty cooks, fry up snakes, toads, rats, and other abominations, they dress these things up in beautiful, sonorous expressions, sweet words, battle cries, and present them before the public, who willingly sits before this embellished but poisonous, sincere guest, and readily prepares themselves for … bloodshed. Isn’t this right? Time will tell.

“Are They Starting a Fight of the People?”

It would be good if we lived in our homeland as a strong, powerful people, then we would be able to live in luxury and without quarreling… to the satisfaction of our best appetites. But we, as a poor, small people, become angry, attack those who are different from us – our children are Americanizing – (some conceal this, others are blind to it, and yet others don’t speak the truth about this business) – they convert to Latinism or to foreign sects. And we, instead of becoming united and fighting for ourselves, our homeland, and our church, we decide that here in America we will create “An Independent Ukraine” and “the Russian Government.” Castles in the air!

You, Galician Rusyns, where have you gone, what have you accomplished with your partisanship in Galicia? And where would you be now, in your great numbers, if you weren’t divided and weren’t fighting with each other? Instead of fighting, save Galician Rus’, raise up your people and make them happy. Some of you would go without being asked to the aid of Galician Ukraine, although you hate their “Orthodoxy.” Others will turn to Russia, even if they don’t want to be under their rule. Those who only would want to create a Galician Rus’ are very few in number, and so they can only do a small amount of good for their homeland. You’re fighting amongst yourself, and your native land is crying out, it’s sighing … and the Poles are laughing at how your parties are strewn about one against another, and they profit from your fight. Is this true or not? If it’s true, then is your fight a smart one? Is this not disorder and anarchy?

“Is the Fight Tiring Out?”

Your academics, both on the Ukrainian and Russian sides, are already not content with your conclusions. They have created for themselves a new ideal, a new science: radicalism. And those radicals have once again turned against your authoritative teachers. Ukrainian radicals have spit all over your Ukrainian bishops, and they’re just as hard on your own leaders. This is a fact! And who can gather this wind!

Why have you brought this disturbing operation, your fight to American soil? Furthermore, you’ve dragged into this battle the Uhro-Rusyns, who have never known this type of partisanship at home.

We Uhro-Rusyns are a branch of the great Rus’ tree, but politically we are neither Ukrainians nor Russians (or, as they say, Muscovites). Our ancestors lived in Pannonia before the appearance of the Magyars, the Apostles to the Slavs Saints Cyrill and Methodius preached the Gospels to our great-grandfathers in Old Church Slavonic, from Prague to the Black Sea, from the Carpathians (or it’s better to say, from Krakow) to the banks of the Adriatic, history bears witness to this and even the Hungarian language itself, in which Church Slavonic words and terms are found by the hundreds. (It’s a shame I don’t have space for a brief history of the Uhro-Rusyns.) Our traditions, our literature, our language is neither Ukrainian nor Russian. We can be only (lem) Uhro-Ruyns, the ones who are only (lem) Uhro, that is, Lemkos, like our Galician brothers from north of the Carpathians, and in our speech, our customs, and our faith, we’re the same as them. And so the reason why we have fallen, become reduced in number is because of our ancestral curse: disorder and an inclination to disarray. And when we defend our religious convictions, our dialect, our orthography … we only perform this action, but we can’t impose our convictions on anybody. And so, let us live in peace! […]

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

A New Church in Mahanoy City

As the years went by, the divisions within the Greek Catholic Church only grew deeper. In 1910, the Greek Catholic Union, led by its president John Uhrin and the ARV with Zhatkovich at the helm, began a campaign to recall Ortynsky and replace him with a new bishop from Hungary. While Rome ignored the petition, the Vatican did try to address one of the concerns prevalent throughout the American Greek Catholic community and in 1913 conferred upon Ortynsky the full rights of a bishop. Ortynsky himself took steps to appease the discontented Uhro-Rusyns and appointed two Hungarian priests as his vicar general and chancellor.

The years of being constantly under attack, however, took a great toll on the bishop’s health, and in 1916, Ortynsky developed pneumonia and unexpectedly died at the age of 50. Instead of appointing a single successor, the Vatican decided to acknowledge the irreconcilable differences between the two constituencies and sent two ecclesiastical administrators in his stead: one for the Greek Catholics from Hungary (Reverend Gabriel Martyak) and another for those from Galicia (Reverend Peter Poniatyshyn). As the years went by, this arrangement remained in place and eventually resulted in the creation of two separate Greek Catholic Churches in the United States: the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Catholic Church (Magocsi 1984, 32). While this decision ultimately brought an end to the bitter feuds, it exacerbated a split within the Mahanoy City Carpatho-Rusyn community, one which resulted in the defection of a good portion of St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church.

Cornerstone of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
Cornerstone of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Since St. Mary’s fell under the jurisdiction of Reverend Martyak, a number of Lemko and Ukrainian families from Mahanoy City, Buck Mountain, Morea, Tamaqua, Delano, and Barnesville began to meet in 1922 with the intention of creating a separate church that would be housed under the Galician administrator. Reverend Poniatyshyn granted them approval, and in 1923, about 100 individuals, many of whom previously worshiped at St. Mary’s, founded St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on West Mahanoy Street. After the cornerstone was laid in November 1923 and the church began to hold regular services in January 1924, Mahanoy City’s Carpatho-Rusyns became divided into two national orientations housed in two different churches.

First Holy Communion (1925).
First Holy Communion (1925).

Kubek’s “Merry Christmas” Revisited

The loss of so many parishioners surely upset Kubek, who had made countless appeals over the years for tolerance and mutual respect between the Uhro- and Galician-Rusyns, and while he didn’t make the rift in the church the overt subject of any of his literary works, he does allude to it in “Merry Christmas,” which was likely written in 1923 (the same year St. Nicholas’ was founded).

Again, the main plot line of “Merry Christmas” is concerned with an argument between a father, Andrei Bukovage, and his son, Vasil’ko. Vasil’ko is a talented student who enrolls in high school against the will of Andrei, who wanted him to go work in the mines. After Vasil’ko graduates and wants to go to college, Andrei insists instead that he become a priest, which Vasil’ko strongly rejects by pointing out his father’s disrespectful attitude toward the church: “Dad, you want me to be a Rusyn priest, so that the faithful can order me around and then avoid me, like you do with your own priest? Never!”

Andrei kicks Vasil’ko out of the house, but their feud produces a profound change in Andrei. He is more generous with his money, stops feuding with the priest, and even begins to defend the church. After a four-year absence, Vasil’ko returns home unexpectedly for Christmas, and father and son have a heartfelt reconciliation. “With a trembling voice” and “outstretched arms,” Andrei greets Vasil’ko: “Welcome son! Over these years, not only have you went to school and studied, but I have learned how to value education and respect the educated and, first and foremost, my holy father. I’ve even taught other people how to do the same.” In response, Vasil’ko accepts his father’s apology and “even though he was highly educated, was not ashamed to kiss his father’s hand darkened by the mines.”

On the surface, “Merry Christmas” appears to be a modern variation on the parable of the prodigal son, but one in which the father makes the most pronounced psychological transformation. However, during his description of the town “M…”, Kubek embeds an extended, seemingly irrelevant digression about a feud between the Greek Catholic and “Orthodox” church in town. The following passage is an excerpt from this section:

[…] There are no more than four and a half thousand residents in the town. One beautiful Irish church with a large school under the direction of monks brings beauty to the town, although truth be told there aren’t that many Irish families. Not far from it is the Greek Catholic Church, and two Protestant houses of worship. At the end of the street is bashfully concealed a small “Orthodox” church, as if it was languishing under the weight of its many, heavy towers. There are only eight families that belong to the church, which broke off from its old church fifteen years ago. It’s true, they had a very good reason to do it because the parish meeting didn’t elect as the curator one of their most esteemed countrymen who was from the same village as they were. Now they would be more than happy to return but are ashamed to. Sometimes one priest would come from the surrounding area to serve them, other times it would be a different one. They couldn’t retain a cantor, and so their children didn’t know anything about their faith, the church, or God himself. So they “simply live” and die without this knowledge. The Greek Catholic Church, although three times bigger than the “Orthodox” one, is only adorned with two towers, and therefore the Orthodox make fun of our people, and our people make fun of them because they don’t have a priest. And so both sides exist “in peace.” […]

The renovation of the domes of St. Michael's Orthodox Church in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. (1951)
The renovation of the domes of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania. (1951)

The street in the town of “M…” where these churches are located appears to be based upon the famous “Church Row” (West Avenue) in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, and the two churches bear a strong resemblance to Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church (a church in the same diocese as St. Nicholas’) and St. Michael’s Orthodox Church (which broke off from Saints Peter and Paul in 1907 as part of Father Toth’s movement).

Like we have seen in many of Kubek’s works, this embedded section brings about a second reading of the story, one that is no longer about a family feud but instead about the rifts tearing apart the Carpatho-Rusyn faithful. We then can detect a counter-narrative in which the “prodigal son” church (the Orthodox one) refuses to return back to its “father” church (the Greek Catholic one), and thus neither of them are able to share in the joyous reunion that occurs at the conclusion of the story.

Although Kubek never lived to see it, a reunion of sorts did eventually occur between the two Carpatho-Rusyn parishes in Mahanoy City. When St. Nicholas’ closed in 2008, many of its remaining parishioners returned to St. Mary’s, 85 years after the fateful split.

Walk to:
St. Mary’s Rectory
621 West Mahanoy Street
Mahanoy City, PA 17948

West End Walking Tour - FINAL

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