Diaspora: America’s Ruthenian Catholics

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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.

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Tags: Church history Immigration Carpatho-Rusyn