The Struggle for Recognition
The arrival of large numbers of Eastern Rite Catholics in the United States was an event for which the American Church was ill-prepared.   The sudden appearance of increasing numbers of people who professed to be Catholic, but who followed different traditions, used a different liturgical language and conducted a different manner of public worship, was extremely disconcerting to the American Catholic hierarchy for several reasons.

First and foremost, most Roman Catholic bishops and clergy lacked even the most elementary knowledge of the Eastern Church.  Knowing only the Latin Rite, the American bishops and clergy could only think of the Church in terms of uniformity and conformity rather than its universality and diversity.  Given such a mind set, it was virtually inconceivable to them that these newcomers, with their married priests and non-Latin liturgy, could possibly be adherents to the same religious faith.   As a consequence of their nonconforming liturgy, language and traditions, many members of the American hierarchy in ignorance viewed the newly arrived Greek Catholics more as a threat to be contained, if not outright eliminated, rather than as a welcome and complementary source of new religious vitality.

Second, the arrival of these “different Catholics” added a further complication to the then ongoing efforts undertaken to suppress the development of so-called “ethnic” churches.  Led by Archbishop John Ireland of Minneapolis, Minnesota, certain members of the hierarchy felt that ecclesiastical solidarity was threatened by too close of an identification and organization of the Church in America along ethnic lines.  By attempting to suppress the development of ethnic churches, these hierarchs hoped to make the Catholic Church in the United States more unified and dynamic by  making it more “American” in outlook.    The presence of the new Greek Catholics, who wished to differentiate and organize themselves not only in ethnicity but also in rite, confounded and deeply disturbed the leaders of the Americanization movement.

  Given their complete identification with the Latin Rite and the fierce resistance to nationality churches, many Roman Catholic bishops took a decidedly unfriendly, if not outright hostile, attitude toward the new Greek Catholics. Viewing their lack of celibacy as a great source of scandal, the bishops granted little or no material aid to the married Greek Catholic clergy.  Also, the hierarchs refused on many occasions to grant faculties or  formal ecclesiastical permission to conduct Greek Catholic services in their churches or to grant ordinary jurisdiction to assume pastoral duties at a Greek Catholic parish.  Repeatedly, the American bishops took up the matter of the “Greek Rite Priests” at their annual meetings and wrote to the Holy See at Rome demanding that only celibate priests who submitted to the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishop be permitted to minister to the Greek Catholics in the United States.

The animosity of the Latin Rite hierarchy was in some measure reciprocated by the immigrant Greek Catholic faithful and the handful of pioneer clergy.  Some clergy resisted the orders of the local bishop and conducted their pastoral duties among the Greek Catholic faithful by claiming their faculties from the European bishops who permitted them to come to America.  In the meantime, the organizers of the various Greek Catholic parishes, fearful of attempts to suppress their Eastern rite practices and traditions, refused to transfer parish property into the name of the local Latin Rite bishop.  Instead, for the most part, individual Greek Catholic parishes kept their properties titled in the name of the parish as a nonprofit corporation.  Thus, the church properties could be ultimately controlled by a lay board of trustees, rather than be held in trust by the local bishop.

With tensions between the American Catholic bishops and the Greek Catholic clergy and faithful increasing, the Holy See at Rome intervened.  In an attempt to clarify the situation, on October 1, 1890, the Holy See issued a decree concerning Greek Catholics in the United States.  This decree instructed the newly arriving Greek Catholic priests to obtain jurisdiction from and function under the authority of the local Latin-rite bishop.  Additionally, the decree stated that all Greek Catholic priests functioning in America should be celibate.  All married priests, according to the decree, should be recalled to Europe.

Rather than settling the situation, the Vatican’s decree only served to worsen the relationship between the bishops and the Greek Catholic clergy and faithful.  Inevitably, the differences between the American Catholic hierarchy and the Greek Catholic clergy and faithful erupted into outright schism lead by the Reverend Alexis Toth.

Father Alexis Toth was a widowed Greek Catholic priest who came to America in 1890 to assume the pastorate of the new St. Mary Greek Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  When Father Toth, who was the former director of the Greek Catholic Seminary in Prešov and a professor of Canon Law and Church History, presented himself to John Ireland, the Archbishop of Minneapolis, and requested faculties to conduct services for the newly founded Greek Catholic parish, the meeting between the two men disintegrated into a bitter quarrel.  The archbishop thus refused to grant Father Toth the required permission to minister to the parish.

Outraged at what he considered not only a personal insult to him, but also an affront to the rights of Eastern Rite Catholics, Toth defied Ireland and began to conduct services at St. Mary’s Church.  Father Toth’s animosity and anger at the archbishop grew so deep and vehement that he eventually petitioned the Russian Orthodox bishop of San Francisco to accept him into the Orthodox Church.  Wishing to exploit the situation for its own advantage, the Russian Orthodox bishop gladly accepted Father Toth and his Minneapolis congregation of 361 members.

Father Toth’s defection to the Russian Orthodox Church initiated an “Orthodox Movement” among some segments of the early Greek Catholic community in the United States.  With the aid of the Czarist government of Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church’s mission in America encouraged Father Toth’s efforts to foment resentment among the early Greek Catholic parishes toward the American Catholic hierarchy and induce them to embrace Orthodoxy.  Within a decade, Toth’s zealous intervention and the support of a handful of other disaffected clergy resulted in fifteen Greek Catholic parishes with more than 20,000 members being led into schism.