The Church Becomes a Cathedral
The English word "cathedral" comes from the ancient Greek. This word, "kathedra," literally means a chair or seat. In ecclesiastical terminology, a church is a cathedral when it is designated by a bishop to contain his cathedra or chair, a symbol of his high authority and official status as the leader of a diocese. Because the designation of a church as a cathedral is so intimately intertwined with the office of bishop, the recounting of the events resulting in the designation of St. John the Baptist Church as a cathedral would be incomplete without first reviewing the long and difficult struggle for the appointment of a bishop and the establishment of a separate Greek Catholic diocese in the United States.

On March 8, 1924, the Holy See of Rome unexpectedly announced the establishment of two exarchates or missionary dioceses for Greek Catholics in the United States. Simultaneously with this action, the Holy See appointed Father Basil Takach to be the Bishop of all Greek Catholics in the United States who were of Carpatho-Rusin, Hungarian, Slovak and Croatian descent. The Holy See’s appointment of Father Takach as bishop put an end to more than thirty years of ecclesiastical disputes, foreign interventions and intrigues, and assorted ethnic rivalries which were at times so bitter and divisive that the survival of Eastern Rite Catholic churches in America was seriously in doubt.

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 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 on-going 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 non-profit 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.

Inevitably, the differences between the American Catholic hierarchy and the Greek Catholic clergy and faithful erupted into outright confrontation. The event which precipitated the now open conflict between the American bishops and certain Greek Catholic clergy and faithful was the so-called Alexis Toth affair.

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 to be 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.

The Russian government’s support of the “Orthodox Movement” was not the only foreign intervention that plagued the struggling Greek Catholic Church of the early twentieth century. After the submission of numerous petitions by clergy and lay committees requesting the appointment of a bishop for the Greek Catholic Church in the United States, the Holy See finally acted. In May, 1902, upon the recommendation of the Hungarian government, the Holy See named Canon Andrew Hodobay, a member of the Chapter of the Prešov Diocese, as Apostolic Visitor for all Greek Catholics in America. Canon Hodobay’s assignment was to investigate “all aspects of the religious controversy” concerning Greek Catholics in America.

Almost from the start, however, Canon Hodobay’s mission in the United States was undermined by his public admission that he came to America as the official representative of the Hungarian government. In response to Hodobay’s political allegiances, the Greek Catholics in America began to fractionalize along national lines. For example, people who emigrated from the Galician region of Central Europe began to distinguish themselves as Ukrainians, not as Carpatho-Rusins. In turn, the Carpatho-Rusins divided themselves along regional lines into two factions: a group identifying themselves from the Prešov region and a group identifying themselves from the Užhorod region. Given his admitted political sympathies, Hodobay’s mission, rather than providing a much needed source of unity and harmony, served instead to expose the divisions within the nascent Greek Catholic Church in America.

After five years, Canon Hodobay’s fractious mission in America ended with his recall to Europe. Nonetheless, the Holy See accepted Hodobay’s recommendation that a bishop be named for the Greek Catholic faithful in the United States. Thus, on March 4, 1907, the Holy See appointed Soter Stephen Ortinsky, a Basilian monk from Galicia, as the Bishop of all Greek Catholics in the United States.

Ortinsky’s appointment as bishop, however, still did not put to an end to the bitter and divisive ecclesiastical and national disputes that threatened the unity of the Greek Catholic Church in America. Two problems immediately hampered Bishop Ortinsky’s administration. First, Ortinsky’s Ukrainian origin and appointment of an exclusively Ukrainian corps of advisors reopened the old wound of ethnic factionalism among the faithful. Second, Bishop Ortinsky was given very limited episcopal authority. He was forced to obtain the approval of each local Latin Rite bishop in whose diocese a Greek Catholic parish was located before he could exercise any authority over that particular parish. In effect, Ortinsky functioned as a vicar general for all Greek Catholics in the various Latin Rite dioceses in America. Lacking the necessary authority, Bishop Ortinsky was unable to impose the ecclesiastical discipline over both clergy and laity needed to bring order to the contentious, but still growing, Greek Catholic community in America.

Finally, after six long years of continuous in-fighting, ethnic rivalries and threats of schism, the Holy See at Rome established an Apostolic Exarchate “for all the clergy and the people of the Ruthenian Rite in the United States of America” and granted full episcopal jurisdiction to Bishop Ortinsky on May 13, 1913. More than anything else, this decisive action on the part of Rome brought about peace and canonical unity to the Greek Catholic Church in America.

Unfortunately, the newfound harmony and unity of the Greek Catholic Church of America would prove to be short-lived. Bishop Ortinsky suddenly and unexpectedly died of pneumonia on March 24, 1916. Upon Ortinsky’s death, a papal decree divided the Church along nationality lines, with a Ukrainian branch and a Carpatho-Rusin branch. Each branch of the Church was headed not by a bishop, but by an administrator: Father Peter Poniatyshyn for the Ukrainians and Father Gabriel Martyak for the Carpatho-Rusins. Each administrator lacked full episcopal authority and functioned more like a vicar general for the American Latin Rite bishops to the Greek Catholic parishes in their respective dioceses. In effect, the Greek Catholic faithful were relegated to the status quo ante: an inferior status among American Catholics lacking an organizational identity and any authoritative leadership.

For eight years, the Greek Catholics in the United States waited in eager expectation for the appointment of a new bishop. Finally, Rome acted. On March 8, 1924, Father Basil Takach was named bishop of all Greek Catholics of Carpatho-Rusin, Hungarian, Slovak and Croatian descent while Father Constantine Bohachevsky was named bishop of all Greek Catholics of Ukrainian descent.

The news of the appointment of Father Takach, a priest of the Mukačevo Eparchy and the spirtual director of its seminary in Užhorod, was greeted with resounding approval. Almost immediately, plans were made by clergy and laity to greet their new leader upon his arrival at a familiar destination for the immigrant Carpatho-Rusin community: New York City. Among the many faithful who journeyed to New York to welcome Bishop Takach was a delegation from the Pittsburgh area, including members of St. John’s Parish.

Less than two months after his consecration in Rome, Bishop Takach arrived in New York on August 13, 1924 aboard the liner Mauretania. After leading a service of thanksgiving at a local church and being enthusiastically welcomed at a banquet at New York’s Pennsylvania Hotel, the new bishop set about the arduous task of organizing his new diocese. One of the initial decisions confronting Bishop Takach was the location of a permanent episcopal seat and residence.

In the papal bull appointing Father Takach as bishop, it was expressly stated that the episcopal seat of the new Greek Catholic Exarchate would be New York City. However, New York was not an acceptable location because it had a much smaller Carpatho-Rusin population than other regions of the country. Thus, Bishop Takach established temporary residences, first in Trenton, New Jersey and later, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, as he considered a more suitable location for his episcopal seat. Within weeks of his arrival in Uniontown, Bishop Takach would be presented with a formal written proposal to establish his residence and episcopal seat in Munhall.

On September 20, 1924, the trustees of St. John’s Parish held a meeting. At that meeting, the trustees unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a four man committee to travel to Uniontown to meet with Bishop Takach and to present a written proposal concerning the location of the episcopal seat in Munhall. On the very next day, the four man committee, consisting of the parish president, John Mikula, the parish secretary, George Kicsinko, and two trustees, Mike Suhoza and Vasil Lipchak, accompanied the Bishop Takach’s legal counsel, Gregory Zatkovich, to Uniontown to meet the bishop.

On October 5, 1924, a special meeting of the entire parish was held in the hall of the church. Father Holosnyay opened the meeting with the prayer “Heavenly King.” After the prayer, in what the minutes described as “well thought out words,” Father Holosnyay spoke about the sacredness and seriousness of the meeting and requested all in attendance to keep in mind the best interests of the church and the parish.

Thereupon, Attorney Zatkovich was introduced and called upon to explain in detail the proposal that had been given to Bishop Takach in Uniontown by the four man committee. The proposal called for the following actions:

1. The transfer of the property known as the Cantor’s House which was located directly across the street from the church on the corner of Tenth Avenue and Dickson Street to the bishop for the location of an official residence provided that the bishop would pay for the costs of moving the cantor’s residence.

2. The present church would be enlarged by twenty-five (25) feet within three (3) years on the condition that the parish be designated as a cathedral.

3. The parish would agree to build and maintain a parochial school.

4. The parish would agree to pay the salary of an assistant pastor provided that the bishop would pay for the expenses of keeping and boarding an assistant.

5. The parish would loan the bishop a sufficient sum of money to pay for the expense of building a residence and moving the Cantor’s residence with the loan secured by a mortgage on the bishop’s property.

6. The parish would seek court approval to amend its charter to provide for the following: (a) the change of the name of the parish non-profit corporation to St. John’s Greek Catholic Cathedral; (b) that the parish was subject to the rules, regulations, discipline and jurisdiction of the Greek Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh; (c) that the corporate location of the parish would be Munhall instead of Homestead; and (d) that the bishop and pastor, by virtue of their offices be automatically designated as two of the five trustees of the parish with the remaining three to be elected on a yearly basis to a term of office of one year.

The minutes of this fateful meeting noted that Attorney Zatkovich carefully reviewed each of the various provisions of the proposed resolution and that each provision was discussed generally by the parishioners in attendance. Members of the parish who spoke about the proposed resolution included Vasil Kostek, John Kobulnicky, George Kicsinko, Andrew Lesko, and John Hirak.

Finally, Vasil Kostek moved that the resolution inviting Bishop Takach to establish his official residence in Munhall and that St. John’s become the cathedral be approved. The motion was seconded by John Hirak and was unanimously approved by all of the parishioners present with the acclamation “Glory to His Lordship, the Bishop!”

Following the approval of the resolution, Bishop Takach made his first canonical visitation to St. John’s. At a reception and dinner given in his honor, the bishop publicly announced that he would in fact establish his residence in Munhall across from the church and that the parish would become his church, the cathedral of the new Greek Catholic Exarchate of Pittsburgh.

The Parish moved quickly to implement their obligations to the bishop. The Parish Curators authorized the sale of the three lots on Third Avenue in Homestead where the first church building had been located for the sum of $9,500 and the taking back of mortgages on all three lots in order to secure the sale. In addition, on February 9, 1925, a petition to amend the Parish’s corporate charter in the manner requested by the bishop was presented to the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny for approval. The court approved the name and governance changes on March 30, 1925.

On June 3, 1925, the Parish began the process of preparing for the episcopal residence. A deed transferring the so-called “Cantor’s House” was delivered to Bishop Takach for the sum of $3,560. The deed was executed on behalf of the Parish by its new president, Mihaly Kozak, and attested by its new secretary, John Ivan. Also, a loan in the amount of $40,000 was obtained from the Monongahela Trust Company of Homestead and provided to the bishop to pay for the construction of his new residence.

In December 1925, the bishop’s residence and chancery at long last were completed. The Homestead Messenger described the new edifice as “one of the finest in Western Pennsylvania having been erected at a cost of over two hundred thousand dollars.” In February 1926, Bishop Takach moved to Munhall and officially took up residence across the street from his new cathedral. Following the move, Bishop Takach was frequently seen at the new Cathedral Church. Until a private chapel at the official residence was completed, the new Cathedral Parish was privileged to be the site of a weekly Liturgy celebrated by the bishop. Moreover, the Parish became the regular site for the bishop’s observance of the sacred holy days of the liturgical year: Christmas, Holy Week and Easter.

On July 5, 1924, the bishop’s residence and the chancery were solemnly dedicated amidst long and impressive ceremonies attended by thousands. Following a formal blessing service conducted at a temporary altar erected in a large vacant field just south of the Cathedral Church and near the newly constructed residence, Bishop Takach, accompanied by Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky of the Ukrainian Exarchate of Philadelphia, Bishop Dionysius Nyaradi, the Apostolic Administrator of the Prešov Diocese, Bishop Hugh C. Boyle, the Latin Rite Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese, and over one hundred priests, processed into the Cathedral for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. At the conclusion of the Liturgy, a large parade was held through the principal streets of Homestead. In addition to the clergy, other prominent participants in the parade included many officers and delegates of the Greek Catholic Union who had come to Homestead to be installed by Bishop Takach during special ceremonies to be held on July 6, 1926 at Homestead’s “Rusin” Hall. The day’s events concluded with a formal banquet at the Homestead Elks’ Club.

With the completion of the episcopal residence and the other terms of the October 1924 Resolution, Bishop Takach and the parishioners of his official church, the new St. John the Baptist Greek Catholic Cathedral, would enjoy a relationship that was warm, supportive, respectful and mutually beneficial to both sides. Unfortunately, the relationship between Bishop Takach and the Parish was soon to take a decidedly hostile and combative turn. In a relatively short period of time, the Parish’s journey of faith would arrive at a momentous crossroad as the bishop and many of the parishioners of St. John’s Cathedral would face off in a bitter and divisive legal battle for control of the Parish, a battle which would engulf and divide not only the families of the Parish, but also rock the very foundations of the newly created Greek Catholic Exarchate.