Metropolitan Church History

Church History


A Short History of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Province of Pittsburgh - 1848



 

Intro

A traveler coming by ship into the great harbor of New York City cannot help but be awe-struck by the imposing sight of the Statue of Liberty.  Standing proudly atop a pedestal some 306 feet tall, with broken chains of vanquished tyranny and oppression beneath her feet, majestically arrayed with a diadem and thrusting a massive torch out to the open sea, this powerful and moving symbol has inspired  travelers and voyagers for more than one hundred and twenty years.

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The Old Country

To understand who we are and where we have come as a Church in the past seventy-five years, it is first necessary to explore who our ancestors were and where they came from as a people.  Thus, the journey of faith must start in the homeland of the founders, “the Old Country,” central Europe.

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Coming to America

By the latter decades of the 19th century, the already marginal economic situation of the Carpatho-Rusyn people had become even more precarious. The old peasant way of life, which in the best of times provided an ability to eke out only a meager living, irreparably broke down under the strain of a changing economy.

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The First Churches

The earliest Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants settled initially in northeastern Pennsylvania in and took jobs as miners in the anthracite coal fields of the region.  The emigres, however, soon began to realize that what had identified them, preserved them and sustained them in the “Old Country” and in the long journey to America was painfully missing in their strange, new and difficult surroundings.  They had no spiritual home, no place of worship that they could call their own, no church where they could practice their distinctive Greek Catholic faith.  Thus, the Carpatho-Rusyn people began to organize parishes, to build churches and to petition for priests to be sent from Europe.

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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.

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Renewed Efforts to Organize

The Vatican’s 1890 decree requiring all Greek Catholic priests serving in the United States to be celibate deeply disturbed the Greek Catholic clergy. Since most of the Greek Catholic clergy were in fact married, they considered the decree to be an outrageous and unwarranted attack on their centuries-old tradition by both Rome and the unsympathetic American hierarchy.  Meeting in Hazleton in late 1891, the clergy strongly protested the decree and petitioned the Holy See for the appointment of their Vicar General to administer the affairs of the Greek Catholic Church in the United States.  When their protests and petitions fell on deaf ears, the clergy unilaterally acted in 1892 and selected from their own ranks a widowed priest, the Reverend Nicephor Chanat, to be Vicar General.  Father Chanat’s role essentially was to act as an intermediary between the American Catholic bishops and the Greek Catholic clergy.  Unfortunately, the bishops ignored his appointment and the Greek Catholic clergy refused to follow his leadership.  Thus, in 1896, Father Chanat resigned his position.

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A Greek Catholic Bishop Comes to America

To restore ecclesiastical order and to stem the tide of defections to Orthodoxy, the Holy See finally relented and decided to appoint a Greek Catholic bishop for the Church in America.  Thus, on March 4, 1907, the Holy See announced the appointment of the Reverend Soter Stephen Ortinsky, a Basilian monk from Galicia, as the Bishop of all Greek Catholics in the United States. 

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The Episcopacy of Bishop Basil Takach

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, the Holy See of Rome unexpectedly announced the establishment of two exarchates 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-Rusyn, Hungarian, Slovak and Croatian descent while Father Constantine Bohachevsky was named bishop of all Greek Catholics of Ukrainian 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.

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The Episcopacy of Bishop Daniel Ivancho

The immediate years following the end of the Second World War witnessed a transition in the leadership of the Greek Catholic Exarchate of Pittsburgh.  Bishop Takach, who had guided the Exarchate since its founding in 1924, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  With Bishop Takach in failing health and increasingly unable to discharge his official duties, a request was made to the Holy See to appoint an auxiliary bishop to assist in the administration of the Exarchate.

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The Episcopacy of Bishop Nicholas T. Elko

With the abrupt and unexpected resignation of Bishop Ivancho, the responsibility for leading the ever-growing Pittsburgh Greek Catholic Exarchate was entrusted to the Vicar General of the Exarchate, Monsignor Nicholas T. Elko.  Monsignor Elko was born in Donora, Pennsylvania on December 14, 1909.  After receiving his elementary and secondary education in the public schools of his hometown, Nicholas Elko attended and graduated from Duquesne University in 1930.  Upon completion of his theological studies at the Greek Catholic Seminary in Užhorod as well graduate studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium, Nicholas Elko, along with the future Bishop Ivancho, was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Takach on September 30, 1934 at St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church in McKeesport.

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A Change in Status Results in Two Eparchies

In recognition of its continued growth and development, the Holy See acted to significantly upgrade the status of Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States.  By a decree issued by the newly elected Pontiff, His Holiness Pope Paul VI, in 1963, the Exarchate, which territorially encompassed the entire United States, was divided into two separate ecclesiastical jurisdictions.  The first, centered in Passaic, New Jersey, included within its territory of the entire states of New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia, all of Eastern Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.  The second jurisdiction, centered in Pittsburgh, included in its territory the remainder of the nation.  In addition, the 1963 papal decree raised both jurisdictions to the canonical status of an eparchy or a full diocese.

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New Honor, New Bishops and a New Eparchy

At the start of the decade of the 1960's, the organizational status of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States was merely that of a church missionary territory with limited self-governing authority.  By the end of decade of the 1960's, however, the remarkable growth and the steadfast loyalty of Byzantine Catholics in the United States would be recognized and capped by the bestowal of a new ecclesiastical dignity and status.

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The First Metropolitan Archbishop

Archbishop Stephen Kocisko was installed as the first Metropolitan ever in the history of the Carpatho-Rusyn people by the Most Reverend Luigi Raimondi, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, in Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh on June 11, 1969.  Following the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Kocisko promptly set about the task of moving the Church generally and Pittsburgh Archdiocese in particular back to its authentic religious traditions.  To achieve this important goal, Archbishop Kocisko undertook an number of important initiatives.

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The Episcopate of Bishop Michael Dudick

With the transfer of Bishop Stephen Kocisko to Pittsburgh in late 1967, the four year old Eparchy of Passaic was left without a bishop.  After a wait of more than six months, His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, finally filled the vacancy created by Bishop Kocisko’s transfer by naming Monsignor Michael Dudick as the second bishop of the Passaic Eparchy.

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The Eparchy of Parma

Simultaneously with the elevation of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States to the status of an ecclesiastical province, the Holy See issued a decree known as “Christi Ecclesia.”  In this decree, the Vatican announced its intention to create a third diocese for the American Byzantine Church.

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The Byzantine Church in the West: The Eparchy of Van Nuys

In May 1981, the bishops of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Province met in Pittsburgh.  One of the topics at this meeting was the proposal made by Bishop Emil Mihalik to create a fourth diocese to minister to Byzantine Catholics in the western portion of the United States.  In light of the great distances between the emerging western parishes and the episcopal see of the Parma Eparchy, Bishop Mihalik felt that a new diocese organized and headquartered closer to these parishes was imperative in order to better serve their needs.  When his fellow bishops agreed with this assessment, a formal request was dispatched to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, through the Sacred Oriental Congregation, to establish a Byzantine Catholic diocese for the western United States.

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The Church in Transition

During the 1990's, all four of the dioceses making up the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Province experienced changes in leadership due to retirements, death and reassignments.  As a result of this “changing of the guard,” this era can best be described as a transitional phase in the history of the Metropolitan Province.  Highlighting this new transitional era was the rapid turnover in the leadership of the Pittsburgh Archeparchy which saw four different bishops assume responsibility for governing its affairs within the period of five years.

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Looking to the Future

British historian Frederic Harrison once wrote that “all our hopes for the future depend on a sound understanding of the past.”  In reviewing the history of the Byzantine Catholic Church in America, the greatest lesson which can be gleaned from this period of time is one of faith.  It could only have been a strong and abiding faith in God which could have convinced our ancestors to leave their homeland to travel a long distance to a  new and strange land in search for new freedom and opportunity.  It could only have been a fierce and determined faith which sustained our ancestors to preserve and hold fast to their glorious Eastern Catholic heritage in circumstances which were often times hostile and antagonistic.  Ultimately, this journey of faith proved to be a triumphant one as the faith of our forefathers, so deeply challenged on some many occasions, was amply rewarded with material blessings, honors and acceptance as a viable contributor to American Catholic life.

Read more: Looking to the Future