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The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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An Eastern Slavic people akin to Belarussians, Russians and Ukrainians, the Rusyns – whose homeland lies south of the Carpathian Mountains in the heart of central Europe – have always lived under the governance of another people. They toiled the soil, kept livestock or cut timber, usually as serfs or tenant laborers of their Hungarian, German or Polish masters, landholders who eagerly imposed their identity on their subjects.

An estimated 200,000 Rusyns immigrated to the United States, beginning in the late 19th century, settling in the industrialized areas of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, West Virginia and Indiana. Lured by employment agents of the mines and mills, they quarried coal and forged steel, enriching their employers while building a nation. And though working conditions were wretched, many Rusyn immigrants, once married, believed they lacked nothing except a church in which they could worship God in keeping with the traditions of their forebears.

The desire of Rusyn-Americans to maintain their Eastern Christian faith, or stara vira (old faith), and the privileges and rites associated with it, would eventually split the community. Yet this resolve would also hinder its assimilation. The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, an eparchy (diocese) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, echoes this Rusyn-American fidelity to faith and forebears.

The old country. While often confused with their Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian kin – with whom they also share the Eastern Christian faith – Rusyns were, until recently, submerged in the socioeconomic, geopolitical dynamic of central Europe, an often violent whirl of Germanic and Hungarian antagonism. Such conditions, coupled with waves of forced assimilation and serfdom, hardly favored the development of a distinct Rusyn identity. Nevertheless, such an identity developed, sowed by a language like Ukrainian, nurtured by Byzantine Christianity, which the Rusyns accepted from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century, and reinforced by unia, their full communion with the Church of Rome.

As the churches of the East and West parted company – particularly after the Great Schism in 1054 – Rusyn peasants, who lived in tiny villages scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains in Roman Catholic Hungary, remained attached to the Christian faith as practiced by the Orthodox East.

Though they shared the same Byzantine rites and traditions as their neighbors to the north and east of the Carpathians (modern Ukrainians), Rusyns adapted these rites, making them their own. Fortified by the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, located near Mukačevo (a town in modern Ukraine), Rusyns built their unique wooden churches, wrote their icons and sang their plainchant, or prostopinije, all contributing to the creation of a distinctive Church of Mukačevo.

In lieu of a secular ruling class, Rusyn bishops stepped in, serving as both secular and spiritual shepherds. Bishops came from the local community, were elected by a council of monks from St. Nicholas Monastery (of which they were members) and were consecrated by bishops in communion with the (Orthodox) ecumenical patriarchate.

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Tags: Emigration Carpatho-Rusyn Central Europe