Rooted in Wood

Slovakia’s Greek Catholic Heritage

by Jacqueline Ruyak with photographs by Andrej Bán

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On a cold and wet November day, a group of carpenters hammered away at the roof of St. Michael the Archangel Greek Catholic Church in the village of Ladomirová in northeastern Slovakia. Built in 1742, St. Michael’s stands out as perhaps Slovakia’s most beautiful and celebrated historic wooden church. Surveying the men’s work, the church’s pastor, Father Peter Jakub, explained that after 40 years, it was time to replace the worn hand-cut spruce shingles.

Only some 50 wooden churches, most dating back two centuries, survive in the modern central European republic of Slovakia; historians estimate more than 300 may have been built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Approximately 30 belong to the Slovak Greek Catholic Church. A handful have been closed and restored as museums, while the remaining churches are used by Evangelical Protestant or Latin (Roman) Catholic congregations. In recent decades, the Slovak government has designated 27 of these tserkvi (Slavonic for wooden churches) as national cultural monuments.

These wooden structures are inexorably fragile, vulnerable to decay and fire. But as architectural achievements constructed during a tumultuous and religiously volatile era, they now galvanize significant interest in and support for their restoration and preservation.

The lion’s share of Slovakia’s wooden churches clusters in the eastern region of Prešov, a mountainous and heavily forested area bordering Poland and Ukraine. Rusyn Greek Catholics — who inhabited tiny hamlets scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains — constructed most of these churches.

A distinct Slavic ethnic group of poor peasant farmers, foresters and shepherds, early Rusyns followed the Byzantine form of the Christian faith even as the churches of East and West parted company after the Great Schism in 1054.

Rooted in the rites and disciplines of the Church of Mukačevo, now a town in Ukraine, Orthodox Rusyns attracted little attention from their predominantly Roman Catholic neighbors, if for no other reason than because of their isolation.

But in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, sociopolitical and religious events — the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman Turkish invasion of central Europe and the rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty — prompted these Rusyn Orthodox communities to enter into full communion with the Church of Rome. As Greek Catholics, Rusyns maintained their liturgical rites, customs and privileges, including a married clergy, while professing union with the papacy.

Gifted loggers and carpenters, Rusyns preferred wood when building sacred and secular structures. Both practical and ornamental, woodwork adorns church towers, gates, doors and beam supports. Hand-forged wooden hinges and locks on hand-carved doors also characterize many of the churches. In place of nails, the Rusyns fashioned square wood pegs to hold together their elaborate wooden edifices.

Pointing to the heavy square pegs that fasten St. Michael’s wood frame, Father Jakub explained that Rusyn custom at the time forbade the use of metal nails in building churches. According to tradition, Jesus had been crucified with iron nails.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Village life Slovakia Carpatho-Rusyn Revival/restoration