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Byzantine Catholics in the Midwest

by the Rev. Nicholas Rachford, J.C.L.

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Although the traditional ancestral roots of most Midwestern Byzantine Catholics are Slav, today’s Byzantine Catholics are a part of the complex ethnic fabric that is the American tapestry. In the Midwestern Ruthenian Eparchy of Parma, centered in the city of Parma, Ohio, this diversity breathes new life into an eparchy covering 12 states from the industrial heart of Ohio to the plains of the Dakotas.

Established in 1969, it originally embraced 25 states reaching from Ohio to the West Coast. During the early years, the first bishop, the Most Rev. Emil J. Mihalik, founded parishes in Alaska and Hawaii as well. In 1982 the Holy See established the Eparchy of Van Nuys, California, leaving Parma with its current 12 Midwestern states.

The eparchy’s parishes may seem small to many Roman Catholics – the average parish is just 160 households. The largest parish in the eparchy has 534 households, while the smallest lists only eight! With parishes of these numbers, parishioners experience a real spirit of family – parishes need everyone’s participation and support.

These parish families express this spirit through the many liturgical and social events that are a regular part of parish life in the Byzantine Church. Parish meals, centered around the liturgical calendar, include pre-Lenten meatless meals. St. Thomas Sunday breakfasts on the Sunday after Easter, parish festivals and picnics during the spring and summer months, St. Nicholas dinners and Christmas Eve suppers usually feature traditional ethnic foods, but do not exclude favorite recipes borrowed from other ethnic backgrounds. In addition, wedding anniversaries, baptisms and weddings become total parish events celebrated by all, not just a few.

Food also plays an important liturgical role, especially during the more important feast days. There is the blessed bread distributed during the anointing with oil on greater feasts. Sometimes honey cakes are also included. There is the boiled wheat and honey mold blessed on the first Friday of the Great Fast (Lent). The feast of the Transfiguration features a blessing of fresh fruit while the feast of the Dormition is marked by the blessing of flowers and herbs.

On the eves of the Nativity of the Lord and of the Theophany (January 5) families share special penitential meatless meals with prayers and chanting of the festal verses. And no Byzantine Catholic forgets the traditional Easter bread, Pascha, and Artos, a sweet loaf blessed on Easter and distributed on Thomas Sunday.

The custom that families most consistently carry out is that of bringing baskets of food to be blessed on Easter. Foods included are those given up during the Great Fast. Traditionally they include a Pascha bread, sausage, butter, lamb, horseradish, salt, an egg custard, ham, hard-boiled eggs and elaborately decorated fresh eggs.

All of these bring the liturgical life into the family home.

Because most parishes cannot support a parochial school, (there are only two in the eparchy) religious education classes are a prominent feature of parish life. During these Eastern Christian formation classes students learn the theology, liturgy, chant and customs of the Byzantine Church. This prepares them to live their Christian lives effectively as Byzantine Catholics.

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