Carpatho-Rusyns are one of the major ethnic groups of Pennsylvania. From the time they settled the state’s small towns and cities in the late 1870s until the present time, Carpatho-Rusyns have left an indelible mark on the state, and their story should be told. This blog is about a project that will do just that. Read more

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Transplanting the Village

A significant element of my research has been to study the patterns of chain migration, by which many Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from the same European village all settled in the same place (or several key places) in Pennsylvania.

The information I’ve gathered will be a key feature of my book. I intend for each entry to include at least one map showing the villages and village clusters from where the community’s immigrant members emigrated, and this will be described in additional detail in the narrative. The perspective gained by analyzing the places of origin of the community’s and their local Rusyn churches’ immigrant members provides something that is almost always ignored in histories published previously. There are communities, or maybe one parish of several, that were composed almost entirely of immigrants from two or three, or even a single village! Among studies of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants, this information has never been documented in a comprehensive way.

My sources for this information have been:
  • naturalization documents
  • ship manifests (from Ellis Island & other ports of entry)
  • cemetery tombstones
  • fraternal organization records
  • parish metrical records

The content of naturalization documents and ship manifests is well documented, so I won’t comment at length on it here, except to say that while useful for individuals, in all but a few cases they were not particularly useful for seeing on a larger scale the patterns of settlement/chain migration for a Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant community. One exception could be in a certain place where the various parishes’ metrical records were either not available to me, they were barely extant, or there was really no parish church the immigrants attended.
Naturalization document for George Simchena,
residing in St. Clair, Schuylkill County.
The document shows his birthplace ([Nyžnje] Solotvyno, Už County)
as well as that of his wife (Korytnjanŷ, Už County), but also
his race as "Russniak" and the fact that he and his family lived
previously in Hazle Creek, Schuylkill County.
(Source: Schuylkill County Courthouse, Pottsville.)

One of those exceptions of interest was in Saint Clair, Schuylkill County, where: despite having the bishop’s permission, the pastor of the "mother parish" would not allow me to see the metrical records dating back to 1897; I had also been refused access to the two Ukrainian Catholic parishes’ records (still working on that one!); the Russian Orthodox parish’s records from the immigrant era were either not extant or not known of even by the parish president (that church’s pastor also denied me access to the records from his main parish in Minersville). I was only able to actually see the records of the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic parish in Saint Clair, which were fairly useful, but limited because that parish only started in the late 1920s. And so I spent several days at the Schuylkill County Courthouse photocopying hundreds of naturalization documents of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from Saint Clair (and other county towns). In the years that followed, I was eventually able to work with the records of the "mother church," but there is still a somewhat reduced amount of information I have from this major settlement that the naturalization docs have been a big help with.

The Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants in Jeannette and nearby Manor,
Grapeville, Penn, and Greensburg in Westmoreland County
came primarily from villages in Gorlyci [Gorlice], Krosno,
Sjanik [Sanok], and Lisko Counties.
Nevertheless, naturalization documents in particular do help to illustrate other aspects of the story I am trying to tell. Those aspects are migration within the United States, as revealed in the given birthplaces of children, and the limited period where the naturalization forms asked the applicant’s "race" (taken to mean ethnic background). And so, my visits to county courthouses and membership in online services that provide digital images of the records have been extremely useful, and I have probably a few thousand Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants’ naturalization documents in hard copy or electronic form.

Having gathered copious village information from all these sources, I’ve been able to describe the local chain migration for places in Pennsylvania -- and elsewhere -- which I’ve done in published parish histories or at genealogical/historical conferences. (See the above example from presentations I’ve given in Westmoreland County, Pa.)

Cemetery tombstones

In the typical cemetery where Rusyn immigrants have been buried, quite a few of the older tombstones (usually the ones not in English, that is, in Rusyn, Russian, Ukrainian, Slovak, or some mixture of these) indicate the person’s place of birth; I have visited virtually all the cemeteries in Pennsylvania in which Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants have been buried, and recorded that information.
Spouses Michael and Anna Yurcsisin with individual
tombstones, both indicating villages of birth in Sáros [Šaryš] County.
(St. Mary’s Orthodox Church Cemetery, Ganister, Blair County)
Rusyn immigrant stone indicating village of birth:
Ioann [Ivan] Zapotočnyj, born in Kostarivci, Sanok County, Galicia.
(Ss. Peter & Paul Orthodox Church Cemetery,
Altoona, Blair County)
In the grand scheme of things, though, these data have not been a significant source of information. Only the rare cemetery has a useful percentage of birthplaces on the stones, e.g., St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox in Mayfield, Lackawanna County, and St. John the Baptist Greek Catholic in Maizeville, Schuylkill County. (They sound so close, don’t they? A funny coincidence!)

I wrote an article in the New Rusyn Times some years ago about cemetery research on Rusyn immigrants -- I will be posting it here soon.

Fraternal organization records

Most Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants were members of at least one fraternal insurance society, and some immigrants were members of several societies. They may have gravitated to the one that their friends already belonged to or to the one that best represented their own ethno-national identity, e.g., Russian, Ukrainian, Galician, "Ruthenian," or Carpatho-Rusyn, but some -- especially businessmen -- seemed to belong to as many as possible. These folks knew about politics as well as business! While this source was not essential to my research, the large amount of information it provided made it quite important just the same.

I have examined fraternal organization membership records (Russian Brotherhood Organization death claims and United Russian Orthodox Brotherhood of America membership applications) which yield such information on the immigrants’ birthplaces. Occasionally I found stored with parish metrical records a lodge membership register containing basic information on the members such as date of birth and birthplace. A much more bountiful source has been the published lists of deceased Greek Catholic Union members which between 1926 and 1973 contained the deceased’s place of birth. The number of immigrants appearing in these lists is easily several thousand.

Typical listing of deceased fraternal organization members, published monthly by the Greek Catholic Union in their newspaper Amerikansky Russky Viestnik. The member’s birthplace appears in the column "Rodnoje misto." Other data of interest to the genealogist such as date joined the GCU and cause of death are of interest to the genealogist but not as critical for my purposes.
Theoretically, the most searchable database of this sort of information is the one based on death benefit claims of the Russian Brotherhood Organization (RBO) that was created by the Balch Institute and maintained today by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. While the Balch Institute had put that database online (it wasn’t as complete then as it is today), it was taken down after the Balch folded and their collections were acquired by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It’s available to researchers onsite at HSP in Philadelphia, but maybe one day it will be posted online again.

I wrote an article in the New Rusyn Times some years ago about the Russian Brotherhood Organization death claims database -- now posted here.

Some other fraternal organizations popular among Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants published similar lists of deceased members (e.g., the Ruskij Narodnyj Sojuz/Ukrainian National Association and the Ukrainian National Aid Society), but they were not usually as complete as the GCU lists, and may have only run for several years either in the organization’s newspaper or its almanacs. The GCU actually published lists going back about a decade prior to 1926, but for whatever reason those lists did not include a column for birthplace. The United Societies of the U.S.A. and the Pennsylvania Slovak Roman & Greek Catholic Union also published these lists for their organizations but without birthplaces.

There were also obituaries of prominent individuals, especially lodge officers, published in the various Rusyn immigrant newspapers, and I'm trying to collect as many of those as possible. Some of them yield useful information about the local Rusyn immigrant community, but most just note the deceased person's birthplace, the names of their spouse and children, perhaps the year they came to the U.S., etc. So like naturalization documents, while they may be useful for information on that person, in telling the story of the community's history they are usually not terribly helpful.

Church metrical records

Church metrical records, even more so for years predating state civil records, yield a lot of valuable information for genealogists and historians. Some ethnic parishes’ records contain valuable details such as the village and county of origin of the people participating in the events recorded (whether parents of a child being baptized, the couple being married, or the person being buried). Just as the amount of detail depended largely on the priest recording the information (or more randomly, on the format of the ledgers used to enter the records), access to these records today depends in great measure on the pastor of the church who is the designated custodian of the records. At least in the Catholic Church, and probably also the Orthodox Church, the pastor’s responsibility to maintain these records in good order and up-to-date is an essential duty -- a sacred responsibility -- that is checked periodically by the local dean or even by the bishop himself.

Due to what can be the sensitive nature of some of the information entered into such records, primarily whether the birth of a child was either in or out of wedlock (so-called "illegitimacy") noted in a baptismal entry, many priests and bishops will not permit people doing research to view these records at all. Others will permit it only in a very limited way, or will provide a copy of a requested record while masking the adjacent entries that concern other individuals. And for unrelated individuals requesting access to the records for general research, like me, being granted access can be a real gamble.

My usual means for recording the data of interest to me in the records is to write the names of the immigrant individuals, their village/county of birth in Europe, and where in the vicinity (e.g., Brownsville, West Brownsville, Vesta 6, Denbo, Republic, Grindstone, or Fredericktown, for the parishes in Brownsville or West Brownsville) they were living. Place of residence (or if so stated in baptismal registers, the place where the child was born) is also extremely valuable, as it helped to indicate the geographic extent of the parish and was a very effective way for me to identify even the smallest municipalities where the local Rusyn immigrants had settled, and in what relative numbers.

The process of doing this recording can be slow at the start, when dealing with unfamiliar handwriting, many times in the Cyrillic alphabet. But after a while I learned to read handwritten Church Slavonic / Russian / Ukrainian very well, even with the sometimes difficult penmanship that’s found in these records; once you get the hang of all but the worst handwriting, you can move quickly from one entry to the next.

Because many parishes also had members from outside Carpatho-Rusyn ethnographic territory, such as some Ukrainian and quite a few of the Russian Orthodox parishes, I did not extract data for those individuals unless they were married to a Carpatho-Rusyn; thus, I would usually only document the names of immigrants from Carpatho-Rusyn territory. I did note, however, if there were large groups from other particular villages, counties, or regions so I will be able to explain that in the historical narrative when I describe the other geographic/ethnic origin of those interacting most closely with the Carpatho-Rusyn community whether in the local parishes or fraternal organization lodges.

In each case, I first sought the pastor’s permission for access to these records, but I also received blanket or specific permission (as requested by some priests) from Bishop Michael Dudick (Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic), Bishop Walter Paska (Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia), Bishop Robert Moskal (Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Josaphat in Parma), and Metropolitan Nicholas Smisko (American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese) to examine metrical records in parishes of their jurisdiction.

Whether one finds good village information in the American Rusyn church records depends primarily on two factors:
  1. what format register was used (different printing houses put out baptismal, etc. registers that may or may not have had a separate column for "loco originis" or "misto rozhdenija" etc.);
  2. what the individual pastor at the time was inclined to do.
Usually if the register had a separate column for the info, the priest filled it in. Sometimes, even if the register didn’t have a special column, the priest wrote it in anyway.

And since each church generally had a number of different pastors throughout the "immigrant era," there are very few registers which don’t have ANY village info at all.

Typical page of a parish metrical book, in this case baptisms.
This particular priest recorded the village of origin not only for the parents
of the baptized child, but also of both godparents.
(St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church of Scranton - available
on microfilm through LDS Family History Library.)
In some places, when I’ve inquired about these records, I would hear a story about how the records were "lost in a fire" (or flood), maybe "taken by a former priest," etc. Fortunately, in some cases I eventually came across the supposedly missing records. But unfortunately, in other cases the loss of these records seems to be what actually happened. In a few cases -- whether due to damage to the original records or for some other reason -- the original register was transcribed to a new book, and the transcriber didn’t copy all of the information (omitting villages of origin, for example).  And then sometimes they actually threw the original books away. This is a terrible shame, but it has happened, for example in Johnstown (St. Mary’s Byzantine/Greek Catholic Church) and McKees Rocks (St. Mary’s Greek Catholic/Ukrainian Orthodox Church).

Two significant parishes’ metrical records have been microfilmed and are available from the LDS Family History Library: St. Mary Greek Catholic Church of Scranton, and Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Wilkes-Barre. As such, these are free of access restrictions that may be applied to metrical books that are kept in parish/rectory offices. As far as I’ve heard, the records of St. John’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield are available for research at the Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania (GRSNP) in Peckville, Lackawanna County.

In some cases, I made use of the duplicate records that are found in the Orthodox Church in America’s Archives in Syosset (Oyster Bay Cove), New York. In fact, these duplicate records may be the only records still in existence for these communities. Having visited that institution many times, I was also able to gather this sort of data for many Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant settlements outside Pennsylvania, and I’ve given presentations based on that data, especially in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.

Miscellaneous other sources

List of donors to a collection taken up in Lyndora, Butler County,
for the church in Čabynŷ, Zemplyn County.
Many surnames of Čabynŷ families appear in the list,
but so do families from Habura, Medžilabirci, etc., who were
also present in Lyndora in significant numbers.
The four collectors named at the end were all born in Čabynŷ.
(Published in Amerikansky Russky Viestnik)
In the course of reading the Rusyn immigrant newspapers, I found a lot of special collections that were undertaken to assist a homeland village after the war (WWI), or repair a church, or purchase new church bells, or any number of other similar causes. Usually the head collector was from that village, and the donors may or may not have been from the same village, but most of them were from at least that vicinity. While a person’s name on these lists isn’t a guarantee of where they came from, overall it is a good indicator that in a given place there were a lot of immigrants from that village.

At the end of my book will be an index, by village (not every Rusyn village, just those with significant emigrants to Pennsylvania), indicating to which towns in Pennsylvania they typically emigrated. And with all the other such data I’ve gathered from the above sources as I've traveled to other places of major Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant settlement in the U.S. (or to archives with that information), I will also mention the other U.S. locations where immigrants from that village settled. Because in many cases, the movement between the Pennsylvania locales and those places in other states was also an important part of the story.

SEE ALSO: “Porač Comes to America”

Original material is © by the author, Richard D. Custer; all rights reserved.


  1. Excellent blog, as usual Rich. This topic has been particularly fascinating to me during my significantly fewer years of research on upstate NY and Oklahoma C-R's. It's like a giant ice cream scoop (or a series of smaller scoops over time, more accurately) came into these ancestral villages, gathered up the inhabitants and re-deposited them in smalltown USA, virtually intact. I suppose this make sense due to the familiarity aspect, but still, having the majority of a village or cluster of them travel thousands of miles and end up in the same place...fascinating. Also, kudos for offering what's tantamount to a step-by-step guide on how/where to locate records that might identify the all-important ancestral village.

  2. Mary Anne Ference MistickJuly 7, 2014 at 9:00 PM

    Rich, this information is so fascinating. I can't wait until your finished book comes out. Thank you for previously answering my question as to what constituted Lyndora's "colorful" history. What you said about the various churches and the strong feelings between them is illustrated in my own parents' marriage. My dad's father, Stefan Ferenc, was one of the founders of St. John's in Lyndora. When my mother, who was raised in Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Lyndora, married my dad in his church and became a member, her step-grandmother refused to speak to her for decades. I was also thrilled to see my grandfather's name listed on the above donors' list from Lyndora. (My dad's parents were both from Habura.) Thank you for all of your diligent work. It is much appreciated.


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