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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Question of Slovaks and Magyars/Hungarians in the Story of Rusyn Pennsylvania

In describing my book, I state that it will be a comprehensive history of all the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant communities in Pennsylvania. Even though Carpatho-Rusyns – eastern Slavs from a defined territory, as discussed in an earlier post – had various names to describe themselves, or felt themselves part of neighboring peoples rather than a distinct Carpatho-Rusyn group, identifying them is straightforward enough… that is, until we reach the edges of the territory where they were clearly the dominant group.

At some edges, there are Slovaks, or people who spoke an eastern dialect of Slovak, yet were Greek Catholics (some who would later become Orthodox) and were generally integrated in one community with their East Slav, Rusyn-speaking, neighbors and fellow parishioners.

It is no secret that there are some communities in Pennsylvania and other states where the majority of a “Ruthenian” Greek Catholic parish originated in a today Eastern Slovak-speaking village or district (for example, the large number of settlers to Trenton and Roebling, N.J. from Trebišov, Zemplyn County). There is evidence that some of these people considered themselves Rusyns/Rusnaks, others “Slovjaks” (a more or less distinct group from Slovaks), or just Slovaks of the Greek Catholic faith. However, when considering the geographical origin of Russian Orthodox parishes’ members, very few from Slovak-speaking villages transitioned to Orthodoxy in this setting. It was only during the 1930s establishment of new Carpatho-Russian Orthodox parishes that a large number of people from these districts became Orthodox. Nevertheless, at a Slovak folk festival in Pittsburgh some years ago I overheard this exchange between two elderly ladies:
“Mary, I thought you were Carpatho-Russian.”
“No, Helen, I’m Slovak. Just my religion is Carpatho-Russian!”
At other edges of the territory were Magyars, or Hungarians, some of whom also were Greek Catholics but because of their preference for speaking Hungarian and having a primary identity as Hungarian, may have established a separate parish and associated instead with other Hungarian immigrants of other religious confessions.

Yet both of these groups will be included in this study of Carpatho-Rusyns in Pennsylvania. In this post I will discuss my rationale for including these people, whom some might consider completely separate ethnic groups, in this study.

Relationships Between Rusyn and Slovak Immigrants

To be sure, Carpatho-Rusyns and Slovaks were in many cases in close contact in the homeland, and where they became neighbors in the new world had even closer relations. Their fraternal organizations had members of both ethnic groups – e.g., the Greek Catholic Union had many Slovak, Roman Catholic members, and the Pennsylvania Slovak Roman & Greek Catholic Union had many Rusyn, Greek Catholic members. They intermarried to some extent, although among the immigrant generation, marriages between a Greek Catholic and a Roman Catholic were unusual. Primarily, an immigrant Rusyn would marry someone from his/her own village (whether they resided in the same U.S. locale or not); secondarily, someone from a neighboring village. The next most likely choice would be to marry another central European immigrant living in the same U.S. locale. Marriages between a Greek Catholic and a Roman Catholic were almost always to people living in the same U.S. locale, indicating that socially, there was interaction between these ethnic/religious communities, even though preference was for marriage within one’s own ethnolinguistic and religious group. (In those places where Rusyn immigrants had converted to Orthodoxy, religious intermarriage became even less common, even within the same village group between an Orthodox and a Greek Catholic – and marriages between Orthodox and Roman Catholics, or Orthodox and Protestants – were almost unheard of.)

An interesting example is that of Graceton, Indiana County (near Homer City), which was one of the largest settlements of Rusyn immigrants from Jakubjanŷ, Spiš County, and which also became home to a number of Slovaks from Nová Ľubovňa, the village adjacent to Jakubjanŷ. This is no surprise, as the phenomenon of chain migration was as much geographic as it was ethnic/familial. But Graceton’s Nová Ľubovňa Slovaks had their own church, and the Jakubjanŷ Rusyns had their own church (actually several1). The number of intermarriages between these two ethnic/religious groups seems to have been negligible, and the Nová Ľubovňa Slovaks did not join the Greek Catholic Union Lodge 459 based in Graceton.

St. John the Baptist Slovak R.C. Cemetery, Exeter Borough,
a Slovak/Rusyn joint venture of sorts.
In some places, the intersection of Rusyn and Slovak organizational life was mutually beneficial. For example, in Exeter Borough, Luzerne County, where local Slovak Roman Catholics were members of St. John the Baptist Slovak R.C. Church in nearby Pittston, and Rusyn Greek Catholics were members of St. Michael the Archangel Greek Catholic Church also in Pittston, their fraternal organizations came together to purchase a cemetery in Exeter to serve the Pittston Slovak R.C. parish – a cemetery in which many Greek Catholics were also buried. A monument in the cemetery lists several Greek Catholic Union lodges who helped purchase the monument (along with several lodges of the Pennsylvania Slovak Roman & Greek Catholic Union, which had many local Rusyn Greek Catholic members). Does that mean these people felt themselves to be of the same ethnic group, just of different ritual traditions? Further research has to be done on that question. But the author can say that a large number of the Greek Catholics buried in the Exeter cemetery were from Rusyn-speaking villages.
Cemetery cross in Exeter lists
fraternal lodges that
contributed, including two
GCU lodges.

A flawed, tendentious study by Nicholas Dorko2 analyzed the deceased member listings of the Greek Catholic Union (GCU) for members’ birthplaces, finding that about 60 percent of them were from present-day Slovakia, and based on the percentage of Slovakia’s Greek Catholics in the 1921 Czechoslovak census who declared Rusyn nationality (at a time when many completely Rusyn villages were being pressured to declare themselves Slovak, or rather, Czechoslovak), concluded that only a small minority of the Pittsburgh Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic jurisdiction was ethnically Rusyn. This methodology was extremely flawed for the following reasons:
  • the 1921 Czechoslovak census seriously undercounted the number of Rusyns in the territory of Slovakia, because of political pressure and assimilation that was well underway, so using it as the determinant of how many Greek Catholics in Slovakia are Rusyn is dubious;
  • there were many Roman Catholics who were members of the GCU (mainly Slovaks) but of course they were not members of the Greek Catholic Church;
  • some GCU lodges were not even based at Greek Catholic parishes of the Pittsburgh jurisdiction, but at majority-Galician parishes under the Philadelphia Ukrainian jurisdiction.
Thus to nearly equate GCU membership with membership in the Pittsburgh Ruthenian Greek Catholic jurisdiction, as Dorko did, is a serious error. And thus his conclusion should be dismissed out of hand.

“Greek Catholic Slovaks”

Some of the Slovakized Rusyn villages of southeastern Slovakia.
Click for a more expansive map. (Source: Map of
Carpatho-Rusyn Settlement)
The question of the ethnic origin of the Eastern Slovak-speaking populations – especially those who are Byzantine Christians – of present-day eastern Slovakia (concentrated mostly in the districts of Košice, Vranov nad Topľou, Trebišov, Michalovce, and Sobrance) has been studied and debated going back at least to 19013. The Map of Carpatho-Rusyn Settlement by Paul R. Magocsi distills evidence from a number of sources to illustrate which villages had been considered Rusyn (linguistically and/or ethnically) at one time in history, only to become Slovak-identified in the late-19th/early-20th centuries. (See map segment.)

The phenomenon of Carpatho-Rusyns assimilating their identity into a Slovak one was an issue in the early Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant community as well.
Parish-based lodges continued to survive but as their effectiveness waned, many Rusyns elected to join newly established Slovak fraternals such as the First Catholic Slovak [Union] Jednota and the Pennsylvania [Slovak] Roman and Greek Catholic Union, founded in 1891. Such defections so alarmed Rusyn leaders that at a meeting of Rusyn Catholic priests in December 1891, convened to protest their treatment by the Vatican and the American Latin-rite hierarchy, they also decided to form a new Rusyn fraternal insurance society and to publish a Rusyn newspaper.4
...The call for ethno-national unity was echoed again in a plea to all “patriotic Rusyns” to leave Jednota and join the RNS [Ruskij Narodnyj Sojuz, later the Ukrainian National Association]: “In Slovak newspapers we have discovered that many Rusyns in Pennsylvania belong to the Catholic Jednota. We call attention to all patriotic Rusyns to find these lost people and ask them to join Soiuz.” A week later, Svoboda printed an article titled “A Lack of Patriotism,” commenting that it was “very sad” to find Rusyns in Jednota because “it shows that such a Rusyn has lost his national consciousness.”5
By the turn of the century, this became a hot-button issue, with strong opinions on both sides playing out in the immigrant press. For example, on the Rusyn side:

There still remains the question: “Are there Greek Catholic Slovaks living in Hungary?”

We have shown, with historical data, that up to the 13th century, the mentioned counties were inhabited only by Rusyns. Later, for various reasons, there was an inflow of Slovak Roman Catholics and/or Protestants into those counties. Now it must be understood that the Rusyns were always oppressed, even persecuted, by various means… yet the poor wretches were pleased that they were able to sustain and preserve their beliefs. They gave no thought to converting their neighbors into the Rusyn religion, while agents of these other religions were imposing their dogmas on the Rusyn, that he abandon his religion for theirs. This was being done by the Latin clergy, who were quite successful in many villages forcing many Rusyns to accept the Roman Catholic faith and the Latin Rite. There was no adoption of the Greek Catholic faith by Slovaks, but the reverse, that Rusyns were pressured to accept the Roman Catholic faith. Thus Slovaks in Hungary from the 13th century to the present never adopted the Greek Catholic faith, and so in Hungary there have never been and are not Greek Catholic Slovaks, and so all of the Greek Catholics living in these counties are originally Rusyns and not Slovaks.

If this is so, can we say that there are Slovak Greek Catholics in America?

No, absolutely not! For these Greek Catholics coming from Hungary, from the counties Už, Zemplyn, Abov, Šaryš, and Spiš, in which the Greek Catholics are originally Rusyns and not Slovaks, thus there cannot be Slovak Greek Catholics in America, either. If some still call themselves that, that is the result of the efforts of outside forces which want to increase their ranks at the expense of our Rusyn Greek Catholic people and line their own pockets.

In Hungary there are no Slovak Greek Catholics, thus there cannot be any in America, unless Slovaks convert to the Greek Catholic faith.

In the final analysis, after the details presented above we may more rightly say that in Hungary and in America there are Rusyn Roman Catholics, because many Rusyns became Roman Catholics, than that there are in Hungary as well in America Slovak Greek Catholics, since Slovaks have never become Greek Catholics.

We close this article with the basic judgment of these outside forces here in America, which our Greek Catholic Rusyn people coming from the counties of Zemplyn, Abov, Šaryš, and Spiš like to call themselves “Greek Catholic Slovaks” but we close also to these of ours who fell prey to these outside forces and notwithstanding all historical truth, to great scandal (ad absurdum) call themselves Greek Catholic Slovaks, which have never existed in the world and do not exist!6
While the above article, from the Greek Catholic Union’s 1902 almanac, ends on a thoroughly polemical note, it is reflective of the way some Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant secular community leaders felt about the claim by some Slovaks that many Greek Catholic Slavs of then-northeastern Hungary were not Rusyns, but Slovaks.

It is even more fitting that the article above was written in an Eastern Slovak dialect, which was used by the Greek Catholic Union in some of its early almanacs and in the parallel Latin-alphabet “Slavonian” or “Slavish Edition” of its Amerikansky Russky Viestnik newspaper (from 1895-1904; superseded by a single Rusyn-language edition), an acknowledgement that many of their members could read and understand that language better than Rusyn written in Cyrillic.

Other Rusyn American organizations, many of them expressing even a Russian rather than Rusyn identity, included members from Eastern Slovak-speaking villages who certainly did not consider themselves to be Slovaks. Consider this excerpt of the minutes of the first meeting of the Saints Peter & Paul Brotherhood of Mahanoy City on July 1, 1900, at which the Russian Brotherhood Organization (RBO) was also established:
Na tej istej schodzi založeno i OBŠČESTVO RUSSKICH BRATSTV, jak organizacija, kotra ma služic dľa pomočy russkim bratam v Ameriki, na co sja budu prispevki placic pre posmertnu podporu.7

[At this same gathering the Russian Brotherhood Organization was established, as an organization intended to provide help to Rusyn/Russian brethren in America, who will pay dues for death benefits.]
The RBO was generally of Russian orientation, though its first president, John Žinčak-Smith  (who had also been founding president of the Greek Catholic Union), was from an Eastern Slovak-speaking village, Rakovec nad Ondavou, Zemplyn County. And the above minutes were written in a language with both Eastern Slovak and Rusyn features.

Articles like the one above from the Greek Catholic Union almanac appeared in many Rusyn immigrant newspapers with numerous other polemics denouncing those Rusyns who were choosing to declare themselves Slovaks. One such article (in this case, a letter to the editor), which was published in the Narodna Obrana newspaper of the American Russian National Defense organization, dated July 30, 1917 (published in the August 7 edition) described the controversy when the Greek Catholic Union Lodge 96 of Bradenville, Westmoreland County, participated in an all-Slavic celebration in Pittsburgh, where they marched under the banner “Slovak Gr. C. U. L. No. 96,” which ignited protests on the part of the editor of Narodna Obrana (Emil Šarady), the President of the Greek Catholic Union (Jurko Kondor), and the editor of the GCU’s newspaper Amerikansky Russky Viestnik (Michal Hančin). The letter-writer blamed the situation on the priest and cantor in the Bradenville parish for their lack of leadership and pro-Hungary political/cultural sympathies. Furthermore, the letter-writer claimed that something like this would never have happened a few years earlier when Rusyn patriot George Barany was their cantor. (Barany had since been ordained an Orthodox priest.) The Bradenville Greek Catholic parish had very few members from Slovak villages, but a significant portion were from villages that were undergoing assimilation into a Slovak identity: Ljucina/L’utina, Jakovanŷ/Jakovany, Milpoš, Olejnikiv/Olejnikov, and Hanigivci/Hanigovce in Šaryš County, and Banske and Davŷdiv/Davidov in Zemplyn County. The rest of the congregation were from thoroughly Rusyn-identified villages in Spiš, Šaryš, Už, Bereg, Grybiv, Gorlyci, Sjanok, and Lisko Counties – from basically all over Carpathian Rus’.

Most of these individuals, or their parents, were from the
Eastern Slovak-speaking villages of lower Zemplyn.
While there is no shortage of evidence that many Rusyn immigrants had a vague sense of identity, and may willingly have drifted between Rusyn, Russian, Rusnak, Carpatho-Russian, Uhro-Rusyn, Slovak, Czechoslovakian, “Greek,” “Greek Catholic,” or “Slavish” to describe themselves, some of the strongest Rusyn (or “Rusin”) patriotism was found among those who came from Eastern Slovak-speaking villages (that nevertheless were once identified as Rusyn, cf. Map of Carpatho-Rusyn Settlement and other sources) of lower Zemplyn County. Some of the most prominent early community leaders in the Greek Catholic Union, the Russian Brotherhood Organization, Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society, and United Societies, such as John Žinčak-Smith, Michal Juhas [Michael Yuhasz], Nikolaj Pačuta [Nicholas Pachuta], Jan Uhrin, Michal Hančin [Michael Hanchin], Jan Pivovarnik, Michal Jevčak [Michael Yeosock], Michal Martahus, Andrej Koval’ [Andrew Kovaly] and many others, as well as founders/officers of institutions like the American Rusin National Home of Homestead, were from that very same area of lower Zemplyn County.

Pannonian Rusyns

The Rusyns of Vojvodina (historic Bačka), in Serbia, and Srem, in Croatia (who together are known as Pannonian Rusyns), migrated from the region of “lower Zemplyn” today in southeastern Slovakia and northeastern Hungary over 250 years ago. To the present day they essentially retain the identity their ancestors had when they left Zemplyn in the mid-1700s: religiously Greek Catholic and ethnically/nationally rusnak/ruski, i.e., Rusyn. They still speak what is essentially an Eastern Slovak dialect (the Zemplín dialect of Slovak), but they call it ruski jazik (Rusyn language). This language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and has been codified since the early 20th century and is one of the official languages of the Vojvodina province of Serbia. While those who remained behind in “lower Zemplyn” experienced the latter-19th/early-20th-century development of a Slovak national consciousness and thus almost none of them today say they are Rusyns, the Pannonian Rusyns of Serbia and Croatia retain their original, Rusyn, identity to the present day.

The experience of the Greek Catholic Slavs from lower Zemplyn in the U.S. is similar, in that virtually none of them had a firm Slovak identity, if any, when they emigrated from then-northeastern Hungary in the years before World War I, and few of them acquired a Slovak national identity here. From my 20-year participation in the Carpatho-Rusyn Society, I know that a good portion of our membership’s roots are in this area of lower Zemplyn, and their grandparents spoke a Zemplín dialect of Slovak; yet these C-RS members would not think of themselves as anything other than Carpatho-Rusyn.

Taken together, this evidence leads this author to the logical conclusion that the history of the so-called “Greek Catholic Slovaks” in Pennsylvania is indivisible from that of the Carpatho-Rusyn community, and thus they will be treated no differently in my book than those who originated in East Slav-speaking villages of Carpathian Rus’.

“Greek Catholic Hungarians”

Hungarian-identified Eastern Christians – specifically, Byzantine/Greek Catholics – have been in the United States generally as long and in many of the same places as other central European Greek Catholics. With only a few exceptions (Bridgeport, Conn., and Cleveland), they made up a small minority of a Greek Catholic community they were a part of until perhaps they established their own parish. Regardless of whether they had “their own” parish, they were generally part of the local Hungarian community that was probably dominated by Roman Catholics and Protestants; they had their own fraternal benefit societies and their own newspapers. But where specifically did these Hungarian Greek Catholics come from, and what was their role in the development of Carpatho-Rusyn parishes?

While Hungarian Greek Catholics were found in Rusyn parishes in many parts of the state, the usual process of Hungarian Greek Catholic parish development in Pennsylvania was that in places where their number was substantial, the original majority Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic parish gave birth several years later to a separate Hungarian-identified, Hungarian-speaking parish, as was the case in Homestead/Munhall (1907), McKeesport (1913), and Duquesne (1915), Allegheny County. Another parish, in Coatesville, Chester County, was Hungarian-identified and its members were mainly Hungarians, but some Carpatho-Rusyns were also members. (In Coatesville, a separate Galician Greek Catholic parish – later Ukrainian Orthodox – had few Carpatho-Rusyn members.)
Some of the Magyarized Rusyn villages of northeastern Hungary.
Click for a more expansive map. (Source: Map of
Carpatho-Rusyn Settlement)

Having had access to the metrical records of these Hungarian Greek Catholic parishes, I’ve seen that their members, while their identity and first language may have been Hungarian, generally originated in mostly-Magyarized Rusyn villages in the counties of Ung/Už, Zemplyn/Zemplén, Abov/Abaúj-Torna, Boršod/Borsod, and Ugoča/Ugocsa. In fact, many families in Homestead’s Hungarian Greek Catholic parish came from Múcsony (in Rusyn, Mučen’), one of just a handful of villages in Hungary where people still speak Rusyn and which is home to Hungary’s only Rusyn Museum. (Other portions of these parishes’ membership originated in places today in Szatmár County of northwestern Romania that are Hungarian-speaking but whose Greek Catholic people are generally considered to be assimilated Romanians.)

Hungarian Greek Catholics in the U.S. by and large set off on their own course apart from their Rusyn co-religionists, but to the extent these people originated in once-Rusyn villages, they will be included in the story of Rusyn Pennsylvania.


1. Carpatho-Rusyns in Graceton were generally members of either the Greek Catholic, later Russian Orthodox, St. John the Baptist Church in Black Lick, the St. Mary’s Holy Protection Greek Catholic Church of Homer City, or its 1940s offshoot, the Ss. Peter and Paul Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of Homer City.

2.  Nicholas Dorko, “The Geographical Background of the Faithful of the Apostolic Exarchate of Pittsburgh,” Slovak Studies IV (Cleveland: Slovak Institute, 1964), 217-221.

3. Volodymyr Hnatiuk, “Slovaky chy rusyny: Prychynok do vyiasnennia sporu pro natsional’nist’ zakhidnykh rusyniv,” Zapysky Naukovoho tovarystva im. Shevchenka, 42, no.4 (1901); Lubor Niederle, “K sporu o rusko-slovenské rozhrání v Uhrách,” Slovanský přehled V (Prague, 1903), 345-349; also Jan Húsek, Národopisná hranice mezi Slováky a Karpatorusy (Bratislava, 1925).

4. Myron B. Kuropas, Ukrainian-American Citadel: The first one hundred years of the Ukrainian National Association (1996), 34.

5. Svoboda, Oct. 3/Oct. 10, 1894, cited in Kuropas, 93.

6. Amerikánsky Russko-Slovenský Kalendár na zvyčajný rok 1902, 102-103. Translated by John E. Timo and Richard D. Custer. [full article (original with English translation)]

7. “Bratstvo svv. App. Petra y Pavla chyslo 1 O.R.B. Mahanoi Syty, Pa.,” in J. H. Dzwonczyk, ed., IUbileinyi Al’manakh 1900-1940 Obshchestva russkykh bratstv v S. Sh. A. / Jubilee Almanac of the Russian Brotherhood Organization of U.S.A. 1900-1940 (Philadelphia: Pravda Press, 1939): 50.

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

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