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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Development of ethnonational identity among Rusyn immigrants

The Influence of Clergy and Fraternal Organizations on the Development of Ethnonational Identity Among Rusyn Immigrants to Pennsylvania (excerpts)

Richard D. Custer

(from Carpatho-Rusyns and Their Neighbors: Essays in Honor of Paul Robert Magocsi. Edited by Bogdan Horbal, Patricia A. Krafcik, and Elaine Rusinko. Fairfax, VA: Eastern Christian Publications, 2006, pp. 43-106)

A dense concentration of the earliest Rusyn settlements in the United States is found in northeastern Pennsylvania. As Interstate 81 winds its way north through the heart of the anthracite coal-mining region past such communities as Minersville, Mount Carmel, Frackville, Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, McAdoo, Nanticoke, and Wilkes-Barre, distinctive onion-domed churches dot the landscape. East of Scranton, Pennsylvania Route 6 leads past another succession of towns noted in Rusyn-, “Russian-”, and Ukrainian-American history: Olyphant, Jessup, Jermyn, and Mayfield. Exiting at Carbondale and heading a mile north on Route 171, one will reach Simpson, a town of few distinctive structures save two remarkably similar white churches topped with onion domes and three-bar crosses. If the curious traveler investigates the churches in the area, he might notice a cornerstone naming the church as “Russian” or “Ruthenian,” perhaps “Greek Catholic,” perhaps “Orthodox,” while the church sign declares the parish’s ecclesiastical affiliation as Ukrainian Catholic or perhaps even Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In the parish cemeteries, one might find Church Slavonic, Russian, and Ukrainian carvings on gravestones alongside Slovak- or Hungarian-language stones bearing the very same surnames. The variety of cultural markers might lead one to expect that any one of these parishes must have represented a wide variety of differing cultures, languages, and nationalities. Asking church members about their ethnic background might seem to confirm that suspicion.
Original cemetery cross in Shenandoah: “Here rest Rusyns
of the Greek Catholic faith who have died from the years 1885 to 1889…”

Historical marker identifying the Shenandoah church
as founded by Ukrainian immigrants.

However, further investigation reveals that in every one of these communities, the families are originally from the same small geographical area of Europe and perhaps from the very same village as the families in another onion-domed church community in the same town. How can this be, if one church is “Ukrainian” and the other “Russian”? In this paper I will demonstrate that the ethnonational orientation of the clergy leaders and the fraternal organizations that were most popular in the community were the most influential determinants of the prevailing ethnonational identity of the residents. In fact, they were as important as – or perhaps even more important than – religious affiliation or denomination.

Ethnonational Orientation in Galicia and Hungary at the time of the Emigration


Rusyns began to settle in the anthracite mining districts of central and northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1870s. The centers of this immigration were Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, and smaller towns such as Centralia, Lansford, Mahanoy City, Mount Carmel, Mahanoy Plane, Saint Clair, and five we shall examine in this paper: Shenandoah, Shamokin, Olyphant, Mayfield, and Simpson. These earliest Rusyn settlements were composed primarily of immigrants from the Prešov Region of present-day eastern Slovakia and the Lemko Region of present-day southeastern Poland. There was a much higher rate of emigration from these regions than from Carpatho-Rusyn areas further east, and this emigration began somewhat earlier (Bachyns’kyi 88). Of the oldest Rusyn settlements in Pennsylvania, a few were partially composed of immigrants from the more eastern counties of Uzh and Bereg in historic Subcarpathian Rus’, the present-day Transcarpathian oblast of Ukraine, but in general, the Transcarpathian element in these communities was negligible or insignificant.

Transfiguration Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church

St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church, Mayfield

The five Rusyn communities of northeastern Pennsylvania examined in this paper were chosen because they were settled at approximately the same time, the main local occupation – coal mining – was the same, the native village backgrounds of the settlers are similar (primarily Lemko with a Prešov Region minority, along with a small number of Galician Ukrainians and other East Slavs), and the community’s religious affiliations today are primarily with either the Ukrainian Catholic Church or the Russian Orthodox Church. Furthermore, these communities all had some interaction in their formative years by sharing clergy and leadership in fraternal organizations. I will discuss the pattern of chain migration that determined the regional makeup of each community, analyze the clergy that served each community in its formative years, and discuss the fraternal organizations that were the dominant forces in these communities. Finally, I will show how these factors combined to help determine the prevailing ethnonational identity that developed among the Rusyn immigrants and their descendants in each community.

The Greek Catholic Union (Soiedinenie)
The Rusyn/Ukrainian National Association (Ruskii Narodnyi Soiuz)
Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society (ROCMAS)
The Russian Brotherhood Organization (Obshchestvo Russkikh Bratstv)

In terms of religious denomination, the five communities have had different histories. Only one, Shamokin, never suffered a schism and to this day remains a Greek Catholic parish as it was founded. The oldest parish, Shenandoah, had a minor schism. Olyphant, the largest community, divided twice, resulting in a small Russian Orthodox parish and a more significant parallel Greek Catholic parish (of Russian orientation), which eventually also became Orthodox, leaving the original Greek Catholic community still the largest of the five analyzed here. The Mayfield community converted en masse to Orthodoxy, leaving no Greek Catholic presence in the town whatsoever. The Simpson community, existing for fifteen years without its own church, formed two separate churches within days of each other, one Greek Catholic and one Russian Orthodox, but this did not divide the community on regional grounds, ethnically or ideologically. The largest Greek Catholic parishes, Shamokin and Olyphant, also had the strongest Ukrainian orientation, although overall, the orientation of the Olyphant parish, with its larger Subcarpathian Rusyn membership and strong non-Ukrainian fraternals, is decidedly mixed. The presence of two Russian-oriented Rusyn churches in the same community could also account for the polarization of identities within the original parish between the Russophile or Rusyn camps and the Ukrainian.

We have seen that in America emigrants from a single Rusyn village living in different communities did not necessarily follow the same course of ethnonational identity development. The need for further study of the complex events of this history is clear. What was the implication of membership in a particular fraternal society for a person’s own ethnonational identity? Could one presume that membership in the UNA was an indicator that such a person considered himself to be Ukrainian? Could membership in the RBO be reason enough to suppose that a person was a Russophile? There are many cases of individuals who were members of both organizations, and perhaps other fraternals as well. What did a person’s educational background and social standing contribute to the direction in which his ethnonational identity developed? Another useful course of research could be to trace the parallel development of ethnonational identity in the European villages from which these immigrants came. However, there is clear evidence showing the influence of clergy and the activity of fraternal organizations on the course of ethnonational development in these Rusyn communities in northeastern Pennsylvania. Taken together, these factors were more significant than religious affiliation alone.

-- I encourage you to read the entire paper! Download it here.

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

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