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.

"Life in an Early Coal-mining Community" (Wolf Run, Ohio)

This article by Vladimir Wilchatzky of Wolf Run, Ohio, while not about Pennsylvania per se, touches on the role played by Rusyn communities in Pennsylvania. And beyond that, it is a fine example of how Rusyn immigrant community history can be made interesting by a person with deep interest in and knowledge of the topic. That's something I want to live up to.
Mr. Wilchatzky's parents were from Florynka, Grybiv County, in western Lemkovyna, and settled first in Shamokin, Northumberland County, Pa. They eventually moved to Wolf Run, as did a number of other families from Shamokin and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

(Originally published in Pravda / The Truth, the newspaper of the Russian Brotherhood Organization, in 1991.)

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Russian Brotherhood Organization: An Important Resource for Rusyn Genealogy

First published in the New Rusyn Times, May/June 1999, pp. 13-15.

NOTE: This article is about a database 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. Thus this article would primarily help those visiting HSP, but we are posting it here as it provides insight into the history, membership, and original extent of the RBO. We hold out hope that one day the database will be posted online again.

An excellent resource for researching our Rusyn ancestors who settled in the United States has recently been made available on the World Wide Web by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What is the RBO, and who might benefit from the information in the database?

The Russian Brotherhood Organization

The RBO is a fraternal insurance society whose national headquarters is in Philadelphia, Pa. Like other Rusyn societies like the Greek Catholic Union, Orthodox Society of America (formerly UROBA and Liberty), United Societies of the U.S.A., and the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society, their first function is to sell insurance – at the time of their founding, such insurance was of great benefit to the families of immigrant miners and factory/millworkers who were the frequent victims of industrial accidents resulting in their death or disability. The local lodges in various community centers of Rusyn settlement also provided an important social and cultural role, providing a means for Rusyn immigrants to gather with their fellow villagers and countrymen in the new world, and resulting in a stronger cultural identity (of various orientations) through the dissemination of Rusyn immigrant newspapers and other periodicals and the performance of Rusyn-language plays and music, song and dance.