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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Memorial Day Week Research Trip: Followup Report

Having recently completed one of my periodic lengthy research trips, one that like most of them was many weeks in the making, I'd like to share some of the results and highlights.

Ss. Peter & Paul Church, Mt. Union
(photo: orthodox-world.org)
I began the trip on a late May Saturday morning heading to central Pennsylvania, but having gotten a late start I skipped what was to be my first stop, the Broad Top Coal Miners Museum in Robertsdale, Huntingdon County, and went directly to Mount Union. There I was finally able to see and photograph the interior of Ss. Peter & Paul Russian Orthodox Church, founded in 1916 with the support of Tsar Nicholas of Russia, but evidently not with Carpatho-Rusyns among the founders. Father Christos Patitsas, the current pastor, was gracious in his welcome and explanation of the colorful yet troubled history of the parish in the last few decades and how it came to its current home as part of the Genuine Orthodox Church of America. [Here's an interesting video about the parish history.] The cornerstone is in both Russian and Romanian, and most of the parishioners seem to have been either Romanian, Ukrainian, or Macedonian. But Mount Union and this church have some interesting intersections with Rusyn history in Wood (aka Woodvale) and Ramey, so it's going in the book. Soon I hope to visit the miners museum in Robertsdale to see what they might have about Rusyn immigrants in that area, especially Wood and St. Michael's Orthodox Church there. (I do wish they had responded to my email inquiry about such things. I guess I'll just have to show up in person.)

I then hurried west to Boswell, Somerset County. I had just gotten word that Saints Peter & Paul Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church there would be having its final Divine Liturgy the next day and then would close. It was founded by Carpatho-Rusyns in 1913 and survived the death of the local mining industry and then a fire in 1998. Despite being able to restore the church interior after the fire, for years the parish hung on with only a handful of members, and the church building had deteriorated to a precarious condition. After the last registered member of the parish had passed away last year, and without any funds to repair and insure the structure, there was no choice but to close the church.

I had plans for the next day and so couldn't be there for the final Liturgy. But Fr. Elijah Bremer graciously showed me around the church (which I had been in just once before, in the 1990s before the fire) and some of the historical artifacts that were either on display or would be preserved even after the church was closed. Fr. Elijah also enlisted my help with his planned project to write a history of all the Orthodox churches of Somerset County.
The ikonostas (icon screen) was beautifully restored, with new icons, after the 1998 fire.
Some artifacts from the history of the parish, kept in a glass display case.
A sash worn by members of the Holy Ghost Brotherhood, Lodge 151 of the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society (ROCMAS). The Boswell lodge was founded in 1914.

By then I was running quite late, and having had no responses to my numerous emails from the Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic priests in Dixonville, Janesville and Ramey, I skipped visiting those towns and went directly to Hawk Run to visit my friend Fr. Jim Ragan, who had recently been assigned there (along with Clarence, State College, and Penn State). We first stopped inside St. John's Byzantine Catholic Church, a place I had prayed many times as a young Penn Stater but had not visited in many years.

The interior of St. John's Byzantine Catholic Church of Hawk Run features an ikonostas that evokes those of the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland churches.

In the parish office of St. John's I was able to study documents from the 1950s court battle over the ownership of the church. These documents provided a wealth of details about the early life of the parish, founded in 1904, and events that punctuated its life leading up to the litigation that tore the community apart. One early anecdote found therein would resonate with something that came up hundreds of miles away and several days later:
"Rev. John Olshevsky served as priest at St. John's Greek Catholic Church of Hawk Run from August 1907 to September 1907. He mentioned the Pope of Rome in his masses until he became Orthodox, at which time he was forcibly driven from the church by the people. Following the departure of Father Olshevsky, before any masses were said in the church, the church was first re-blessed by its priest."
On our way to dinner, Fr. Jim and I ran into his next-door neighbor, Fr. Peter Benyo from St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church (that formed after the Orthodox faction lost the court case in the 1950s), who ended up joining us for dinner. Fr. Peter entertained us with terrific stories of his travels and of his summers as a teenager visiting his uncle Vasil Petrik's farm in Belle Mead, New Jersey. He explained that the Petrik farm became a hub for immigrants from the village of Litmanova, Spiš County, to get away from the city (NYC) and spend time with their friends and relatives from "back home." (This would also be where my dear friend Katarina Petrik Mihaly would make her first home after she fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia – at her father's farm.) I was also profoundly moved to hear about an event he co-organized a few years ago with Fr. Jim's predecessor – the two churches that had borne such animosity and division came together to each host parts of a prayer service to the Most Holy Mother of God before her icon. The fruits of this event got many of the formerly estranged neighbors talking again and cooperating in other ways. Thanks be to God!

I was pleased to make a quick visit to St. John's Orthodox Church too, which I hadn't visited since my Penn State days already two and a half decades ago. Outside they now have a memorial wall with bricks donated by parishioners.



Bidding farewell to Hawk Run, I made the familiar trip toward State College and then Hershey – my lodging for the night would be at Mom's house. Sunday I would head north...

By 1 p.m. Sunday I arrived at my first appointment for the day: to see the wonderful Holy Cross Orthodox Church of Williamsport. The church's main structure is an old log cabin, topped with unmistakably Carpatho-Rusyn wooden church-style domes. While the parish had no roots in an immigrant Rusyn community, the presence of Rusyn Americans in its membership warrants its inclusion in my book. Fr. Daniel Kovalak greeted me and opened the church for my photo-taking. We talked about the history of the parish (now celebrating its 40th anniversary), his own Rusyn heritage from Čirč, Šaryš County (via Cleveland), and our mutual friend and his cousin Prof. Patricia Krafcik of The Evergreen State College and the Carpatho-Rusyn Research Center.


Sadly, one of the longtime pillars of the parish, Elsie Skvir Nierle, passed away last summer. I had meant to interview her about her childhood in Ganister, Blair County, a small, close-knit Rusyn immigrant community. Unfortunately that didn't come to pass. I had wanted to do the same with her older brother Joseph, whom I met while visiting their church in Ganister as a Penn State undergrad. Vičnaja vam pamjat', Elsie and Joseph.

The next appointment was to meet my friends John and Jeff Hoodak at the chapel of Ss. Peter & Paul Byzantine Catholic Church in Lopez, Sullivan County – yes, Lopez, the "Icebox of Pennsylvania."


Saints Peter & Paul had a lovely little church building from 1907 until 1999 when it was completely destroyed by fire. The parish has held together, renovating the old rectory into a beautiful and prayerful chapel. After a short break in the schedule of services to make some repairs to the building, regular monthly Liturgies were resuming that very day. Before the Liturgy, the Hoodak brothers had brought some rare old photographs from the first decade of the community's life for me to scan. They had previously provided me with a copy of another historic photograph and access to the parish metrical records.
Saints Peter & Paul Byantine Catholic Chapel in Lopez, newly renovated.

I was on a tight schedule that day, so I wasn't able to stay for the Liturgy, but I heard after the fact that 40 people attended. That was such welcome news!

Although I hadn't been able to schedule a meeting with anyone from the nearby St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Church (also thoroughly Rusyn in membership) regarding photos or records, I did improve and complete my photography of St. Vladimir's two parish cemeteries – the older, nearly hidden in a field, about 500 feet beyond the end of an isolated street:
and the newer, much easier to find and access.


I can happily report that even though I wasn't able to meet with anyone from St. Vladimir's that day, just last week someone from the parish contacted me and volunteered to share materials they will be gathering in conjunction with their upcoming 110th anniversary celebration. They also plugged my blog on their Facebook page!

From Lopez it was a short 30-minute drive to Berwick, Columbia County. I had been here many times before, but hadn't ever photographed the Rusyn/Ukrainian social clubs. First I stopped to take a few more photos in both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox parish cemeteries, including the grave of a Carpatho-Rusyn mildly-famous actor of the 1950s and '60s, Nick Adams, born Nicholas Adamshock in nearby Nanticoke, Luzerne County, to parents of Lemko and Bojko descent.


But then as drizzle was falling on and off, I pretty much just breezed through town, pausing only briefly to take shots of the clubs: first, the American Ukrainian Citizens Club:
American Ukrainian Citizens Club, 1222 Freas Avenue

And then the erstwhile headquarters of the "Berwick Russian Glee Club," today identified over the door as the "Berwick 'R' Club" once affiliated with the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs of America (FROC - now FOCA).
Berwick Russian Glee Club, 1208 3rd Avenue

Both clubs and both churches identified with the local "Russian" and "Ukrainian" communities are all within about 2 blocks of each other in West Berwick. While there were plenty of Galician Ukrainian immigrants in Berwick, the Carpatho-Rusyn origin of many or nearly all the people in both churches is undeniable. In fact, I would bet Carpatho-Rusyns were the most numerous Slavic ethnic group in Berwick.

For most of the time I was there, the earth couldn't make up its mind whether there would be rain, but when it finally decided in favor of steady rain, I gave up on Berwick for the day and proceeded toward my ultimate destination, Dunmore. There I settled into my hotel and found a nice Italian restaurant for dinner. I needed a relaxing evening to rest up for a busy Memorial Day and week ahead.

Memorial Day 2017 was cold and rainy in most of northeastern Pennsylvania, especially around St. Tikhon's Monastery during the 113th annual pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the day provided some excellent Rusyn serendipity.

As I was waiting in the line to buy a lunch of Rusyn-style foods, I overheard the lady right in front of me speaking Lemko Rusyn to a gentleman with her. In Lemko I asked her pardon and said, "are you a Lemko?" Sure enough, she was. Her maiden name is Fesz, her parents were from Bortne, Gorlice County, and her home town is Legnica, Lower Silesia, Poland. (Legnica became a Lemko center "in exile" in the years after the Vistula Operation.)

We continued our conversation, mostly in Lemko. I found out that her cousin is my friend and Lemko activist from Poland, Vanio Fesz! Her husband is a Ukrainian American, but evidently he understands Lemko because she mostly spoke to him po lemkivskŷ. They live in New Jersey. I hope she will email me the selfie she took of us!

I saw two local priests I wanted to visit that week. Fr. John Sorochka of St. John's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield had always been welcoming and helpful in my research efforts, and this time was no different. I would be visiting later in the week to examine a metrical book from 1891 that I had not seen when I had done research there many years back. The other, Fr. John Kowalczyk of St. Michael's Orthodox Church in Jermyn, a Lemko born in Poland and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., remembered me from my research visit to his parish years back and had read the emails I had sent him in the lead-up to this trip. I wanted to scan some historical photos from his church during the week, but he asked that I return perhaps later in the summer when his schedule was not so full. Certainly I intend to do so.

After leaving the monastery for the day, I traveled about 20 miles to the village of Clifford, north of Carbondale, to a most unlikely cemetery for me to visit: "Willow View Cemetery." Here is buried Stefan Keklak (1921-2002) with his wife Maria. Stefan was born in Verchomlja Velyka/Wierchomla Wielka, Nowy Sącz County, and in 1974 published a newsletter called Karpatska Zorja (Carpathian Star) with a postmark of Jermyn. I noticed a three-bar cross here and there in the cemetery, but from what I saw, Mr. Keklak might have been the only Rusyn immigrant buried there. I said a quick prayer for his repose and for a few minutes the sun shone, the only time I saw the sun all day long.


The first two issues of Keklak's Karpatska Zorja (1974).

Later in the day I visited my friend John Uram, a talented and prolific graphic artist and publisher, and editor of the Russian Brotherhood Organization's newsletter The Truth (formerly the Rusyn American Pravda newspaper). We talked about his current and upcoming projects, which include the soon-to-be-published 125th anniversary book of his parish, St. John's in Mayfield. I was thrilled to see that he has most of the same photos that were used in the parish's centennial book (which I wrote about in my first post about this trip). It seems I may be able to get digital copies of them for use in my book.

We also looked through a packet of documents from the Archives of the Orthodox Church in America about Fr. John Olshevsky, the first Orthodox pastor of St. John's. As alluded to above when he was serving in Hawk Run and switched to Orthodoxy (and was promptly removed from his pastorate there), some of these documents revealed that he had become the pastor shortly thereafter in the nearby town of Osceola Mills... only to depart when there was an "uprising against him." Beyond his colorful pastoral career in the U.S. among Greek Catholic and Orthodox Carpatho-Rusyns, I have an admiration for him because of his remarkably artistic (and eminently legible) handwriting, and the great detail he almost always provided in the metrical records of parishes he led.

Finally, John gave me an amazing rare photograph of the what may be the entire congregation of St. John's, taken in 1916. The photo is incredibly wide. Here is a glimpse of the entire thing with some detail of the center segment. The image is amazingly clear as well. This is definitely going into my book, somehow...



On Tuesday I visited the Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Peckville, near Olyphant, to investigate some of their holdings. In their collection of family histories there were a few Carpatho-Rusyn ones. The one that had the most substantive material was a newsletter called "The Family Fedorchak" involving a family in Jermyn, Pennsylvania, who came from the Lemko villages Wierchomla Wielka (Verchomlja Velyka) & Wierchomla Mała (Verchimka) of Nowy Sącz County.


As I have done for the past few years in the days just after the annual pilgrimage at St. Tikhon's, I spent some time in the library of St. Tikhon's Seminary, where this time I finished going through the limited extant original copies of the Russophile American Rusyn newspaper Svit (The Light) published in Wilkes-Barre by the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society, one of the major Rusyn American fraternal organizations.

A 1936 front page of Svit.

My final appointment for the day was the aforementioned visit to St. John's in Mayfield, which via the metrical book from 1891 provided a wealth of additional information on the congregation not just of that church, but of Carpatho-Rusyns living in Olyphant, Jessup, Simpson, and Forest City. Fr. John Sorochka is another clergyman who has been eminently helpful and supportive in my many interactions with him throughout the years of this project.

Wednesday morning I spent improving my photographic records of the Rusyn Greek Catholic cemeteries in Taylor and Old Forge. I had hoped to visit St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church in Old Forge, which in the past had some wonderful old photos; the pastor, Father Peter Henry, had graciously put a request in the parish bulletin about such photos, but he informed me that nobody had responded and he didn't seem to have any in the church office. I certainly appreciate his effort, though!
St. Nicholas Byzantine/Greek Catholic Cemetery of Old Forge.
St. Mary Byzantine/Greek Catholic Cemetery of Taylor.

I also visited the nearly-hidden and disused Lincoln Heights Cemetery in West Scranton that was used for a short while (ca. 1908-1909) as the burial place for St. Vladimir's Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but there were no extant graves from that era and only one related grave at all, of a Galician Ukrainian immigrant.

A southbound jump down I-81 to US-29 with a detour (Pennsylvania summer road construction!) through Warrior Run took me to the Hanover Section of Nanticoke and Holy Transfiguration Ukrainian Catholic Church (which also has charge of Ss. Peter & Paul Church of Plymouth).

Father Walter Pasicznyk, whom I knew years ago when we were both students at Penn State, was assigned as pastor last summer. He was ordained to the priesthood just a few years ago. He made a great effort on my behalf, gathering as many photos as he could from the people in his two parishes. The selection from Holy Transfiguration was much more interesting; it's too bad that so little seems to have survived from the Plymouth parish's early years. But Father Walter deserves a gold star for helpfulness and effort!

That afternoon I traveled back to Berwick for my appointment at Holy Annunciation Orthodox Church. While I'd done research there very early on in my project, I'd been wanting to do a better job extracting info from their metrical records. The pastor, Father Michael Demko, was more than accommodating in that respect. It was disappointing that he didn't have any of the old photographs used in the centennial and older anniversary books (as I raved about in my last post), but he advised that his parish secretary worked on the centennial book and would probably know more.

I then headed for Kingston where I wanted to photograph the stained glass windows of St. Mary's Holy Protection (Pokrov) Byzantine Catholic Church, some of which were donated by natives of certain Rusyn villages or homeland counties, and so inscribed. I arrived only a few minutes before the start of their evening Liturgy. Nevertheless, in those few minutes I was greeted by the parish priest, Father Mykhaylo Prodanets, a Rusyn and native of Iršava, Subcarpathian Rus'. I also met Paul Gresh, parish historian and webmaster, who offered his assistance with anything I might need history-wise.

I couldn't leave the area without visiting the grave of one of my few Rusyn immigrant blood relatives who lived in the area in the 1910s. I returned to Nanticoke, to the cemetery of St. John the Baptist Uhro-Rusyn Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, where my great-aunt Paraska (my baba's sister) and her husband Andrij are buried (see pic at right). Both died within days of each other during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and left no descendants I'm aware of. I placed a blessed willow in the ground in front of their grave as a symbol of the Resurrection and said some prayers for the repose of their souls. I then proceeded to complete my photo documentation of the rest of the cemetery. As afternoon had turned to evening, I bade a temporary farewell to NEPA and returned to Hershey for the night.

It's a shame that not everything in my plans came to pass, partly due to a lack of time to do every single thing, partly due to a lack of response from key people. In advance of the trip I tried to find people in Simpson with knowledge of old photos' whereabouts, but due to both factors, I made no progress on that front.

Thursday, with my conference presentation on Carpatho-Rusyn history in New Jersey soon approaching, I would go to New Jersey to do some last-minute research to beef up my presentation. But first I went to Minersville, Schuylkill County, hoping to catch Fr. Mark Fesniak at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church about the usual topics – old photos and improving my collection of data from the metrical books (after first working with them probably 20 years ago). Unfortunately, Fr. Mark was ill and was not able to see me. Having a bit of time to spend in town, I visited the grave of my dear friend Msgr. John Sekellick, who passed away in January. I had not been to the cemetery (Ss. Peter & Paul Byzantine Catholic) since his funeral in January, and the headstone was now in place. As this was a week I would always have spent staying with him at his parish in Jessup, the visit to his grave was even more profound.

I would make one last stop in Minersville at the old St. George Greek Catholic Cemetery, which sits on a hillside that is essentially a ravine, inaccessible except to determined hiker types (which I pretended to be at least for this purpose). Once again, my goal was to improve the photos I had taken there quite a few years ago. I figured I'd probably never have the need or desire to return, so I made sure the shots of all the graves I found were "keepers." Unfortunately, a few days later I discovered that I brought something else with me from there – poison ivy! (As of this writing it's still hanging on. It's my own fault for going in there in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt!)
This was once St. George Greek Catholic Cemetery, the original resting place of Rusyn immigrants in Minersville, not far from their first church on "Kear's Hill."
I made a quick stop in nearby Frackville to touch base with the new pastor of St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church (and St. John the Baptist U.C.C. of Maizeville), Father Petro Zvarych, about a set of old photos I remember seeing in the rectory years ago, before I had a portable scanner. Father Petro was very nice and wanted to help, but the old rectory was torn down and he was living in a new rectory. He wasn't aware of any photos like that, but would ask his deacon (who had actually copied a few of them for me all those years ago). I still need to circle back and see if he managed to track them down.

The New Jersey leg of the trip began in Trenton, where I reviewed old metrical records of St. Mary's Greek Catholic Church, founded in 1891, and photographed their oldest cemetery (one of three parish cemeteries!). I thank Father Gregory Noga for always being willing to help me out, whether in past parishes in Pennsylvania or in Trenton.
St. Mary's Greek Catholic Cemetery No. 1, Trenton, NJ
Among those buried here is Bishop Stephen, Alexander, Dzubay, a pioneer Rusyn Greek Catholic priest in the U.S. who also served as Orthodox bishop of Pittsburgh before returning to Catholicism.
Other New Jersey visits included St. Michael's Byzantine Catholic Cathedral and St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Passaic, taking photos, analyzing metrical records, and collecting anniversary books – all extremely helpful (thanks to my "cousin" Father Jack Custer, and Father Andriy Dudkevych). Unfortunately, my repeated attempts to schedule a research visit at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church in Elizabeth and Ss. Peter & Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Manville were met with stone cold silence.

The genealogy & heritage conference at St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church in Hillsborough (ex of Manville), at which I was the final speaker, was a huge success, due in no small part to the organizers and my longtime friends Kathryn and Thomas Peters, and their herculean effort to put together a high-quality program of incredible value for the money. The hall was entirely filled and they'd had to cut off registrations after 80 people because there was just no more room for them. The Hillsborough experience was made complete by attending the Liturgy of Pentecost Sunday at St. Mary's, which was sung, beautifully and effortlessly, at least 80% in Church Slavonic. With many thanks to my friend, Father James Badeaux, pastor of St. Mary's, I reluctantly packed up and pointed my car's nav system back to Pennsylvania.

My final scheduled activity of the trip was to examine the metrical records of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church of Reading, Berks County, a historically mostly-Rusyn parish. (The founders' names: Michael Koziar, Kiprian Koziar, Nicholas Kacsur, Nicholas Kotula, Michael Muha, Stephen Falat, Andrew Falat, John Teliha, Aftan Mirna, Michael Seman, John Terenchin) To do this I went to the home of the parish historian, where I was welcomed by her and her family, the Salanecks, longtime members of St. Nicholas. Sasha, the historian, had gathered a lot of publications and photos I had never seen. It was a pleasure hearing from her and the rest of her family about different influential individuals in the parish history and assimilating their information with what I already knew about the parish. Today it is still a viable parish because of the presence and participation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and maintains an attractive presence in a historically Slavic neighborhood in Reading that has more recently not been one of the safer areas (and out of which the partially-Rusyn Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish recently moved).

All in all, I scanned a fair amount of photos, finished almost all of my remaining photography, and gathered data from more than 6 churches' immigrant-era metrical records, and hopefully helped a few dozen people gain a better understanding of their Carpatho-Rusyn identity and personal ancestry through my participation in the Hillsborough genealogy conference. Yet so many attempts to schedule appointments with key people were never responded to and it seems like so much still remains to be done, even after yet another week of intensive fieldwork. No matter how valuable these research trips are, I believe it's time for me to channel my time and energy into writing based on what I have, which by any measure is considerable, and which most people other than myself would deem to be more than enough.

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

1 comment:

  1. I do hope you are able to get back to Simpson. My great-grandfather, Stephen Repella, was one of the founders of St. Basil's Russian Orthodox Church there (ROCOR).

    ReplyDelete

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