St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, Pray to God for us!

H/T: Oh Taste and See

I still remember the first time I read about St. Alexis back about 1993. I had recently started attending a Byzantine Catholic parish and discovered a series of pages on the Catholic Information Network that covered some of the early history of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the USA. Even though I had no thought then of entering Orthodoxy, I immediately had a feeling of indignation upon reading of how he (and other Eastern Catholics) were treated by the Latin Rite Bishops and clergy during that era.

As I discussed his story with other Byzantine Catholics after St. Alexis’ glorification in 1994, I discovered that some Byzantine Catholics were sympathetic to him and a few even obtained icons of him. Though these are a definite minority within Byzantine Catholicism, St. Alexis’ icon hangs in many Byzantine Catholic home icon corners and I’ve been told his icon even graces a few Byzantine Catholic parishes (though usually where it is not easily seen). I’ve even heard him commemorated once at a Byzantine Catholic service of Great Vespers.

Why this sympathy for St. Alexis from some members of the church that St. Alexis left when he entered Orthodoxy? David Wooten, a seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, in chronicling the life and times of St. Alexis Toth, gives us an insight into his story and why it has had such an impact.

It is important to note that the relationship between Byzantine Catholics and Latin Rite Catholics has vastly improved since then, though the subject of a married clergy among Byzantine Catholics in the USA is still a sore subject and is still subject to papal regulation.

David Wooten’s essay follows, posted with permission from his blog:

The following is a paper I wrote for Church History; appropriate for the saint commemorated today. Also an insight (though this is not the topic of the paper) that the “Low Slavic” nature of the OCA (as opposed to the “Higher Russian” flavor in the ROCOR can be attributed in large part to the heavy Carpatho-Russian origins of much of the OCA, origins which were immediately accesible to today’s Hungarian saint. As one cradle OCA-er in my year has said when we talked about this: “Yeah. We’re the Russian hillbillies.”


St. Alexis Toth

Alexis Geogievich Toth was an Eastern Catholic priest sent to minister to the faithful of Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 19th Century. His conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, however, has been the reason history has remembered him. Toth’s dramatic departure from Roman Catholicism was followed by the movement of many Eastern Catholic parishes (including his own in Minneapolis and later in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), which were all enthusiastic to convert for the same reasons that prompted him to leave the fold of Rome. The failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchs of America to recognize the legitimacy of three things—the differences in Eastern Catholic praxis which had been historically accepted by Rome, the connection between rite and nationality within Eastern Catholic Countries, and the subsequent petitions to Rome for a Uniate Apostolic Vicariate—was what precipitated Toth’s departure from the Roman Catholic Church.

Keith S. Russin, in his thesis, The Right Reverend Alexis G. Toth and the Religious Hybrid, lists two major historical unions of Orthodox from Russia Rubra with the Catholic Church. The first—the Union of Brest-Litovsk—took place “throughout the Eastern areas of Hungary, Lithuania proper, the province of Novgorod-Litovsk, Volynia, and the towns of Brest, Zaslavl, Polotsk and Vitebsk” in 1596.[1] The second— the Union of Uz’horod— took place amongst the Carpatho-Russians in 1646.[2] It is generally acknowledged that, because of pressure from Jesuit missionaries on one side, Protestant missionaries on the other, and a distant hierarchy and “uneducated clergy” amongst the Orthodox themselves, the Orthodox in 16th Century Russia Rubra had to fend for themselves by creating lay brotherhoods to continue in their faith.[3] This difficult position, however, proved ultimately untenable; Basil Boysak, in The Fate of the Holy Union in Carpatho-Ukraine, states that “by 1624 the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, “once famous for learned men and the most flourishing center of wisdom, [was] in a pitiful condition,” not able to “present…even a vestige of her former dignity.”[4] In both cases, then, union with Rome was thought to be the most immediate solution to their woes. Upon issuing statements confessing their allegiance to Rome and adherence to her teachings, the inhabitants of Russia Rubra also insisted on and were granted permission to retain the rite of the Eastern Church, freedom from ecclesiastical persecution from the Patriarch, and the ability to retain and elect their own bishops.[5] Unfortunately, from the beginning, the Carpatho-Russian privileges of “their own Eparchy and their own Bishop elected by their clergy,” together with the freedom to “[follow] freely their traditions” were denied them by the Latin clergy that came to oversee them.[6] That this friction regarding slighted differences of praxis was real and repeatedly ignored by Latin-Rite clergy is undeniable; not only did it continue into Toth’s day, but it even led to another movement towards Orthodoxy among Carpatho-Russian Uniates in the early 1930s—one which led to the eventual creation of ACROD.[7] Without a doubt, however, the most significant of the movements of Uniate Catholics into Orthodoxy due to Latin indifference was that of Toth and his parishes in the 19th Century, and it was due in no small part to the Latin bishops’ repeated prohibitions of these historically guaranteed Eastern rites and practices.

In denying the faithful these practices, the bishops displayed an ignorance of a critical element of their spiritual life: the connection between rite and ethnicity. The most infamous example of this is an encounter Toth had on December 19, 1889 with John Ireland, the Irish Catholic archbishop of Minneapolis. Abp. John was already embroiled in an internal conflict of the Roman Catholic Church; hierarchs were debating whether the faithful should assimilate into, or remain culturally distinct and separate from, American culture at large. Ireland was of the opinion that immigrants—and here he was primarily concerned with those from Western Europe—needed to be as assimilated into American life as possible. [8] The marked characteristics of immigrants from Eastern Europe as opposed to Americans of Western European origin (i.e., unfamiliar language, high rates of illiteracy and poverty[9]), together with ritual differences, led to a real threat to the assimilationist policy espoused by Abp. John. When Toth met with the Archbishop, the already volatile situation was sure to—and, indeed, did—come to a head, for the ignorance of the Archbishop regarding the Carpatho-Russians’ distrust of Latin-Rite Catholicism as belonging to a foreign people and clinging to their own rite as a unifying cultural factor distinct from the dominant culture of the United States would become all too apparent.

Toth’s own account of the meeting paints a volatile picture. When kissing the bishop’s hand, Toth failed “to kneel before him,” and thus began the litany of offenses that Toth would commit, unknowingly, before Abp. John. Upon learning that Toth was an Eastern Catholic priest, Abp. John refused to acknowledge not only his priesthood, but also his very membership in the Catholic Church. The reason for this was bound up in the first question Ireland asked Toth: “Do you have a wife?” When Toth answered that he had had a wife and was a widower, Ireland, in a rage, declared that he had specifically asked for Rome to cease sending him priests that were, or ever had been, married. [10] The obstinacy of Abp. John led to the denial of permission for Toth to serve in Latin Catholic parishes, as well as to the decision on the Archbishop’s part that all the faithful assigned to Toth would be taken from him and put under the care of the Latin-Rite, Polish priest.[11] This second insult was, no doubt, worse than the idea of being effectively excommunicated from Catholics of other rites, for the idea of “our faith and religion” was much more important to Toth’s flock than the Archbishop knew. Konstantin Simon, S.J., in his article, “Alexis Toth and the Beginnings of the Orthodox Movement among the Ruthenians in America,” notes that, far from being concerned with ideas of union, dogma, or ecclesiology, “the majority [of the faithful] was anxious to avail themselves of a priest ‘of any kind.’ The only requirement was that he celebrate in ‘their way.’”[12] Thus, having been denied permission by the Latin-Rite hierarch for their own worship, the impetus was set before the Carpatho-Russians to begin building their own, separate church in defiance of his orders and out of love for their own people.[13]

It quickly became obvious to Toth, however, as one ever-mindful of the identification that working-class Slavs had with their religious expression, that a faith so similar in form to their own and so sympathetic to their culture would be a more logical home for them; he immediately began to move in the direction of the Russian Orthodox. When Toth heard that there was reported to be a Russian bishop in San Francisco, he sent John Mlinar, a parish collector and member of the parish society, to investigate the veracity of the claims. That the Orthodox form of worship was more accessible to the Carpatho-Russians was obvious, for it was only upon Mlinar’s approaching the chalice that he “gave himself away” as an Eastern Catholic by a minor difference in how he crossed himself.[14] He was told, kindly, to go to the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco for the sacraments, though the archbishop’s secretary, merely upon learning that Mlinar was an Eastern Catholic, “told him that he would have to go ‘back to his own Russian bishop on Powell Street.’” In true form, Mlinar wrote back to Toth of his confusion, asking him bewilderedly, “What kind of faith is this? I am told that I am a Uniate; [what, exactly, is] a Uniate? I did not ever hear that before.” [15] Once this initial confusion was resolved, however, it became clear in the minds of all involved that the faith which could truly receive Toth and his flock as their own would not be one run by indifferent hierarchs of other ritualistic persuasion, but that of their own “Parental Church.”

It was only a matter of time, however, until Rome’s complete disregard of the Uniate faithful’s requests for an Apostolic Vicariate which would represent their people in the United States became intolerable to other Uniate priests as it had to Toth. Toth’s parish in Minneapolis, after a series of rejected appeals to Archbishop John to allow them to have their own, recognized parish and multiple requests to the Office of Propaganda in Rome to establish a governing Vicar Bishop for the Ruthenian Catholics[16] (rejected on the grounds of the ninth canon of the Fourth Council of the Lateran, which, according to the American archbishops, prohibited a single city or diocese from having more than one bishop[17]), entered the Orthodox faith at the hands of Bishop VLADIMIR in 1891. Over the course of the next decade, parish after parish would follow the same route, for Uniate priests were not only still “denied their hope for a Uniate bishop for America,” but they were also “once more told that services had to be in Latin, and they were now told that they had to renounce their wives and children.”[18] The Uniate faithful’s helplessness to achieve a canonical basis for practicing their faith was nearing an intolerable level.

A meeting of Uniate clergy was called in response to this (which Toth attended for moral support) at Hazelton, Pennsylvania in December of 1891. While the clergy in attendance were impressed with Toth’s movement to the Orthodox Church, and though the demands of the Uniate clergy for an Apostolic Vicariate were once again ignored, they decided not to follow him out of Eastern Catholicism.[19] In spite of this setback, Toth pressed on in his missionary endeavors and, over the course of the next ten years, “managed to bring into Orthodoxy at least seventeen other parishes in Pennsylvania alone, as well as in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.”[20] This progress, however, was not without its setbacks, as all of the priests in attendance who would eventually be brought into Orthodoxy under Toth’s influence—not to mention a sizeable faction of the parish he himself would later serve as pastor in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—returned to Catholicism, with only Toth himself remaining from among the attendees at Hazelton as an Orthodox priest.[21] Thus, though the priests and faithful seemed initially ready to do as Toth had done, they ultimately (and understandably) felt the stronger pull of “their family obligations”[22] and decided to “continue their fight for recognition from within the Catholic communion.”[23] However determined the archbishops might have been to deny them the rights Toth knew and insisted on so well, the formidable responsibility of the Uniate priests to provide financially for their own ultimately proved superior to their ancestral discontent, even without their own Vicariate.

The departure of Fr. Alexis Toth from Catholicism and his embracing of Orthodoxy are events that changed the course of history for a significant portion of both churches. These were events whose realizations were fraught with sharply contrasting ideologies, nationalistic fervor, and bureaucratic stiff-arming. That Toth was able to endure and continue his missionary endeavor when so many others who had begun a similar journey with him turned back to Catholicism is a testimony to his faithfulness. Although the newly-received Orthodox faithful had to endure financial hardship in the years that would follow their conversions,[24] they knew they had come home to a place wherein they could practice the historic faith of their fathers. This faith had been denied by Rome yet still united them together as a people, and was now implemented by a bishop who would care for and could relate to them as a fellow Slav. These gains, then, served to lift three great burdens which had weighed on the backs of the Carpatho-Russian faithful and had ultimately served to sever their ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

[1] (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1971), 5.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 6-7.

[4] (Toronto-New York, 1963), 227.

[5] Russin, 8, 14, quoting Eugene Vansuch, “The Carpato-Russian Uniates, Past and Present.” (unpublished B.D. Thesis, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1967), 4; and Michael Lacko, The Union of Uzhorod. (Rome, Slovak Institute, 1966), 39.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese (in the USA). See Archimandrite Serafim (Surrency), The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America. (New York: Saints Boris and Gleb Press, 1973), 96.

[8] Russin, 32.

[9] Russin, 21, quoting “Foreign Population.” Wilkjes-Barre Record, May 9, 1907, 11.

[10] B. Wojcik, St. Alexis: The Shepherd of Minneapolis. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1997), 36-7.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Orientalia christiana periodica. V.54:1-2 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1988), 415.

[13] Ibid., 392.

[14] Ibid., 400.

[15] Wojcik, 52.

[16] Orientalia, 393.

[17] Ibid., 427, note (107).

[18] Wojcik, 61.

[19] Orientalia, 419.

[20] Ibid., 412.

[21] Ibid., 413.

[22] Wojcik, 62.

[23] Orientalia, 419.

[24] Ibid., 403.

Further reading:

Historical Mirror by Fr. John Slivka. Historical documents by a Byzantine Catholic priest chronicling the “celibacy wars.”

Can East and West Coexist With Married Priests? — the historical situation and the current status of this question and its ecumenical implications for Orthodoxy and Catholicism.


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