Podkarpatskiji Rusyny! Ostavte hlubokyj son!South Philadelphia, 1912. The Ruthenian parishioners of Holy Ghost Greek Catholic Church, then on Passyunk Avenue, the city's first Eastern church, were restless. Unfair treatment by Irish-American bishops, resulting in an unenforced ban on their tradition of married priests (ordaining the married), had caused a schism in their community as Fr. Alexis Toth in Minneapolis departed for their people's cousins, the Russian Orthodox, very small in America but funded by the tsar to convert the "Uniates" to their proper church, that of the empire, of course. Understandable: the proud Ruthenian people had done nothing wrong, according to the church's teachings. They only wanted things to remain as they had been back home in eastern Slovakia for centuries. These newcomers to America worked at hard jobs such as Philadelphia's refineries (gazonja in their language) near the church. They were tough, not suffering slights lightly.
[Subcarpathian Ruthenians! Awake from your deep sleep!]
— Patriotic song by a Catholic priest
A Ukrainian faction with a priest, St. Michael's Brotherhood, split from the parish six years earlier to form an uncanonical parish, and then split among themselves in 1909, one claque keeping the name and going under the Russians, the other remaining in the church to become Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. Ruthenians, a people but never a nation, and their nearly identical cousins the nationalistic Ukrainians really didn't get along then, so much so the church gave them separate American dioceses in 1924; before that their history in America was the same.
Thus agitated, the parish lay elder, trustees, and congregation read the accounts in the Ruthenian-language press of the Russians winning converts in America. (This way of organizing a parish, like a Congregational or Baptist church, was a hedge against hostile Roman Rite bishops because of Fr. Alexis' experience with the bishop in Minneapolis. But in 1907, Slavic Greek Catholics in America had their own bishop.) "Not only are we not second-class in the church; our rite IS the church! So the Latins are frauds!" Narodnyj holos zovet vas... [Your people's voice is calling you...] For all I know, the priest could have been won over too; it happened. In any event, enough people were sold on the idea and Holy Ghost chose to cross over to the Russian Orthodox Church, which assigned priests there.
This story repeats in Slavic neighborhoods all over the Northeastern United States, in the old Rust Belt of coal mines and steel mills; the people in The Deer Hunter. It's what most American Russian Orthodox are, now in a church called the Orthodox Church in America. But something further happened here. I don't know what. Remorse? A fight with one of the Russian priests? A family feud? Another ethnic battle? Anyway, the people of Holy Ghost changed their minds and one year later returned to the Catholic Church.
Well, at least some of them. For some reason, maybe a little theological ("maybe the Pope is a con artist"), maybe ethnic ("no true Ruthenian will bow to an Irish bishop again"), maybe personal, a group of parishioners decided to remain under the Russians' omophor and decamped, building their own church at 28th and Snyder, just a few block west of what would become Holy Ghost's home at 24th and Wolf. The new church was named Assumption in English, the Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God in their languages (including the liturgical one, Slavonic).
And so the two communities remained, understandably with little to do with each other, through the Depression, the war, and the damage to the neighborhood as the projects went up and white flight, upward mobility, and simply aging and dying thinned both ranks. As recently as the 1980s, though, the two remained lively. Here, the Ruthenian language and even Slavonic eventually passed into history. Interestingly, unusual for Russian Orthodox parishes, the Ruthenians' unique prostopinije (plainchant) never completely went away at Assumption; it coexisted with Russian music.
By the way, Holy Ghost not only had a church hall but a full-fledged bar and nightclub in it, the Holy Ghost Club, which you didn't have to be a parishioner to join (there was a fee), with live entertainment (music, comedy, and more, like a mini-"Ed Sullivan Show"), in the '40s and '50s until television became big. Cozy Morley did his comedy act there.
Udics is a Hungarian name, as several Ruthenian families have thanks to intermarriage (Slovakia was part of Austria-Hungary before World War I). Fr. John was from Cleveland; a born Orthodox of this ex-Catholic background. His parish, St. Theodosius Cathedral (the church in The Deer Hunter), had Solemn First Communion for 7-year-olds, as the Byzantine Rite traditionally confirms (chrismates) and communes babies; Solemn First Communion really celebrates reaching the age of reason when children start going to Confession. Something the Greek Catholics do now, too, instead of First Communion, as the Holy See has always encouraged them to keep their old ways; the occasion being renamed First Confession on both sides. Anyway, as part of an interesting life, including serving as a priest in Japan for many years, Fr. John became the longtime pastor of Assumption as the neighborhood and parishes declined, which wasn't his fault.
In the church, the Second Vatican Council encouraged our reaching out to our "separated brethren." Nothing wrong with that. And as the generations became more removed from the schisms, in this corner of Philadelphia that became more and more possible. Maybe time as well as grace can heal all wounds.
Ble-e-ess the-e Lo-o-ord, o-o-o-o-o-o my soul...South Philadelphia, 2008. Puffs of sweet incense smoke rise as Fr. John walks around inside Assumption, shaking the short-chained Byzantine thurible toward the icon-covered walls, jingling its bells, the way many services in the rite begin. It's Saturday night; Vespers. Traditionally, devout Byzantine Rite Christians would go to this and make their Confessions to prepare for Communion at Liturgy (Mass) the next morning. (People only went to Communion a few times a year, if that.) A handful of people come tonight, including a fine older Slavic couple from upstate coal country (they have nothing but good to say about their town's Roman Rite parish priest 50 years ago) and a convert or two. Up in the choir loft, at the massive stand the choirmaster uses on Sunday, the kliros, I sing verses from Psalm 103/104 to start the service, and singing it with me is... Fr. Ed Higgins, the pastor of Holy Ghost. (His mother's family is Ukrainian. Long story.) His parish hasn't had this in a long time so he's free this evening; why not double up at the church that has it? Likewise, the priests from Holy Ghost go to Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood meetings though not as official members. Everything is by the book, respecting both sides' teachings and rules. No intercommunion, no concelebration. The other side's priests don't vest when they are guests. After the service, we all go to the Penrose Diner for dinner, joined by the Italian-American priest from St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in South Philly. Still estranged? Sure. But we are family in a way Protestants aren't, with our stories of wonder-working saints and relics, for example. We talk the same language.
A bit of ecumenical good news is stories like this aren't all that unusual now.
Of course I'm not proud of my years as a nominal Orthodox but of all the things I did then, I would do this again.