Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Neighborhood strife and peace: Another priest's obituary and a century-long story

Archpriest John J. Udics, 67, fell asleep in the Lord as a result of complications from surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital here on Wednesday afternoon, February 3, 2016.
Podkarpatskiji Rusyny! Ostavte hlubokyj son!
[Subcarpathian Ruthenians! Awake from your deep sleep!]

— Patriotic song by a Catholic priest
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.

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.


  1. Issues of bullying of EASTERN CATHOLICS by irish australians
    catholics overvhere. may this priest rest in peace

    1. Oh, I believe it. Heck, the Ukrainian Catholics returned to the church in 1596 because their Polish lords were harassing them and they thought this would stop it, and it didn't. ("We don't care if you're Catholic now; you're still not Polish!") Some Catholics are jerks, because some people in general are. That STILL doesn't mean you should exalt your culture over the church. (Ukrainianness: in many ways Polish, from clean-shaven Catholic priests to Christmas customs, but proudly not Polish; in many ways Russian, from onion domes and icons to the Cyrillic alphabet, but proudly not Russian. The national character is somewhat more joyful than the Russian; the hopak dance is Ukrainian.)

      Also: the actor Anthony LaPaglia lives in the USA and is very Americanized (he speaks in his own invented American accent, I think from watching New York tough guys on TV), and says he wasn't entirely accepted growing up in Australia for having an Italian name. I know the country got a number of Italian immigrants after World War II.

      Fr. John was one of those good souls whom down-home, neighborhood ecumenism with born Orthodox is all about. I'm honored to have known him and sung for and sometimes with him. (Sometimes he'd man the kliros while his curate, a now-departed ex-Episcopal priest, celebrated the service.) Eternal memory/v'ičnaja pamjat'.

  2. Such people didn't go into schism because they could go to a library or on the Internet (far in the future) to research what certain saints, Popes, councils, and princes did and said, like some Protestant choosing a religion with which to lord it over others. The reason was usually far more personal than theological, sometimes people from one Ruthenian village vs. another, with minor differences in dialect, cooking, etc.

    For better or worse, NOBODY from Holy Ghost EXCEPT Fr. Eddie goes to Vespers at Assumption. Bad and good. Bad because Vespers is a good thing; no problem with born Orthodox doing it or our joining them for it. And because it's a missed ecumenical opportunity to nicely witness, passively, by supporting them in a good thing and by giving them a chance to get to know us again and we them. Good because this South Philly scene is definitely NOT an "Orthodox in communion with Rome" fantasy, the inverse of our ecumenism in which they hope the Catholics will stop believing in our teachings and just break both sides' teachings and rules by intercommuning, quietly moving the Catholic community into schism. Holy Ghost's people don't want that and in fact don't identify with the Orthodox at all.

    By the way, World War I and 1920s restrictions on immigration ended Ruthenians moving to America, so both sides here are long Americanized.

    My idea of grassroots ecumenism for our Slavic-American Orthodox brothers, still so close: Guys, the next round at the Sportsmen's Club's on me. And the Internet converts can go jump in the lake. "Who?" Exactly. Na zdorov'e!

  3. I think that whenever a part of the Church becomes not too much more than a nationalist expression, it ceases to understand, and act, on the universalism that is fundamental to true Christianity. Any Church that become tied to a single culture or expression is in some manner defective.

    1. Exactly. Why I'm Catholic. And when it's tied to a single culture, it doesn't last beyond a couple of generations in a new setting. The Byzantine Catholics have the same attrition problem in America, which is really too bad. The Slavic-American Orthodox, while often nice people, are spite churches, plain and simple, existing because they were mad at us. Self-limiting. It loses its appeal for kids who are now American or for anyone who's really spiritual.

    2. Strange that you would use the word spite-churches. I am not too certain I would apply that to the born-Orthodox, who as you say are often quite kind, and normal. But on the other thread, John (obviously a convert with the mentality to match), seems full of spite if not downright hatred; not to mention historical stupidity.

    3. Good point, but in America these were spite churches to begin with, Assumption arguably being a typical example, and you still hear that from their churchmen. Canonizing Fr. Alexis Toth, for example. I don't think there was really any devotion to him from the steelworkers and their wives in the pews like to St. Nicholas, for example. (I think I remember Fr. Athanasy telling me that.) Every now and then I'd meet a second- or third-generation person who was still mad at us.

  4. You are correct, I think the perfect example of a spite canonisation was Peter the Aleut, who most likely never existed. The other issue that is problematic, and shows Byzantine ahistoricism, is their inability to accept their full complicity in the forced submission of the Ukrainian Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox to the Russian Orthodox Church during the time of Stalin.

    1. Peter the Aleut, who most likely never existed.

      I agree.


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