Rusin Immigration During the 1840s
Visions of “streets paved with gold” led many of our ancestors to risk change in search of new opportunity. Often recruited by large mining companies, many Rusin immigrants journeyed days by steamship to settle in the anthracite regions of northeastern Pennsylvania. Others continued westward to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, further on to Illinois and beyond.
Locally the Phoenix Iron Company, manufacturer of structural iron and steel products, lured many of our forefathers to this area. Available housing in company owned homes afforded many the opportunity to gain a financial stake here.
Construction of these homes began in the early 1840’s. Twin homes were erected in the area of Jackson and Dean Streets, east of Main Street, on company owned land. These homes, referred to as “Red Row” and “Frame Row,” primarily housed eastern European immigrants. “Puddlers’ Row,” named for the “puddling” process of the company mill, was located behind the current Mansion House Hotel on Bridge Street, at the intersection of French Creek and the Schuylkill River. This section of 41 structures also housed Hungarian and Slovak immigrants, both Greek and Roman Catholic.
The close proximity of these neighborhoods, combined with a common language, background and employer, formed a cohesive self reliance that tended to segregate the group from the local population, who often colloquially referred to these neighborhoods as “Hunky Row”. The young immigrants led very simple, harsh lives. The homes were small, containing only two to four rooms, with no central heating or plumbing systems. Coal stoves and outdoor water hydrants were used to meet basic needs for large families. Rents averaged $15.00 monthly, while wages for laborers toiling 10 to 12 hours a day averaged $5.00 per week. To raise extra money, families often took in boarders, and also did outside laundry and domestic work. These hard earned monies were kept within the community, as the group patronized merchants of the same ethnic background. This was due in part to the language barrier and the discrimination from the community at large.
Spiritual needs were met by the local Latin Catholic Church of Saint Mary the Assumption. As they grounded themselves within the limits of their ethnic communities, the Greek Catholic population longed for the opportunity to worship their God in the tradition and language known to them.
Experiencing Their First Divine Liturgy in America
Several individuals contacted Father John Hrabar, a Greek Catholic missionary priest from the Eparchy of Mukachevo, assigned as Pastor of the newly established parish of Holy Ghost, Philadelphia. He was asked to serve the spiritual needs of the Phoenixville Greek Catholic community, and to assess the need for a church in this area.
Traveling by train from Philadelphia, Father Hrabar was met in Phoenixville by several men and taken to the Puddlers’ Row homes of John Torhan and John Cheperak. In the modest living rooms of these families, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated. We can only imagine the joy of these humble, God-loving people as they finally shared together in the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ in their own tradition.
Extant records show the first Baptism to be that of 21 year old George Bodnar, son of Michael Bodnar and Maria Masej, on March 20, 1892. His godparents were listed as Stephan Rosmos and Maria Bacsinsky. Coincidentally, Mr. Bodnar was also listed as the first death on April 23, 1900. The first infant baptism on record was that of Maria Geczy, daughter of John and Maria Geczy, conferred by Father John Szabo on March 17, 1893.
Couples would travel miles to Philadelphia or north to Shenandoah to be married in a Greek Catholic Church. The earliest local marriage on record was that of Michael Yenchick and Helena Drap, by Reverend Theodore Damjanovics on August 3, 1895. Witnesses are recorded as John Rapos and Maria Zurko.
1896, A Congregation is Formed
We learn that over the next few years as homes became available in the bordering village of Mont Clare, many Greek Catholic families purchased these properties, becoming neighbors again in what would soon be referred to as “Little Russia.” In 1896, a group of eleven men under the guidance of Father Hrabar made the decision to assemble the Rusin community into a congregation. The Charter incorporating the group was signed in the Amelia Street home of John Sudzina on December 21, 1896. The Charter was granted on January 18, 1897, in Norristown, PA.
1898, Church Property Is Purchased
Their search for a spiritual home did not take them very far. By the grace of God, a stone schoolhouse became available for purchase in the heart of their new community. For the sum of $800.00, the newly formed congregation purchased the property located on the northeast corner of Amelia and Landis Streets, Mont Clare, from the Upper Providence School district at a public sale. The property was deeded to the parish on August 3, 1897. After two years of renovations, their small church of Saint Michael was born. The grassy area behind this church building was utilized as a cemetery. The first burial on record was that of Andrecs Labosh, aged 42, in August 1898.
1899, The First Priest Is Assigned
In April of 1899, the congregation petitioned the Bishop of Mukachevo for a permanent pastor, and received one in the person of Father John Hrabar. He continued to live in Philadelphia, serving as pastor of Holy Ghost Church as well.
1899, The New Church Is Dedicated
We believe Saint Michael’s was dedicated, and the first Divine Liturgy celebrated on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross according to the Julian Calendar on September 24, 1899. This date can be seen at the base of the marble cross presently located on the church lawn. The church received a Simple Blessing at this time by Reverend John Wagner of Saint Mary The Assumption Latin Catholic Church, Phoenixville, and Father Hrabar.
New Byzantine Catholic Parishes are Formed in the Area
Church records show the community flourished over the next decade, with congregants traveling from as far as Pottstown, Coatesville and Bridgeport. Those traveling from Pottstown formed an assembly large enough to incorporate their own parish. By 1903, the charter was incorporated to establish Saint John the Baptist Greek Catholic Church, Stowe. In 1913, the congregation of this church moved to its present location in Pottstown. Blessed Virgin Mary Greek Catholic Church, Coatesville, was incorporated in 1918.
The small cemetery behind the church building was filled in a short time, and acreage was purchased from the David Sowers estate in 1906 to provide additional burial space. The growing church saw close to 200 marriages and over 400 baptisms recorded by 1907.
A Church Rectory is Purchased
Parishioners Michael and Ilona Yenchick sold their home on the corner of Landis and Jacobs Streets to the parish to provide a permanent rectory for their priests. Located at 203 Jacob Street, this building remains the rectory to this day. The first resident priest at this location was the Reverend John Sostek, who relocated the parish office and residence from a rental property on the corner of Bridge and Jacob Streets.
With the help of God, Saint Michael’s continued to grow and prosper, but such was not the case in every parish. These were turbulent years for the Greek Catholic Church in the United States. Each new church was independently governed by an elected group of “curators” or “trustees”, who owned their church buildings and tended to all financial affairs of the parish. The steady stream of emigration from Eastern European areas changed the social structure of these parishes, often leading to ethnic conflicts within the congregations.
At the turn of the century, there were close to forty Greek Catholic parishes established in the United States, counting well over one hundred thousand souls. This number had grown from one small church, Saint Michael’s Greek Catholic Church, Shenandoah, Pa, which was founded in 1885.
The Holy See considered the United States “mission territory” at this time. Thirty five priests were sent into this mission area from the Eastern European Eparchies of Galicia and Mukachevo. These priests served the needs of thousands, with no formal “mission” training and little understanding of American culture. With no local Bishop to guide them, the priests and their people were at the mercy of the local Latin Catholic Bishops. They were met frequently by hostility and misunderstanding. An example of this escalated hostility was the “Father Alexis Toth Movement.” At the turn of the century, Father Toth led an estimated twenty thousand Greek Catholics to the Russian Orthodox Church. Our sister parish of Holy Ghost, Philadelphia, lost an entire group in 1906, taking with them Father Hrabar.
1913, The First Byzantine Catholic Bishop of America
The Holy See sought resolution to this growing unrest. Canon Andrew Hodobay was commissioned to research and report on the condition of the Greek Catholic population in the United States. Following his return to Rome in 1907, the Holy See appointed a Basilian Monk, The Most Reverend Stephen Soter Ortynskyj, as Titular Bishop over all Greek Catholics in America. With this limited authority and much nationalist opposition, the Ukrainian Bishop attempted to organize the independent churches into a single Exarchate. Shortly after his arrival, Saint Michael’s Church was chosen to be the site of the first ordination of a Greek Catholic priest in the United States. By March of 1913, Bishop Ortynskyj was granted full episcopal jurisdiction over the Greek Catholic Churches. At this time the Holy See established the first Greek Catholic Exarchate in the United States. The Episcopal See was located in North Philadelphia from 1913 until 1916.
With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the outbreak of the first world war, the land of our Carpatho-Rusin ancestors would see its borders change again, a frequent happenstance, continuing to this day. The area of Galicia fell within the borders of Poland while the Eparchy of Mukachevo became part of the newly established state of Czechoslovakia.
Two Exarchates are Formed for Ukrainian and Greek Catholics
Following the sudden and unexpected death of Bishop Ortynskyj in 1916, the new Exarchate was divided by Rome. Those of Galician background referred to as “Ukrainian Catholics” combined to form the Exarchate of Philadelphia, with The Right Reverend Peter Poniatyshin appointed as Administrator. Those of Rusin, Slovak, or Hungarian background formed the Exarchate of New York, with The Right Reverend Gabriel Martyak appointed administrator.
Locally, Ukrainian Catholics traveling to Saint Michael’s from the Norristown area moved on to form Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bridgeport. Saint Michael’s would later become mother church to Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, Phoenixville in 1929. Saint Michael’s as well as many other churches witnessed a frequent turnover of priests in the years to follow. Progress continued however, as each new priest contributed to the momentum of the parish.
By the end of the first world war, the majority of Mont Clare homes surrounding the church building were occupied by parishioners. The ethnic culture of the village became more homogenous. Saint Michael’s was the center of their community, and the center of their lives. Stories are told of a neighborhood alive with the sounds of children at play as the familiar scents of freshly baked breads, filled cabbage, or soup pots simmering on coal stoves filled the air. Each yard provided space for vegetable and herb gardens, even a few cows grazed openly on the property that now houses Saint Michael’s Pavilion. Many families had chickens, and more than one child was reported to have run by a chicken yard on the way to school, opening its gate, freeing the chickens into the street.
Parish children attended local public schools. In addition to their studies, they were expected to attend “Ruska Skola” taught by the parish cantor. Here they would learn the customs of their cultural inheritance, including language, Chant and religious instruction. Early classes of Ruska Skola were conducted in a hall owned by the Pavlik family, on the corner of Landis and Sowers Avenue. “Pavlick’s Hall” was part of a building that also housed a small grocery and served as the early meeting place of the Saint Michael’s Athletic Club. This structure served as the church hall hosting wedding receptions, church dinners, dances and other special events for several years.
1916, St. Michael’s Grove Is Purchased
The church’s real estate holding in Mont Clare increased in 1916. Two tracts of land next to the rectory, complete with with homes, were purchased from the estate of Mary Ann Dougherty. One was used as a rental property, the other would house the parish cantor and his family. Plans were made to build a new parish hall on these properties. The building project continued, even in the wake of World War I.
In the fall of 1918, the area experienced a devastating influenza epidemic. Rapidly sweeping through the small towns the epidemic peaked by October, with many families suffering the loss of infants, children, and young adults to the crisis. Saint Michael’s, which normally saw an average of 15 funerals per year, recorded 56 deaths that year, with 32 occurring in October alone. Neighbors witnessed the deceased being transported through Mont Clare to the cemetery by horse-drawn funeral coaches on a daily basis. Public officials ordered churches, schools and all public gathering places closed, to prevent further spread of the virus. Because church funerals were not permitted, a simple interment at the grave site would suffice.
Pastoral stability came to Saint Michael’s in 1919, with the arrival of Father Alexander Kossey. A married priest, he would raise his family of thirteen children in Mont Clare, remaining the pastor until 1937.
In spite of a world war, an epidemic, and internal unrest within the Exarchate, Saint Michael’s would continue to show growth. Baptismal records list over 500 infants receiving the Mysteries over the next decade.
A major remodeling project that began in the early 1920’s changed the small church into what would be referred to as “one of the finest Greek Catholic edifices in this section.” A choir loft was added and the sanctuary expanded, covering several early grave sites. A brick facade was added, with a bell tower and three copper cupolas. Although there are no written records, we can speculate that the iconostas was added at the turn of the century. The signature of artist Stephen Haegedus, Trenton, NJ, with a possible date of 1902 can be found at the base of both the painting of Saint Michael and Saint Nicholas. Further examination of the iconostas reveal names of church officers, perhaps donors, added to the paintings. A search of church death records places the date of these donations as prior to 1915. The handcrafted tabernacle, a miniature replica of the church, was created by parishioner George Minoske. This tabernacle continues to house the Holy Eucharist on the church altar to this day.
The Reverend Eugene Homicesko of Trenton, New Jersey, and Father Kossey blessed the marble cornerstone on the new church facade on August 12, 1923. At this time, a copper box containing a document listing names of all project contributors was placed into the hollowed interior of the cornerstone. The stone was then sealed in the brickwork “to remain untouched, as long as the church stands.”
1924, The First Bishop of the Exarchate of Pittsburgh
The Reverend Basil Takach was consecrated Titular Bishop of Zela on Pentecost Sunday, 1924 at the Vatican. He was appointed first bishop of the newly established Exarchate of Pittsburgh and dispatched to the United States in June of that year. Though the papal bull stipulated that his episcopal see would be based in New York, Bishop Takach preferred to set up residence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
1924, The Newly Remodeled Church Is Dedicated
Bishop Takach made a pastoral visit to Saint Michael’s in September 1924, to dedicate the newly remodeled church. According to newspaper accounts, “the ceremony was preceded by a street parade of 3,000 marchers. The parade traversed the principal thoroughfares of Phoenixville and Mont Clare…The procession moved promptly at 8:30 A.M. and with three bands of music in line, including a boys band, was witnessed by hundreds of people who lined the sidewalks.” Dedication ceremonies and the Celebration of the Divine Liturgy followed the parade. During the ceremony, Bishop Takach blessed the church bells, which were housed in wooden frames on the lawn of the school. The three bells were later lifted into the tower by crane. Each church bell was baptized and given a name. Inscriptions engraved on our bells reveal the large bell to read “My name is NICHOLAS. The faithful of the Greek Catholic Church of Saint Michael the Archangel, Mont Clare, PA, purchased and donated me in memory of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Jubilee, 1922.” The medium sized bell reads “MICHAEL This bell was offered by the Greek Catholic Rusin Church of Saint Michael, 1900.” The small bell is inscribed “My name is ANDREW. The faithful of the Greek Catholic Church of Saint Michael the Archangel of Mont Clare, PA purchased and donated me in 1923.”
“At the baseball grounds in Mont Clare, the celebrants enjoyed a picnic and bazaar… until 10 P.M. Local Greek Societies and Roman Catholic Societies marched in the procession, as did delegations from Philadelphia, Pottstown, Norristown, Coatesville, and other cities of eastern Pennsylvania.” according to an article which appeared in the local newspaper, The Daily Republican, September 25, 1924.
With the guidance and stability of Father Kossey’s pastorate, and under the shadow of the copper domes, parish life would settle for a bit. The formative years had yielded a beautiful church, parish hall, rectory, cemeteries and rental properties. A men’s social club and children’s education program had been established. In just 25 years, a flourishing parish was built on the hard work, dedication and commitment of these immigrant families. Unlike many state supported European churches, Saint Michael’s was built on the nickel and dime contributions of its people.
The Rusin people carried their love of God and their “Old Country” traditions into the new world. Today, as we carry the Shroud of our Lord on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s suffering and death, we are also reminded that we walk the same processional path our forebears have followed for the last hundred years. (Our progressive men prepared the way for many of these processions by stringing rows of electric lights on outdoor poles to increase the visibility of the congregation as they walked around the church building.)
After weeks of prayer and fasting, the Feast of the Resurrection was anxiously anticipated. The church, decorated with ferns and flowers, would fill to capacity, with an overflow of parishioners spilling out onto the church lawn. Voices, lifting up hearts to God, could be heard singing in the streets surrounding the church. Baskets were filled with foods denied during the Fast: eggs, cheese, kolbasi, and ham, surrounded the paska which symbolized the Risen Christ. Blanketed by hand embroidered cloths, the baskets were placed outside in several rows on the church lawn. Following the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the priest, cantor, and altar servers would gather on the lawn with the people to bless the food. Families returned home to share a meal before returning again to the church for Vesper services at 3 P.M. A few of the parish men of today can still recall the assignment as young boys to guard the baskets, which were the envy of many neighborhood pets.
For many years the traditional custom known as “Ducking Day” would be observed. Men would find every opportunity to douse the women with water on Easter Monday. Frequently banding together in groups, the men would wait in hiding to soak girls crossing the bridge from Phoenixville, on their return home from work. Several changes of clothing could be seen hanging on lines to dry. The next day, Tuesday, would afford the women a chance to retaliate in the same manner, if they could catch them.
With the spring thaw, men of the parish would plant a small plot of wheat on the cemetery grounds. On Pentecost Sunday, also called “Green Sunday,” the church would be decorated inside and out with branches of local trees, a favorite being the large heart shaped leaves of the Catalpa tree, found in abundance along the banks of the Schuylkill Canal. Branches also adorned the porches of many homes in the neighborhood, enhancing the procession to the cemetery that followed the Divine Liturgy, for the blessing of graves. Women and young girls would arrive at the cemetery first, immediately beginning to braid wreaths of wheat and colored ribbon. These wreaths were hung on the banners soon to follow, carried by parish men. The women braided very quickly, hoping to finish all wreath making with the arrival of the priest for grave blessings.
As was customary throughout much of society, people often separated into groups according to gender. This carried over into the church as well, with the left row of pews designated as the “women’s side” and the right referred to as “the men’s side”. As parish men arrived for church services, they placed their hats on the window sills of the “men’s side”. Stories are told of the frequent mix-up of these hats. It is reported that a Mr. Stevens never had a problem, as he wore an easily identifiable blue derby. In later years, hat clips were added to the “mens” pews, to alleviate this problem.
For years, the pealing of the church bells called families to Sunday and Holy Day Liturgy. Members living on Puddlers’ Row, and other areas of Phoenixville, crossed the Mont Clare-Phoenixville Bridge together on these days, forming long pedestrian lines. The group witnessed to the community their commitment and sacrifice to their church, being seen walking in all types of inclement weather as well. Special Feasts saw the group carrying their Pascha baskets, Holy Water jars, bouquets of fresh flowers and herbs, or baskets of fresh fruits to be blessed. The sight of a wedding party being led by a member carrying a broomstick adorned with ribbon and flowers was a common occurrence. The entire bridal party and family followed, singing hymns in their native tongue, as they made their way to the church for the celebration.
For decades, the daily schedule of services included early morning Matins, followed by the Divine Liturgy, and concluding with evening Vespers. These services were well attended, as members of the parish made participation in the life of the Church their priority. The church interior was often ornately decorated with flowers and ferns for special Feasts. Beautiful rows of tiny lights on the iconostas were lit during the reading of the Gospel. To the right of the iconostas was a large side altar, used for Mysteries of Initiation, and Marriage celebrations.
The end of November marked the beginning of Saint Philip’s Fast according to the Julian calendar. This period of reflection and prayer, preceding the Celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord continued until the Eve of the Feast. On this night, families joined to share in the Holy Supper, the prayerful gathering that included a meatless meal of fish, soup, bobalki, pirohi, and vegetables. Straw was placed under the table to remind the family of Christ’s birth in a manger. The evening concluded with the singing of hymns and carols, often leading out of the home and into the neighborhood. The church again filled to overflowing for the midnight celebration of the Nativity Liturgy.
Much is lost to history regarding the early church cantors. The first cantor was believed to have been the father of a priest later assigned to the parish, Father Paul Firczak. This cantor is known to have boarded with the John Torhan family on Puddlers’ Row. Other early cantors remembered were a Mr. Stinich and a Mr. Karmazan. Both were described as being well versed in Chant, and stern teachers of early Ruska Skola classes.
Cantor Basil Ratsin served the parish under Father Alexander Kossey. Emigrating from Austria-Hungary, he originally taught in a Canadian monastery, where the two became acquainted. He subsequently traveled with Father Kossey to several assignments. “Professor” Ratsin arrived in Mont Clare in 1918, and remained as cantor until 1950. He and his family resided for many years in the parish owned house adjacent to the rectory. He was instrumental in the organization of a strong and beautifully sounding choir, and taught scores of parish children attending Ruska Skola. Mr. and Mrs. Ratsin were also responsible for ringing the church bells on a daily basis. The story is told that on a particular afternoon, the usual bell-ringing was not heard. Two school students were sent to the choir loft to investigate. Here they found their beloved “Professor”, who had suffered a stroke, and fallen to the floor of the loft. He died at home surrounded by his family several weeks later, in March, 1950. Several years later, his son-in-law would step up to serve the Church as Choir Director. John Cisick, husband of Julia Ratsin Cisick, would lead Saint Michael’s Choir into the “Glory Days” of the 1960’s. During this same period, Mr. Andrew Matty faithfully served as a cantor for the parish. Mr. Matty knew the language of the Church by heart, and participated in the Liturgical Services on a daily basis, until he passed away in 1978.
During the early years of this century, the Phoenixville area was well known for its many athletic teams. These teams, including Saint Michael’s Athletic Club, which sponsored both football and baseball teams, were quite good, and competed on many local playing fields. The parish purchased two tracts of land, which connected the cemetery property to the area of the Schuylkill River, to be used for sporting events, “Sokol” or drill team practices, and parish picnics. This area, the site of the present-day Pavilion and baseball diamond, was purchased from the Mont Clare Brick Company for $6500. The land was overgrown and littered with refuse. Able-bodied men and boys of the parish spent months preparing the grounds for use. The semi-professional football team of Saint Michael’s, often referred to as “second to none” won many games on their home turf. Due to the ingenuity of our men, who ran strings of electric lighting around the playing area, this property was reported to have been the site of the first “Night Football” in the region.
The “Sokols” were active for many years in our parishes. Locally, young parish girls were encouraged to join these drill teams, which practiced marching exercises for competition with other Greek Catholic groups. Wearing blue and white uniforms, the girls could be seen frequently march-ing at the athletic field, drilling with broomsticks, saving their “wands” for actual competitions. The drill team also marched in local parades, and performed at parish social events.
The year 1929 brought the Papal Decree which eventually led to schism in the Greek Catholic Church in America. This decree, “Cum data fuerit”, forbade the ordination of married clerics in the United States, and for-bade the future assignment of married European clerics to the United States. Bishop Takach attempted to dissuade the Holy See, but the decision would stand. After years of debate and agitation among the priests and the people, Bishop Takach issued a Pastoral Letter in 1934, calling for obedience to Rome. In the years immediately following this Letter, many dissatisfied priests and parishioners left the Church to form independent groups.
Locally, this period of internal unrest and division had pronounced and traumatic effects among Saint Michael’s faithful. A legal battle for the right to ownership of church properties ensued, as an independent faction petitioned the Montgomery County Courts to amend the charter in October 1936. Many parishioners mortgaged their homes to provide monies for the legal fees. Those loyal to Papal Authority prevailed. Based on an earlier precedent, the Court ruled that if even one member of Saint Michael’s Church agreed to remain a part of the original congregation, then the church would remain in the hands of this original group.
A period of confusion and dispersion immediately followed this decision, often setting brother against brother, and husband against wife in many instances. The conflict escalated into a particularly dramatic confrontation here on April 21, 1937. The locks on the doors of the church were changed by members of the independent faction, preventing two priests sent by the Bishop, as well as hundreds of worshipers from entering the building. The keys were reportedly in the hands of a member who worked as a conductor on the railroad. As the worshipers gathered on the church lawn and surrounding streets, this man was said to have been en route to New York, with the keys on his person.
The church remained locked for a time, often guarded by police. During this period of internal struggle, permission was granted for the visiting priests to conduct Holy Week services for the remaining members at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Phoenixville. Several families were forced to travel as far as Philadelphia for their newborn infants to receive the Sacred Mysteries. The Independent group held services on the lawn of Father Kossey’s summer cottage, located just several hundred feet from the church.
By the end of 1937, more than five hundred members would leave Saint Michael’s. Some would join Sacred Heart Latin Catholic Church, Phoenixville, but the majority would follow Father Kossey. Worshipping for a time at Saint Margaret’s Chapel, a section of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Phoenixville, they then organized as Holy Ghost Orthodox Church, buying property on the corner of Starr and Bridge Streets in Phoenixville. In the months to come, hundreds would return to Saint Michael’s. Together with the help of their newly assigned pastor, Father Peter Kichinko, they would begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered mission.
TIME OF HEALING
With the arrival of Father Paul Firczak in 1938, Saint Michael’s would refocus its energies in an attempt to regain the momentum lost. One of the first changes to be made was the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. In an attempt to reunite the community again, Fr. Firczak established a Women’s Guild, and strengthened the men’s club of the parish. Weekly church picnics were held on the grounds of the Athletic field each Sunday following the Divine Liturgy. These picnics, featuring a menu of halupki, hot dogs, penny candy, soda and beer, were open to the public. In addition to providing a much needed opportunity for healing the social bond, these events also served as a source of much needed revenue.
The Women’s Guild began bingo games in the Parish Hall as a fund-raiser and social event among themselves. In the first years, bingo prizes included ordinary groceries. Cans of peas or corn, boxes of cereal, flour and sugar were brought from home. Later, prizes of money were awarded, and this game soon became a major fundraising event. Eventually, the games moved to the VFW Post building, and the Slovak Club hall, Phoenixville. Bingo remained strong through the 1960’s, but declined in the 1980’s with the building of a new parish center.
Saint Michael’s Athletic Club played a critical role in raising capital for the Church’s major building and remodeling projects. This group, housed in its early years in the basement of “Pavlik’s Hall,” moved to the parish hall, a museum of sorts, displaying the many medals and trophies won over the years by its athletes. Another move would take them to the church owned home at 207 Jacob Street. They would remain here until 1944. This property was then remodeled and dedicated as a con-vent to house the Sisters of Saint Basil the Great. At the end of World War II, returning servicemen were surprised to find in their absence that their favorite watering hole had moved again. One last relocation would take the group to the former David Sowers Estate, which the Athletic Club purchased in 1944. This property would remain in the hands of the church until the early 1980’s, when due to changing times, the Club would be disbanded.
Father Firczak’s decision to begin an elementary school program for the parish highlighted his pastorate in Mont Clare. The opening of Saint Michael’s School in 1944 marked the beginning of a period of great renewal and vitality in the parish community. The program, taught by the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, began with just four grades. Classes included religion, arithmetic, spelling, reading and penmanship. By 1948 an annex was added to the parish hall, creating space for expansion to eight grades. This extension was made possible by a generous donation of $15,000 by Saint Michael’s Club.
The community bustled in the next two decades, as the Sisters organized school musicals, Christmas plays, parties, May crownings and other parish events. Many processions throughout the Liturgical year were organized to include the entire student body. Under the watchful eye of the Sisters, the children began their school day with attendance at Daily Liturgy. Music classes were held weekly to teach the young ones the proper hymns and responses. The 8:00 A.M. Sunday Liturgy was referred to as the “Children’s Mass” for many years.
One highlight of the school year would be the annual Spring Musical. Each year, the Sisters would organize and direct this event. Much of the background work was done at the school, but as the time grew near, students would attend practice sessions three times weekly on the stage of the Phoenixville Hungarian Club. One performance especially remembered as a favorite was entitled “The Seven Old Ladies of Crabapple Lane.” According to newspaper accounts, Saint Michael’s students often drew crowds of up to three hundred people to their performances.
The Sodality, a group of young single women dedicated to the devotion of the Mother of God, met on a regular basis to pray the Rosary. This group participated in all Liturgical functions and required their senior members to be identified by the wearing of white veils. The younger Junior Sodality members wore blue veils. These years also saw the institution of the Altar Rosary Society, a group of women also devoted to the recitation of the Rosary, along with assuming the responsibility for care of all altar linens. Father Firczak established the Holy Name Society for men of the parish. A Golden Jubilee celebration was held to mark fifty years of service in 1947. Described as “like everybody’s favorite uncle,” Father Firczak was an avid hunter and fisherman. He also enjoyed bowling, and organized a team here that would compete in the Phoenixville Catholic Bowling League. With the opening of the school, a Parent-Teacher Association was also organized. This afforded these first generation Americans yet another occasion to work together as effective teammates in the strengthening of their community. The many and diverse groups established within the parish during these years provided the opportunity for all members to become active participants.
The years following World War II coincided with the general “Latinization” of our churches. This adoption of Roman Catholic tradition was also reflective of a larger national trend away from ethnic identity, and toward a more unified American culture. Other factors included the increasing number of marriages between Greek and Roman Catholics, and the influence of Western tradition on the seminary training of newly ordained priests. The movement included the addition of statues, Stations of the Cross, introduction of Novena and Benediction Services, May Crownings, and other traditions new to the Greek Catholic population. This trend would continue into the post Second Vatican Council days of the 1970’s.
GROWTH OF THE EXARCHATE
During the Administration of Bishop Takach, the growth of the Exarchate of Pittsburgh was monumental. Many new parochial schools were established, along with a Greek Catholic newspaper and an annual Pilgrimage to the grounds of Mount Saint Macrina, the Motherhouse of the Our lady of Perpetual Help Province of the Sisters of Saint Basil the Great, Uniontown, PA. During the last few years of his administration, Bishop Takach became seriously ill and requested the Holy See appoint an auxiliary bishop to assist him. A coadjutor bishop was appointed in the person the The Most Reverend Daniel Ivancho in 1946. He became the Ordinary following the death of Bishop Takach in 1948.
A major accomplishment during the administration of Bishop Ivancho was the founding of the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius Pittsburgh, PA, in 1951. The usage of the term “Byzantine” was introduced by this bishop, thus clarifying the confusion created by the newly established American Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Christian Diocese of Johnstown, PA. Locally, Saint Michael’s Greek Catholic Church would be referred to as Saint Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church. Monsignor Nicholas T. Elko was appointed by the Holy See as successor to Bishop Ivancho. He became the Ordinary of the Pittsburgh Exarchate in 1955.
The Holy See separated the growing Byzantine Catholic Church in America into two separate Eparchies in 1963. Bishop Stephen Kocisko was appointed Ordinary of the Eparchy of Pittsburgh. Most Reverend Michael J. Dudick was appointed the new Bishop of the Eparchy of Passaic. Reported growth of the Byzantine Catholic Church in a westward direction led the Holy See to establish a third Eparchy in 1969, with the Episcopal See located in Parma, Ohio. In 1981, the Eparchy of Van Nuys, CA was established.
TIME OF RENEWAL
Father Firczak was transferred following a very productive and successful pastorate of twelve years. He was succeeded by Father Paul Shogan in 1950. Energetic and enormously popular, Father Shogan drew consistently large crowds to Sunday Liturgy. His personality ignited the enthusiasm of parishioners and others around him. His biggest dream was to provide activities for neighborhood children. He accomplished this by forming the Saint Michael’s Youth Organization. With the financial assistance of Saint Michael’s Club, Father Shogan oversaw the major refurbishing of Saint Michael’s Athletic field in 1951, including the installation of tennis courts.
The Youth Organization, primarily a summer day camp, was supervised by the Sisters, and staffed by teenage girls. The young counselors wore uniforms of blue skirts and white blouses, complete with camp whistles. The program was well received by the parish and the local community. Typical activities included baseball, tennis, and various craft workshops.
Father Shogan also organized special breakfasts for Fathers’ Day and Mother’s Day. Following the Divine Liturgy, congregants would depart the church building to find tables set up in the schoolyard area. Men of the Holy Name Society would prepare and serve the breakfast on Mothers’ Day, and the Ladies Guild would do the same for the Fathers’ Day observance. On several instances, guest speakers would be hosted, such as former Philadelphia Eagles’ kicker Joseph Muha. The charismatic priest counted among his friends Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Rumor has it both men visited the parish rectory, and Father reportedly baptized one of the two actors’ sons.
Another highlight of Father Shogan’s pastorate here was his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Upon return, he was welcomed by a large outdoor celebration at the Athletic Field. As a remembrance of this memorable trip, all parishioners received a Rosary or a vial of Holy Water.
Saint Michael’s opened the first Kindergarten class in the local area in 1953. A taxi service was contracted to transport all children outside walking distance of the school. Following a successful year of class, graduation ceremonies were held for these little ones on the stage of the Phoenixville Hungarian Club. Many parents, grandparents and friends watched as the children, complete with caps and gowns, received their diplomas. Father Shogan’s pastorate would also witness the first Eighth Grade Graduation as well. These five students included Helen Marie Dzuryachko, Irene Dzuryachko, Andrew Kandrick, Luke Platco, and John Vance.
Father Joseph Slaboda succeeded Father Shogan following his transfer in 1955. One of the first tasks was to oversee a major church remodeling project, including interior painting and the addition of a new roof to the structure. A Solemn Rededication Ceremony was held in February 1956, with several visiting bishops and clergy in attendance. A banquet followed at the Battery “C” Armory in Phoenixville.
The Latinization of our church continued through the 1960’s as the Deacon Doors of the iconostas were removed, and the Royal Doors expanded to provide a larger view of the altar and Sanctuary area. The tiny lights were removed from the iconostas, and the raised pulpit area was dismantled. The Altar was raised on steps, and a carillon was installed. The sacristy was also added to the church building during these years. The Liturgy schedule for many years included a 6:00 A.M. “Workers Mass,” 8:00 A.M. “Children’s Mass” and a 9:30 A.M. “High Mass” on Sundays. Membership in the Ladies’ Guild, Sodality, and Holy Name society declined during the 1960’s. By 1967, due in part to the limited number of available teaching Sisters, Saint Michael’s School closed its doors. The departure of the Sisters led to the closing of the convent, and eventual sale of this property. During these years, bingo became a main fundraising event. The church picnics were discontinued, and the Athletic Field soon became overgrown with weeds and brush.
The 1950’s and ‘60’s were considered the “Glory Days” of Saint Michael’s Choir, led by John Cisick, and later Emil Parvensky. The group numbering some 21 active participants frequently traveled to other churches to perform, as well as being host to other Byzantine Catholic choirs at Saint Michael’s. Parish women prepared and served meals to hungry visitors at the Club following the Liturgy, with the remainder of the afternoon spent in fellowship. Other parishes reciprocated in the same manner.
Frequent rehearsal and commitment were the key to the success of the choir, as none of the members had a background in music. With only their love for God and His Church, the group practiced faithfully each week,and twice weekly during Holy Day periods. The daughter of the choir’s director, Madge Cisick, keyed the notes on the school piano, as the members rehearsed.
The choir group frequently sang at weddings, for which they were given monetary donations. This money, used to buy their music, also supplemented the cost of their trips and performances. One of the most memorable group activities was a trip to New York, which included visiting Radio City Music Hall, and a ferry boat ride around Manhattan, as the choir sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”
The Nativity and Resurrection Liturgies were reportedly especially beautiful, as two by two the choir members faced the congregation, singing the hymns of the Feast. These Liturgies were routinely taped by several parish ioners. In the mid 1960’s Father Slaboda was approached by parishioner Thomas Licisyn with the suggestion that one of these tape recordings be transferred to a record disc. At a small Spring City recording studio, an album was “cut,” featuring Saint Michael’s Choir in English and Old Slavonic and distributed with the parish.
Following a pastorate of twenty-one years at Saint Michael’s, a massive heart attack took the life of Father Slaboda in January 1976. In the two years that followed his death, the parish was served by Father Marion Struc, and Father Robert Kemeter.
Father Nicholas deProspero was appointed pastor in 1977. A prayerful man, he attempted to encourage an awareness among the people of the great heritage of Eastern Spirituality that was ours. The parish began the move back to Byzantine tradition after four decades of Latinization. In an October 1984 interview with a local newspaper, The Evening Phoenix, Father deProspero explained that “Byzantine Catholic Tradition says that the eternal world exists right here on earth, side by side with the physical one, with the Creator present and active in the affairs of the world. The dome of the Eastern Church is the symbol of that philosophy, which creates hope and optimism in people. Heaven covers you like the sky, and keeps you in it. The Eastern Church says if you open yourself up, you will reach inside and find goodness.”
Under his leadership, the parish rebounded once again. A primary goal was to rebuild a sense of community among the people. A prayer group was formed, as well as a Bible Study group, an active high school youth group, and a Vacation Bible School. Father and Mother’s Day Breakfasts were revived, as well as the addition of Pancake breakfasts and Parish dinners. It was during these years that the practice began of traveling to churches within the deanery for Sunday Lenten Vespers. Mr. John Palamar faithfully assisted Father deProspero in singing the responses to the Divine Liturgies for many years, passing the torch on to his son, Edward. Today the parish is served by the efforts of Mr. Michael Petruska.
With the sale of Saint Michael’s Club in the 1980’s, its members decided to invest the money in a total overhaul of the former athletic grounds. Under the guidance of Father deProspero, the parish men worked tirelessly to clear the brush, plant grass, and add a parking area with electric lighting. Volunteers built a large pavilion in several stages, utilizing the design of parishioner Thomas Yatsko. The restored picnic grounds provided the focus for a revival of parish social life and an important source of income from rentals. Church picnics organized several times each summer draw many members of the local community. Dancing to the sounds of the Polka Express, many continue to enjoy the ethnic foods prepared by parish workers. These events serve both the church’s needs as well as the effort to preserve the historic attractions of the Schuylkill River and Canal. The grounds provided the location for all activity in the early years of the township Canal Days, which today have expanded to include attractions along the entire canal route, from Mont Clare to Port Providence.
Father deProspero set the groundwork for a project that would include a total renovation of the brick school building, which had not been remodeled in over thirty years. In 1984, as these plans were in the making, Father was transferred from Saint Michael’s. His successor, Father Thomas Siebert began his pastorate with the primary task of seeing the construction project through to completion. The former school was expanded to include kitchen facilities and classrooms for the Eastern Christian Formation Program on the ground level, with a tastefully decorated social hall on the second level. The mortgage for the new facility exceeded $220,000. The new Parish Center was dedicated in October 1985, by Bishop Michael J. Dudick, D.D.
With boundless energy, Father Siebert worked with the ladies of the parish, cheering them on in their baking and food preparation efforts. Many fund-raising projects were organized to reduce the parish debt. Father Siebert was also active with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and an active participant in the local Pro-Life Movement. On one occasion, Father enlisted the aid of Mother Teresa in drafting a letter to the Board of Directors of Phoenixville Hospital, urging them to discontinue the hospital’s practice of performing abortions. Mother Teresa, known throughout the world as the “Saint of the Gutters,” founded the Order of the Missionary sisters of Charity. Father Siebert continued the Liturgical and educational Byzantine reform in Saint Michael’s until 1989, when for personal and religious reasons he left the Catholic Church.
PARISH LIFE DURING THE CENTENNIAL
Father Gregory Noga was assigned to the parish in November 1989, following the departure of Father Siebert. Placing the parish under the protection of the Mother of God, Father Noga set out to solidify the parish both spiritually and financially. A goal was launched to be “mortgage-free” by our centennial year of 1997. Volunteer men and women assembled to form “St. Michael’s Society”, which in addition to providing an opportunity for social activity, supports the parish through baking projects pirohi sales, and hoagie sales. With a combination of their hard work and the good fiscal management of Father, over $200,000 was raised in seven years. A “Mortgage-Burning” ceremony marked the beginning of our Centennial Year on December 22, 1996. With our newly appointed Most Reverend Bishop Andrew Pataki J.C.L., D.D. presiding, and some 120 parishioners in attendance, the bank note was symbolically burned, signifying the attainment of a hard earned goal.
Soon after his arrival Father Noga also set out to refurbish the church building and grounds. Rather than hire an outside contractor, a small group of parish men, together with their priest decided to repaint the entire church interior themselves. It was a laborious task that when completed brightened both the physical appearance of the church and lifted the spirits of its members.
In 1992, The Knights of Columbus Saint Nicholas of Myra Council was established at Saint Michael’s. The Council, which boasts some thirty members, funds the annual Saint Nicholas Party for our E.C.F. students, as well as assisting the efforts of the larger organization in their pro-life commitment, and other charitable events.
Today our parish is much less defined from an ethnic standpoint and few families remain in the small surrounding neighborhood. Our community has expanded to include Byzantine Catholic families relocated from other areas for employment opportunities, as well as those drawn to our Eastern Catholic form of worship from other faiths. In an attempt to meet the spiritual and social needs of a wide range of people, the Young Families Group was established by Father Noga in 1993. Yearly weekend retreats to the Carpathian Village Retreat Center united this group, providing the occasion for further education and faith development through open communication.
A major focus of Father Noga’s efforts was the strengthening of the Religious Education program, from the preschool level through to the adult level Bible Study Group. A lending library located in the Parish Center provides educational information to our parishioners, with material available on Church History, Scripture, Eastern Spirituality, and contemporary issues. A variety of videos and a children’s section are also available.
In an attempt to follow the Gospel teachings of Christ, a Social Outreach Group enlists the aid of the entire parish in collecting and preparing meals for local homeless shelters. Collections are taken on Mother’s Day to provide formula for the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank Baby Manna Program. Articles of clothing are also collected for use in foster care programs throughout the region. Most recently, a Prayer Support Chain has been initiated in an effort to help one another in times of need, and to build up the faith community.
On Sunday, September 28, 1997, a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy was celebrated to commemorate the One Hundredth Anniversary of Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church. With Bishop Andrew Pataki as the main celebrant, the parish shared in this commemoration with many priests and religious of the Eparchy. A banquet for two hundred and forty followed at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center, Malvern, PA.
During the Centennial year, the history of our parish was researched and documented by Maureen Rowan Williams in an attempt to gain a more thorough understanding of our past as we determine the path of our future. In an attempt to establish their church in the United States, our ancestors faced many new and unknown challenges. Entering into the second hundred years of our existence as a church community, we are faced with many of the same challenges of the human condition. Through prayer, Christian charity and ongoing education, our hope is to continue to grow spiritually in our love for Jesus Christ and His Church, passing on the richness of our Eastern Tradition to future generations.
© 1998 Maureen Rowan