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"We are thankful to Mikhail Gorbachev that we can now openly have religion. I like going to church and do my best not to miss any Sunday service. I cannot think of my life without church.." -Anna, Transcarpathian niece of Aleksander Simkovich
Religion and Carpatho-Russian/Rusyn history are deeply intertwined, often resulting in controversy. Carpatho-Russians were originally of the Orthodox faith (though even this is controversial as some claim there was Catholic influence from Moravia). In fact, one of the earliest saints of the Monastery of the Caves at Kiev was the Carpatho-Russian Moses Uhrin (died 1043)1, who prior to becoming a monk served Boris, the prince of Ancient Rus'. Moses and his brothers’ Efrem and Georgii stories are recorded in the famous ‘Russian Primary Chronicle’. Also originating from this time is the unique Carpathian church prostopinije (Plain Chant), which is closely related to the ancient chant of Kievan Rus' and has even preserved elements of it.2
Traditional style wood church near Mokra, built 1794
For 700 years, the Orthodox Church was the only church in the Carpathians. But under the growing influence of the then ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire, Orthodox clergy were reduced to the legal status of peasant-serfs and even the bishop of Mukachevo was at the mercy of the Hungarian lords. To improve their condition, some Orthodox priests attempted to form a new church under the Catholics. In 1614, 50 priests convened at the Krasni Brid Monastery with this intent, but a crowd of Orthodox protested and dispersed the group. A second attempt in the 1630s under Bishop Vasili Tarosovich also failed. Finally in April 1646, Bishop Parfenii Petrovich was able to convene a meeting of 63 (out of a few hundred) priests who pledged their allegiance to the Pope of Rome. Their signed document became known as the 'Union of Uzhgorod', resulting in the formation of the Greek Catholic Church. This new Church was given greater material assistance from the Austro-Hungarian Empire while being allowed to maintain their Eastern Rite traditions, including married priests. From that time, the Rusyns had two bishops, one Greek Catholic and one Orthodox, until 1721 when the last remaining Orthodox priests in the western counties accepted the Union.3 Priests in the eastern counties of Bereg and Maramaros remained Orthodox until 1745.4
In the 1890s, 145 years after Orthodoxy had ceased to exist in the Carpathians, a 'return to Orthodoxy' movement began, reaching a high point in the 1920s. Many Greek Catholics who became Orthodox were arrested for treason and a few were even executed by the government, with the Talerhof Concentration Camp5 and Martyr-Priest Maxim Sandovich's death in 1914 being the best known incidents. Meanwhile, the Russian Bolshevik Revolution was forcing Russians of the nobility and middle class to leave Russia, and many settled in the USA. These Russians arrived and began integrating into the American Russian Orthodox Church (the Metropolia) at precisely the same time that Carpatho-Russians in America were also returning to the Orthodox faith.6 Leading the charge was Fr. Alexis Toth, a former Greek Catholic priest who converted many to Orthodoxy (due to his initial efforts, over 50% of USA Rusyns are Orthodox). This American mixing further influenced events and persecutions back in the Carpathian homeland, where thousands of fleeing Orthodox Russians also settled, including monks who founded the Ladomirova Monastery.
Orthodox priest Maxim Sandovich - executed in 1914
"In 1946, all the Greek Catholic bishops and the majority of priests were sent to concentration camps in Siberia." -Anna, niece of Aleksander Simkovich
Conversely, it was Greek Catholics of the Carpathians who suffered in the 1940s. The Soviet government annulled the Union of Uzhgorod in 1946, and the Greek Catholic Church was liquidated. Priests who refused to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church were sent to the Siberian and Arctic labor camps, where most died. Others were simply murdered in their home villages. To add salt to the wound, in 1971 the Russian Orthodox Synod of Zagorsk, U.S.S.R. indirectly justified this violence by officially ratifying the annulment.
Greek Catholic Bishop Theodore Romzha - Killed by the NKVD (KGB) in 1947
St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, Jacobs Creeks, PA
Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania, where Aleksander Simkovich lived, is home to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (now a parish of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese), where a few years before Alek arrived an event in American Carpatho-Russian history took place: many members of St. Nicholas worked at the Darr Mine, site of the worst coal mining disaster in Pennsylvania history, with 239 killed on December 19, 1907. However, giving up a day's pay, the miners were attending the St. Nicholas Holy Day Liturgy when the ground shook at the time of the accident. The Carpatho-Russian miners of Jacobs Creek, worshiping in church, were spared.7
In America, religious and nationalist causes went together. Aside from Russian Orthodox/Greek Catholic struggle, the dislike of Ukrainians by Carpatho-Russian religious leaders was strong and expressed often, as Ukrainian nationalism was deemed a destructive force. One paper, the Greek Catholic Messenger, wrote in 1954: "To us Carpatho-Russian people here and in our native country under the green Carpathians, there can be no greater insult and offense then when someone calls us Ukrainians. We know not such people on the world's map."8
In Europe today, tensions still exist. The Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross in Uzhgorod/Uzhhorod belonged to the Greek Catholics until 1948, when it was given by the Communist government to the Russian Orthodox Church. A well meaning visit to this cathedral in Feb. 1990 by American Byzantine Catholic (Greek Catholic) Archbishop Stephen Kocisko, whose own Rusyn parents were born in the Carpathians, led to confrontation from Rusyn Orthodox protestors. Later in 1991, there were major protests, including physical attacks and hunger strikes when it was decided to give the cathedral back to the Greek Catholics.
American Greek Catholic Archbishop with Orthodox Protestors in Uzhgorod, 1990
The Orthodox immediately set about to build the new Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross, under the guidance of Fr. Dmitrii (Dymytrij) Sydor, a Moscow Patriarchate priest (perhaps the most visible cleric in all modern Transcarpathia) who is extremely active in the Carpatho-Russian/Rusyn movement. The architecture of the new cathedral is based on the design of the famous and newly rebuilt ‘Cathedral of Christ the Savior’ in Moscow, which is the largest church in Russia. Currently, Orthodox believers are outraged at the impending construction of a new Roman and Greek Catholic cathedral complex in the vicinity of the Orthodox cathedral. So, they announced they would erect another church of their own in downtown Uzhgorod, right in front of the original Greek Catholic cathedral, tit-for-tat. The new church will be consecrated after St. Alexei Kabalyuk, a Rusyn Orthodox hero. Kabalyuk was born into a Greek Catholic family but converted to Orthodoxy, became a priest and played a major role in reviving Orthodoxy in Transcarpathia in the early 20th century. On the eve of WWI, Kabalyuk was jailed, and later was a major leader of the Carpathian Orthodox until his death in 1947. He was canonized in 2001, but as the primary Orthodox leader who assisted the Soviets in the 1946 liquidation, is offensive to the Greek Catholics.9
Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Cross under construction in Uzhgorod, 2003
Religion and politics still mix here: The Orthodox Fr. Sydor promotes Moscow oriented candidates (vs. Ukrainian oriented), and openly backed Viktor Yanukovich in the 2004 presidential elections as “the only true Orthodox candidate”. Notably, 542 of the 550 Transcarpathian Orthodox churches choose to remain under the (Russian) Moscow Patriarchate rather than the (Ukrainian) Kiev/Kyiv Patriarchate.10 As a result, whereas in other areas of western Ukraine, the winner Viktor Yuschenko garnered up to 90% of the votes, in Transcarpathia the votes were evenly split between the two Viktors – the Byzantine/Greek Catholics generally voting for Yuschenko and the Orthodox voting for Yanukovich.
In another example of Transcarpathian Rusyns going against the tide, in spite of continued pressure, the region’s Greek Catholic Church steadfastly refuses to be included under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian oriented Lvov/Lviv Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy.
In the Simkovich family village of Mokra today, some Simkovichs attend the village's Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, while others travel to a nearby village to attend the Greek Catholic church there. However, there is one thing that neither church divisions nor communism has changed, and that is the traditional, formal Rusyn greeting, which can occasionally still be heard by Orthodox and Catholics alike: Slava Isusu Christu! - Glory to Jesus Christ!
Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Mokra, Ukraine
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1 Lawrence Barriger, Saints Cyril & Methodios - Spiritual Insights, The Church Messenger (Johnstown, PA).
2 Johann von Gardner, Orthodox Life (July-August, 1979), p. 46.
3 Istvan Udvari, The Rusyns – An East Slavic People (Budapest).
4 Andras Benedek, Gens fidelissima: The Rusyns (2001), p. 41.
5 Carpatho-Rus’ - Karpatska-Rus’ Lemko Association (Allentown: April 11, 2003), p. 1.
6 Russian-American Review / Congress of Russian-Americans (Washington D.C.: Winter/Spring 1991), pp.16-17.
7 www.acrod.org website, November, 2002.
8 Walter Warzeski, Byzantine Rite Rusyns (Pittsburgh: 1971), pp. 248-249.
9 Alexei Makarkin, Carptho-Ukraine: Conflict between Orthodoxy and Greek Catholicism RIA Novosti (Moscow: June 30, 2005).
10 Taras Kuzio, The Rusyn Question in Ukraine, Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism (2005), p. 10.