This month, my Carpatho-Rusyn heritage post will focus on the religious background of its peoples. It’s a bit complicated, so the version I am sharing here is a much simplified explanation covering centuries of conflict and change.
From its earliest ancient history, Carpatho-Rusyns belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the 16th century, the Byzantine Catholic, also referred to as Greek Catholic, Church had taken hold and many Rusyns practiced their version of Catholicism.
Having a second church in the mix contributed to much of the historical turmoil along the Carpathian Mountains.
It is important to remember that the area where Rusyns settled – along both the north and south sides of the Carpathian Mountains – and scattered through Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania, had a profound effect on their daily lives.
As various conquering governments set up day-to-day business, Rusyn peasants were pulled and tugged not only politically by Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Ukrainians and Slovaks, they were also influenced by two churches – the Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church. The churches, in turn, were often proponents of the Ukrainian and/or Russian way of life, promoting the Orthodox Church, or the Polish, Hungarian and/or Slovak ways of life and therefore promoting the Greek Catholic Church.
Therefore, the religion that Rusyns wanted to practice was often closely aligned with official political beliefs even if the people themselves didn’t agree with the government in power. That frequently led to purges through killings or displacement to other regions.
Rusyns and other Eastern Europeans didn’t begin immigrating to the United States until the late 1880s. By that time, their homeland was under the control of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire with Russian influence creeping in at the turn of the 20th century.
By 1900, if one practiced the Greek Catholic religion, Russians and Ukrainians assumed that politically that person or family supported the Hungarian government. At the same time, many Rusyns were resisting magyarization, or the attempts by Hungarians to convert, so to speak, Rusyns to the Hungarian way of life. In reality, most of the peasants just wanted to live their lives in peace.
The opposite side of the coin appeared if a family attended the Russian Orthodox Church. (Note: Although Rusyn sounds very much like Russian, they don’t mean the same thing.) Some Rusyns wanted to return to the Eastern Orthodox religion, solely because they felt Orthodoxy was their first and true religion. Like the Greek Catholics, the Orthodox didn’t always tie their religious practices to political beliefs.
However, belonging to the Orthodox church meant the Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Therefore, if one chose to attend the Orthodox Church, he/she assumed to be politically aligned with Russia or Ukraine.
To complicate matters even more, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Romanians and Russians who were not Rusyn were settling in what had mostly been Rusyn towns and villages. The Rusyns’ new neighbors were slowly influencing their social customs and cultural ways, which added to political and religious strife. The locals were adopting some of the ways of the newcomers.
This explanation is very much simplified compared to all that was happening, but it gives a sense of what daily life was like for these people. Not only were European Rusyns affected, but Rusyns who emigrated to the United States kept in touch with news and political/religious developments back home.
Not only were European Rusyns dividing their religious allegiances, but American Rusyns were doing the same. Between both the religious and political goings-on, it is easy to understand why Carpatho-Rusyns have never had one homeland or religion. The history of the late 19th century and early 20th century is a microcosm of Rusyn life back to ancient times.
Therefore, Rusyns historically belonged to either the Greek Catholic Church or an Eastern Orthodox Church, often the Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Growing up in Passaic, there was a Ukrainian Church on President Street, a few blocks from where I lived. It is actually still there today. St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church still has its school, too.
Like Nana’s church (vintage postcard above) of St. Michael’s, which today is the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Nicholas celebrates the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Early Rusyn settlers in Passaic pretty much universally belonged to St. Michael’s Church and practiced the Greek Catholic religion. As back at home in Europe, families became divided politically and religiously with the result that new parishes were formed in Passaic – parishes of Orthodox Churches. Today, St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral and St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church are both found in Passaic.
To concisely sum all of this up, ancient Rusyns were members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the 16th century, many had become members of the Byzantine or Greek Catholic Church. By the beginning of the 20th century, political allegiances had begun to pull families towards one church or the other and sometimes split families apart, much like what happened during the American Revolution and Civil War.
We’ll look at how Rusyns celebrated religious holidays in future posts.