Dad (George Sabo – back) & Cousins Julia, Peter & Emily Scerbak
First Communion, c1934
Rusyn lives centered on the church and its activities well into the 20th century, both in Europe and America. Events such as baptisms and marriages were cause for celebrations. Another church sacrament that represented a milestone in a Greek Catholic Rusyn child’s life was First Communion.
Receiving First Communion is an important step in the spiritual lives of both Greek and Roman Catholics, as Greek Catholics believe that receiving communion is an affirmation of their faith. The Eastern Orthodox churches do not celebrate First Communion, so those Rusyns who belong to that church do not have this tradition.
However, two practices are common in the Greek (aka Byzantine) Catholic Church. Infant communion is one option, meaning once a child is baptized and confirmed, the child can receive communion. (More in a later post about baptism and confirmation and how it differs from Roman Catholicism.)
The second option, which was the practice at St. Michael’s Church when my father was a boy, is the practice also followed by the Roman Catholic Church. Children who have reached the age of reason (around 7 or 8 years of age and above) take part in a religious education program to prepare them before the celebratory day. First Communion Masses also typically happen in spring time.
By the 1930s, the first generation of Rusyn children had grown up in Passaic and the second generation were school-aged. My father was eight years old in the spring of 1934. His cousins were 7, 8 and 9 years old. However, they were part of a large group of children who received their First Communion that year.
Reverend Michael Jackovics with the Children in 1934
George Sabo – 3rd from left in back in the dip
Girls dressed all in white and also wore veils, while the boys wore black suits and white shirts. Each child carried a white candle with a white ribbon tied around it.
The children would be presented during Mass and come to the front of the church to be offered communion. This coming-of-age rite was cause for celebrations and parties. Families hosted parties at home after church and invited relatives and friends to fete the child on his/her special day. Gifts of rosary beads, Bibles, prayer books, holy cards, religious statues or sometimes money were happily accepted by the children.
This tradition in America was not new. While gifts the children received might have been a bit more substantial than in the ancestral town, due to better economic circumstances, the religious ceremony itself was bought with the first Rusyn immigrants who settled in the United States.