Saint Alexis Toth and the Return to Orthodoxy of the Uniates in North America

by Archpriest John Matusiak

In 1996 the Orthodox Church in America was invited to send representatives to a symposium marking the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest. Representing the Orthodox Church in America was Archpriest John Matusiak, and Priest Joseph Kopka. The symposium focused on the Orthodox perspective of the Union of Brest, and included representatives from Orthodox Churches throughout Europe. The highlight of the symposium was the Divine Liturgy celebrated in a small chapel on the site where Saint Athanasius of Brest had been martyred.

The following paper on Saint Alexis of Wilkes Barre was delivered at the symposium by Father John Matusiak.

From this new triumph of Orthodoxy, you shined with the grace of God, which was not bestowed upon you in vain. For thus strengthened, you prepared yourself for the Cross before you. Wherefore we cry out to you: Rejoice, O Father Alexis, Defender and Confessor of Orthodoxy in America!
(From the Akathist to Saint Alexis Toth)

st alexis

On this historic occasion, as we observe the 400th Anniversary of the Union of Brest-Litovsk, one might very well ask, “What does an American know about the Unia?” Naturally, this is a legitimate question. In 1596, North America was still a vast, underdeveloped land, far removed geographically and culturally from the events which were transpiring in this part of the world. In fact, it would not be until 198 years later, in 1794, that the first Orthodox missionaries from the venerable Valaam Monastery would arrive in Kodiak, Alaska.

What is not well known, however, is that there are today millions of Orthodox Christians in North America whose ancestors were, in fact, Uniates. In the late 1870s, they began leaving their homelands in and near the Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine, Galicia, Lemkovina, Bukovinia, Belarus and elsewhere in search of a new and better life in America. Sadly, many of these poor immigrants soon faced disappointment, poverty, discrimination, and other hardships. They worked long hours, receiving little in return. Their material poverty was matched by their spiritual poverty. With no parishes of their own, they had no possibility of worshiping according to their distinctive Byzantine Rite and were forced to seek the ministrations of Latin Rite Catholic congregations which displayed tremendous prejudice, misunderstanding, and even hatred.

The First Uniate Parishes in America

In 1884, the Uniate Metropolitan of Galicia, Sylvester Sembratovich, sent the first Uniate priest, Ivan Volansky, to America at the request of a small group of Uniate faithful in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. A married man, Father Volansky was welcomed with great enthusiasm by his own people, but he soon discovered that everyone else, especially the Polish and Irish Roman Catholics, treated him with open hostility. Within the Latin Rite Catholic Church, which had been well established in America for hundreds of years, there was little or no knowledge of the Unia, as Father Volansky and his flock discovered when they traveled to Philadelphia to present themselves to the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Patrick John Ryan. [Since there was no Uniate bishop or diocese in America, Father Volansky had been instructed to present his credentials to the local Roman Catholic hierarch.] Father Volansky was shocked to discover that Archbishop Ryan had refused to meet with him, delegating this task to his Chancellor, Ignatius Horstmann. Upon learning that Father Volansky was married, Horstmann refused to honor Father Volansky’s credentials, stating that he not possibly be considered a Catholic. Archbishop Ryan informed the parishes of his diocese that Father Volansky had no right to function as a priest or to organize a parish and that, if he did, it was as a schismatic. Upon his return home, Father Volansky faced vicious attacks from the pastors of the local Polish and Irish Catholic parishes.

Father Volansky did not allow Archbishop Ryan’s ignorance to stop him and his flock from purchasing land on which a Uniate church was to be built. Hundreds of faithful from Shenandoah and surrounding areas attended the blessing of the foundation of the new church, despite the presence of a small group of Latin Rite Catholics who disrupted the Liturgy because of their fear of the pastor of the Polish parish who had threatened to excommunicate any Pole who participated in the celebration.

Within a few years, additional Uniate priests arrived from Europe to serve faithful in other Pennsylvania towns and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In every instance, the Uniate priests faced hostility, condemnation, and the prejudice of the local Latin Rite hierarchs, clergy, and faithful. Finally, on October 29, 1890, eight of the ten Uniate priests in America held their first formal meeting in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania under the presidency of Father Alexis Toth of Minneapolis.

Father Alexis Toth arrives in America

Alexis Toth was born near Presov on March 14, 1853, the son of a Uniate priest and the nephew of a Uniate bishop. He received an excellent education and several languages. After his marriage to the daughter of a priest, he followed in the footsteps of his father and brother and was ordained to the priesthood on April 18, 1878 to serve as second priest in a Uniate parish. Soon afterwards, his wife, and later his only child, died.

The following year, Father Alexis was appointed Chancellor to the Bishop of Presov and director of an orphanage. He also taught Church History and Canon Law at the Presov Seminary. In October 1889, he was appointed pastor of a newly-organized Uniate parish dedicated to the Protection of the Virgin Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he served the Divine Liturgy for the first time one month later.

Like Father Volansky, Father Alexis called on the local Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Ireland. With a well-known reputation for his intolerance of new immigrants, Archbishop Ireland belonged to a faction of the Roman Catholic Church intent on “Americanizing” his flock. Naturally, ethnic parishes and non-Latin Rite clergy threatened the realization of this vision.

“I was a Uniate when I came to America,” Father Alexis wrote. “I knew that as a Uniate priest in America I was to obey the Roman Catholic Bishop of the particular diocese in which I happened to work. The Union (of 1596] demanded this, as well as the various Papal Bulls, Briefs, and Decretals, as there was no Uniate Bishop in this country.”

In his own words, Father Alexis described his stormy encounter with Archbishop Ireland.

“I appeared before Bishop Ireland on December 19, 1889, kissed his hand according to custom, and presented my credentials; however, I failed to kneel before him which, as I learned later, was my chief mistake. I remember that, as soon as he read that I was a ‘Greek Catholic,’ his hands began to shake. It took him fifteen minutes to finish reading my papers, after which he asked abruptly:

“Have you a wife?’ “No. **But you had one?’ “Yes. I am a widower.”

“At this he threw the paper on the table and loudly exclaimed, ‘I have already written to Rome protesting this kind of priest being sent to me!... I do not consider that either you or this bishop of yours are Catholic; besides, I do not need any Greek Catholic priests here; a Polish priest in Minneapolis is quite sufficient…”

Archbishop Ireland sent a letter to his parishes ordering their members not to attend Father Alexis’ parish, nor to accept the Holy Mysteries from him. Rumors began to circulate among the Uniate faithful, who feared that Father Alexis would be forced to return to Europe,

Father Alexis began receiving letters from other Uniate priests, in which they related similar experiences with the Latin Rite bishops and priests. Clearly, he was not alone in experiencing rejection and prejudice.

“I informed the Uniate Bishop in Eperjes (Presov] about this, asking his instructions, but he never answered me,” Father Alexis wrote. “Naturally so As if a Uniate Bishop dared to contradict a Latin Archbishop!”

Further attempts to make contact with the Uniate bishops in Europe were unsuccessful. The conflict intensified as Father Alexis and his coworkers learned that the Latin Rite bishops had already written to Rome demanding that all Uniate clergy in America be recalled to Europe. The Wilkes-Barre meeting was a last attempt to find a solution to this crisis.

After celebrating the Divine Liturgy, during which the Uniate Metropolitan Joseph of Lvov and Bishops loann of Presov and loann of Peremysl were commemorated, the eight Uniate priests discussed the problems and prejudice they and their parishioners faced. They decided to ask the Uniate bishops in their homelands to permit them to remain in their jurisdictions instead of turning them over to the jurisdiction of the hostile American Latin Rite bishops This was one of the most important items on their agenda, as it emphasized the dilemma of the Uniate priests who found themselves trying to organize parish life under the jurisdiction of hierarchs who were either indifferent to them or who openly rejected their priesthood.

The priests’ requests went unanswered. Finally, Father Alexis made a fateful decision which was to forever alter the course of the Uniate movement and the history of the Orthodox Church in America.

Father Alexis Toth and the Minneapolis faithful return to Orthodoxy

“I made up my mind to do something which I carried in my heart a long time, for which my soul longed: to become Orthodox,” Father Alexis wrote. “But how was it to be done? I had to be very cautious. The unfortunate Union (of 1596], the source of our decline and all our ills, has been a part of our people for too long. We have already borne that yoke on our shoulders for 250 years. I fervently prayed that God will grant me the power to make all this clear to my unenlightened parishioners.”

Father Alexis gathered his flock and informed them of his desire to return to Orthodoxy. They agreed, suggesting that he contact the Orthodox bishop in America, of whom they knew little.

“Some said he lived in Sitka, Alaska; others said in San Francisco,” Father Alexis wrote. “I only knew that in San Francisco there lived a Russian Consul.”

Using the pseudonym Andrew Potochnak, Father Alexis wrote to the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, asking for the name and address of the Orthodox bishop. On December 18, 1890, he received a reply, informing him that the Orthodox Bishop Vladimir lived in San Francisco. Ivan Mlinar, a member of Father Alexis’ parish, was selected to travel to San Francisco to make initial contact with Bishop Vladimir and to inform him of the situation in Minneapolis.

Bishop Vladimir wrote to Father Alexis, asking if he was Orthodox or Uniate and, if Uniate, if he wished to join the Orthodox Church and be assigned to the North American Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Russia. A second letter, written by Igumen George Chudnovsky, invited Father Alexis to visit Bishop Vladimir. In February 1891, Father Alexis and Paul Podany, the parish elder (starosta], with the knowledge and consensus of the Minneapolis faithful, traveled to San Francisco. After a lengthly discussion, Bishop Vladimir promised to visit Minneapolis - a promise he kept when, on March 25, 1891, the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, he arrived in Minneapolis and received Father Alexis and 361 members of his parish into the Orthodox Church of their ancestors. The parishioners hailed this historic event as a new Triumph of Orthodoxy, crying out with joy: “Glory to God for His great mercy!”

As news spread of Father Alexis’ bold move, he received many congratulatory messages. Other Uniate priests, including Victor Toth, Michael Balogh, and Gregory Hruska, followed his example. But many loyal Uniates condemned Father Alexis and accused him of selling out his people and religion to the “Muscovites” for financial gain. In reality, he did not receive any financial support for a long time, and he was obliged to work in a bakery in order to support himself. Even though his funds were meager, Father Alexis “was not anxious about his life” [Matthew 6:25). He gave alms to the poor and needy and shared what he had with other priests worse off than himself.

To complicate matters, Bishop Vladimir returned to Russia, leaving Father Alexis without the moral and financial support he needed. Meanwhile, the Uniate Bishop of Presov, promising to forgive Father Alexis for entering the Orthodox Church, ordered him to return to his homeland. He continued to endure tribulation, slander, and physi cal attacks with patience and spiritual joy, revealing that “godliness is stronger than all” [Wisdom of Solomon 10:12].

“I did not leave my temporary thorny road,” Father Alexis wrote. “The Lord gave me the strength to overcome the difficulties of being scorned and disdained as a slave of my past connections. With the help of God, I was able to overcome all these troubles and the many unjustified offenses committed against me. Glory to God for His great mercy!”

The beginning of a movement

On July 14, 1892, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church recognized and accepted the Minneapolis parish into its North American Diocese. The parish continued to grow, and its courageous return to Orthodoxy inspired other Uniate communities to do likewise. Among them was the large Uniate parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which Father Alexis had visited on several occasions. In December 1892, he held three separate meetings with the Wilkes-Barre faithful, explaining to them the Orthodox faith and testing the firmness of their decision to embrace it.

“Do you wish to unite yourselves to the Orthodox Church and in that faith attain salvation?” Father Alexis asked them during their third meeting. “They all answered, ‘We do! To my question, ‘Do you understand every thing?’ they replied, ‘We understand!

I gave them an additional fifteen minutes to consider, instructing them that if one person protests this action, I will leave,” he wrote. “The room was quiet - not one word was spoken and I entered another room.”

When Father Alexis returned, he repeated the same questions and again received affirmative answers. Six hundred parishioners were received into the Orthodox faith. Within weeks, Father Alexis was transferred from Minneapolis to Wilkes-Barre. Six months later, when Bishop Vladimir’s successor, Bishop Nicholas, visited Wilkes-Barre to consecrate the church, Father Alexis was elevated to the rank of archpriest and appointed the Bishop’s vicar to work with other Uniate communities wishing to return to Orthodoxy.

The return of the Wilkes-Barre community also generated mixed emotions. While many rejoiced, others plotted new intrigues. On March 19, 1894, a small group of loyal Uniates initiated a civil lawsuit against Father Alexis and his parishioners. After six years of litigation, the court ruled in favor of the Uniates and awarded them the church building. However, Father Alexis and the Orthodox faithful ultimately won this battle as they rededicated themselves in their commitment to Orthodoxy and began to intensify their efforts to inspire other Uniates throughout the United States and Canada to return to their ancestral faith.

Canadian Uniates return to Orthodoxy

In the early 1890s, thousands of Uniates from Bukovinia, Galicia, and the Carpathian mountains began settling in the western provinces of Canada Like their sisters and brothers in the United States, they longed to have their own churches. Between 1894 and 1896, Bishop Nicholas received numerous requests for priests. In at least one case, the Uniates had been instructed by their own bishop in Europe to contact the Orthodox diocesel

In 1897, Fathers Dimitri Kamnev and Michael Malyarevsky were assigned to initiate missionary work in western Canada. Following Father Alexis Toth’s example, they led many Uniates back to the Orthodox faith.

The situation in Canada was not as complicated as that in the United States. While there were many Roman Catholics scattered across the prairie provinces, the vast distances and poor communications prevented interaction. There was little controversy when the massive return of Galician Uniates began with Father Dimitri’s reception of the entire town of Vostok - 600 Uniates in all - into the Orthodox faith on July 12, 1897. Another 600 Uniates from neighboring settlements were received into the Orthodox Church the following year. The movement continued well into the 20th century.

The movement gains strength

By the late 1890s, plans for the establishment of a Uniate Diocese in America surfaced, and a number of Uniate brotherhoods were established to discourage further conversions. In 1907, America received its first Uniate bishop. The Orthodox also organized brotherhoods and educational societies and conducted lectures and other programs to educate the many Uniates who had expressed a desire to enter the Orthodox Church.

Saint Tikhon, the Bishop of North America from 1897 to 1907 who a decade later was elected Patriarch of Moscow, and his successor, Archbishop Platon, recognized Father Alexis’ missionary talents. They sent him to preach and teach among the thousands of new immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and to explain the differences between Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Uniatism. He also worked extremely hard to foster an Orthodox identity in his listeners and to encourage them to treasure the Orthodox faith. Ultimately, Father Alexis was instrumental in the establishment or return of 17 parishes, planting a vineyard of Christ in America and increasing its fruitful yield many times over. By the time of his death in 1909, nearly 50,000 Uniates had returned to Orthodoxy.

Long after Saint Alexis’ death - he was canonized in 1994 during the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Orthodoxy in North America - the return of the Uniates to Orthodoxy continued despite the establishment of additional Uniate dioceses and the appointment of more bishops. A second massive return of Uniates to Orthodoxy, led by Father Orestes Chornyak and other courageous clergy and laity, began in the late 1920s. By 1940, Father Orestes, who had been consecrated to the episcopacy, and his coworkers were responsible for the return to Orthodoxy of thousands of Carpatho-Russian, Uhro-Russian, and Slovak Uniates in over 40 parishes. Unfortunately, time does not permit us to discuss this movement in detail, but it must be said that, even to this day, the conversion of Uniates - and especially Latin Rite Catholics - to the Orthodox faith is not uncommon. In my own parish, during the last six months alone, a dozen Latin Rite and Uniate Catholics have been received into the Holy Orthodox Church.

Important lessons

In relating the story of Saint Alexis Toth and the return of the Uniates to Orthodoxy, we can discern a number of important lessons.

1. Saint Alexis made every attempt to foster an Orthodox identity among the Uniates. As new immigrants in strange land, they felt lost. They were encouraged to forsake their heritage, their customs, their traditions, their language, and their religion. Their Latin Rite Catholic sisters and brothers often treated them with contempt and prejudice, considering them uncultured and uneducated. Despite their allegiance to Rome, they were viewed as “second class Catholics” at best and as schismatics and heretics at worst. Saint Alexis taught them to love God, to work together, to take pride in their heritage and traditions, and to study their roots - roots which were planted, in fact, in the Orthodox faith of their forefathers. While he made every effort to encourage them to adapt to American life, he also encouraged them to treasure the gift of faith and to defend proudly their right to live their Orthodox faith in their new home.

2. Despite the prejudice which surrounded him and his people, Saint Alexis continually challenged the faithful to be tolerant of others. He made a distinction between who a person was and what they did and believed. He never forced the Uniates to return to Orthodoxy, nor did he try to win their allegiance through fear. Rather, he nurtured them through education, through reason, and through his personal witness. And, while he was outspoken in battling the enemies of Orthodox Christianity, he continually hoped that they would see things more clearly. He sought to enlighten others, not to silence them.

3. Finally, Saint Alexis displayed an immense talent for working with others. While he was clearly at the center of an immense movement, he was an example of teamwork. He delegated duties to others, clergy and laity alike, and he challenged the faithful to take personal responsibility for sharing their Orthodox faith with others. While in Minneapolis and Wilkes-Barre, he relied on talented laymen, often referred to as “Tovtovi Orli” or “Toth’s Eagles,” to assist him in his missionary work. He fully understood the importance of building a sense of community and of utilizing the unique talents of the members of his flock.

Of course, the situation of the Unia in America - and throughout the world - has changed during the past century. And the position of the Unia within the larger Roman Catholic Church has generated much controversy in our time. In Central and Eastern Europe, since the fall of communism, the Uniate Church has once again emerged, generating conflicts not unlike those experienced by Saint Alexis 100 years ago. At the same time, the vast majority of Uniate Melkite bishops in the Middle East have recently challenged their church’s very existence and have expressed the desire to function independently of Rome. Even the Vatican has made a number of statements in recent times in which the Uniate Church’s failure to serve as a bridge between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity has been recognized, especially in regions where the Unia has been used as a symbol of ethnic exclusivity, political partisanship, or xenophobia. Such dangers — the very dangers Saint Alexis and his coworkers fought against- have no place within the true Church of Christ.

As we observe the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest-Litovsk, the model and example of Saint Alexis Toth and those who followed him, who made one of Orthodoxy’s greatest triumphs a reality, should serve as a model for all of us. While defending the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ and preserved in its fullness in His Holy Orthodox Church, Saint Alexis sought to enlighten, rather than to condemn, others; to convert, rather than silence, them; to be patient, rather than to act rashly or uncharitably; and to bring the Uniates among whom he worked to the truth by allowing them to rediscover their true identity, long buried and often forgotten, as Orthodox Christians.

Through the prayers of our Holy Father Alexis, Confessor and Defender of the Orthodox Faith, O Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us Amen.

The late Archpriest John Matusiak was Rector (1977-1983) of St Mary’s (Protection of the Holy Virgin) Cathedral, Minneaplis, Minnesota, where Saint Alexis Toth had been pastor and had been responsible for reuniting 361 Uniates to the Orthodox Church in 1891.