12 December 2015

Orthodoxy and ‘bohunk’ culture

Ruthenian mine workers, Pennsylvania, 1905.
Photo courtesy
The Carpatian Connection.

The hills of Western Pennsylvania are the heartland of Orthodoxy in the United States. This fact is not to disparage any of the other inroads which Orthodox teaching has made onto this continent, whether by the feats of saints like Archbishop Saint Innocent of Alaska or by the conversion of men like Colonel Philip Ludwell. But speaking from a geographical perspective, it’s not difficult to see that the centre of American Orthodoxy, and in particular that broad swathe of parishes cutting from Chicago to Boston, lies firmly the Rust Belt. It lies firmly with the immigrants and the children of immigrants. And as such, Orthodoxy in this country has a particular affinity for coöperative organisation and organised labour.

The great boom in American Orthodoxy happened with the arrival of the waves of ‘new immigrants’ who came into this country between the 1880’s and the 1920’s. The ‘new immigrants’ were Albanians; Arabs; Bohemians; Bulgarians; Georgians; Greeks; Hungarians; Moravians; Poles; Romanians; Russians Great, Little and White; Ruthenians; Slovaks; and Yugoslavs of all stripes. They had been introduced to steel country, sadly enough, by the ‘robber baron’ steel and coal magnates as strike-breakers and scabs, when native Anglo and Scots-Irish workers began organising, making demands for higher wages and better working conditions, and going on strike. It was thought at first that these immigrants would be cheap and docile. After all, these new immigrants were not really white; they knew little English; and they came from supposedly half-Asiatic societies where drudgery, servility and submission was the rule. Thankfully, it so happened that the Machiavellian myth of the decadent, despotic East proved to be no truer on the Western side of the Atlantic than it did on the Eastern side.

The hope among the robber-barons who brought these new immigrants over from Austria-Hungary and Russia was that they would assimilate fully to the dehumanising demands of capital on the one hand, and culturally to the norms of mainstream American society on the other. As such, the Old World cultural expressions of the ‘new immigrants’ faced some very explicit hostility, and they were expected not to organise; instead they were expected to keep their heads down and do as they were told by the steel and coal bosses. But the Ruthenians in particular who had arrived in Western Pennsylvania wanted above all to keep their cultural practices and distinctive forms of religious worship, which they had inherited from the long and complicated history following the 1596 Union of Brest. They wanted to have, above all, priests who understood them. These are the circumstances under which the reconversion of Saint Alexis (Tovt), and with him his working-class Ruthenian flock, to the Holy Orthodox Church, occurred.

Fr. Alexis, who had been married when he had first been ordained to the priesthood, and who had sadly lost his wife Rosalie before coming to the United States from Transcarpathia, was tasked with ministering to the Uniate parishes amongst his fellow Ruthenians in the Upper Midwest, and was their ardent advocate in the labour struggles they often found themselves in. Although he had the permission of his own bishop to do so, he fell foul of Catholic archbishop John Ireland. Ireland, a pro-business Republican partizan, a close friend of William McKinley and a notably reliable ally of the railroad and construction tycoons whose interests he served, had long been an advocate of both the cultural and economic ‘Americanisation’ of Catholic immigrants.

Fr. Alexis – the unabashedly-ethnic widower workingman’s priest – was a living, breathing example of everything Ireland detested. Their meeting in December of 1889 did not go well. Both men lost their tempers. Ireland objected strongly both to the fact that Fr. Alexis had been married, and that he and his bishop were ‘Greek’ Catholic, which Ireland himself refused to recognise as Catholic. Ireland refused to recognise Fr. Alexis in his pastoral duties to the Ruthenians, asserting instead his right to place a Latin Rite Polish priest at their head. Deeply bewildered and offended by the exchange, Fr. Alexis defied Ireland and remained at the head of his Ruthenian church, one year later converting to the Orthodox Church and bringing his flock with him. In all, 20,000 Ruthenians in the American Midwest and Rust Belt states left the Roman Church and rejoined the Orthodox faith; Fr. Alexis is now remembered in the Orthodox Church as Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

But even on the economic front, the Ruthenians, even the ones who rejoined the Orthodox Church, did not back away from supporting the movement for working people. Nor did they shy away from making common cause with Polish, Hungarian, Slovak or Italian Catholic workingmen for better wages and working conditions, against their bosses, the police, and the Pinkerton detectives. Ruthenian families and communities opened coöperative shops and farms, often along the same lines as the Grange or the Farmers’ Alliance were coætaneously doing. Taking inspiration from the (albeit-sketchy on the subject of immigration) K. of L. and from the Populist Party, the bohunks of the Rust Belt joined the United Mine Workers in droves. More mainstream Catholic support for the union movement has been well-documented. However, it deserves mention that both Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches fully and often vocally supported the union movement of the early 1900’s, in particular the United Mine Workers and the International Workers of the World, both of which welcomed the new immigrants into their ranks. Indeed, the victims of the infamous Ludlow Massacre were Greek Orthodox whose families belonged to the United Mine Workers; the strikers were led by Louis Tikas, a first-generation immigrant.

It is worth remembering, then, that Orthodox Christianity in the United States has not been neutral or unengaged in matters either of culture or politics. True enough, the mission of the Orthodox Church is decidedly not to be a vehicle either for culture war or class struggle or political strife, but to be witness to the life of Christ. However, even if such neutrality or disengagement were something desirable for us, for the sake of that witness it has not historically been either possible or advisable to sit on the sidelines. Orthodoxy has been borne to these shores and here witnessed by thousands upon thousands of immigrants from all over Central and Eastern Europe – men who had been long disdained by the American mainstream for their foreign manners and working-class lives.

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