07 May 2017

Our Father among the Saints Alexis of Wilkes-Barre


Our Father among the Saints Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre

I have a particular attachment to our local saint here in the Twin Cities, Holy Father Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre: I have his icon on our wall and I brought that icon to the procession on this past Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy during Lent (which I felt was fitting). Holy Father Alexis was the leader of a great movement in the Americas which evangelised great numbers of people – his own Carpathian Rusyn people, in fact – into the Holy Orthodox Church. He is a personal inspiration to me, as a working-class priest who never failed to support the striking mine-workers amongst his flock, and who counselled the immigrant community he served to hold fast to their traditions and make an effort to live with moderation and courage.

Father Alexis was himself the son of a Uniate priest in the Carpathian region of what would later become Slovakia, born in a village outside of Prešov. His father, Fr George Tovt, was the dean of the Prešov deanery; and with the means at his father’s disposal Father Alexis was given a solid education. He had a firm scholastic mastery of a number of languages, including his own native Rusyn, Latin, Hungarian, Russian, German and even some Greek. Just before his ordination, he married a young woman named Rosalie Mihajluk, who tragically died only two years after their marriage, along with their infant daughter. Shortly afterward, his bishop John Valyi of Prešov received a letter from a classmate of Fr Alexis asking for missionary workers in America – to which many Carpathian Rusyns were immigrating (whether voluntarily or impelled by law or force by their Austrian landlords and masters). Fr Alexis answered the call, and arrived in Minneapolis in 1889.

He presented himself and his credentials to the Latin Rite Catholic Archbishop John Ireland, whose ill-tempered, inhospitable and antagonistic treatment of Fr Alexis would later become notorious, and for which John Ireland would later be ironically referred to as the ‘father of the Orthodox Church in America’. Archbishop Ireland had ideological reasons, of course, for his bitter dislike of the Rusyn Uniates – chief among them being that he wanted to Americanise the Catholic Church. Naturally he was going to do his utmost to marginalise these imported peasants with their Slavic tongue and manners, who wouldn’t ‘get with the programme’. Ireland not only refused Fr Alexis a parish, but publicly told all members of the Catholic diocese to cut him off, and sent a request to Rome to have all the Uniate priests removed from America and shipped back to the Carpathians. Thus, in the short term, Fr Alexis – and the Carpathian Rusyns for whom he was responsible – had very few options open to them. They could submit to a celibate Polish priest, they could protest to Rome although their letters went unheeded and unanswered, or they could turn to the Russian Orthodox bishop, located in San Francisco. After one of Fr Alexis’s parishioners, understandably upset by the way in which the Latin hierarchs had treated them, angrily made this last suggestion public, Fr Alexis undertook to seek out the Orthodox bishop. He made a journey to San Francisco where he met with the Russian warden Pavel Podany and was chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

The bishop, His Eminence Vladimir (Sokolovski) of the Aleutians, made a visit to Minneapolis the following year, and baptised the three hundred sixty-one Rusyns in Father Alexis’s parish into the Orthodox Church. It would be the first tremor of a massive exodus of Rusyn-Americans from the much-abused and unsupported Uniate church into the welcoming arms of Orthodoxy – and few people were as instrumental to this exodus as Father Alexis himself, who took upon himself the monumental and thankless task of writing and preaching the ‘faith of the fathers’ throughout the American Northeast, supported by nothing but a small pension from San Francisco.

Though he brought, in the end, seventeen parishes and over twenty thousand Rusyn Uniate souls into the Orthodox Church – what would later become the Orthodox Church in America – many of his former friends and fellows who remained Byzantine-Rite Catholics quickly became his bitter enemies. Orthodox churches in which Father Alexis Tovt preached were subject to brickbats and bullets. At least one assassination attempt by a Uniate zealot was made on Father Alexis’s person while he was in Wilkes-Barre. In response, Father Alexis urged his newfound converts to practise calm and a spirit of forgiveness.

That may seem surprising, given that his personal correspondence and sermons could tend toward the polemical and eristic (not, in historical perspective, altogether unlike another working-class, formerly-Uniate Rusyn Orthodox priest who was similarly well-educated and gifted with languages). He was, indeed, passionately defensive of his flock, who were subject to attacks both verbal and physical, as well as acts of litigation from the Uniates which tied the new Orthodox churches up in mostly-unsympathetic American courts, deepened the parishes’ debts and further strained Father Alexis’s personal poverty. And furthermore he did not suffer fools or swindlers lightly even among ‘his own’. But even though he was swift to loose the verbal or written barb when he felt it was deserved on behalf of someone else or on behalf of his church, he was even swifter to forgive the wrongs he himself suffered.

Father Alexis worked several odd jobs, including in a bakery, to make up for his late financial support from the Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco; even then, what he made he gave directly to the churches he served. He had a passion for education; and with the blessing, moral and material support of the saintly Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) he organised a parish school for children of Rusyn families here in the Twin Cities. He loved the Slavs and preached in many different Slavic communities in North America; he exhorted his own Slovak, Rusyn parishioners to love other Slavic people, even from different nations, as brothers and sisters.

Though he worked tirelessly and without complaint for the Church in America, his constant work and the conditions in which he lived took their toll on his health. When he was being considered by Moscow to be an auxiliary to a bishop, he declined, giving as his reason that the office should go to a younger and healthier man. His illnesses began to worsen in 1908. He took a brief visit to New Jersey to recover his health, but he was confined to his bed upon his return to Wilkes-Barre. He did not recover. He reposed in the Lord on the seventh of May, 1909.

Holy Father Alexis, tireless worker as he had been in life, continued to intercede for on behalf of his people even after his repose, however; his Life on the OCA website has this to say about a family miracle that occurred in 1993:
In January, 1993 a certain man prayed to Saint Alexis to help him obtain information about his son from whom he had been separated for twenty-eight years. Placing his confidence in the saint’s boldness before God, he awaited an answer to his prayer. The very next day the man’s son telephoned him. It seems the young man was in church when he was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to contact his father. He had been taken to another state by his mother, and she changed his name when he was a child. This is why his father was unable to locate him. Having learned from his mother that his father was an Orthodox Christian, he was able with the help of an Orthodox priest to obtain his father’s phone number in a distant city. As a result of that telephone call, the young man later visited his father, who rejoiced to see what sort of man his son had become. The father gave thanks to God and to Saint Alexis for reuniting him with his son.
It is worthy of note that Father Alexis’s shining example – his witness to the Faith, his tireless work, his activism, his care for the poor – would find deliberate echoes in the other great movements into the Orthodox Church on the North American continent; including the mission of Bishop Orestes (Chornock), but not least of which also, the efforts of the late Guatemalan labour priest and monk Andres (Girón de Leon) and his fruitful efforts to bring the indigenous people of that country into the Church. Holy Father Alexis, pray to God for us!
O righteous Father Alexis, our heavenly intercessor and teacher,
divine adornment of the church of Christ!
Entreat the Master of All to strengthen the Orthodox Faith in America,
To grant peace to the world and to our souls great mercy!

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