Originally appeared in 5-6/1993 issue of RUSYN, Presov, Slovakia


When Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants first went to the United States in the 1880s, their immigrant experience was already unique from that of most other groups to immigrate to the New Land. While most immigrants came to America with their clergy, or already finding their respective churches well established on American soil when they arrived, the Carpatho-Rusyn, be he Greek Catholic or Orthodox, came without clergy to a land where, at least in the eastern part of the country, there was no Greek Catholic or Orthodox hierarchy or existing church structure. This was particularly an acute experience for Greek Catholics, immigrating to a land where the only Catholic hierarchy was Roman with no knowledge of the Eastern Churches. Because of this unique situation, it was the Carpatho-Rusyn people themselves who built their churches and administered them until requests for priests from Europe were fulfilled. And because of this "secularization" of the church as not only a religious entity but also the main site of Rusyn cultural preservation, the history of the Carpatho-Rusyn American community is inextricably tied to its churches. The Carpatho-Rusyn church, in essence, became the center of both religious and cultural life; indeed the very center, of the Carpatho-Rusyn community.
Such a situation means that, to understand the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant community, its lifestyles in the New World and the settlement patterns from the "Old Country", one needs to study the Carpatho-Rusyn church communities in the United States.
That's exactly what Richard Custer of Hershey, PA, has been doing for the last three years.
Since 1990, Custer, a master's candidate in international business and Eastern European studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has devoted his extra hours to researching the histories of the Carpatho-Rusyn churches in the state of Pennsylvania, the state with the largest number of Carpatho-Rusyn settlements in the United States.
"The reason I concentrated on church communities is because, in America, this was the prime setting for preservation of Rusyn life," said Custer. "The church community, in most instances, defined the bounds of the Rusyn community".
To date, Custer has researched over 360 church communities in Pennsylvania. He was prompted to begin this project by the realization of the wealth of Rusyn culture that had been preserved in America through these communities.
Custer's research is rather encompassing and is, in and of itself, a study of the complexity of Rusyn religious and cultural history in the United States. He uses church records, commemorative booklets published by parishes to celebrate the anniversary of their founding, local civil records, church incorporation documents and even town and city history booklets to create a picture of the founders of Carpatho-Rusyn American settlements and their manifestation of Rusyn culture in the New World.
"I began this research now because I realized that the demographics of the American Rusyn population were shifting," he explained. "Like other Americans, the younger generations are leaving many of the traditional Rusyn settlements for other locations for jobs and advancement A lot of this material will be lost if someone doesn't research and catalogue it now".
Indeed, some of the churches Custer is researching have already closed or on the verge of closing. Some of the once bustling Rusyn communities are nearing the end of their existence, especially in the economically hard-hit coal steel communities of Pennsylvania.
What Custer has discovered in the research process is of historical value beyond comprehension.
"The most fascinating part has been how accurately these churches kept records of what villages in Europe their founding members came from," Custer said. "These records show conclusively which churches were indeed founded entirely or primarily by Carpatho-Rusyns, and which churches, though not currently designated as Rusyn parishes, had or have significant Rusyn populations".
In the 1920s, the Greek Catholic Church in the United States divided its parishes into two administrative jurisdictions, one for those from Galicia, considered to be Ukrainian parishes, and another for those from the former Hungarian Kingdom, primarily Carpatho-Rusyns.
"In the Greek Catholic Church, there has always been this sort of prevailing mindset that the Rusyn parishes were mostly Rusyns and the Ukrainian parishes mostly Ukrainian," Custer explained. "But the research shows this not to always be the case."
In northeastern Pennsylvania's hard coal region, form example, Custer has found that the number of Ukrainian Catholic (and Orthodox) Churches with no Subcarpathian Rusyns is very small. Less than 10% are of entirely Ukrainian origin.
"In fact, the first Greek Catholic churches the United States were founded entirely by Carpatho-Rusyns", Custer said. "But faced with the strong wave of Ukrainization occurring at that time, I suspect Rusyns in parishes with a growing Ukrainian presence either acquiesced or chose not to make an issue of their heritage".
Likewise, he demonstrated that the vast majority of Russian Orthodox Churches in the state were actually not comprised of Russians at all, but Carpatho-Rusyns. Some were entirely Lemko parishes, some entirely Subcarpathian and many a mixture of both Rusyn groups. In this instance, many of these people have adopted a "Russian" identity.
"While these people may call themselves Russians, they really don't know what that is", Custer said. "They still live Rusyn culture, serving Rusyn foods, singing Rusyn songs, preserving Rusyn customs, but calling it all "Russian".
Custer said he also learned some interesting things about the development of identity among the Rusyn community in its early days. For instance, the strong bond between Lemko-Rusyns and the Rusyns from the southern slopes of the Carpathians in terms of ethnic awareness. "I always operated under the assumption that most Ukrainian parishes in the state were actually populated by Lemkos. But in those communities where there was both a Ukrainian church and a Lemko population, the Lemkos chose to be a part of the parishes with the Subcarpathian Rusyns, rather than join Ukrainians from Galicia," he said. An example of this is Arnold, Pennyslvania, where, Custer claims, despite the fact that there are two Ukrainian parishes, most of The Lemkos founded and belong to the Russian Orthodox parish along with fellow Carpatho-Rusyns.
The research hasn't always been easy, Custer said. Not everyone sees the value in preserving the past.
"I've come across my share of Rusyn priests who are really apathetic about the heritage of their church's founders. Some have readily told me they think this is a waste of time", he said. "Others have said 'There's no reason to worry about the past.' Some have been openly hostile and even refused me access to church records".
Nonetheless, Custer finds the research both valuable and intriguing. "The value is in describing these Rusyn communities for posterity," he said. "And it will afford those researching their families and their ethnic background with an invaluable resource in determining their Rusyn heritage.
Custer debuted some of the data at the Carpatho-Rusyn display booth at Pittsburgh's Folk Festival, visited by tens of thousands annually. He displayed five sample parishes, showing on a map of the Carpathian Region the Carpatho-Rusyn villages of origin of their founding members. In addition, he hosted a service helping people who knew little about their backgrounds find their Carpatho-Rusyn heritage through the volumes of records he has amassed.
"I found a lot of interest among people, particularly young people, who wanted to know more about who they were. One young woman whose ancestors founded a Russian Orthodox Church was genuinely surprised that she was not of Russian background, but that her grandparents had emigrated from a Carpatho-Rusyn village," he said.
Custer hopes to eventually publish a comprehensive volume of the research, featuring photographs of each church and the villages of origin of its founders. Already, some Greek Catholic and Orthodox bishops have expressed interest in its potential publication.

John J. Righetti


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Originally Composed: April 18th, 2002
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