The coal country of north-eastern Pennsylvania is full of depressed small towns which have been losing population for decades. Today, if the region makes the news, it is for the social problems associated with the American Rust Belt. But at the end of the 19th century, this was a boom area, with immigrants from Europe – Poles, Germans, Italians – flocking there to work the mines.
It was and still is a strongly Catholic area, and reflecting the diversity of its inhabitants, it used to be common for a town to have multiple Catholic churches catering to the different ethnic groups there. But there are also hints of another tradition – onion-domed churches whose names might include “Orthodox” but more often “Greek Catholic”, and with cemeteries whose headstones are inscribed in a mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Slovak and Hungarian.
This mix does not reflect multiple ethnic groups, but the same one. The Rusyns, or Ruthenians, are little-known, and their American descendants mostly assimilated. Coming from the Carpathian mountain region where Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia meet, they are one of those small groups in Eastern Europe whose existence annoys tidy-minded nationalists – in the Soviet Union they were declared not to exist. Their traditional speech is either a separate language or a dialect of Ukrainian, depending on the politics of whomever you ask. And their religion, which looks Eastern Orthodox but is in fact Catholic, in full communion with Rome, is what you might expect from a group in Europe’s cultural borderlands.
The late comic artist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, was a Rusyn from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And the tightly knit community of Pittsburgh produced the most famous Rusyn-American, Andy Warhol. Despite being a figurehead of the hedonistic 1960s counter-culture, Warhol remained a committed Catholic and a regular Mass-goer, though his faith was so private even his close friends weren’t aware of it. He remained proud of his roots, so that today the two Andy Warhol museums are located not in New York, London or Paris, but in his home town of Pittsburgh and his family’s home town of Medzilaborce in eastern Slovakia.
The Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church is one of 23 Eastern Catholic Churches which are in union with Rome while retaining their ancient liturgical traditions – Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian or Syriac. They have a complex history, founded in the encounter between Western Catholics and Eastern Christians, and marked by exile, repression, decline and rebirth. A few – the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, the Lebanese Maronites, the Syro-Malabar Church of southern India – are millions-strong and well known from their diaspora communities. Others are much smaller and often forgotten.
Read more at Catholic Herald.