Ruthenians, Immigration and the Greek Catholic Church in Passaic, New Jersey: 1890 to 1930


by Joy Kovalycsik (e-mail:

In order to compile detailed genealogy research for those who are researching their Ruthenian heritage, the first step (before you even get to the records) is to undertake a comprehensive study of the nature and background histories of individuals of Ruthenian ancestry (also called Carpatho-Rusyns, Carpatho-Russians, Rusnaks or just Rusyns). One can research what the social, political and religious attitudes were (then and now) so that the entire history, not just a small segment, will be more comprehensible. Research efforts will be more rewarding and, therefore, assist your genealogy pursuits by answering many questions beforehand that will definitely turn up later in record research.

This essay deals exclusively with the Ruthenian immigrants who came to Passaic, New Jersey from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of course, many issues are similar for others who immigrated to other areas of America. You will find differences depending upon which area you research and no one way is absolute. Differences in general (how children were named) to the language (i.e. dialects) will show many disparities due to their area of living (Example: Those from the areas that were close to present day Poland may have Polish overtones in their superstitions; whereas, those who came from the areas of present-day Ukraine may have many Russian traits due to assimilation).

The Ruthenians were a people without a country. The best definition and the easier way to understand them is that they were in the same category as the members of the Jewish faith before the birth of the State of Israel. The similarities of the two heritages (minority status, persecution for no good reason, a different language than the official one, different customs, etc.) may speak for how many villages did get along so well with members of the Jewish faith as they probably identified with each other to a point. Ruthenians were a people scattered over various areas, but had no country to call their own. The Carpathian Mountain regions that were situated within the boundaries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed an area of approximately 7,500 square miles. The areas that most Ruthenians lived in were not that bountiful and had inefficient agricultural practices, poor soil, economic and political oppression, a high illiteracy rate (40%), wars and disease. This made for substandard existences for many Ruthenians who were generally from what was considered by the monarchy "peasant society" and had no opportunity to improve their station in life. Escaping the various forms of oppression and want in these areas was unheard of, outside of death, until the great immigration towards the United States began to take place in the late nineteenth century.

A good way to understand Ruthenians is to do research from many sources and not just take one researcher’s writings as positive proof evidence. There are many fine reports, books, summaries and information available. The New York Public Library in New York City has a section dedicated to Ruthenians. An excerpt from the book "The Rusyns from Slovakia" by Alexander Bonkalo states that "During 700 years of living on the slopes of the Carpathian forest region, the Rusyns participated in Hungarian history by deeds and by suffering." This quote by itself truly does much to identify Ruthenians. Since they were a minority (and as all minorities were subject to abuse and prejudices, but also offering much to the society they lived in) the Ruthenians of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had no choice but to assimilate as best they could to the "party line" of that time and Empire just to survive. Always keep in mind this was an area that was under a repressive monarchy and therefore, democracy was not the first order of business in such an Empire. This atmosphere, along with their unfortunate lack of education and financial security gave them a sense of insecurity, a lack of identity, and, the general prevailing attitude of the times of those who were not in the ruling classes that they had to "be quiet and submit." In the same book we find "An important fact essential to emphasize is that according to documents the Rusyns had not resided in areas devastated by the Tartars in 1241. The Rusyns were colonists in what was originally uninhabited territory." Since the Ruthenians originally inhabited areas where there were no settlements, it was easier for them to retain many of their customs and heritage (i.e., language, rituals whether secular or sacred) and this could be a good reason why so many of them stayed in non-productive areas. The old proverb from Imperial Russia comes to mind of, "The farther you are from the Tsar, the longer you will live", was excellent thinking as the farther (and more remote) you are from the centralized government, the better your chances to live in peace.

To give a brief summary of these people and their background prior to their entrance onto American soil, the priest/historian, the Reverend Stephen Gulovich (+1957) described the following: "The Rusins of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could really boast of only three classes of people, the clergy, the peasant and the cantor. They had no landed nobility who could champion their case with few exceptions and members of the learned middle class cared very little for their own people and almost imperceptibly became Magyarised (i.e. assimilated into the Hungarian nationality). The lowly and at times miserable life of the Rusin peasant was shared by the rustic priest who, frequently disliked by his flock, vainly tried to elevate the cultural standard of his people, and by the country man who acted as teacher in the parochial school and cantor in the church. Strangely enough, these three truly typical representatives of the Rusin people could never get together and were constantly at odds." There is also this description which was taken from an official report of the humanitarian bureaucrat Commissioner Edward Egan on the economic conditions of the Ruthenians in Hungary, submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1900: "These people are without land and without cattle, and their destiny lies in the hands of extortioners. They are deliberately induced to drinking and are demoralized to such a degree, that even their own clergy are unable to help them. They are subject to constant harassment and abuse by the administrative powers and no one extends them a helping hand. Morally and economically, these people are swiftly deteriorating and, in the near future, will completely disappear." These statements, which have been written also by other authors, were a basic commentary of the Ruthenians at the turn of the century.

The Ruthenians who immigrated to the United States of America were small at first. Hungarian records of 1870 show only 59 Subcarpathian Ruthenians immigrating, but after 1879 these numbers grew to almost unheard of figures. No doubt the word spread from former immigrants who made the journey back and forth (which was very common, especially for males before 1900) and the many leaflets that were passed out from companies here in America looking for inexpensive labor (which was illegal to do but which was done anyway) to build a swiftly growing American industry and that said there was work and freedom in America. As more and more Ruthenians heard of what was available and stories grew of the wealth of America (real and imagined) and the freedoms offered, which were so denied to them by the autocratic Magyar nobility, fueled their imaginations to the point where the floodgates were opened and great numbers of Ruthenians began the journey to America. Also to be remembered at this time it was not just freedom that forced the immigrants to leave, the economy at that time was depressed, work was scarce and, in America, they could find more than what was in Europe at that time.

The American Immigration Commission estimates that about 500,000 Ruthenian immigrants had arrived in America by 1897, this figure, although higher than other researchers’ figures takes into account all those who came from the Ruthenian areas, not just those who stated that their national heritage was Ruthenian. A breakdown of numbers for the year 1909 by the American historian Andrew Shipman states that figures for where Ruthenians had settled were Pennsylvania 190,000; New York 50,500; New Jersey 40,000; Ohio 35,000; Connecticut 10,000; Massachusetts 7,500; Illinois 8,000; Rhode Island 1,500; Missouri 6,500; Indiana 6,000; Colorado. the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Montana 8,000; West Virginia, Virginia and other southern states 5,000. Of course, this also does not take into account those who chose not to identify, for whatever reasons, (which was very common then, and even today) with their heritage and therefore, these figures were probably much higher. It is good to remember that in statistic counting, no author who has or will compile these figures is totally accurate, there are many census figures and surveys that will not agree with other authors’ research but are given here as a basis to follow. Compiling data in reference to the Ruthenians is difficult at best, since many came here with Hungarian paperwork and were thus classified as Hungarians, Slovaks, or whatever else the bureaucrat may have decided to write down and the immigrant, only wishing to gain entrance to America was not about to dispute the title given to him by an official of the government.

According to United States government statistics the greatest number of Ruthenian immigrants arrived here between 1899 and 1914. According to the historian Walter Warzeski's research the peak year being for the Ruthenian immigrant 1914 when the total reached 42,413 for that year. The Ruthenians were refugees from the poverty and socio-political discrimination which oppressed them in their native lands, but here in America they also experienced some of these same ugly forms of discrimination and sometimes even from the hands of individuals of their own heritage when the religious issues started to brew here in America.

Immigration in itself was no easy road for the immigrants. Many had to sell all they owned to come to America and therefore, there were no options to come back home again. The German ports of Bremerhaven (Bremen) and Hamburg were used by approximately two-thirds of immigrants from Austria-Hungary. At first, in the early years the immigrant would walk to the closest rail station (if they could not come up with the money to pay to ride to it via a local train line) to take them to the port areas. Towards the end of the century, the European railway system featured trains, often subsidized by the steamship companies. Immigrant traffic was big business and constant income and therefore, the rail and steamship companies had much to gain making the trip from the small village to the port as easy and quick as possible. Once at the port, the immigrants were given a medical examination before they boarded the ship (the companies had to pay for the trip back for anyone who was refused entry at Ellis Island). After 1891 American Immigration laws demanded that the steamship lines vaccinate, disinfect and properly examine their passengers prior to sailing so as to lower the prospects of anyone entering the United States anything but in good health.

Once on board the immigrants were directed to their area, known as "steerage". The Historian Alan M. Kraut described these accommodations in one of his reports: "Steerage referred to the one or more below-deck compartments of a ship located fore and aft where the ship's steering equipment had been located in an earlier era. Travelers had to bring their own straw mattresses which were cast overboard on the last day of the voyage. The air was always fetid because of poor ventilation. Immigrants had to bring their own cups, plates and utensils. They cooked their own meals in one of the several galleys shared by all those in steerage. The ship companies provided herring because it was inexpensive, nourishing and it helped to combat sea-sickness. Toilet facilities varied from vessel to vessel. Some earlier ships had as few as twenty-one toilets per thousand immigrants. Later vessels had one toilet for every forty-seven travelers".

Even as the shipping companies tried to a point to make better accommodations a complaint from 1903 states: We climbed down to steerage by going down a narrow, steep stairway. It was dark and slippery. Once there I saw people lying on bunks that were stacked up one on top of the other. The people did not have enough room to sit up in bed. The smell inside was terrible. The trip could take from eight to twenty-one days depending upon the point of departure. A ticket in 1910 cost about ten dollars. The immigrants, never having been far from their own villages, must have gone through great trauma upon entering this situation for the next two or so weeks, but the thought of coming to America for most surpassed any and all fears as this would only be a temporary journey and at the end of it all would be America.

Ruthenians who arrived in Passaic, New Jersey had it better than others at the time. New Jersey had outlawed the "company store, paid in script and company owned home" ideas by 1900 and, unfortunately, these ideas were prevalent in other states. Compared to their former homeland, a non-skilled laborer was doing much better in the United States. In Hungary the Ruthenian would labor fourteen hours to earn approximately twenty-five to thirty-five cents; the same wage could be earned in America for one hour’s worth of work (in 1911, the average wage for non-skilled labor in a factory was $1.98). If a family worked hard, saved their money and was careful, they could own their own home in a short time. Many here especially took in boarders to help pay the rent and, therefore, made it ahead much sooner than others who had no assistance to pay their rental fees for the month. Most who came to this city arrived and lived on the "Lower East Side" which was an eight block area where most of the city's Slavic residents lived. At the height of immigration there were Ruthenians, Russians, Jews, Polish, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Czechs—all residing, on their own streets, in this area. Most lived in tenement buildings at that time, but there were some two family homes (more were built after 1910) that immigrants bought for one dollar and then paid high monthly payments to the seller who held the title to the home until the full amount was paid in full and, in this way, no one had to go through a financial institution and there were no legal questions, even though they were minor in those days, to be asked. This area teemed with butchers, bakeries, undertakers, stores of all kinds and every type of service which the immigrant could secure in his or her own language. The next phase of the immigrant’s life once they were settled here after the long voyage over was to find a church to attend, which, as of 1885, the only church in the city was a German Roman Catholic parish, the rest being of various Protestant denominations and which due to the climate of the times and the narrow backgrounds of those who felt they were "better" than others, were not well disposed at having an immigrant attend worship services with them.

The Ruthenians, most being Greek Catholics at this point (in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Ruthenians had no organized church per se, all were Orthodox (Eastern Christian) until 1646 when the great schism occurred and almost all became Greek Catholic until their entrance to America when this would change for various reasons) gathered and planned to start their own church. In 1890, a group of Ruthenians, many of them being from present-day Eastern Slovakia, set out to start St. Michael’s Greek Catholic church on the corner of First and Bergen Streets, Lower East Side, Passaic. From this church, the first in the city for Ruthenians, four other churches would develop during the times of troubles with the Latin-Rite hierarchy over church property ownership, priestly celibacy and a host of other enforced impositions and many refused outright to submit or quietly go along with this oppression. Being free now to express themselves in America, they did so with a loud voice and became (not exclusively for spiritual reasons due to the court documents) Russian Orthodox and with one becoming Ukrainian Catholic as the Ukrainian individuals wanted their own heritage and church services and customs in their own language. A great number of others joined a few of the protestant denominations as they felt this would help them to assimilate into American culture more swiftly and many, not a few as some would believe, left all forms of organized religion altogether for good.

By this time the church was growing in leaps and bounds due to the never ending influx of immigrants that arrived in Passaic daily. Troubles, though, presented themselves and as time progressed became almost as daily as the new immigrants arriving in the city. As far as the immigrants themselves, there were always troubles and the first documented case in a local newspaper of the treatment of those of Slavic heritage was entitled "JOHN KRYNACK'S CRUEL TREATMENT." In synopsis, the story was about an individual who was Hungarian and earned his living as a tailor. His wife and family were still in the old country and he lived, ate, slept and worked in one room. He bought food from a butcher and when he ran up a bill of $3.00 the butcher took him to court. The butcher was given the right to attach his property as payment for the debt as he told the judge that the Hungarian was going to leave the country. A local lawyer heard of the case and decided to help the Hungarian. The butcher had taken the Hungarian’s sewing machine as payment for the debt and now the man had no form of income at all.

"When this gentleman (the attorney) learned that Krynack had no means of earning a livelihood without his sewing machine, he first went before Justice Conkling and got the attachment cancelled and restored the machine. Then he brought Krynack before Justice Ross and began an action for damages against Levy (the butcher) on the ground that he falsified when representing Krynack as an absconding debtor". Taken from Passaic City Daily News, Thursday, February 5, 1891.

Other news stories began to appear such as the one entitled "FOREIGNERS AT THE PASSAIC POST OFFICE" which states that "The Passaic postal officials are frequently annoyed by foreigners who call for registered letters. They are generally fellows with unpronounceable names, and when they fail to establish their identity, they not infrequently want to whip the postmaster or his assistants". Taken from Passaic City Daily News, Tuesday, March 3, 1891. Of course, much of this can also be counted as the prejudice of the times and the lack of any legal recourse to anyone without funds or a proper American-sounding name.

Another interesting article was entitled "GIRLS FINED FOR INSULTING PRIEST", "Three good looking Slavish girls, members of St. Michael's Greek Rite church in First Street, were in police court this morning on charges of disorderly conduct made by the Rev. Basil Volosin, the rector of SS Peter and Paul's church of the same faith of Third Street. The court room was filled with friends and family of both sides. Father Volosin alleged that the girls had caused him considerable unpleasantness while he was walking through Third Street. The girls denied that they had in any way insulted Father Volosin or caused him any unpleasantness. Half a dozen witnesses for both sides were examined and then the Judge decided that the girls had been guilty of the charge". Taken from Passaic Daily Herald, Wednesday, May 27, 1903. No doubt, this incident was fueled by the bad feelings at this time between the two rival Greek Catholic churches as SS Peter and Paul’s moved two blocks away and was started by those who wanted their own parish as most of the individuals who came from St. Michael’s were from a different region than those who started SS Peter and Paul’s.

Lastly, troubles that had been simmering for some time boiled over and as recorded in the Passaic Daily Herald CEMETERY DECISION, LOOKED FOR SETTLEMENT OF DISPUTE ABOUT ST. PETER'S GREEK CHURCH BURYING GROUND, WILLING TO COMPROMISE. "It is expected that the case for the possession of St. Peters Greek Cemetery which has been hanging in the court of Chancery for some time will be decided one way or the other early next week. Suit was instituted by Rev. Father Molcsanyi of St. Michael's church against the trustees of the cemetery for control of it. The trustees are nearly all members of SS Peter and Paul’s Greek Church on Third Street. This church was organized two years ago after a split in St. Michael's church. The control of the cemetery went with the new organization and Bishop O'Connor placed a ban on the cemetery which forbids any Catholics in good standing from using the cemetery for burial purposes."

"I am willing that a compromise should be made."said Father Molcsanyi this morning and the cemetery divided into half each church having control of a part. Under the present arrangement things are very unsatisfactory. My people don't like to have their loved ones buried in any cemetery other than that which was purchased by their church. "If the vice-chancellor orders a division of the cemetery all well and good, but if he decides against St. Michael's church, I shall take immediate steps towards purchasing several acres of ground to be used as a parish cemetery." The decision of the vice-chancellor is being awaited with interest for it will be the ending of one of the most exciting religious feuds that has been known to this city. Taken from Passaic Daily Herald, Thursday, July 28, 1904. It is interesting to note that this issue never should have come to the courts as the cemetery was started as an incorporation by a handful of men who were the trustees of this cemetery, as we shall see later on, the issue of property rights was a major factor in the dissent here that grew to an all out religious war of sorts.

It was at this time that the troubles, dissent, frustrations and downright animosities came to light and when they broke, this issue took on a life of its own, family was pitted against family, neighbor against neighbor as many Ruthenians exercised their right to vocal expression and were no longer under the thumb of a repressive government or clergy. Many clergy joined in with these debates (most notable among them was the Greek Catholic priest Alexis G. Toth who could not continue under the heavy hand of the Latin-Rite clergy in the United States and became a Russian Orthodox priest and took many Greek Catholic parishes with him to the Orthodox side of the fence) and the battle lines became drawn, many feel that the celibacy enforcement upon the clergy was the start of these troubles but here, it was the issue of who owned church property that started the divisions among the Ruthenians in Passaic. These serious issues would continue for many years and would touch upon the immigrants definition of who they were which was also the definition of their religious identities. Also, the freedoms enjoyed in America had their effects upon them. Also, no longer were they willing to submit and keep quiet. They were free in this country to speak up if they felt something was not to their liking and they did so more and more often. To understand also that here, this issue was not exclusive to Ruthenians. Many others of different heritages were beginning to rebel against what they did not agree with and there were two National Catholic churches started in this city (not in league with Rome) by those of Polish and Slovak heritage. There was the founding, by mainly Ruthenians, of a bible-reading sect church that had its base in Proctor, Vermont but had a branch in Passaic, New Jersey and offered their own publication Proroczeskoesvitlo/The Prophetic Light and maintained ties to the Ruthenian heritage in their publication from 1921 to 1953.

Also, compiled with this atmosphere at this time was the very successful union movement in the cities of New Jersey. Speaking out for your rights was becoming a way of life here and new thoughts, new ideas and people being in contact closely with so many others who had different views helped the new immigrants to see things a bit differently than what they were used to. These issues would culminate with the great silk strike in Paterson, NJ of 1913 and which would involve all the surrounding cities, Passaic being one. At this time, many more Ruthenians than in previous years became involved in the Union movement and also became leaders in their various communities due to this.

With this backdrop during these times and now that the immigrants had established themselves here, their attentions would turn to the religious issues that were beginning to plague their community and the fallout from those issues is still felt to this day.

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