They’re keeping traditions alive

June 27th, 2015 1:48 am

First Posted: 6/12/2013

At first glance, the two churches are considerably different.

St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church on North Main Street in Pittston is ornate with imagery, while the Italian Christian Church on East Oak Street in Pittston has a simple quaintness.

But a closer look reveals the churches are deeply in touch with their own ethnic heritage. And both houses of worship will be featured next Sunday, June 23, at the Eighth Annual Tour of Historic Churches of Greater Pittston.

Organizer Jan Lokuta said both churches are unique in an artistic tradition that’s central to their faith.

“They are very different in their traditions and practices and their architecture,” he said. “But they are also alike. St. Michael’s will be visual art, which displays ethnic heritage and faith, the Italian Christian Church will present their connection to their (Italian) heritage through music.”

Lokuta said neither church has ornate statues, like those in many Roman Catholic churches in the area.

“There is no statuary in Protestant churches,” Lokuta said. “And the icons take the place of the statues in St. Michael’s.”

The history of the Byzantine Rite dates back to the years after Jesus Christ died. After Pentecost, his followers spread out, bringing the words of Christ to the major cities of the world. One city was Constantinople, at that time known as Byzantium, where two Greek missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius, brought the Byzantine way of worship to Central and Eastern Europe. From these ethnic groupings (Slavs, Greeks, Hungarians, Croatians, Russians, Ukrainians), many people emigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century, bringing with them the Byzantine Rite and traditions.

St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church, with traditions rooted in the Ukraine, Eastermost Slovakia and Corsica, was formed in 1915 by Eastern Rite Catholics from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Rev. Joseph Bertha, pastor, who has a Ph.D. in art history, will host the group.

“During the tour, I will explain the significance of the icons and their relation to Liturgical use,” Bertha said. Icons, a central part of the church’s décor, are portrait panels that portray religious figures such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. They represent visions of heaven, Bertha said.

St. Michael’s underwent a major renovation in the 1980s to bring the church in step with the Byzantine traditions, Bertha said.

One feature of the church is an icon screen.

“It’s like a movie screen in front of the altar, upon which images of heaven are projected,” Lokuta said.

Across town, Italian Christian Church was incorporated on Feb. 26, 1935. The small church, with about 50 members, prides itself on hymns sung in Italian.

“We’re maintaining the legacy of the Italian immigrants,” said Assistant Pastor Peter Sellani, of West Pittston. Improvements to the church were made in 1959 and again in 1989.

Sellani said a prominent feature of the church is its eight beautiful stained-glass windows.

In past years, the church tour encompassed more churches, but the tour had less time at each. Last year, for instance, the tour focused on West Pittston and took the group to the First Presbyterian Church on Exeter Avenue, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the First Congregational United Church of Christ and Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, all on Luzerne Avenue, Trinity Episcopal Church on Montgomery Avenue and the First United Methodist Church on Wyoming Avenue.

“This year, we’re going to spend more time at the churches and get a good feel for them,” Lokuta said.

The tour, part of the Wyoming Valley Riverfest and sponsored by the Greater Pittston Ministerium, will last about an hour at each church. Lokuta said anyone interested in taking the tour should meet at St. Michael’s at 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 23. After about an hour, the group will carpool to Italian Christian Church. There, the church’s choir will perform several songs in Italian and English.

Lokuta said the tour is free but those attending are asked to wear comfortable shoes and to wear clothing appropriate for an active house of worship.

“The area in and around Pittston has a real treasure trove of churches,” Lokuta said. “There’s a lot more to learn.”

Lokuta said the Protestants have deep roots in Italy. In fact, one of the oldest Protestant sects is from Northern Italy, prior to Martin Luther.