PITTSTON — The steady morning rain on Oct. 3 didn’t stop those wishing to learn about their ancestry from attending a program hosted by St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church on North Main Street. In fact, quite a few participants made the journey from neighboring states in spite of the weather.
Entitled “Celebrating the Present/Understanding the Past,” three speakers, Rich Custer, Dr. Michele Parvensky and Dr. Peter Yasenchak, were sponsored by the Eastern PA Chapter of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society. All three captivated those in attendance with their expertise of Carpatho-Rusyn history but also entertained with their lively presentations.
While most people with an immigrant past connect their historical ethnicity to a specific country of origin, those with Rusyn ancestry have difficulty doing the same. There is no single country in Europe that Rusyns can call their own. Rather than a country, people with Rusyn roots must point to a region that stretches from eastern Slovakia to Western Ukraine and to parts of Poland.
Over the centuries, the boundaries and borders of ruling governments changed, giving rise to further confusion when these immigrants were asked to identify themselves upon arrival in America. Some may have identified themselves as Hungarian, others as Slovak and others as Polish or Ukrainian — all countries that occupied the places where Rusyns lived. This region of Europe is often referred to as Transcarpathia, and the people who came to America were numbered quite significantly in the eastern United States. Most settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania and in sections of New Jersey and Connecticut. The coal industry in our area was one of the reasons many chose to emigrate – with the goal to work hard to start a new life. The earliest wave arriving in the U.S. settled in the southern coal fields, while later waves of immigrants made the northern coal field their home.
The Rusyn people who came mainly between 1880 and 1920 had traditions and religious practices different from immigrants already present in the U.S. Because of this, the Rusyn immigrants started their own social groups and built their own churches, known originally as Greek Catholic Churches (now called Byzantine Catholic). However, they were not Greek. To add to the challenges already facing them, acceptance by others — of their different customs in American society at the turn of the 20th century — was not always easy. In some cases, it resulted in alienation and disagreements with established institutions. As a result, many Rusyns found it easier to assimilate into other ethnic or religious groups. The first generations that followed, unless informed about their own family history, would have little to no knowledge of their actual ethnic history.
Today, many people of all ages are researching their genealogy and are now learning about their Rusyn ancestry. By hosting this program, St. Michael’s helped those with an interest to explore and learn about the families that settled in Greater Pittston and their own family history.
During the presentations, Parvensky, author/researcher, told of her travels throughout Slovakia and Ukraine in search of historic wooden churches throughout the area. The churches are crafted from logs and often without nails, and the interiors are decorated in traditional regional styles, very humble in appearance but rich in antiquity. One unique practice is that if one church was no longer needed in a village, the entire church could be disassembled and moved to a different village where it was needed. However, most of the churches now are considered historic and are protected. Parvensky’s slide lecture featured contemporary rural Slovakia, with farming methods in use today that have hardly changed from the past. Her hundreds of photos of the churches were also on display.
Custer, from Washington, D.C., is an author/historian extensively researching Rusyn history in Pennsylvania for a future book. The book is several years in the making with the depth of information he has collected. He reviewed the villages in the Carpatho-Rus region and listed the surnames of immigrant families to St. Michael’s. He pointed to villages on a map and recited the family names of parishioners who originated from that village and linked the stained glass windows in St. Michael’s to the villages of immigrants who donated them, as the inscription on each window memorializes that information.
Finally, Yasenchak described details of life in his immigrant family members beginning with their journey to the ships that brought them to America to adjusting to life in the new country. His visual descriptions virtually mirrored what most Rusyn immigrants experienced. Using humor and a story-telling style, Yasenchak proved history could be both informative and entertaining as he had his audience laughing frequently. He also gave an overview of the architecture, art and music in a Byzantine-style church during the tour portion of the program.
St. Michael’s team of volunteers combined its talents in every way possible to ensure a successful event — from pre-event set-up to the food team’s homemade baked goods to serving guests a light lunch. As one attendee stated, “Your folks outdid themselves on this one! Your church is just beautiful and I hope it lasts another hundred years and more. I truly enjoyed the program and learned some new things today.”