It’s not just any day that a parish family can celebrate 100 years of being together. Nov. 1, though, was just that day in St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church in Pittston.
It was a day to celebrate and sing, to praise God and to offer thanks. And to remember.
“I grew up in this church,” said Mark Race, of Hughestown, as he looked over the display of historical photos in the back of the church. “And my great-grandfather was one of the people who built it.”
Race’s great-grandfather,, whose name was Kusarik, worked along with his sons, Joe, John and Andrew to get the building started, Race said. Their sister, Susan, was his grandmother.
“This church, well, we’re all there to help each other,” Race said. “It’s just like a family.”
The family tradition extended into Sunday as well. Race’s son, Andrew, now an attorney living in Lebanon County, came back home to reprise his role as an acolyte for the Divine Liturgy.
He had plenty of company on the altar with the more than half dozen visiting priests and the Rev. Kurt R. Burnette, Bishop of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey.
In the pews, more clergy gathered to honor the day. Nuns from St. Basil’s Convent and friends and relatives of current and past St. Michael’s parishioners joined the current members of the church for the services.
In true Byzantine tradition, the only spoken words in the liturgy were the homily and one or two prayers. The celebrants, the choir and the parishioners sang the rest of the service in the glorious minor key music that is a trademark of Byzantine worship.
One song that offered blessings with “God, grant you many years, God, grant you many blessed years,” echoed the mission of the day to honor the church and its parishioners.
The parish itself was founded in 1911 and the church building was started in 1913, with its first services held in 1915. The early church building resembled neighboring Roman Catholic churches withstained glass windows, open altar and altar railings, but it also held icons and featured a baldachin, or arched canopy over the altar, with a Cyrillic passage, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord and My Spirit Rejoices in God, My Savior.”
The original domes were painted light green to resemble weathered copper. It is only in the past 20 years or so that the domes were repainted in their now-landmark bright blue with gold stars and an icon screen went up in front of the altar. It symbolically shows the divide between the divine and the earth-bound.
It was almost standing-room only for the anniversary celebration. Nearly 300 people filled the pews, but somehow always made room for anyone who came later.
For Sunday’s service, the parish welcomed Burnette with gifts of bread and salt, work of human hands, and set a red chair in the center aisle for the visitor. He didn’t stay seated long, however, but joined the other clergy on the altar to celebrate the Liturgy.
In his homily, Burnette said he just returned from Europe where he was part of the 25th anniversary of re-legalization of the church in Eastern Europe. He compared the Pittston anniversary to that part of the world where churches were outright banned in the last century.
“You need to stop and thank God for the wonderful country we live in,” he said. “It is truly a gift to have the time and the ability to come and worship together without fear (of someone trying to stop us).”
Burnette also brought gifts from his recent trip to Rome for those at this 100th birthday party. After the Liturgy, he distributed medals blessed by Pope Francis.
And the man who shepherds the local flock could only stand back in awe.
“From 1915 to 2015, it’s a big milestone,” said Very Rev. Gary Mensinger, who splits his time as pastor of both St.Michael’s and St. Nicholas Parish in Swoyersville. “I’m famous around for using one word: Wow! A lot of people put a lot of work into making this possible.”
He credited worshippers from not only Pittston, but also Exeter, Duryea, Dupont, Hughestown, and West Pittston for the church’s long life in the community.
“It’s a grand day,” Mensinger said. “It’s not just a local celebration, but a celebration for the area. As for me, it’s great to be part of this church family and to be its leader.”