ST. MICHAEL’S PARISH HISTORY
A journey of faith, a labor of love – for the Glory of God
THE FIRST 100 YEARS
The majority of the people that formed St. Michael’s Parish in Old Forge, PA came from the areas of Europe in the late 19th century which were primarily within eastern Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These people are known are the “Little Russians (Malo-Russians)”. They are generally divided into two groups: those under Polish rule known as the Galicians (or Lemko) and those under Austro-Hungarian known as Carpatho-Russians (Uhorschani) from in and around the Carpathian Mountains. They spoke slightly different dialects but shared a similar ethnic culture centered in the life of the Orthodox Church.
Two events, the so called “Union of Brest-Litovsk” in 1595 and the “Union of Uzhorod” in 1645 changed the character of the people’s religious life.
These agreements of certain Orthodox bishops with Roman Catholic authorities were political arrangements which forced most of the Orthodox Christians of these regions into union with the Roman Catholic Church. Resisters to this union were subject to various trials and persecutions.
Under the “Unia”, as it is known, a new category of religious identity was created, whereby those formerly Orthodox (Pravoslavnie) came to be known as “Greek Catholics”. This was an artificial term created by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa to designate these new “Uniate” Catholics. Even after the Unia, the Little Russians did not have equal civil rights in the Empire with the Roman Catholic majority and consequently, their church life was less respected and faced many difficulties.
Economic life was hard and at subsistence levels on the rural farms of the mountainous Carpathian and Galician regions. In the time of the great immigration to America in the late 19th century industrial revolution, the opportunity for jobs and a new beginning brought many of the Little Russian people to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. The first immigrants in Old Forge, beginning in 1878, came in principally from the old country villages of Wysova, Chaina, Ustia, Grichova, Leschina, Lossia, Stawisha, Klimkova, Yashkova, and Snitnicha, along with a few from the areas of Great Russia. The men often came first for work in the area coal mines and factories and the f amilies followed their men a few years later. The number of these people settling in Old Forge grew to the point where they realized that this would be their new permanent home.
Early Parish Life
Soon it was time for the local Russian community to think about reorganizing to obtain a property and build a church. The Church was always the center of the people’s cultural life in Europe and it would continue to be so in America. It is worth noting that both groups of Little Russians – the Carpathians and Galicians – were united in their ecclesiastical efforts from the beginning. This was often not the case in other early Russian communities in America. It was the case that several churches in a given region were started based on specific areas of Eastern Europe the people came from.
At the outset, a church “society” known as the “Society of St. Michael the Archangel” was incorporated on October 17, 1890. This was a typical way of preparation towards the founding of a parish. After organizing as a society, they would later petition the bishop to be blessed to form a parish and to receive a priest. We are reminded by this procedure, which our ancestors apparently understood, that without the bishop there is no priest and therefore no real parish or church life, but just a building or corporation. As St. Ignatius of Antioch (yr. 107) said in the earliest times, “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church of Christ.”
On July 14, 1891, St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Congregation was formed. This is the exact date of St. Michael’s beginning. At the start, services were held in the home of a parishioner on Winter Street opposite the present location of the Church. Form 1892 to 1895, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated in a new, but unfinished church building. The priests who looked after the spiritual needs of the congregation during these formative years were Fathers Alexander Shereghy, Nicephor Chanat, Valentine Balogh, and John Zaklynsky who were visiting Uniate priests from St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Scanton.
Among the names of parish founders the following names were recorded: Constantine Rusyn, John Kopcho, Gregory Basalyga, Philemon Gambal, Victor Krenitsky, Andrew Durniak, Jacob Korbelak, Mitrofan, Basil and Roman Gambal, Michael Pecuch, Simeon Sorokanich, Peter Jadick, Joseph Stavisky, Harrison Krenitsky, Ignatius Stavisky, Simeon Hubiak, Thomas Dorosh, Andrew Danilo, Gregory and Onuphrey Macheska, Paul Serniak, Leon Pergrim, Constantine Sumple, John Lischinsky, Myron Petrowsky, Gabriel and Gregory Halchak.
The Return to Orthodoxy
From 1891 to 1895, the St. Michael’s community was involved in issues and pressures affecting many other Russian-American communities around the country. Disputes arose concerning old country politics, nationality differences, and especially religious identity. The year 1891 saw the conversion to Orthodoxy of one of the first Uniate parishes in America, the Protection of the Virgin Mary Church in Minneapolis, MN through the guidance of its pastor, St. Alexis Toth. This step would begin a return to Orthodoxy movement throughout many Uniate communities in America, spearheaded by the missionary efforts of Fr. Toth. Apparently many founding members of St. Michael’s in Old Forge in their hearts longed to return to the Holy Orthodox Faith of their ancestors.
During this time of factional tension and transition, St. Michael’s received its first resident pastor, Fr. Gregory Hrushka, who served from 1896-1901. Fr. Gregory has to be seen as a pivotal figure in St. Michael’s history. He evidently provided the impetus and inspiration for St. Michael’s coming reception into the Orthodox Church. He came to Old Forge from a Uniate parish in Jersey City, NJ and was very active in church and immigrant affairs, editing two Russian newspapers, “Svoboda”, and later “Svit” (The Light) while in Old Forge. He was well-educated and had Orthodox sympathies.
Fr. Hrushka arrived as construction of the church neared completion. The date of consecration was approaching and by this time the majority of parishioners manifested a desire to be Orthodox. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where their true spiritual identity had been suppressed, the people realized that in America they had the freedom, even as a minority group, to worship as they pleased. At one point earlier in 1895, this commitment was expressed in one revealing episode. Troubles were such that the Uniate-minded minority called the Roman Catholic Bishop O’Hara of Scranton to intervene in Old Forge. On the day he arrived, there were no Uniates present, but faithful pro-Orthodox who told the Bishop that his presence was not requested.
It was on December 25, 1896, that Russian Orthodox Bishop Nicholas was invited to Old Forge. On this God-ordained day he accepted St. Michael’s Parish into the Holy Orthodox Church. The Uniate faction apparently, prior to this occasion, has initiated court proceedings for the possession of the Church property. After the bishop’s visit, those proceedings were dropped and a split occurred in the mostly Carpathian Uniate group to organize St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church down the street from St. Michael’s. In 1897, St. Michael’s became chartered as “St. Michael Russian Othodox Greek Catholic Church”.
During this period, Fr. Alexis Toth had come to Wilkes-Barre and had succeeded in bringing many area Uniate parishes into the Orthodox fold. Among these was the Holy Resurrection Church where he was pastor. This parish was originally planned to the seat of the future Uniate bishop, instead became today’s Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral. Frs. Toth and Hrushka were close friends and Fr. Hrushka had undoubtedly been inspired to follow Fr. Toth into Holy Orthodoxy along with his family Old Forge faithful. In a sermon by Fr. Alexis Toth given at St. Michael’s, he proclaimed “His (Christ’s) Holy Orthodox Faith and Church is the only one that brings salvation.” Fr. Toth, now St. Alexis Toth, is called the “Father of the Orthodox Church in America.”
St. Michael’s received another holy visitor in 1897 when Archbishop Tikon, then bishop of North America, and later Confessor Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (He died in Soviet prison in 1925 and was canonized a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1989.) consecrated St. Michael’s first church building. The parish received a citation (hramota) signed November 29, 1897 by Metropolitan Pallady of St. Petersburg, Russia. In it is expressed praise of the St. Michael’s parishioners for their courage in accepting Orthodoxy and refusal to accept the Roman bishop requested by the opposing faction, and trust that the Parish would always remain fervently Russian Orthodox.
Tragedy struck the young parish early on as the original church building was destroyed by fire in 1903. It was rebuilt the same year and is known to current members as the “old Church” which stood until 1965. This occurred under the pastorship of Fr. Elias Klopotovsky who arrived in Old Forge in 1901, following Fr. Hrushka. Of sad note is the apparent outcome for Fr. Hrushka. After serving in Old Forge, he returned to Galicia and apostasized, returning to the Unia and died in 1913 according to a previous account, as “a forgotten and disillusioned man,” with no further explanation.
Fr. Elias Klopotovsky was the first priest form the regions of Great Russia to serve in St. Michael’s. He worked faithfully and diligently until 1906. During his pastorate, one of the nineteen holy icons entitled “Zagrafskaya Ikona” was given to St. Michael’s by an unknown Russian monk of St. Panteleimon’s Russian Orthodox Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. These icons were sent as gifts to the first nineteen of the American parishes which were formally Uniate, but returned to Holy Orthodoxy. These icons were each blessed with water from the River Jordan and contain the holy relics of the Holy Unmercenary healers Sts. Cosmas and Damian, plus cotton soaked in the holy oil of the vigil light which burned in front of the original Theotokos icon in the Zagraf Monastery of Eastern Europe.
There is a story behind this icon which helps better understand the meaning of this gift. In Zagraf, on October 10, 1276, twenty-six Orthodox faithful were martyred, burned to death in the presence of the original “Zagrafskaya” icon. This cruel act was inflicted by Roman Catholics because these righteous ones refused to give up their Orthodox Faith by uniting with the Pope of Rome. What a precious gift and treasure we are privileged to have in this holy icon! In the old Church, it was seen above the Royal Doors of the iconastasis. In the new Church it hangs from the choir balcony above the rear glass doors of the nave. It was last venerated in Lent of 1991 at an Akathist Service to the Theotokos. (Note: There was an Akathist to the Theotokos served in commemoration of the Zagraf icon on October 10, 2008. Plans are to do this annually)
The Middle Years of Growth
It became apparent the work of the Parish would be incomplete without facilities for education and social life and a rectory for a resident priest. In 1912, a wooden structure consisting of a rectory, classrooms, and an auditorium was erected on the site adjacent to the Church. Here the adults could grow together as a parish family in the shared life of the Russian Orthodox culture, and the children could study the Russian language and Orthodox Faith in “Russian School.”
The parish formally incorporated in 1924. There are fifteen names appearing on the Certificate of Incorporation: Michael Pecuch, Nikita Krenitsky, Thomas Maliniak, Roman Potosky, Basil M. Gambal, Paul Wirhanovsky, Stephen Gambal, John Buranich, Constantine Gyza, Peter Jadick, Ignatius Stavisky, Gregory Oselinsky, Evfimy Michalchuk, Simeon Hubiak and Vladimir Peregrim.
During the pastorate of Fr. John Kozitsky in 1931, the Church was remodeled and renovated for its 40th Anniversary celebration. A service of blessing was conducted by Metropolitan Platon. Before coming to Old Forge, Fr. Kozitsky was director of the Russian Immigrant Home in New York City, an important institution in the early life of the American Church.
St. Michael’s was noteworthy for being the first American parish to nurture from its flock a bishop of the Russian Metropolia in America. This occurred with the elevation of Archbishop Benjamin (Besalyga) in the 1930’s. He was, at the time, likewise the first American-born Orthodox bishop and son of a parish founder. Besides being bishop of Pittsburgh throughout his episcopacy, he also was temporarily appointed to preside over the Orthodox Church in Japan in the years immediately after World War II. In October, 1934 a banquet in honor of the Archbishop was held in St. Michael’s Auditorium. Fr. Joseph Pishtey, a notable priest in American Church history, was pastor of St. Michael’s at that occasion.
Other clergy from St. Michael’s were Rt. Rev. Mitred Archpriest John Gratson ordained at the Parish in 1907 and served faithfully until 1959 (+1965); Fr. Basil Gambal who served at Holy Ascension, Frackville, PA for 40 years; and Fr. Andrew Dedick who served Mt. Carmel. Matushki from the parish at his time include Anastasia (Gambal) Pianovich, Anna (Duffala) Gratson, Julia (Korbelak) Kuharsky, and Kathyrn (Petrick) Karas.
In May, 1942, another remolding of the Church sanctuary was accomplished. A new altar table, tabernacle and other temple furnishings were crafted by member Harry Witiak, a former parish president. These furnishings were in use until 1990. The re-consecration service was performed by Metropolitan Theophilus, Archbishop Arseny and Archbishop Benjamin. The golden jubilee of St. Michael’s which would have occurred in 1941, was postponed and never celebrated due to America’s involvement in the Second World War.
Fr. Damian Krehel was pastor of St. Michael’s for the longest period in history up to this point (1935-44), and then was succeeded by Fr. John Kopistiansky. Fr. Kopistiansky has the distinction of surpassing Fr. Krehel’s length of stay by a year and of having the longest tenure of any priest at St. Michael’s, which was interrupted by his sudden death on October 7, 1954. Both of these priests are well remembered by many current members.
Building and Rebuilding Years
During Fr. Kopistiansky’s pastorate, on the night of June 23, 1952, a fire swept though the auditorium and rectory, burning them to the ground. Though this was a great loss, the parish responded vigorously. Leadership was provided by Fr. Kopistiansky along with presidents Alex Serniak and Peter Mlinarsky, building committee chairman Peter Matechak and instrumental workers William Wozniak, Louis Menichello, Sam Buranich, and John Jadick. The new (and current) rectory house was completed and dedicated on April 4, 1954 by Archbishop Bejamin of Pittsburgh. The new (and current) auditorium and school building complex was designed by Vincent Riggi and dedicated on May 22, 1955 by Fr. Joseph Pishtey, representing Metropolitan Leonty. Its final cost was $170,000.
Following Fr. Kopistiansky’s sad and unexpected death, Fr. Michael Dirga, an energetic young priest came to serve St. Michael’s in 1954. He started adult classes plus the parish’s first organized American-style Sunday School program in its new facilities. Ninety-six students enrolled in the new program and were taught by the following instructors: Tatiana Sorokanich, Irene Pecuch, Mrs. Walter Zvonchenko, Julia Stavisky, Gladys Peregmon, and Ellen Witiak. Boy Scout and Brownie troops were also organized. Funds were raised to pay off the new debt incurred with the building project. The Annunciation Ladies Club led by Mary Urtishak raised $18,000 towards the building with pirohi sales and various activities. Certain parishioners had also made personal loans to the Parish to help fund the building project.
On Pascha Sunday, April 9, 1961, it was announced that all debt was paid in full. This took place during the pastorate of Fr. Daniel Donovan who had arrived in 1958. In fact, much of the research of the early parish history up to this point is to be credited to Fr. Donovan. He compiled this work for the 70th Anniversary (and Hall Mortgage burning) in 1961 presided over by Bishop Dimitri.
Already by 1962, St. Michael’s membership looked ahead to its next challenge. This challenge would be the construction of the new Church building worship in today. The existing church building required extensive repairs. At a parish meeting on December 9, 1962, it was agreed that a larger and more modern Church temple was needed. A committee was appointed which undertook three years of intensive study and planning. On February 21, 1965 plans were finalized. The first step was to transfer the iconostasis, icons, chandeliers, and other liturgical appointments to the auditorium where services would be held during the construction period. A ground-breaking service was conducted by Bishop Kiprian on May 8, 1965. In a few days, demolition of the old Church commenced and the new building project would proceed with Picotti Construction Co. as general contractors.
The new Church building exterior is of glazed brick, with limestone front and trim, a slate roof with five steel cupolas, and the impressive mosaic of St. Michael the Archangel above the front doors. The interior features terrazzo floors, plaster walls with marble base plus stained glass windows depicting Christ, the Mother of God (Theotokos) and major saints of the Church. The iconostasis (icon screen) and icons were newly crafted and the old set given to a mission parish. New pews were installed by the Men’s Club in a memorable all-night work party in time for the consecration. The church bells were kept from the old Church and put on an electronic control system. The total cost approached $400,000. All in all, the new Church is indeed a spacious, majestic and dignified temple offered for the worship and glory of the One True and Living God, the Holy Trinity.
The consecration service of the new Church coincided with St. Michael’s 75th Anniversary on September 25, 1966. His Grace, Bishop Kiprian celebrated this great event along with Fr. Vladimir Sovyrda, who was pastor during the building program. Anthony Woytovich was parish president at this important time.
This period from the 1960’s to the early ‘70’s was a time of general development and growth. The parishioners threw themselves into the task of repaying the Church mortgage of $250,000. In addition to this challenge, the normal needs and special concerns of Parish life were in no way neglected. Over and above mortgage requirements, the exceptional iconostasis work was commissioned, church interior painted, the bell system installed, the parking lot was purchased and cemetery roads were paved. The Church Hall was improved with air conditioning, repainting, and the impressive red drapery, while the rectory exterior was remodeled. This additional $170,000 in expense was met without the need of financing. Besides that striking fact, the Church mortgage would be completely repaid in only six years! A gala Church Mortgage Burning celebration was celebrated on October 29, 1972 with His Eminence, Archbishop Kiprian. Al Pritchyk succeeded Anthony Woytovich as president form 1969-73, during these busy years, and Fr. John Chupeck arrived in 1969 and served through most of the ‘70’s until 1978, standing just behind Frs. Krehel and Kopistiansky in length of service to St. Michael’s.
In addition to the above accomplishments, the “human resources” of St. Michael’s developed as well. From the 1960’s to the present, the Parish produced several vocations. Archimandrite Sebastian (Gyza), Fr. Dimitri Oselinsky, Frs. Theodore Orzolek and Elias Krenitsky, Fr. James Jadick, and Protodeacon Stephen Howanetz. Matushki from St. Michael’s include Matushka Doris (Millian) Mason, Gloria (Matechak) Martin, Marie (Gambal) Kreta, Denise (Pecsenyak) Stefero, Nadia (Barsigian) Koblosh, Daria (Barsigian) Parcells, and Sharon (Pritchyk) Shewcyzk. May God continue to call forth such servants for His Holy Church!
Church improvements continued in 1983. Iconographer Rolf Rohn & Co. of Pittsburgh was commissioned for a major project. The large sanctuary apse icon of the Blessed Virgin with Christ, “Our Lady of The Sign” (The Mother of God with open arms in prayer position and Christ at her bosom.) was completed along with the Resurrection (Descent into Hades) icon behind the altar with the Old Testament Saints on either side plus Church Fathers Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and St. James the Apostle. The work concluded with icons of the Holy Prophets with decorative designs along the arch above the iconostasis. In anticipation of the 100th anniversary, a new altar and church furnishings were crafted by Frank Cunius of Luzerne, PA in 1990. Both of these projects were funded by the work of the Annunciation Ladies Club.
The consecration of the new altar was performed by His Grace, Bishop Herman with Diocesan clergy on Saturday, July 29, 1990. The priest worked to prepare for the consecration and who laid the initial plans for the 100th Anniversary celebration, sadly was absent on this day. Fr. Valerian Dzury, pastor from May 1988, passed from us after a short intense illness on May 30, 1990. St. Michael’s was his first parish and the completion of a long time desire to serve in the holy priesthood which he had fulfilled at age 58, after serving as a deacon in Binghamton, NY for many years. May his memory be eternal!
During the 100th year of Church life, July 14, 1991, multitudes of faithful could be mentioned for their special efforts in upbuilding of this parish across those years. The Lord remembers the works of them all. Our human history is limited, but it is appropriate to acknowledge certain figures of recent times, without intending to overlook anyone. Fr. Elias Krenitsky took the helm as temporary pastor in the contingency of summer 1990 with Fr. Dzury’s death, and carried through with complicated activities surrounding the Church re-consecration event. Alex Krenitsky had served in various parish council capacities for 37 years, surely a St. Michael’s record. Jacob Barsigian has the distinction of being parish president (“starosta”-elder) for a record 12 years. Such faithful service through sometimes difficult times should not go unrecognized.
May our good man-loving God grant blessed repose to St. Michael’s departed founders and members and bestow His over-abundant blessings on all current and future faithful! Many Blessed Years!
This parish history originally appeared in St. Michael’s 100th Anniversary Commemorative Book – September 15, 1991.
CHRONOLOGY OF PRIESTS
- VISITING PRIESTS
Fr. Alexander Shereghy
Fr. Nicephor Chanat ............ 1891-1895
Fr. Michael Balogh
Fr. John Zaklynsky
- RESIDENT PRIESTS
(A small number of clergy below were interim priests)
Fr. Gregory Hrushka ………. 1896 – Feb. 1901
Fr. Eliax Klopotovsky ……… March 1901 – May 1904
Fr. Basil Bikoff ……………… June 1904 – Jan. 1905
Fr. Leonty Vladishefsky........ April 1906 – Sept. 1907
Fr. Basil Lubnisky ............... Sept. 1907 – Dec. 1907
Fr. (St.) Vasily Martysz ........ Dec. 1907 – Feb. 1910
Fr. Sergei Bazilevich ............ Feb. 1910 – March 1911
Fr. Ignatius Lachno .............. March 1911 – Jan. 1912
Fr. Stephen Rudenko ........... Jan. 1912 – Feb. 1912
Fr. Alexander Antoniev ......... Feb. 1912 – April 1912
Fr. Eugene Krizhanovsky ..... April 1912 – Nov. 1914
Fr. Theodore Chepeleff ......... Nov. 1914 – Feb. 1919
Fr. Basil Blonsky ................. March 1919 – Oct. 1922
Fr. Basil Bikoff .................... Oct. 1922 – July 1923
Fr. John Semanitzsky........... July 1923 – June 1926
Fr. John Kozitsky ................ June 1926 – March 1933
Fr. Joseph Pishtey, Sr. ........ April 1933 – July 1935
Fr. Damian Krehel ............... Aug. 1935 – Aug. 1944
Fr. John Kopistiansky .......... Aug. 1944 – Oct. 1954
Fr. Michael Dirga ................. Oct. 1954 – Aug. 1957
Fr. John Miller ..................... Sept. 1957 – April 1958
Fr. Daniel Donovan .............. May 1958 – March 1964
Fr. Vladimir Sovyrda ............ March 1964 – Nov. 1969
Fr. John Chupek ................. Nov. 1969 – Oct. 1978
Fr. Michael Lepa ................. Oct. 1978 – Jan. 1979
Fr. John Kuchta .................. Jan. 1979 – June 1979
Fr. Elias Krenitsky,
Fr. Sebastian Gyza,
Bishop HERMAN ................ June 1979 – Sept. 1979
Fr. John Adamcio ................ Sept. 1979 – Sept. 1985
Fr. Theodore Shomsky ........ Sept. 1985 – Nov. 1987
Fr. Thomas Pleska .............. Nov. 1987 – May 1988
Fr. Valerian Dzury ................ May 1988 – May 1990
Fr. Elias Krenitsky ............... May 1990 – Sept. 1990
Fr. Alexander Fecanin .......... Sept. 1990 – 1991
Fr. Nicholas Dotson ............. 1991-1993
Fr. David Mahaffey ............... 1993 – Jan. 2007
Fr. Stephen Kopestonsky ..... Jan. 2007 – June 2007
Fr. John Soucek ................. June 2007 – Aug. 2013
Fr. Peter Henry .................... Dec. 2013 – June 2021
Fr. Michael Shepherd............March 2022 -