In about 1890 the first group of immigrants known as Rusyns, an ethnic group from the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary in Central Europe, settled on the South Side of New Castle, Pennsylvania. This is some dispute on the origin and actual heritage of the Rusyns, who are sometimes referred to as Carpatho-Rusyns or simply Ruthenians. Today, most people identifying themselves as Rusyns reside in the Slovak Republic, Ukraine, or Poland. Most of those who came to New Castle worked in the Aetna Iron Works (Aetna Furnace), a plant on the west bank of the Shenango River that produced iron bars and nails for construction.
Most of the Rusyns that immigrated to the United States settled in western Pennsylvania and brought their own distinct brand of the Eastern Orthodox religion. With married priests within its ranks the Eastern Orthodox Church was often at odds with the mainstream Roman Catholic authorities in the United States. On a larger scale the Eastern Orthodox Church had been at odds with the Roman Catholic Church since a schism (concerning the authority of the Pope) dating back to the 11th Century. This was essentially a battle between the East and the West – the Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox (also known as Greek Catholics) against the Latin-speaking Roman Catholics.
In 1910 the Rusyns, and other closely associated people, founded an Orthodox congregation in New Castle they called St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church. It’s likely the congregation – associated with the Orthodox Church – had issues obtaining an official charter due using the word “Catholic,” when they were not associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Soon after its establishment the St. Nicholas congregation purchased a small wooden frame church, built by the Welsh Congregational Church, at the corner of South Mill and East Reynolds Streets.
The New Castle News of Saturday, February 12, 1910, reported, “A deal was consummated Friday whereby the old Welsh Congregational church property at South Mill and Reynolds street was disposed of to the Greek Catholic church. The consideration was in the neighborhood of $5,000. Since the erection of the new edifice on East Reynolds between Mill and Jefferson streets, the Welsh Congregation has had no use for the old property and some time ago decided to dispose of it.”
The new St. Nicholas congregation was initially served by the Reverend John Danilovich until 1917, when the Reverend Myron Volkay arrived to succeed him. In 1918, as part of a building program, the small church was left in place and used as the foundation as a larger brick church and adjoining rectory were built around it. The old wooden building was essentially encased in brick and enlarged to the rear.
An article in the New Castle News of Saturday, August 31, 1918, explains more about the remodeling effort: “Three bells costing $2,000 have been ordered for the church tower and are expected to be here for the Monday morning service, but owing to freight shipping conditions, they may not arrive in time. A handsome new model altar and some fifty or sixty handsome oil paintings for the interior of the church have also been ordered and will be put in place in the church as soon as they arrive… The remodeling of the former church building and the erection of the parish home has been accomplished at a cost of approximately $26,000… The congregation will also spend at least $12,000 on the interior decoration of the church edifice.”
A high mass and dedication and blessing of the cornerstone was held on Monday, September 2, 1918, and overseen by the distinguished Reverend Canon Valentine Gorzo (1869-1943) from McKeesport. The New Castle News of Wednesday, September 3, 1918, mentioned that within the cornerstone “…were placed a list of the priests present, newspapers, religious and other articles of value to future generations, the members of the parish were addressed in their native tongue by the Very Reverend Peter Tarnovsky of Cleveland. Rev. Fr. F. F. O’Shea followed with an address in English, in which he spoke of the fact that the Catholic church holds its unity of faith, even though in different languages, rites and liturgies.”
Immediately following the dedication ceremony at the church a congregational parade around the south side was undertaken, followed by a picnic outing at Dewey Park on the west side. Meanwhile, the remodeling of the church continued, which included the addition of beautiful new pews in April 1919.
Much of the effort of the early expansion was led by church members such as Stephen Teplica Sr., who was born in the same small town of Nizne Repase in the modern-day Slovak Republic, and the Reverend Myron Volkay, who transferred to Pittsburgh in early November 1918 and converted to the mainstream Roman Catholic Church. Over the next two years the church was served by four different reverends to include George J. Chegin, Nicholas Duda, Ernest Suba, and Alexander Papp.
The church was officially chartered in early 1920. The New Castle News of Tuesday, January 27, 1920, reported, “Charter for St. Nicholas Greek Catholic church was placed on record at the register and recorder’s office this morning. The incorporaters are George Kalleson, John F. Hromyak, John Brunko, George Klenadich, Vasco Hromyak, E. Horvat, John Tinko, George Warso, Andy Hriee.”
Sometime in 1920 the helm of pastor was taken over by the Reverend Stephan Varzaly (1890-1957), who left Austria-Hungary (hailing from the modern-day Slovak Republic) in 1920 to come to New Castle and was soon followed by his family. He led the church for the next eleven years or so and later became a leading activist for the Rusyn cause in the United States. Subsequent priests who guided the church over the next three decades included Joseph Milly, Michael Hrabar, Philip Grusheizky, George Maley, Andrew Sabak, Stephen Kolcon, Andrew Pankov, and Daniel Donovan.
It was under the guidance of the Reverend Daniel Donovan, who served as pastor from 1955-1957, that the blessing of the Iconostasis, a large traditional screen or wall of icons and religious paintings, took place on Sunday, October 7, 1956. The New Castle News from Saturday, October 6, 1956, explained, “According to Canon Law, an Orthodox Church may not be consecrated without an Iconostas. Thus, the blessing is actually the summit and completion of the local St Nicholas church. It is proper only for the bishop to bless the Iconostas since he is the highest superior of the diocese.” The Bishop Orestes P. Chornock (1883-1977) of Bridgeport, Connecticut, presided over the blessing.
Bishop Chornock, who battled Roman Catholic Church authorities for many years, helped found the breakaway American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A (ACROD) back in 1938 – of which St. Nicholas eventually became a member. This must have happened in the late 1950’s because that’s when “Greek Catholic” was generally replaced with “Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Catholic” in the Church’s name – i.e. St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Catholic Church. In later years the church, whose parishioners increasingly came from different ethnic backgrounds, dropped the moniker of “Carpatho-Russian” to become known simply as St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
Donovan departed in May 1957 and subsequent pastors included the Reverend Michael Hutnyan from 1957-1959, Charles Panchisin from 1959-1962, and John Stefanik from 1962-1968. When Stefanik departed abruptly in March 1968 to take up another post in East Chicago, Indiana, the congregation was apparently without a regular pastor for some time. In the early summer of 1969 the youthful Reverend Richard G. Salley, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, arrived from an assignment in Indiana Harbor, Indiana, to take over as pastor. Salley, who became very active in civic affairs, has guided his faithful flock in New Castle ever since.
The Orthodox congregation of St. Nicholas remains strong to this day. Current parishioners celebrated the 100th anniversary of their church during a ceremony and mass led by the Reverend Salley and other dignitaries on Sunday, October 31, 2010. Salley celebrated forty-six years of faithful service to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in May 2015.
My maternal great grandparents John and Mary (Brinczkova) LaPatka, immigrants from Austria-Hungary who settled in Chewton in 1901, and their children attended this Orthodox church for many years. The photo above depicts their daughter Irene LaPatka, on the day she married an Italian named George DeMarc of West Pittsburg. George & Irene (my grandparents) are standing in front, while their siblings Pauline LaPatka & Charles DeMarc Jr. (obscured) are in back. (Nov 16, 1946) Full Size
A copy of my maternal grandmother Irene LaPatka’s baptism certificate from St. Nicholas. (1945) Full Size
(Mar 2013) Full Size