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St. Nicholas Orthodox Church - New Castle PA

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


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(Mar 2013) Full Size

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Comment

  1. Thank you for this tremendous site. I was born in Jameson Hospital in 1951 and attended St. Nicholas with my parents George and Mary (Flyak) Kovacs and grandparents Peter and Susan (Duda) Kovacs and Michael and Martha (Lison) Flyak. Peter, who died in 1926, made the wooden knocker used in Good Friday services. My relatives are buried in the St. Nicholas Cemetery on Copper Road off of Route 422. Martha Lison was born and raised in Nizne Repase, Slovakia, and Michael Flyak lived nearby. There’s a great website (www.cisarik.com/cemetery-niznerepase.htm) that shows pictures of Nizne Repase including the cemetery with its rather elaborate markers for Lisons, Teplicas, and many others.

    I moved to Cleveland with my parents and sister Marilyn in 1966 but remain interested in Lawrence County. We lived on Cascade Street across from Blair Strip Steel and as kids used to explore the old cement factory behind Blairs. I recently discovered from aerial views that there were two more cement factories north of County Line Road by the limestone quarries. I found out that Lehigh Cement bought them from their New Castle owners and abandoned them in the depression. I’d love to know more about these impressive structures and how cement was made there. Our house and neighboring houses were originally cement company houses – there were even cement curbs marking the boundaries. Memories, memories…

    Richard Kovacs · 06/19/2012 02:58 PM · #

  2. (EDITOR’S NOTE) Richard, Thanks so much for the post and the compliments. Small world. My maternal great grandmother Maria “Mary” (Brinczkova) LaPatka was also born in Nizne Repase back in 1882 and her future husband, Jan “John” LaPatka, was born nearby in Olsavica. They met in Pittsburgh and moved to Chewton. They attended St. Nicholas Church and were later buried in St. Nicholas Cemetery. In fact six relatives of mine from the LaPatka family are buried at the cemetery as well… I’ll try to find out more about the cement plants you mentioned. Thanks for taking the time to post your comments! Jeff

    Jeff Bales Jr · 07/29/2012 01:22 PM · #

  3. It’s evident that the church cornerstone visible in the wedding photo above is different from that on your color photo; presumably the wedding photo shows the original cornerstone. Any chance it can be made out more clearly from your original photo, perhaps scanned at higher resolution?

    (I ask because I am working for over 20 years on a history of the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrant settlement of the entire state of Pennsylvania, and these little details are of great interest.)

    Thanks!

    Rich Custer · 03/09/2013 11:04 AM · #

  4. (EDITOR’S NOTE) Rich, It appears that your assumption is correct. A closer look at the old photo reveals what looks like five rows of text, vice the four in the newer photo. I know that according to the New Castle News within the original cornerstone was placed, “…a list of the priests present, newspapers, religious and other articles of value to future generations…” If it is a new cornerstone these days I suspect the old stone was removed and opened – perhaps during the 100th anniversary in September 2010. I’ll see what I can find out. Not sure I’ll be able to get a clearer view of the stone from the old photo but I’ll see what I can do. Thanks so much for your inquiry! Maybe we will solve this mystery yet. Jeff

    Jeff Bales Jr. · 03/11/2013 02:41 PM · #

  5. I am doing a lot of research on my gyneology. My father left SE Poland in the 1940’s and I believe I may be related to Stephen Varzaly. Historical records indicate that in 1921 Stephen Varzaly left Austria-Hungary to come to St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church in New Castel, Pa. His wife and “six” children followed. Note that Stephen had seven children, not six. I am trying to figure out which child stayed behind in the Slovakia area. The seven children’s names were: Eugene Varzaly, Stepen Varzaly, George Varzaly, Adela Varzaly Matiak, Dolores Varzaly Amman, Martha Varzaly Gaydos and Maria Louisa Varzaly Lazor. I suspect it was Maria Lazor that stayed behind but I would love to confirm that with decendents of the Varzaly family. Regards, Ed Lazor

    Ed Lazor · 10/24/2013 02:43 AM · #

  6. My father, Rev. Andrew I. Sabak, served the New Castle Church 1945-1949 as his first parish after ordination as seen above with his name on the baptismal records extract. However, neither he nor Father Varzaly and other priests who were very proud of being Carpatho-Russians (as seen on the cornerstone) would recognize the recent word “Rusyns”, which word did not exist back then. Father Varzaly was extremely pro-Russian, as were the bulk of our people from current-day Slovakia and Ukraine.

    Andrew Sabak · 01/31/2014 06:15 PM · #

  7. I am doing gynecology search. My grandfather’s name is Julis Gorzo the son of Rev. Valentine Gorzo. I would like to know if he married his son and you could tell me when and if he did, how could I get a copy of the marriage license?

    Doris Aguilar (Gorzo) · 02/03/2014 10:45 PM · #

  8. My maternal grandparents came from Nizne Repase and went to St. Nicholas. They were Joseph and Maria Flack ( were original Flyak but the Ellis Island people Americanized their name ). They lived at 417 E. Reynolds St. My paternal grandparents were from Spisska Nova Ves ( Samuel and Maria Boratko ).

    Eugene ( Gene ) Boratko · 02/11/2014 12:03 PM · #

  9. I amgiving a presentation to the Carpatho-Rusyn Society of Youngston on the C-R churches of Lawrence and Merer counties in PA and Mahoning and Trumbill counties of Ohio. I am seeking information on Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church of New Castle (founded in 1909).

    john schweich · 02/16/2014 09:55 PM · #

  10. HELP ! I would appreciate any information you might have on my patriarchal grandmothers roots from NIZNE REPASNE

    Not sure if the spelling is correct but the surnames are BRINCKO, LISON/LESON, lAGONA/LAGANOVA.

    Thanks

    DAVID · 06/16/2014 12:39 PM · #

  11. Wow, so many great posts.

    1) Jeff, thank you for the kind words. I have seen the LaPatka family markers in the cemetery.

    2) Rich Custer, thank you for working on a history of the Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants. I will be crediting your fine work in my family memoirs.

    3) Ed, I had good luck accessing digital records (not the original handwritten documents) from Ancestry.com’s Family Search (Mormon LDS records) of baptisms in the Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia. The church placed a 100 year block on the original documents. Even though the ones I requested are older, there are still records on the same film roll within the 100 year period, so you cannot access any of them! But you can see the digital records that were typed into a computer by an archivist. It shows the names, dates, events, etc. For some reason my maternal grandmother’s digital record is missing and I asked them to check the film roll for it, but all of her siblings are there.

    4) Andrew, you are correct that in our youth we were considered to be American Carpathian Russians and members of the Orthodox Christian Greek Catholic Church, usually stated, I believe, as St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox American Greek Catholic Church.

    The term ‘Carpatho-Rusyn’ and its Latinized name ‘Ruthenian’ have early roots. Friends of mine whose family came from the same region in Slovakia as my grandparents insist that we are Ruthenian, not Russian. That sentiment evidently has spread.

    The state of Kievan Rus’ was established in 882 CE by Varangians (Swedish Vikings) who invaded the area. Russia, which the Varangians settled in 862—the beginning of Russian history—is derived from ‘Rus’. Kievan Rus’ fell to the Mongol invasion of the 1240s. Area Slavic states became part of the Golden Horde Empire, parts of which lasted until 1480. One of the impacts of the Mongol invasion was the separation of Russia and Ukraine into separate countries.

    Carpatho-Rusyns refused to adopt the name Ukrainian in the early 20th century. Poland and Czechoslovakia banned the term Rusyn in 1945, but today Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary officially recognize Rusyns as an ethnic minority. Evidently, our European relatives asked that they be called Rusyns.

    A 1911 Austria Hungary map clearly shows a fairly broad area of present-day Slovakia that includes Nizne Repase as being Ruthenian, not Russian or Ukrainian. It’s believed that a state of Ruthenia did briefly exist.

    Fr. Varzaly objected to the Holy See intending that new Greek Catholic priests no longer marry, and he held a preference for bringing St. Nicholas under the Patriarch of Constantinople (not under the Patriarch of Moscow).

    5) Doris, all marriage records in Pennsylvania are kept by the counties (Marriage License Clerk in the County Courthouse).

    http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/vital_records/8736/pennsylvania_marriage_and_divorce_records/524158

    New Castle is in Lawrence County. Call the Marriage License Clerk at (724) 658-2541. Or you may go to Ancestry.com and use their 2 week free access—you’ll need to give them a valid credit card number first in case you run over the free period. You can find the marriage records in their data base or in the Family Search (Mormons LDS) data base that Ancestry makes available.

    6) Eugene, my Aunt Anne Flyak Chuba told me that Flyak is the Hungarian (Magyarized) spelling and that the true spelling was ‘Flak’. I’ve seen it spelled that way in Greek Catholic Church records from Slovakia, but I’ve also seen it as Flyak and Flack. (Although Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary for nearly 1,000 years, Magyarization came mostly after 1849 with the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I no longer have access to the church records, but a look back at names before 1849 may show its real spelling. They go back to the early 1600s, as I recall.)

    7) David, my grandmother, Martha Lison (Marta Liszony in Hungarian, as Magyarized) was born in Nizne Repase, Slovakia in 1905. She died in Youngstown, Ohio in 1989. Her mother was Martha Kascak and her father was Peter Lison. Her siblings were all born in Nizne Repase, as follows: 1883-Joannes, 1886-Petrus, 1888-Maria, 1889-Catharina, 1894-Stephanus, 1895-Anna, 1898-Georgius.
    Joannes (John) must have died young; Peter had two sons and four daughters; Mary Brincko had three sons and two daughters; Catherine Brincko had two sons and four daughters (Catherine Sopkovich, Julia Lamski, Margaret, and Mary Shields); Stephen must have died young; Anna Hnatt (an earlier Anna had died at birth) had two sons and four daughters; and George had one son and four girls. I have a photo of my grandmother and her two Youngstown sisters at the time of my mother’s wedding in 1948.

    8) It’s genealogy, not gynecology!

    Richard Kovacs · 06/28/2014 07:47 PM · #

  12. This is a reply to Ed Lazor. Father Varzaly was my maternal grandfather. In 1920 he emigrated to the United States on assignment to St. Nicholas Greek Catholic Church in New Castle, Pennsylvania. My grandmother was prepared to make the trip with him with two boys (Eugene, Stephen) but she discovered she was pregnant. After Adele (Adeline) was born in 1921 my grandmother and the three children who were born in Fulianka followed. Three more kids (George, Delores and Martha) were born in New Castle. The family moved in 1932 to the parish of Saint Michael’s Greek Catholic Church in Rankin, Pennsylvania where the 7th child, Maria Louisa (Mary Lou) was born. (She married Joe Lazor, nephew of Metropolitan Theodosis and brother of Very Rev. Paul Lazor who served as Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) Here is the link to the Wiki article on Father Varzaly: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Varzaly

    Valerie Gaydos · 11/20/2015 12:18 PM · #

  13. I am requesting to speak with Father Sally about my family situation.

    He knows my family very well and I am in desperate need of his help.

    He can call me at either 724-658-8365 or 724-498-2964.

    Thank you very much,

    Art

    Art Hazimanolis · 05/20/2016 05:48 PM · #