A Greek Catholic bishop comes to America

To restore ecclesiastical order and to stem the tide of defections to Orthodoxy, the Holy See finally relented, and on March 8, 1907 announced the appointment of a bishop for the Greek Catholic Church in America: Reverend Soter Stephen Ortinsky, O.S.B.M., a Basilian monk from Galicia. When he came to America on August 27, 1907, his temporary residence was at St. Michael Parish in South Fork, Pa., and in 1908 he moved to Philadelphia.

Father Ortinsky’s appointment as bishop, however, still did not end the bitter and divisive ecclesiastical and national disputes which threatened the unity of the Greek Catholic Church in America. Two problems immediately hampered his administration. First, his Ukrainian origin and perceived tendency to favor the Ukrainian members among his consultants reopened the old wound of ethnic factionalism among the faithful. Second, he was given very limited episcopal authority. According to an apostolic letter known as “Ea Semper,” issued on June 14, 1907, Bishop Soter was forced to obtain the approval of each local Latin bishop in whose diocese a Greek Catholic parish was located before he could exercise any authority over that parish. In effect, he functioned as a vicar general for all Greek Catholics in the various Latin dioceses in America. Without the necessary authority, he was unable to impose the ecclesiastical discipline over both clergy and laity needed to bring order to the contentious, but still growing, Greek Catholic community in America.

Finally, after six long years of continuous internal fights, ethnic rivalries and threats of schism, the Holy See established an Apostolic Exarchate, or missionary diocese, “for all the clergy and the people of the Ruthenian Rite in the United States of America” and granted full episcopal jurisdiction to Bishop Soter on May 13, 1913. More than anything else, this decisive action on the part of the Holy Father brought about peace and canonical unity to the American Greek Catholic Church which had now grown to 152 parishes, 43 mission churches, 154 priests and an estimated half-million people of both Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian descent.

Unfortunately, this new-found harmony and unity would prove to be short-lived. Bishop Soter suddenly and unexpectedly died of pneumonia on March 24, 1916. Upon his death, a papal decree divided the Church along nationality lines: one Ukrainian and the other Carpatho-Rusyn. Each was headed not by a bishop, but by an administrator: Father Peter Ponjatyšyn for the Ukrainians and Father Gabriel Martyak for the Carpatho-Rusyns. Again, the administrators lacked full episcopal authority and functioned more like Vicars General for the Latin bishops with Greek Catholic parishes in their respective dioceses. In effect the Greek Catholic faithful, lacking an organizational identity and any authoritative leadership, were relegated to an inferior status among American Catholics.  Even without a bishop, however, Father Martyak’s administration was a time of relative stability and continued growth in the Church: an additional 21 parishes and 4 mission churches were created then.  Moreover, during his administration, the first monastic order of women for this Church was established in America.

With the approval of the Apostolic Delegate, Father Martyak received Mother M. Macrina Melnychuk, O.S.B.M. and two other sisters from the Order of St. Basil the Great under his jurisdiction. On January 19, 1921, the Sisters opened their first convent at Holy Ghost parish in Cleveland, Ohio. In April of that year, the novitiate for the new foundation was opened with the admission of five postulants. In 1923 the Sisters moved to Elmhurst, near Scranton, Pennsylvania.  Here they began their ministry of service to the Church with their administration and staffing of the newly constructed St. Nicholas Orphanage.