Four decades of growth and change

Bishop Basil Takach

For eight years, the Greek Catholics in the United States waited eagerly for the appointment of a new bishop. Finally, on March 8, 1924, the Holy See unexpectedly announced the establishing of two exarchates for them in the United States. Father Basil Takach was appointed to be the Bishop for those of Carpatho-Rusyn, Hungarian, Slovak and Croatian descent, while Father Constantine Bohachevsky was named Bishop for those of Ukrainian descent. The appointment of Bishop Basil ended the more than 30 years of ecclesiastical disputes, foreign interventions and intrigues, and various ethnic rivalries. These at times were so bitter and divisive that the survival of Eastern Catholic churches in America was seriously threatened.

Basil Takach came from the Eparchy of Mukachevo, where he was one of the most loved and respected priests.  Serving in several prominent positions of responsibility, the news of his selection on March 8, 1924 as the first bishop for the newly-established Greek Catholic Exarchate in the United States came as a surprise to him. However, the word of his appointment was received with resounding joy and approval by the faithful in America.  Almost immediately, plans were made by clergy and laity to greet their new leader’s arrival at a familiar destination for the immigrant Carpatho-Rusyn community: New York City.

When the new bishop arrived on the liner Mauretania on August 13, 1924, a huge and enthusiastic throng crowded onto the pier of New York Harbor to welcome him. After leading a service of thanksgiving at St. Mary Greek Catholic Church in the city and following a banquet at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania, he began the arduous task of organizing the new exarchate and giving much needed leadership to his dispersed and sometimes unruly flock.

One of the initial decisions confronting Bishop Basil was the location of a permanent episcopal seat and residence.  The papal bull appointing him as bishop expressly stated that these were to be situated in New York City. This, however, was not an acceptable location because it had a much smaller Carpatho-Rusyn population than other regions of the country. Thus, temporary residences were established, first in Trenton, New Jersey, and later in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. 

Shortly after his arrival in Uniontown, representatives from St. John the Baptist Church in Munhall, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town in suburban Pittsburgh, met with Bishop Basil. They presented him with a formal written proposal offering land and financial assistance to establish his residence and episcopal seat at that parish. Since the offices of the Greek Catholic Union, the oldest and largest fraternal organization serving the Greek Catholic community, were nearby, the bishop accepted this generous offer and St. John Church in Munhall became his cathedral.

In February 1926, Bishop Basil moved into his residence across the street from the cathedral. On July 5, 1926, the buildings were solemnly dedicated with long and impressive ceremonies attended by thousands. A formal blessing service was conducted at a temporary altar erected in a large vacant field just south of the cathedral.  Afterward a Divine Liturgy was celebrated by the bishop in the cathedral, and in attendance were Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky of the Ukrainian Exarchate of Philadelphia, Bishop Dionysius Nyaradi, the Apostolic Administrator of the Prešov Eparchy, Bishop Hugh C. Boyle, the Latin Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh, and more than one hundred priests.

Very important for Bishop Basil was the establishment of canonical order and ecclesiastical discipline in the new exarchate. He first created an administrative structure for governance by naming Father Theophile Zatkovich of Trauger, Pennsylvania the first Chancellor and Father Julius Grigassy, the head of the Matrimonial Tribunal and Secretary to the Bishop. He also appointed a Board of Consultors which included from Pennsylvania: Father Gabriel Martyak of Lansford, Father Valentine Gorzo of McKeesport, and Father Nicholas Chopey of Wilkes-Barre, and Father Joseph Hanulya of Cleveland, Ohio and Father Victor Kovaliczky of Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

Bishop Basil undertook a strenuous parish visitation program for the twofold purposes of meeting the faithful and of creating regional governing districts or deaneries for the exarchate. Beginning with Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he blessed a newly erected parochial school at St John parish, the Bishop visited 60 parishes in various parts of the country in a five-month period. Based upon the recommendations of the board of consultors and the geographic locations of the parishes, he divided the exarchate into thirteen deaneries having the following seats: New York City, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Scranton, Hazleton, Johnstown, Punxsutawney, Pittsburgh, Homestead, Uniontown, Youngstown, Cleveland and Chicago.

Along with the creation of the administrative structure, Bishop Basil also required that the clergy conduct a much-needed census of all of the parishes. The results of this census showed that the exarchate included almost 300,000 faithful organized into 155 parishes and mission churches served by 129 priests.

From the start of his episcopacy, the bishop was motivated by a burning desire to elevate the Greek Catholic Church in America to the “spiritual, cultural and national level of other progressive nationalities.” In pursuit of this goal, he advocated the creation of new organizations and activities to spiritually enrich and unify the faithful. In collaboration with the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, he instituted an annual pilgrimage in honor of the Mother of God at the Sisters’ newly established monastery at Mount St. Macrina in Uniontown. This annual event, in keeping with the tradition of pilgrimage to Marian Shrines in Europe, quickly became a highlight in the life of the Church, bringing together thousands of worshipers from across the country and beyond.

With appreciation for the teaching ministry of the Sisters of St. Basil as crucial to the future growth and development of his Church, the bishop wholeheartedly supported their efforts and activities.  Father Nicholas Chopey founded the first school at St. Mary Parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania  During the episcopacy of Bishop Basil, the sisters established and staffed ten parochial schools and six catechetical schools throughout the exarchate.

Bishop Basil clearly recognized the vital importance of a Catholic press. With the support and financial generosity of the United Societies, a Greek Catholic fraternal organization, many various religious and devotional materials were printed and disseminated along with the publication of a monthly magazine called the Queen of Heaven (“Nebesnaja Carica”). To spread knowledge of the Eastern Church among American Catholics, a monthly called “The Chrysostom,” and a weekly entitled “The Eastern Observer” also were published with his approval.

Unfortunately, the administration of Bishop Basil was not without controversy or conflict. In 1929, the Holy See issued a decree entitled Cum Data Fuerit, in which its previous position that the Greek Catholic clergy in America must be celibate was reiterated. The Bishop vehemently opposed the decree and he appealed in vain to have this decision reversed.  When it became apparent that he was without further recourse, he had to enforce the decree.  Some priests and laity perceived the decree as an attack upon their Eastern traditions, and they began a campaign against the bishop, questioning his authority to govern the exarchate. Many parishes were drawn into the conflict, families were divided, and numerous legal battles for control of Church properties ensued. Regrettably, this resulted in a schism which led to the formation of the Church that became the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A. (ACROD).  Despite this tragic turn of events, the Pittsburgh Greek Catholic Exarchate, under Bishop Basil’s firm and determined leadership, regained its momentum and continued to grow and establish new parishes.

When Bishop Basil, who had guided the exarchate since its founding in 1924, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and needed help with his official duties, a request was made to the Holy See to appoint an auxiliary bishop to assist him. Speculation at the time identified Monsignor George Michaylo and Father Stephen Gulovich as the likely candidates for this office.  The Holy See, however, named Father Daniel Ivancho, the pastor of St. Mary Church in Cleveland, Ohio, as Coadjutor Bishop, and the successor to Bishop Basil. 

Bishop Daniel was ordained a bishop at St. Paul Latin Catholic Cathedral in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh on November 5, 1946.  Many Eastern and Latin bishops and clergy participated in the 4-hour ceremony, and the homilist was the renowned preacher, (then) Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen. The presence of Empress Zita and other members of the Imperial Hapsburg family of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire added to the occasion.

Bishop Basil Basil’s pioneering 24-year tenure of loving service as the first bishop of the Pittsburgh Exarchate ended on May 13, 1948 with his falling asleep in the Lord after suffering with cancer. He was 69. His funeral liturgy at St. John Cathedral was attended by seven bishops, three abbots, more than 180 priests and numerous civic, fraternal and cultural leaders.  He was buried at Mount St. Macrina Cemetery in Uniontown. Through his dedication, patience and unparalleled zeal, Bishop Basil succeeded in creating the foundation of the Greek Catholic Church in America.

Bishop Daniel subsequently assumed the leadership of the Exarchate.

Bishop Daniel Ivancho

Among other needs, Bishop Daniel was faced with the vexing difficulty of providing the proper preparation of men for the priesthood. Until the 1920s, most of the clergy were foreign born and foreign educated. As more and more Americans wished to become priests, providing education and formation for them became increasingly problematic. A temporary solution was to have their formation divided into two parts: they would pursue most of their studies at Latin Rite
seminaries such as St. Vincent in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, St. Mary in Baltimore, Maryland, or St. Bonaventure in Olean, New York; they then would complete their studies with two years of schooling at either of the seminaries in Prešov or Užhorod. The outbreak of World War II ended this possibility, so the candidates then attended St. Procopius Benedictine College and Seminary in Lisle, Illinois.  Eventually it was seen that this arrangement was neither efficient nor satisfactory. Thus, the construction and staffing of a seminary became a necessity.

Many of the bishop’s advisors opposed building a seminary, arguing that construction of a new cathedral with greater seating capacity and with a more central location in Pittsburgh would better serve the needs of the Exarchate.  They reasoned that providing for greater attendance at religious ceremonies and presenting the identity and splendor of the Eastern Churches to the United States was of supreme importance.

Since he lacked the financial resources to undertake both projects, Bishop Daniel was forced to choose between building either a seminary or a new cathedral. Despite the unanimous recommendation of his Board of Consultors in favor of a cathedral, the bishop decided to construct a seminary. In a pastoral letter dated June 14, 1950 to the clergy and faithful of the Exarchate, he announced plans for its construction and operation.

A tract of land was acquired at the corner of Perrysville and Riverview Avenues on Pittsburgh’s North Side, and an architect and contractor were hired to design and build the new building. The grounds were solemnly blessed on July 5, 1950.

The new seminary, dedicated to Saints Cyril and Methodius the Apostles of the Slavs, opened with temporary accommodations in two buildings adjacent to the property on October 16, 1950 with 40 student seminarians and a faculty of five priests.

A year later, on the morning of October 18, 1951, the beautiful new seminary building was officially dedicated and blessed by Bishop Daniel. Bishop John F. Dearden, the Latin Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh, delivered one of the sermons. Twenty bishops, 400 clergy and religious and an estimated 5,000 laity attended this memorable event.  A civic program was held in the afternoon featuring a number of notable figures, including Mayor of Pittsburgh David L. Lawrence, Governor of Pennsylvania John S. Fine, Father Vernon L. Gallagher, President of Duquesne University, and Stephen Tkach, President of the Greek Catholic Union, a notable financial supporter of the Seminary.

In addition to erecting the seminary, Bishop Daniel encouraged the founding of Eastern monastic communities in the Exarchate.  An order of monks following the Rule of St. Benedict was established in the late 1940s; their first home was located at St. Nicholas Church in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and then later moved to a property in suburban Forest Hills. In 1954 a group of Benedictine Sisters from Lisle, Illinois came to Saints Peter and Paul Church in Warren, Ohio to found their monastery.  The Franciscan Friars saw their origin at Holy Dormition Monastery in Sybertsville, Pennsylvania.

Bishop Daniel’s episcopacy was concluded suddenly when he resigned his ministry for personal reasons in December of 1954. He retired to Florida where he fell asleep in the Lord in 1972. Though his tenure was short, he continued the work of his predecessor, and he is acknowledged for his vision with the establishment of the seminary.

Bishop Nicholas T. Elko

With the abrupt and unexpected resignation of Bishop Daniel, the responsibility for leading the ever-growing exarchate was entrusted to the Vicar General, Monsignor Nicholas T. Elko, originally of St. Michael Church in Donora, Pennsylvania.  While he was serving as the rector of St. John Cathedral in Munhall, he was named the Apostolic Administrator “sede plena” of the Exarchate on December 2, 1954.

As Apostolic Administrator, Monsignor Nicholas possessed all of the powers and authority to administer the affairs of the Exarchate granted to a bishop with one exception: the power to ordain priests. This soon was to be changed when on February 16, 1955, Archbishop Amleto G. Cicognani, the Vatican’s delegate to the United States, announced that Monsignor Nicholas would be elevated to the episcopacy.

On March 6, 1955, with his mother and two brothers in attendance, Monsignor Nicholas was ordained a bishop at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The ordaining prelate was one of the highest ranking officials in the Vatican Curia: Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. At the age of 46, Monsignor Nicholas Thomas Elko became the first American-born Bishop of the Greek Catholic Church.

An accomplished speaker and writer, Bishop Nicholas ardently endeavored to make the liturgical richness and spirituality of the Byzantine Church better known and appreciated by the Latin Catholics both in the United States and abroad.

Recognizing the necessity for the Church to be more responsive to the needs of its now increasingly American-born faithful, and to adapt to the conditions presented by modern American life, Bishop Nicholas embarked upon a course of dynamic changes within the Exarchate. In 1955, he sought and was granted permission by the Holy See to permit English to be used in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This was a radical move at this time, because English was still forbidden in the Liturgy of the Latin Church.

Bishop Nicholas established a weekly newspaper in 1956 to evangelize and spread Church and religious news to the faithful and to effectively unite the vast territory of the Exarchate.  This newspaper, The Byzantine Catholic World, was an indication of the sense of change sweeping through the Exarchate.  “Greek Catholic” was replaced by the term “Byzantine Catholic” as a means to clarify the religious and ritual identification of the Church for American Catholics.

Bishop Nicholas’ tenure also was an era of tremendous growth, expansion and development of structures and facilities. Under his direction, more than 100 churches and schools were constructed or reconstructed. This expansion program, while absolutely necessary to accommodate larger congregations, was later seen to have a major unfortunate consequence. In an effort to be like other American Catholic churches, many traditional Byzantine architectural features such as icon screens were omitted or removed from the newly-built or renovated churches.  Though the changes that he initiated helped open the exarchate to American Catholicism, they also diluted ethnic and cultural values in a drive to encourage the children of immigrants to enter into the great American melting pot.

Mindful of the need to serve an increasingly mobile laity, Bishop Nicholas assigned priests to organizational work in other areas of the country. The result of their zealous labors was the establishment of new parishes in such places as Van Nuys, California in 1956, Anchorage, Alaska in 1957, and in Fontana and San Diego, California in 1958.

Auxiliary Bishop Stephen J. Kocisko

Because of the increasing numbers of both faithful and parishes, Bishop Nicholas petitioned the Holy See for an auxiliary bishop to assist him. His request was granted and he was notified that Father Stephen J. Kocisko would be elevated to the episcopacy. At that time, in addition to serving as pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, Father Stephen also was a member of the Matrimonial Tribunal, professor of Patrology at the Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius and Chancellor of the Exarchate.                                                                                                                                                  

Following his episcopal ordination On October 23, 1956 at St. Paul Latin Catholic Cathedral in Pittsburgh, Bishop Stephen resided at Holy Ghost Parish on Pittsburgh’s North Side. For seven years, he served as auxiliary to Bishop Nicholas.  He also assumed the administrative positions of Seminary Rector and Vicar General.