The arrival of considerable numbers of Eastern Catholics to the United States found the Catholic Church in America ill-prepared for them. The sudden appearance of increasing numbers of people who professed to be Catholic, but who followed different traditions, used a different liturgical language and conducted a different manner of public worship, was extremely disconcerting to the Latin Catholic hierarchy.
Most Latin bishops and clergy lacked even the most elementary knowledge of the Eastern Church. Knowing just their own rite, they could only perceive the Church in terms of uniformity and conformity rather than in its universality and diversity. Thus it was virtually inconceivable for them that these newcomers with their married priests and non-Latin liturgy could possibly be adherents to the same religious faith. Because of the differences in their language, liturgy, and traditions, they were viewed in ignorance by many members of the American hierarchy as a threat to be contained or even eliminated, rather than as a welcome and complementary source of new religious vitality.
Also the arrival of these “different Catholics” added a further complication to the ongoing efforts to suppress the development of so-called “ethnic” churches. Led by Archbishop John Ireland of Minneapolis, Minnesota, certain members of the hierarchy felt that ecclesiastical solidarity was threatened by an identification and organization of the Church in America along ethnic lines. By attempting to suppress the development of ethnic churches, these hierarchs hoped that by making it more “American,” the Catholic Church in the United States would become more unified and dynamic. The presence of these newcomers, who were organized not only in ethnicity but also in rite, confounded and deeply disturbed the leaders of the Americanization movement.
Given their complete identification with the Latin Rite and their fierce resistance to ethnic churches, many Latin bishops adopted an unfriendly and sometimes hostile attitude toward the Greek Catholics. Viewing their married clergy as a source of great scandal, the bishops granted little or no material aid to them. The hierarchs also refused on many occasions to grant faculties or formal ecclesiastical permission to conduct services in their churches or to grant ordinary jurisdiction to assume pastoral duties. Repeatedly, the bishops took up the matter of the “Greek Rite Priests” at their annual meetings and wrote to the Holy See in Rome demanding that only celibate priests who submitted to the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishop be permitted to minister to the Greek Catholics in the United States.
The animosity of the Latin hierarchy was in some measure reciprocated by the Greek Catholic faithful and their clergy. Some priests resisted the orders of the local bishop and conducted their pastoral duties among their faithful by claiming their faculties from the European bishops who permitted them to come to America. In the meantime, the organizers of the various parishes, fearful of attempts to suppress their Eastern rite practices and traditions, refused to transfer parish property into the name of the local Latin bishop. Instead, these individual parishes kept their properties titled in the name of the parish as a nonprofit corporation. Thus, the church properties could be controlled by a lay board of trustees, rather than to be held in trust by the local bishop.
With tensions between the American bishops and the Greek Catholic clergy and faithful escalating, Rome intervened. In an attempt to clarify the situation, on October 1, 1890, the Holy See issued a decree which instructed the newly arriving Greek Catholic priests to obtain jurisdiction from the local Latin bishops and to function under their authority. Additionally, the decree stated that all Greek Catholic priests serving in America should be celibate, and that all married priests were to be recalled to Europe.
Rather than resolving the situation, the Vatican’s decree only served to exacerbate the relationship between the Latin bishops and the Greek Catholics. Inevitably, the outcome was a schism.
At a meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1889, Father Alexis Toth, a priest of the Eparchy of Prešov, was harshly rebuffed by Bishop John Ireland who refused him faculties. Father Alexis, a widower, a former eparchial official and a professor of canon law, was well aware of his rights. Disgusted with the attitude of the American bishops, he turned in 1891 to the Russian Orthodox Archbishop residing in San Francisco, who immediately accepted him and his parish of 361 souls. A gifted missionary, Father Alexis personally was responsible for the conversion of fifteen Greek Catholic parishes with over twenty thousand souls into the Orthodox Church before falling asleep in the Lord in 1909. Today he is a canonized saint of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), of which he is considered a founder.