Thursday, June 17, 2010

Treasure Chest Thursday: What they kept

Tim O'Brien used the contents of his characters' pockets to illuminate their lives in his haunting novel, The Things They Carried.  My family has gone far beyond pockets.  There are boxes and crates filled with scribbled Bible verses, shopping lists, decades of utility bills, photos of anonymous children taught by maiden great-aunts, and notebooks piled in my basement, guest room and office/living room.  But just as I'm ready to set a match to it, I catch a glimpse, a small illumination of what they held dear.

My grandfather died many years before I was born.  I've heard stories, seen pictures.  And I have his papers - small notebooks where he recorded a family record, his soldiers book from the Hungarian Army, and other important documents.  As I looked through them a newspaper clipping fell out, then another, and another.  Five clippings in all – undated but from 1937 to 1940 - tracing a lawsuit involving parishioners at St. Michael's Greek Catholic Church in Binghamton, NY.[i]  The church split when my father was a boy.  Lawsuits were filed and dragged on for more than 4 years.  I heard about it growing up and knew it was important from his child’s perspective.  Even so, I was surprised my grandfather clipped and kept those articles.

St. Michael's was founded in 1904 by Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants.  They were Greek Catholic, Uniate Christians in communion with the Roman Catholic Church but with a different liturgy and significantly different traditions - including married clergy.  There was already pressure from the Vatican on immigrant churches in America to become more “Roman”, so when St. Michael's was incorporated in 1905 its "charter members … expressly signified they wished to be independent" of Rome.  They had their new sanctuary dedicated by a Uniate bishop, used the traditional Greek Catholic liturgy, but refused in 1907 to turn control of their property over to the Uniate bishop as required by Rome. [ii]

In 1936 the congregation (several thousand strong) split after the church Board of Trustees, refusing to accept a celibate priest appointed by the Uniate bishop, appointed their own married priest.  Parishioners Mary Drozda, Michael Andrejko, Jr. and William Biscko filed a lawsuit on behalf of many others to force the trustees to accept the Bishop’s appointee.  Motions were filed claiming the Trustees gained control in an illegal election, to force the protesting parishioners to pay their church tithes, over which priest would have use of the residency.  Tensions were high and New York Supreme Court Justice Riley Heath “complimented members of both factions as ‘doing well to keep the situation well in hand’”.[iii]

Ultimately, after the New York Court of Appeals refused to review a 1940 lower court decision, the Trustees won and St. Michael’s was declared independent of the Roman Catholic Church, with corporate ownership of the property and the right to appoint its own priests.  It was a huge victory in my family and to my grandfather who tucked those clippings away.  Thirty years later I would still hear an occasional reference to someone having been on one side of the case or the other. 

What was it that so moved them, made this so significant?  Faith certainly played a part.  The social role of the church?  In the villages they came from it was literally the core, the center of the community.  That was as true in Binghamton.  Did victory itself have special resonance to these newly minted Americans?  Probably all that and more.

In the end, both sides fought for tradition (can you hear Tevye singing in Fiddler on the Roof?) and inched toward the American mainstream.  The protesting group worshipped at a Lithuanian Roman Catholic church, a step toward a melting-pot America.  Those who fought for the traditional clergy could never have done so under Austro-Hungarian rule (and assuredly not within the Roman Catholic Church).  Only in America…

[i] At least one article was likely published in the Binghamton Press.  The third article refers to a statement given to The Binghamton Press.  The article headlines (in chronological order) are: “Church Suit Writ Denied by Justice: Heath Refuses to Sign Order Preventing Trustees of St. Michael’s From Using Funds in Litigation”; “Old Church Laws Cited as Lawsuit Continues”; “Greek Church Trustees Win Court Action: St. Michael’s Can Regulate Its Own Affairs, Says Referee”; “St. Michael’s Church Stays Independent: Not Affiliated With Roman Catholic Church, Court Rules”; and “Decision Ends St. Michael’s 4-Year Strife: Independent Group Wins in Appeals Court Denial of Review”.
[ii] Quote is from fourth article, headlined “St. Michael’s Church Stays Independent”.
[iii] Quote is from first article, headlined “Church Suit Writ  Denied By Justice”.


  1. Thanks for sharing this story!

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Bill ;-)
    Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
    and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. Thank you, Bill. I imagine I will. No one's figured out a way to hush me up yet :-)

  3. Oh, there are so many stories like the St. Stanislaus Kostka church case still going on in the Greek Catholic Church in this country. Even flourishing parishes are being sacrificed for no good reason. And so many families have stories about part of the family staying with the Greek Catholic parish (many of them ending up in Roman churches) and part of the family going to the Orthodox church.

  4. Other churches have fragmented over the years, too. There were many breakaway Baptist groups. But the way the Greek Catholics splintered confused me growing up. Still does, some days.

  5. After finding such a wealth of information in your family collection have you chosen to keep all the papers? I come from a family who saved very little so I'm just a bit envious of your family collection!

    Happy New Year to you, Susan. Thanks for visiting my blog and reading so many of my posts. I appreciate it.


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