Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Minnesota Blizzard's Americanism

Recalling that it was for only 30 silver shekels that Judas betrayed the Lord 

A Roman Catholic archbishop who was nicknamed the "Minnesota Blizzard" was so convinced of the heresy of Americanism that it led him to drive what eventually became tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Ruthenian Catholics out of the Catholic Church, leading to the new nickname of "The Father of American Orthodoxy" in reference to the Ruthenians who joined the Russian Orthodox Church in Archbishop Ireland's wake. Below is a short excerpt from Marvin Richard O'Connell's John Ireland and the American Catholic Church which covers some of the difficulties Greek-Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe experienced upon moving to the United States in the 18-1900s. (It uses terminology that is considered offensive today but which was acceptable at the time.)
     Two weeks after writing the long report to Cardinal Gibbons about the Scandinavians, on December 19, 1889, the archbishop of St. Paul gave an interview in his office to Father Alexis Goergievich Toth, recently arrived in the United States from his birthplace and the scene of his early priestly ministry in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Toth, a learned man of thirty-six, was a Uniate--that is, he belonged to one of the non-Latin rites in union with the Roman see but distinctive in their liturgical languages and ecclesiastical customs. A group of Ruthenian Uniates had established their own parish earlier in the year in Northeast Minneapolis--where a good many eastern European immigrants had settled--and had called Father Toth to be their pastor.
     The priest presented the archbishop his credentials, and, as Toth recalled it, Ireland's hands trembled as he read them. Then he looked up, and said abruptly in Latin: "Have you a wife?"
     "No," Toth answered in the same language.
     "But you had one?"
     "Yes, I am a widower."
      Ireland tossed the documents on the desk in front of him. "I have already written to Rome protesting against this kind of priest being sent to me!"
     "What kind of priest do you mean?"
     "Your kind."
     "I am a Catholic priest of the Greek rite," Toth protested. "I am a Uniate and was ordained by a regular Catholic bishop."
     "I do not consider that either you or this bishop of yours are Catholic; besides I do not need any Greek Catholic priests here; a Polish priest in Minneapolis is quite sufficient; the Greeks can also have him for their priest."
      This rude and testy reaction on Ireland's part was only the beginning of his vendetta against the Uniates. He immediately instructed the clergy of Northeast Minneapolis to have no association with Toth and, furthermore, to state publicly from their pulpits that not even the Ruthenian Catholics were permitted to approach the Uniate priest for the sacraments. Nor was the archbishop content to manifest his dislike within the limits of his own jurisdiction. In every national forum during the succeeding years he pressed for a general prohibition of Uniate activity, and he carried his case directly to Propaganda. Father Toth, meantime, was not one to be intimidated; he carried on his ministry in the face of Ireland's hostility until 1891, when he and 365 parishioners, refusing in effect to either be Americanized or Latinized, were formally received into the Russian Orthodox church. What started as a trickle in Minnesota soon swelled into a vast wave of schism all around the country, costing the Roman church, by conservative estimates, a quarter of a million communicants.
      Ireland's bias against the Uniates was by no means unique; his episcopal colleagues, Americanist and anti-Americanist alike, shared it, or at least condoned it and thereby participated in causing the massive exodus. Their conduct, if tragically shortsighted, was perfectly predictable. One principal reason for it can be seen in the very first part of the exchange between Ireland and Toth: celibacy for the parochial clergy was not a requirement in the Eastern tradition, whether Uniate or Orthodox. Some bishops feared--though Ireland himself did not stress this point--that their Latin-rite priests would demand wives if the married Uniates established parishes nearby. For Ireland, however, the problem was not so much one of sexual expression as of status and and conformity. In the United States a Catholic priest was, in the popular mind, defined as an unmarried man, and indeed enjoyed a certain position within his community as a result. Would it do to try to explain to the average Catholic parishioner that Father Toth was as much a priest as, say, Monsignor Ravoux? But of course he was, as the Catholic church had taught consistently for unnumbered centuries, and Ireland knew it. His attitude therefore is hard to forgive, but not hard to explain. And even leaving aside the celibacy issue, his obsession with the process of Americanization would have led him to strike hard at the Uniates, who were notoriously attached to their Old-World customs. Bad enough the Germans, who at least worshiped in the Latin tongue and maintained an unmarried clergy like other Catholics.
      Finally, the conflict boiled down, as did so many conflicts in Ireland's career, to the issue of governance. Toth's credentials came from his bishop back in Slovakia. They stated clearly that Toth and those like him were subject to the local Latin ordinary, until such time as a Uniate jurisdiction were established in the United States. This was a perfectly reasonable and canonically acceptable position to take. But Ireland and the rest of the hierarchy stubbornly resisted any such intrusion into their authority. Propaganda, so often annoyed at the American bishops' claims to independence of Rome, supinely surrendered to their demands vis-√†-vis the Uniates, and so shared responsibility for the catastrophe that followed. When on one occasion Ireland wrote Simeoni to thank him for his support against the "Greeks," he put it succinctly the principle of policy that meant more to him than any other: "The difficulties encountered by the Church in America due to diverse populations coming to our shores are immense. The only remedy, I am convinced, is to strengthen the authority of the bishops [les bras episcopals]. It is the only way to bind the different elements together and prevent chaos and schism." These words have a hollow sound in light of events going on before Ireland's eyes.
      If Ireland's advocacy of the blacks displayed him at his best, his belligerence toward the Uniates showed him at his bull-headed worst. Meanwhile, the American dream still awaited fulfillment for all that multitude of diverse peoples who had settled the new land, but Ireland never doubted that his own mixture of religion and patriotism could bring that happy day ever closer.
Wednesday's Wages are a series of posts which highlight past and present struggles faced by Eastern and Oriental Catholics including the topics of bioethics and persecution. Do you know of a homily, lecture, interview or biography which you think should be featured here? Leave a comment to let me know.


  1. wow- I knew about him- but I never really dug into this- too depressing....

  2. I have heard many such stories from my grandparents and their friends. We lost so many of our people because of the ignorance and arrogance of the Roman Catholic church. However, this has not ended. My son has attended Roman Catholic schools where teachers didn't know we existed. Don't worry, he and his friends made sure they learned. It is all so sad... and that is how I imagine Christ when He thinks of it.

  3. I can't find a word to describe the disgust and sadness I feel when I encounter this attitude today. To know that a child and a priest's wife encounter their own Bishop Irelands to this day is a sad legacy for the Americans of the Roman Catholic Church.


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