Elements of our Lord’s story of the Prodigal Son can apply to most of us at some time or other in our lives. We have all abandoned our father’s “house” for what appears to be a more advantageous life of our own choosing. When we come to our senses, we realize that we must return to the love we experienced at home.
This story is also applicable to many members of a religious body – Uniate Christians – who returned to the fold of the Orthodox Church in the late 19th century. St. Alexis Toth led the way for this wonderful reunion.
Alexis was born in 1853 in Hungary (Slovakia). Although the “Greek Catholic” Christians of this area had originally been Orthodox, they had been forced into a political union with Rome in the 16th century and the official church of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the Roman Catholic Church.
Alexis’ father was a priest and the son followed in his father’s footsteps when he entered first the Roman Catholic seminary and then transferred to the Uniate Greek Seminary in Ungvar. He pursued further education in theology at the University of Prague before his marriage to Rosalie, the daughter of a priest in 1878. Later that year, Alexis was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Nicholas, the Greek Catholic bishop of Presov. After two years of serving a parish, Fr. Alexis became a teacher of canon law and church history in the seminary in Presov. Not long after, Rosalie and the couple’s only child died.
A petition was sent from America asking for a priest to be sent to Minneapolis to minister to the immigrant community who had established St. Mary’s Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in that city. In 1889, the widower Fr. Alexis was sent to fill this need. He found a church with an incomplete building, no furnishings or vestments, but a considerable debt. In the first year – without receiving a salary – Fr. Alexis worked tirelessly to acquire the necessary liturgical items, to preach to his flock, and to gather donations to cover the debt owed. From his own savings, the priest bought a house and opened a grocery store in which he worked as a baker. With income from this small business, Fr. Alexis assisted poor members of the parish and employed a caretaker and a chanter for the church.
Another task which Fr. Alexis had to take on was to meet with the local bishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Bishop John Ireland. As his name would indicate, this Roman Catholic bishop was of Irish decent and was not inclined to be sympathetic to the newer immigrants from Eastern Europe. He (and many other American Roman Catholic bishops at this time) was anxious to have his people assimilate into the general American culture. When he met with Fr. Alexis, his anger was sparked on several levels.
At the meeting, Fr. Alexis kissed the bishop’s ring according to custom, but he neglected to kneel before the bishop, thus beginning their meeting on a bad note. When the bishop saw from the credentials that he presented that Fr. Alexis was “Greek Catholic”, his first question was “Do you have a wife?” The fact that Fr. Alexis was a widower did not diminish the bishop’s anger. He told him that he did not consider him a Catholic and would not allow any Catholics under his jurisdiction to attend any services conducted by Fr. Alexis.
After this unhappy encounter, Fr. Alexis wrote to his Greek Catholic bishop in Slovakia and to Rome for advice on what to do, but he received no replies. Other Uniate priests told Fr. Alexis that they had encountered the same sort of treatment from the Roman Catholic bishops in America. They found out that a plan was to be implemented in which all Eastern Rite priests would be sent back to Europe and only the Latin liturgy would be allowed in America.
Fr. Alexis realized that for a long time he had been yearning to return to his full religious heritage in the Orthodox Church. His ancestors had been Orthodox for centuries and had only become affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church through political coercion. But his people were completely uninformed about the history of their status. Fr. Alexis prayed that he would be able to explain it to them and prepare them for the change they needed to make.
The first step was to contact an Orthodox bishop. But, just as it is today, the Orthodox Church was the “best kept secret” in America. No one knew who the bishop was or where he resided (some thought in Alaska and others thought in California). Contact with the Russian Embassy in San Francisco provided the name of Bishop VLADIMIR and his address in San Francisco. A representative was sent from Minneapolis to meet with Bishop VLADIMIR, who then came himself to Minneapolis to meet with Fr. Alexis and other uniate priests who wanted to return to Orthodoxy.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy in March of 1891, Fr. Alexis and 361 of his Ruthenian immigrant members were formally received into the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Like the prodigal son in our Lord’s parable, they had finally returned to their “father’s house” after 250 years of an uneasy political union with Roman Catholicism.
Despite the joy surrounding this momentous change, there were still turbulent times ahead for Fr. Alexis. His parishioners in Minneapolis succumbed to the all-too-frequent convert ailment of becoming “super” Russian Orthodox. They abandoned their centuries-old traditional style of congregational singing in favor of a choir singing Russian music and they turned against their Hungarian priest and demanded a Russian one. But gradually, other uniate parishes joined in the return to Orthodoxy. As the area around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania had been settled by many Carpatho-Russian immigrants to America, Fr. Alexis moved to this city and continued to preach and teach the basic truths of the Orthodox faith. During this time, he wrote a catechism (entitled “Where to Seek the Truth”) and established an aid society to help new immigrants. Through his efforts, 20,000 former Eastern Catholic Christians in 17 parishes were brought back into the fold of Orthodoxy.
Fr. Alexis fell asleep in the Lord on May 7, 1909 and was buried in a special shrine at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. He was glorified by the Orthodox Church in America on May 29, 1994 and is now venerated as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre. We praise God for the life and witness of this courageous saint and we ask for his prayers as we also seek to bring others to the truth of Orthodoxy.
[Sources: Portraits of American Saints, compiled and edited by George Gray and Jan Bear; and the websites of The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., the Orthodox Church in America, and Orthodox Wiki.]