The Church on Beecher Street

by Robert Klancko

With some saying that the inception of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Seymour, Connecticut was 1921, then the year 2011 commemorates the 90th anniversary of its unofficial, yet probable founding. From the time of the planting of a seed, intermittent services, the acquisition of property, etc. three years is not an improbable time from inception to that of actual incorporation.

The Lower Naugatuck Valley – Waterbury to Shelton – was similar to a magnet for Slavic immigrant settlement. In fact, some say that the Slavic population here was perhaps the most concentrated of any geographic area in the USA. These immigrants came as laborers who, with skill and ingenuity, became a strong foundation, becoming a key and essential part of the fabric of the communities in which they lived.

In the early part of the 20th century the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church came of age in the United States. It spread from shore to shore and began to welcome into its fold former parishes that had been founded by believers who had been members of parishes in the ‘Old Country’ that severed from its protection over the years.

Wars, conflicts, subjugations, political reversals, all caused some of their ancient brethren to join the Roman Catholic Christian Church as a subservient Eastern/Byzantine Rite body. Over the years many felt like second class citizens under the strict control of Latin Rite officials and the many attempts to Latinize their Byzantine Rite, clergy dress, and church interiors.

In the United States, a new freedom was afforded to them, and many came back to the church of their ancestral roots, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, the church from which this “Unia” had been created.

This article is not focused on who is correct or incorrect regarding these religious and political affairs. One can debate Roman Catholic Christian and Eastern Orthodox Christian theology and politics ad nausem. These issues were and remain sensitive, even to the point of having split families. The point is that whether or not one should be an Eastern Orthodox Christian or a Roman Catholic Christian (both claim to be Catholic which means Universal) is up to their own decision and hearts. However, some of the actual facts may alter some of the paradigms that may exist, and as such may cause some consternation – this is a reality that needs to be faced. Obviously, there is no true answer or true path except that which one is most comfortable to embrace.

In many ways these Eastern Christians were odd balls to the average American Protestant, and to the Latin Roman Catholic Christian. They used Old Church Slavonic in their liturgy which was an ancient Bulgarian dialect in a funny looking ‘fancy’ Cyrillic script. Some parishes, after 1917 did use Ukrainian ( Ukrainian was a vernacular that was popularly used after the Russian Revolution in the area previously known as “Little Russia” which now had declared its sovereignty as Ukraine; however its use was a culture shock to many who were used to the ages old liturgical Old Church Slavonic). At this time, little if any English was used. Their alphabet was Cyrillic ( in some ways like Greek, and then not really), their churches had no pews; they used no organs or musical instruments – only their voices; candles and incense were ubiquitous; the men stood on the right of the church and the women and children stood on the left. Their services lasted on average at least 2 hours. They celebrated their church holidays – especially the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) and Holy Pascha ( Easter)  – at different times due to the use of the Julian and not the Gregorian Calendar. Unlike Latin Rite Roman Catholic clergy, their clergy were married – and the list of differences goes on.

In the early part of the 1890’s a Ruthenian Catholic Christian and a Russian Orthodox Christian Church were founded in nearby Ansonia. (in fact, in the 1900 City Directory, this Ruthenian Church was actually listed as being the Little Russian Greek Catholic St. Peter and St. Paul Church) These parishes were composed of people from the same villages but of different political and religious philosophies. In fact families were split over which church to go to, and from time to animosities flared between the parishes. This fragile truce – relationship was shattered in 1917.

According to a decree issued by the Pope in 1917 to clear up ethnic squabbling in the American Ruthenian Catholic Christian Church, those immigrants who were from Galicia – the north-western slope of the Carpathian Mountains (the majority of the parishioners in both churches) were now to be called Ukrainian (no longer their age old Ruthenian) and those from the south-western slope ( Czechoslovakia and Hungary) were to be called Ruthenian. Not only did this decree cause dissention, frustration, and confusion – but it also laid the foundation for another religious division based on politics –  it became part of the impetus for the creation of an American Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church and was the reason for another mass migration of Eastern Catholic Christians to the Russian Orthodox Diocese in America.

To wit, due to this proclamation, there are stories of mothers and daughters going to St. Peter and St. Paul Ukrainian (formerly Ruthenian) Catholic Christian Church, while the father and sons went to Three Saints Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Christian Church. If St. Peter and St. Paul held an affair such as a dance, those from Three Saints came to break it up and vice versa. The unchristian animosity was tragic.

These immigrants formed ghetto-like enclaves in the various Lower Naugatuck Valley towns spanning from Oxford where they farmed and Seymour where they farmed and worked in factories to Ansonia and Derby where they were also worked in factories and Shelton where they were predominantly farmers again. As such, they bonded together, creating mutual aid organizations and endeavoring to maintain their rich heritage as they became Americanized. Accordingly, it would be logical for them to form ecclesiastical organizations to minister to their spiritual needs, too.

So, along the way there were brotherhoods and sisterhoods established, along with citizen clubs, and fraternal organizations. These were the first step, and, of course an organized church came next. In the midst of all of this, it followed that a church in Seymour may be the next logical step, a church that afforded different opportunities from those in Ansonia.

There was interesting observation made on page 351 of the Tercentenary Pictorial and History of the Lower Naugatuck Valley concerning the church that is the focus of this study, and it is this observation that will form the reason as to why this study is so important. “The latest additions to the church organization in Seymour are……The Lord’s Meeting Russian Orthodox Church which has led a rather checkered career in its brief existence”. This statement is enough to engage one’s imagination and to seek further clarification and information.

In perspective, perhaps a precursor to the founding of the church, Sam Wityak, Andrew Bomba, and John Dziadik (the Dziadik family was perhaps the most influential “Ukrainian’ leaders of the community) founded and incorporated the short lived Ukrainian Citizenship Club of Seymour on September 25, 1918. This brought the people of like political and religious persuasion together, creating , if you will, the critical mass necessary to take the next step – establishment of a church. This organization was distinctly different and separate from the Galician Russian American Citizen’s Club of Seymour, while pragmatically they may have shared some members.

It appears that there was some degree of dissatisfaction with the religious institutions in Ansonia. There were a Ukrainian (formerly Ruthenian) Catholic Christian Church, a Russian Orthodox Christian Church and a Russian Baptist Christian Church (which was quite small). Yet, there was no Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church and we all know that at this time, no Ukrainian would be caught dead in a Russian Church, and no Eastern Orthodox Christian would even think of going to the Roman Catholic Christian Church. So the scene was set and now for Act 1 to begin.

According to the Town of Seymour Records – Manuscript – Vol. 29 p. 168 -169,  on February 19th, 1925,  Rev. Michael Zaparyniuk(+11/2/58), Sam Wityak, Paul Fatula, John Labowsky, and Alexander Sadowsky incorporated the Ukrainian Orthodox  St. Michael Church which was under the spiritual guidance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Diocese of America.

It needs to be noted that in the United States of America, before the Russian Revolution, most of the Orthodox Christian Churches – Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Albanian, Serbian, Syro-Arab, Romanian, Bulgarian and even some of the Greeks were under the Russian Archbishop in New York – some however just provisionally. However, after the fall of the Russian Empire, all financial and spiritual support from St. Petersburg ceased and a plethora of independent ethnically based jurisdictions developed. One of these initiatives was the creation of Ukrainian Orthodox Christian parishes and diocese. These existed either independently – some of which were later united under Bishop Joseph Zuk (who had been canonically consecrated) in 1932. Others joined a  diocese led by Archbishop ( later Metropolitan) John Theodorovich, a member of the ‘Samo Svatty’ – self-consecrated hierarchy – of the newly established  Orthodox Christian Church of Ukraine (a consecration and church body that was not considered to be canonical), who came to the USA in 1923.

On the other hand, as a result of WW1, a new wave of nationalism spread over Europe. The League of Nations was founded; new states emerged as the old ones, such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, ceased to exist. There were efforts to create an independent state of Galicia which unfortunately failed and the territory essentially became a part of the new country Poland. With the fall of the Russian Empire, Ukraine became a semi- independent entity for a few years until it became an independent republic in the newly formed USSR. However, as part of the USSR it was no longer referred to as ‘Malo Rus’ – ‘Little Russia’ and in Czechoslovakia, the southwestern slope of the Carpathian Mountains was referred to as Carpatho-Rus’ and later Carpatho-Ukraine. (in 1939 there was even a Carpatho-Ukraine stamp issued by Czechoslovakia.) It is easily realized that all of this created a multitude of political philosophies, which of course extended into the Diaspora. This phenomena created a self determination in the Diaspora, and enabled each political idealology to claim its own turf. The Church, and especially the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in the Diaspora, was not spared and Dioceses based on ethnic politics arose.

As this wave of change swept across our Slavic Diaspora, this new Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church initiative appeared to be the answer to the prayers of many of Seymour’s Slavic community. It was not Ruthenian, it was not part of the Roman Catholic Christian Church, and it was not Russian Orthodox Christian – it was Ukrainian Orthodox Christian. The people were elated. Even a Provitsa (Providence) Society was established to care for the parish’s welfare.

A parish house was acquired at 22 Church St., which according to the 1925 data in the Seymour Town Directory, had been owned by Adam Haversat and Adolph Newman.

According to the 1927 Seymour Town Directory in 1926 the resident priest was Rev. Joseph Bodnar (+1/27/55) and his wife Julia. The next year, the Directory says that Rev. Bodnar went to New York City and the residence at 22 Church St. was habituated by Andrew Kolesnik, who was a grocer. The next year Rev. Bodnar returned along with Rev. Alexis Revera (married 1924, went to the Russian Metropolia, assigned to Galveston in 1934, +1976) and his wife Amerlia. In 1931 (1932 Seymour Town Directory) Rev. Alexander Nizankowsky and his wife Catherine were in residence.

It can be inferred from the constant turnover of clergy that this parish was still in its formative stages and stability was yet to be achieved. Perhaps the stock market crash and impending depression was taking its toll, and perhaps this was some of the reason why the Tercentenary Book used the term “checkered”.

1932 was a significant year here in the USA; we had a new President– FDR, and his New Deal. The Depression had hit and times were tough. As there was a change in our politics so was there a change at St. Michael’s.

On March 16, 1932 Rev. John T. Krohmalney (who during the late teens had been the priest at Three Saints Russian Orthodox Christian Church in Ansonia) along with Andrew Predzimirski, Nicholas Smerkanich, Sidor Karlak, Harry Smey,  Theodore Cymbalack, and Michael Nemas on behalf of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church under the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Diocese received title to the Ukrainian Orthodox St. Michael Church. As part of the agreement they assumed St. Michael’s debt of $12,400. This was attested to by St. Michael’s leaders Peter Chegin  (who was owed $83 for misc. fixtures and a piano), Paul Fatula ( who was owed $110 for lumber and a piano), and Joseph Wityak.

It appears that Fr. Krohmalny, who had a wife, two daughters, and a son, was now part of the Carpatho-Russian Diocese led by Archbishop Adam Philipovich (+4/29/56). Archbishop Adam, at this point, led an independent Carpatho-Russian diocese which later was incorporated into a coalition of Russian Orthodox groups comprising the Russian Metropolia of America, the Synod of Russian Orthodox Bishops Outside of Russia and his diocese. Archbishop Adam had been consecrated on October 22, 1922 by Bishop Stefan Dzubay of Pittsburgh (who was in opposition to Metropolitan Platon who was recently selected to head the Russian Orthodox Greek catholic Church of America – known also as the Metropolia)  along with Archbishop Gorazad Pavlik, who had been consecrated as Bishop of Moravia and Silesia in 1921 in Czechoslovakia, and subsequently in 1942 was murdered by the Nazis, thereby enabling his beautification as a saint. Eventually Archbishop Adam eventually joined the Diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate and was named Bishop of Canada.

At this point (in 1932) Archbishop Adam had two churches in Connecticut under his jurisdiction– Danbury and Seymour. Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Christian Church of Danbury was much more established. Holy Trinity (founded circa 1910 as St. Platon’s) up to this point had endured many hardships: having the edifice burn down with the Metropolitan holding the insurance; the insurance money and the newly assigned priest both not making it to the parish; the parish splitting into Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox and St. Nicholas Ruthenian Catholic; and finally becoming part of Archbishop Adam’s diocese. Yes, one can say that the best definition of stability was turmoil.

What can be inferred up to this point is that there was much turmoil in the Seymour community and Fr. Wasily Kostychak (and his wife Theodocia) was sent to try to bring peace and order to the community. According to the 1933 Directory he arrived in 1932, and at that time the church was listed at 25 Beecher Street and the Hall at 10 Church St., with the Priest’s home located at 22 Church St. The church was now Carpatho-Russian, a term that was more user friendly to the Galician Russian Community, for many of them did consider themselves to be of that lineage. Archbishop Adam had assembled around him clergy and parishes of Galican-Russian roots.

The church was a converted barn and the windows were pastel tinted. There was no heat in the altar area during the winter. However, there was heat in the main church, which was pew-less, except for benches along either side of the nave. This was much like the churches in Stary Kraiu (the Old Country) where standing for the long liturgical services was the norm.

Of particular importance was that the vital records were turned over regularly to Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Danbury. Fr. Luke Mihaly, who is the present priest at Holy Trinity, has shown me some of the references to the Seymour church in their record books. By the way, as a point of interest, the Danbury church along with Archbishop Adam joined the 1930s jurisdictional consolidation and, after the eventual deconsolidation, it remained in the Metropolia of America (1940’s) while Archbishop Adam joined the Exarchate of the Moscow Patriarch in America. After a controversy regarding the Masonic Fraternity, it left the Metropolia of America and became part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church of America Ecumenical Patriarchate under Bishop Andrei Kuschak– this was not Metropolitan John’s group, but rather was of the Joseph Zuk – Boghdan Spilka lineage. The church now is part of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Christian Diocese. Just how do we define ‘stability’?

In order to try to stabilize the parish’s prayer life, both vespers and liturgy were celebrated by Father Wasily. Things seemed to be going well for a few years, then the unraveling began.

According to Fr. Wasily’s daughter Maria, one day in 1935 she and Fr. Wasily were in the church basement and there were loose floor boards. When they pulled up the boards they found liquor being stored under them. This was the time of prohibition and was therefore an illegal act. It is easy to surmise what happened next. There was room for only one type of Spirit in the church. This then began the downward spiral.

The unfortunate fact was that although this parish dissolved, many of its faithful never made it back to the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church or the Eastern Rite Catholic Christian Church. In fact, many joined Seymour’s Protestant Episcopal Church of the Trinity or the Congregational Church. When the first research on this article was first begun, many of those who were knowledgeable about this church refused to speak of it– the wounds still smarted over forty years after its demise.

According to Seymour Town Records (Manuscript – Vol. 36 p. 287) the Seymour Trust Co. sued The Russian Orthodox Church of the Lord’s Meeting regarding three mortgages held in the name of Ukrainian Orthodox St. Michael Church dated 1926, 1929, and 1930, which were foreclosed on July 1, 1935.
According to the 1936 Directory (1935 data) Rev. Kostychak had moved to 4 Rebner Place (near 3rd St. and Raymond, near the Tingue Mill) and the house at 22 Church St. was inhabited by Ignatz Yuzwak. Rev. Wasily remained at Rebner Place and worked on the Seymour town crew until 1937 when he relocated to Manchester, New Hampshire. The Russian Orthodox Christian Church in Manchester was the only church in New England under the Moscow Patriarchate (which Archbishop Adam joined.) Fr. Wasily had a lengthy tenure in Manchester and retired there. One of his daughters married Dorrance Perry of Oxford and provided invaluable assistance to the author.

According to the Town Directory as late as 1944, the Lord’s Meeting Russian Orthodox Church was still listed at 25 Beecher Street with a listing of Meeting Russian Orthodox Church Hall at 10 Church Street. But eventually the church edifice and adjacent hall were acquired by the Galician Russian American Club. The left side became the bar with booths on the right side and in the former altar area. There were large Remington prints on the walls. The church structure was eventually dismantled after the great flood of 1955 and the bar rooms were transferred to the basement of the adjacent hall.

The only physical remnants from the church that are known are two small bronze crosses now in the possession of the author and a chalice that has been refurbished and resides at Christ the Savior Orthodox Christian Church in Southbury.

Not undaunted, some remnants of the parish did found the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Christian Church in the early 40’s. Their intent was to purchase property on south Main St. near the site of the former St. Stanislaus Polish Citizens Club and to erect a church. Supposedly, they had the support of an anonymous wealthy priest. The officers of the corporation were J. Belinsky, S. Cherhoniak, and M. Kityk. Lewis Whitehead Sr. was their attorney. I did ask his son who was also an attorney for assistance from his dad’s file, but he refused on the basis of attorney client privilege. The church edifice did not materialize. Three Saints Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Christian Church in Ansonia burned down in the early 50’s, and the remaining Holy Virgin Mary church funds and parishioners joined Three Saints and assisted in building its present edifice.

An ongoing asset of the ill-fated parish was its cemetery, named after Saint Kirylo and Saint Mefody– Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, two missionaries instrumental in both Christianizing the Slavic peoples and credited with the composing of their alphabet, which is why it is called the Cyrillic alphabet. Almost every church had its own cemetery. Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Ansonia has theirs which was very near the one owned by Three Saints. This cemetery consists of 6 acres and was originally deeded to the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St. Michael in 1925 by Messers J Dziadik, P. Fatula, P. Dziadik, and P. Potosky (Seymour Town Records Vol. 32 p. 151 re. deed from Sam Witek).

This parcel was adjacent to a series of properties owned by prominent members of the Galician community, namely Messers Steven Dziadik, Paul Potosky, Tidor Kowalczyk, Paul Fatula, Samuel Wityak, Panko Dziadik and Joseph Wityak all who lived on Bissel Place, the road nearest the cemetery.

On September 26, 1941 the Seymour Commercial Co. (Seymour Town Records Vol. 40, p.276) obtained a lien of $1,530 against a second piece of property owned by The Russian Orthodox Church of Our Lord’s Meeting, which as described, was the site of their cemetery adjacent to that of St. Augustine’s off Bissell Place.

As of 1955 the status of this cemetery was that Karp Feshum (Vol. 36, p. 480, July 1936, Lot # 1,10’ x 40’) and Michael Karlak (Vol. 37, p. 105, Oct. 1933, Lot #27, 20’ x 20’) both had Quit Claim Deeds. Monuments were in place for Myszkowski, Tuzik, Elnitsky, Belinsky, Michmak (Michniak?), Wityak, Fisun, Mihalko, Kovzel, Uhoch, Koshuck, Michalczik, and Karliak. Those with clouded and incomplete documentation were Simeon Cherhoniak, Akim Okal,Yelko Stelinark, Peter Chergin and John Bashta.

This cemetery, with its fabulous view of the Naugatuck Valley was deeded to Three Saints Church in Ansonia in the mid 50’s.

So what happened? A church was founded during a time of political, economic and religious unrest, and its foundation therefore was not firm. Its founding was perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the ethnic and religious politics of the day. It was a new brand of Christianity in reference to that existing in Ansonia. It may have been an uncomfortable yoke and if the vernacular Ukrainian had replaced the traditional liturgical Old Church Slavonic, another dissenting factor then existed. Yet, it did suffer from an identity crisis, for its ethnic allegiances were also unstable. It was a known fact that both Ansonia churches lobbied mightily against it. There was very little tolerance for what they perceived was ‘competition’. So between the ethnic and the religious politics, it just did not possess the leadership, support, and critical mass to survive. Of course, we also need to add in the uncertainties posed by the nationwide economic depression.

Yet it was a noble experiment. Out of it came leaders in Seymour’s Galician Russian/Ruthenian/Ukrainian Community. Its history needs to be placed within the context of what was happening in this community in general and how it was maturing and becoming part of the fabric of Seymour. Those who started it and supported it deserve remembrance and recognition for their efforts, faith and dedication.

Vechnaya Im Pamyat – May their memories be eternal, Amen

Acknowledgement: This research would not have been possible without the archive of materials from the estate of my Grandfather Dimitry Wasilovich Karliak, who was a leader of the Galician-Russian community of Seymour.

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