By Fr. Steven Voytovich
I grew up with two parish homes: St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, and St. John’s Orthodox Church in Huron, Wisconsin. St. Mary’s began as an Eastern Rite Catholic Church community, to which St. Alexis Toth was called as first resident pastor. St. John’s began as a country parish community built by immigrants from the Carpatho-Rusyn region of Galicia of which I am a descendant. Growing up in Minneapolis I spent many hours in the parish hall where a large picture of Fr. Alexis Toth hung. It was known already then in the parish that one day he might be recognized as a saint.
St. Alexis was of Carpatho-Rusyn heritage, worshiping in the Easten-Rite Catholic faith. His father and brother were also priests, and his uncle a bishop. He married, was ordained an Eastern-Rite priest, and served as parish priest. Fr. Alexis lost his wife and child while there. He eventually taught Canon Law and Church History in the Prešov Seminary and served as Chancellor of the Diocese. In 1889 he arrived in Minneapolis, called to be parish priest of this Eastern-Rite parish. After being refused by the Catholic bishop John Ireland, he eventually made a trip to San Francisco to seek the restoration of this parish community to the Orthodox Faith. Bishop VLADIMIR visited on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1891 to receive the parish, pending approval by the Holy Synod in Russia. Because of St. Alexis’ witness and action, many Eastern-Rite parishes here in the US and abroad returned to the Orthodox Church.
During Great Lent in 1994, several of us clergy drove to St. Tikhon’s to be present as the relics of St. Alexis were exhumed, following his death in 1909, now in preparation for canonization services. Fr. Nicholas Timpko, a former St. Mary Cathedral pastor, drove his spacious station wagon. Along the way steam began pouring forth from the engine as we drove on the highway. We headed for the first exit at just before 8am. As we reached the end of the ramp, an auto parts store was to our left, the doors being unlocked as we drove in. We purchased and installed the necessary hose and in minutes were on our way. We all agreed that St. Alexis had been watching over us as we traveled. We arrived on time for these services that were very meaningful and moving.
In May 1994, St. Alexis was canonized, and I was blessed to participate in the services. The relics of St. Alexis were taken in procession to the large outdoor chapel area for the Divine Liturgy. Then at the Little Entrance, after “Blessed is the Entrance of Thy Saints” was proclaimed, the relics were brought into the altar through the royal doors. What a powerful fulfillment of this prayer!
By September of the same year I was called to journey with a brand new “mission station” from its first steps. When it came time to select a name to forward to our bishop, we placed the names of several saints in the chalice after the Divine Liturgy. Two young members of the parish drew out the names of St. Alexis and St. Herman to be forwarded to our Bishop. St. Alexis was chosen in the spring of 1995, so that this St. Alexis parish has celebrated each annual observance of St. Alexis Feast Day of May 7th since he was proclaimed a saint. On the iconostas of St. Alexis Church, Clinton, CT, now a full parish, to the left is an icon of St. Herman, reflecting the missionary origins of the Orthodox Church in America, and St. Alexis to the right, reflecting later immigrant origins.
I initially struggled with St. Alexis having been chosen, however, with concern about how to share about our patron saint in greater ecumenical circles and in the community. Then I reflected upon the blessed saint’s journey following Bishop Vladimir’s embrace. His bishop recalled him to Prešov after the meeting he held with other Eastern Rite clergy. Bishop Vladimir was recalled to Russia, and a year went by before Bishop Nicholas arrived with word of approval of the Holy Synod. During this time the parish refused to pay Fr. Alexis thinking that he sold them out to the Russians, forcing him to work in a bakery. Through all of this the blessed saint remained faithful to his calling to pastor his flock, initiating another parish community in Wilkes-Barre where he would eventually become pastor. I became aware that St. Alexis had been most meaningfully selected as our Patron Saint to aid us in remaining faithful as we moved through “mission station” to full parish status.
Several years later, in March of 2001, I prepared a retreat day around the life of St. Alexis to lead our parish and those joining us. During the preparation phase, I came upon a two volume series relating a psychological profile of the Slav. Being a third generation descendant, I only ever had seen myself as an American. In reading this profile, however, my Slavic heritage was awakened. “The Slav of today in general is strong and prolific, capable of doing, as well as of suffering, anything when his heart is in it; he is at the bottom pious, simple, kind, and loves peace; he is very patient, sober, thrifty, capable of laborious effort, peculiar to an agriculturist life, possessed of great powers of endurance and perseverance, home-loving, devoted to religion and enthusiastic for the ideals of humanity.” (Radosavljevich, p.100-101) As I shared these elements of Slavic identity, I observed the energy among the mostly Slavic attendees rise through the course of the day, also connecting with their heritage.
In closing, St. Alexis’ canonization appeared to have been met with skepticism by some in elevating him to the ranks of the saints “simply” by leading the Eastern-Rite Slavs, a small ethnic group. Here are my thoughts about St. Alexis’s witness in our American context. He could have remained quite comfortable in his service and station in Prešov. Instead, he stretched beyond familiar cultural, ethnic, and religious orientations in order to encounter others in and beyond the Orthodox Faith. By doing so, St. Alexis encountered his own faith with greater depth and authenticity, while reaching out to others in a new cultural and pluralistic-faith context. His identity was not lost, but deepened, and many others – sharing his ethnic background or not – were edified by the opportunity to interact with and learn from St. Alexis. I continue to significantly draw upon St. Alexis’ example as a Slavic-American, and priest chaplain serving in ecumenical and interfaith contexts. As we still work to make good on our Mission as the Orthodox Church in America to bring Orthodoxy to this American context and people, let us be strengthened in this effort by the example of blessed Saint Alexis. Holy Father Alexis, Confessor of Orthodoxy in America, pray to God for us!
Radosavljevich, Paul R., Who are the Slavs? A Contribution to Race Psychology, Boston, Gorham Press, 1919, vol 1. (Digitized reference)
For further reference, please see Radosavljevich’s six fundamental emotional-volitional or temperamental traits for the Slav, p. 365
Further information on the life of St. Alexis Toth.