Friday, November 9, 2012

John Schweich - Parish Historian

John Schweich
John Schweich, C-RS trustee, will be presenting at the 2013 Czechoslovak Genealogical Conference in Chicago.

 I grew up in  Frackville, a coal mining town in Northeastern  Pennsylvania in the midst of some of the oldest Carpatho-Rusyn settlements (St. Clair, Minersville, Shenandoah, Mahanoy City) in North America.  The local Rusyns had all of the fine qualities that are their trademarks, i.e. a fierce sense of loyalty to family and spirituality, a world class work ethic, a supreme ability to adapt to changing environments, that unparalleled cuisine, etc..  Ethnic self-awareness, however,  was not one of them.  Queries about their ethnicity produced responses like: "Slavonic," "Slavish," "Rooshin" , "Greek," "Our People," "Austrian," "Hungarian," "Uhorsky," "Uhorshchane," "Rusnaks," "Ruthenian," "Carpo-Rus," "Carpatho-Russian," "Russian," "Buyzzantyne, (a pharmaceutical perhaps?)" etc.  Never once did I hear  the term "Rusyn."  The people I queried about the terms "Greek" and "Byzantine," seemed to be more than clueless about the land  of Homer or the history of Constantinople.  The language used by those Carpatho-Russians was not Russian.  Since I was studying Russian at Penn State at the time, it seemed closer to Ukrainian, although, strangely,  the locals did not seem to appreciate hearing that.

To sort out the confusion and  because Magocsi's works had not yet appeared, I consulted a few available books, which turned out to be the largely unhelpful works of polemicists.  It began to occur to me there may be a "lost tribe" of Slavs that the mainstream scholars had failed or were otherwise unmoved to catalogue.

The solution seemed to be to collect all of the written histories available produced by a largely anonymous corps of parishioner chroniclers, which dealt not only with specific Byzantine Catholic  and Orthodox parishes, but, ultimately, with the local Rusyn community itself.

   While this was promising, it was also frustrating: the answer to one question might be found, only to have five more queries appear.   If there had been and Orthodox-Greek Catholic split in the town, say in  Taylor PA or Binghamton NY, how did each side chronicle the separation? Did persistent Old Country village loyalties play a role, as they may have in Farrel/Sharon PA? Oftentimes, the local historians ignored the fact that the parish represented a separation  from another (unmentioned) church or that a given parish had suffered a loss of half or more of its members.

After 30 years of effort, the result has been a collection of 1400 volumes pertaining to the histories of about 600 parish communities founded predominately by Rusyns or in partnership with other ethnic groups and representing half a dozen ecclesiastical jurisdictions.   Along the way, I have collected a fair number of histories of other communities, including Romanians, Melkites, Russians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Greeks,  Macedonians, Bulgarians, Poles, Slovaks, and Croatians.

This is, I believe, is the largest such collection in the US.  Some of the works  are triumphs of historiography ...other are not.  Although I am regularly  asked  to provide information on individuals, these histories are not  particularly  useful for genealogical purposes.  Unless the relative in question was a clergyman, a founding member, a cantor or choir director, a trustee (kurator),  a major donor, or a "first" ( baptism, marriage or funeral), there will likely be no mention of him/her.

Sometimes  the prose used is majestic:

"Beyond ties of blood, language and shared memories, the Ruska Vira, the Greek Catholic Church and its rich traditions, bound this urban village together and gave meaning to simple but intense lives. The Rusin village in South Philadelphia did not rest until, like the ancestral villages in Europe, it nestled in the shadow of an onion-domed church and three-barred cross." (Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church, Philadelphia PA, 1891-1991, 100 Blessed Years)

Sometimes the prose  conveys (humorously) unintended  imagery:

"The fire of 1904  gave  the parishioners a burning (emphasis added) desire to rebuild the church." (name withheld)


Chuck Tancin said...

John, this is a powerful reminder of the importance of your collecting, your research, your networking, and your willingness to share what you know. Your work benefits not only the Rusyn community, and not only the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox communities, but everyone, because saving and promoting history helps to save our collective heritage. Thanks for what you're doing! -- C. Tancin

Diana Guralev said...

I so appreciate this great post! I've been making a Rusyn Christmas dinner every year for my 6 years of living in the US. My family and the guests always loved eating the food and learning about our customs. Thank you for this beautiful reminder.