Today in history: the death of St. Alexis Toth

St. Alexis Toth

101 years ago today, May 7, 1909, Archimandrite Alexis Toth died in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Here is the obituary that ran in the evening newspaper, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader:

Rt. Rev. Alexis G. Toth, pastor of St. Mary’s Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North Main street, this city, died at 2 o’clock this afternoon from a complication of ailments. He was 66 years of age and was born in Hungary. He was educated in a Roman Catholic preparatory college, taking a degree in theology and concluded his studies in one of the universities of the Orthodox Church. He travelled extensively and was conversant with many languages. One branch of his family was Russian and that brought him into close communion with the adherents of the Orthodox Church of which Czar Nicholas, operating through the Holy Synod, is the acknowledged head. In concluding his studies he was in many of the European universities and enjoyed a personal acquaintance with the present emperor of Russia.

Father Toth at one time is said to have held a government position in Russia and was considered one of the most eminent men in the Orthodox church. With Archbishop Tichon, of New York, he was one of the foremost men in the American branch of that church.

Some years ago he received a gold ecclesiastical crown from the Czar, which was brought here by a special emissary. It was a substantial token of the esteem in which he was held by the governing powers in Russia. He kept the crown in a safe at his residence here, as well as other valuable presents from high churchmen in Europe, and several autograph letters from the Czar. An altar covering used in St. Mary’s church on special feast days was of rich gold embroidery, valued at $5,000, and a present to Father Toth from the sisters of one of the large convents of Russia.

Father Toth was of princely bearing, not much in sympathy with democratic institutions, but very deferential to the customs of the people here. He was a rigid disciplinarian but very popular among the members of his congregation here. His death will be a great surprise. He was ill about five months, but because of his somewhat secluded position few outside the members of his congregation knew of his indisposition. He has relatives in Dakota and Minnesota. Though the rules of his church permitted him to marry he believed priests should remain single and did not avail himself of the marital concession. The remains will be in state at the church here and the funeral services will likely be conducted by Archbishop Tichon of New York.

There are several odd things about this obituary. Most obviously, it doesn’t say a word about St. Alexis’ actual conversion to Orthodoxy. Today, of course, he is most famous for his conflict with the Roman Catholic Archbishop John Ireland, but the Wilkes-Barre paper seems to have been unaware of this. The paper was also unaware of the fact that St. Alexis was married, while still an Eastern Rite Catholic priest, but that his wife died before he came to America. Finally, the reporter mistakenly thought that St. Tikhon was still the Russian Archbishop of North America, but by 1909, that position was held by Abp Platon Rozhdestvensky.

Despite the errors, I wanted to reprint this obituary in part because it was the first notice of St. Alexis’ death, published just hours after his repose.

[This article was written by Matthew Namee.]