St. Alexis Toth as a Defender of American Orthodoxy
We have not discussed St. Alexis Toth much at all on SOCHA. So, I thought I’d briefly outline one aspect of his ministry that bears highlighting. St. Alexis believed that Orthodoxy could exist just fine within America. He served working class poor Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants. He also endured criticisms from leaders within the Russian Mission during his time. The Russian Mission had a love-hate relationship with the Carpatho-Rusyn converts they acquired. Fr. Benedict Turkevich, brother of Fr. Leonid Turkevich (later Metropolitan Leonty) argued that the Carpatho-Rusyn converts from Eastern Catholicism to Orthodoxy should be sent to Siberia to further the colonization efforts of the Russian Empire. Turkevich was not unusual, for the idea of sending fellow Slavs to other areas of the Empire fit the Russian Empire’s efforts at the time. Those interested in reading more on this should pursue: Willard Sunderland, “Peasant Pioneering: Russian Peasant Settlers Describe Colonization and the Eastern Frontier, 1880s-1910s,” Journal of Social History 34:4 (2001): 895-922.
Turkevich had made this suggestion in Svit, the very paper Toth himself had started. This suggestion occurred in 1911, after St. Alexis’ 1909 death, but twelve years prior to this, Toth had offered another vision. Toth claimed that one could maintain one’s cultural identity and be good American citizens as well. For Toth, there was no reason the Carpatho-Rusyn converts could not stay in America as real Americans. The purpose of the Russian Mission was not simply to act as an arm of the Russian Empire, but to spread the Orthodox faith to Eastern Catholic immigrants. Toth even titled his piece “How We Should Live in America” [Narodny Kalendar (Pittsburgh, 1899).
Although one might wish to break these concerns down along covert/cradle lines, that would do a grave injustice to what was occurring. This was an intra-Slavic fault line. Certainly, there was a religious fault line, and certainly there was a difference here as to the purpose of the Russian Mission, but we would do well to avoid being anachronistic with a fallacious contemporary categorization. The lesson that may be learned is that the Russian Mission brought with it goals and objectives from the Russian Empire and extended those into America as it encountered the Carpatho-Rusyns. St. Alexis Toth, for his part, held to a grander vision, one that allowed that one could be Orthodox and American.
[This article was written by Fr. Oliver Herbel.]
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