Posts tagged 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.]
Today, of course, is Christmas for those Orthodox Christians on the Old (Julian) Calendar. Until the 1920s, all of Orthodoxy used the Old Calendar, and of course that included all the Orthodox in America. As we’ve discussed, the American media thought that this was thoroughly fascinating, and newspapers often ran articles on “Greek” or “Russian” Christmas. One thing that I’ve noticed, in reading these Christmas accounts, is the diversity of traditions among the Orthodox in various parts of the country.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (12/24/1905) commented on the East-West calendar difference, and then pointed out another distinction:
In the [Western denominations] both the time immediately preceding and the period following Christmas Day are times of feasting. In the Greek Church, on the contrary, the forty days preceding Christmas are set aside as a time of fasting, just as Lent precedes Easter. In the local church the communicants are not required to strictly observe this rule. All that is asked is that they observe the week preceding Christmas as a time of fasting.
I suspect that this laxness in fasting was pretty common in American Orthodox parishes. But people didn’t just universally ignore the fast. The Washington Times (1/7/1912) notes, “Since December Greeks abstained from eating meat.” With the arrival of Christmas, the DC Greeks began to feast, going from house to house. “The most humble peanut vendor is privileged by this custom to enter the home of the wealthiest man in the city and cannot be turned away.”
Children, of course, have always been prominent in Christmas celebrations. On Christmas Eve in the Russian church in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the priest, St. Alexis Toth, held a special event for the children of the parish. From the Wilkes-Barre Times (1/7/1907):
A large Christmas tree, prettily decorated and lighted, had been erected on the platform and after several hymns had been sung the treat consisting of candy and fruit for each child had been distributed by Father Toth, there were several more hymns, including the rendition of “America” in English.
It’s not clear, from the newspaper, whether the Christmas tree was actually inside the temple, or in some other part of the building.
While some Orthodox exchanged gifts on Christmas Day, others waited until Old Calendar New Year’s Day. From the Galveston Daily News (1/8/1913):
Christmas among the members of the Greek Orthodox Church is purely a religious festival. Unlike the Yuletide celebrations of the other Christian churches, it contains no elements of feasting or gift giving. The Greek New Year, which is to be celebrated on Jan. 13, is in commemoration of the circumcision of the Child Christ and is the day of feasting and giving of gifts among the members of the faith. Places of business are closed and every child of the Greeks, rich or poor, great or obscure, is remembered with presents.
The giving is observed in a peculiar form. Santa Claus is not known by name, but the children are told that the “ghost” has come down the chimney and brought the candies, sweets and presents that make them happy. Every child is remembered without any exception, and the parents cloak their giving unselfishly, letting the child believe that the gifts came direct from God, as the ghost who brings them is supposed to be the Holy Spirit.
I’m curious; do any of our readers know about this tradition — both the giving of gifts on New Year’s Day and the Holy Spirit coming down the chimney?