The three saints who walked among us
PART 2 OF 2
(Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of Capwell Fox’s feature on some of the famous and important visitors to and residents of Catasauqua and North Catasauqua boroughs. Last week’s edition highlighted Bishop John Neupomocine Neumann, who was responsible for establishing the German Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary — better known as St. Mary’s — and the Irish St. Lawrence.)
By the 1890s, large waves of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were arriving in eastern Pennsylvania. Many found work in the local iron furnaces and foundries, cement quarries and silk mills.
They were commonly referred to as “Hungarian” (and pejoratively as “Huns”), though many were Carpatho-Russian, from a region that is now western Ukraine. Most belonged to either Orthodox or eastern Catholic churches.
In 1899, the limestone cornerstone of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church at Fifth and Liberty streets in North Catasauqua was laid and blessed by Father Alexis Toth. Toth, who was briefly the church’s pastor, was a major figure in the Orthodox church in the United States.
Born into a Carpatho-Russian eastern Catholic family in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1854, Toth was sent as a missionary pastor to an eastern Catholic parish in Minneapolis in 1889.
Though eastern Catholic priests were under the authority of the pope, the American Roman Catholic hierarchy that was trying to integrate its own church more fully into the United States refused to recognize it or the churches it headed.
Toth organized a meeting of eight of the 10 eastern Catholic priests in the United States in 1890, and they decided to appeal to the Russian Orthodox Church. The next year, these priests and their congregations were received by the Russian Orthodox Church in America.
Following his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, Toth became an energetic advocate for other eastern Catholic groups — also referred to as Greek Catholics and Byzantine Catholics — to do the same.
By the time he came to Catasauqua, Toth is said to a have led more than 7,000 conversions. When he died in Wilkes-Barre May 9, 1909, the number was more than 20,000. Toth’s grave on the grounds of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Wayne County has been venerated by Orthodox faithful ever since.
He was “glorified” and named St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre in 1994 by the Orthodox Church in America.
Bishop Tikhon, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America, consecrated Holy Trinity Orthodox Church Nov. 22, 1903. In both the United States and his native Russia, Tikhon was the most important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Vasily Ivanovich Belavin was born Jan. 19, 1865, near Pskov in northwestern Russia. At age 13, he entered the seminary in that city.
A brilliant student, Belavin completed theological studies there and in St. Petersburg by the time he was 23. Three years later, he took monastic vows, a step that allowed him to rise in the hierarchy of the Russian church and was given the name Tikhon.
In 1898, Tikhon, then only 33 years old, was made bishop of the Aleutians and Alaska and, therefore, head of the Orthodox church in the United States. At some point in the following decade, he apparently became a naturalized citizen.
Tikhon’s years in the United States broadened both his political views and his approach to ecclesiastical matters. The newest immigrants were Orthodox Christians of many different ethnic and social backgrounds, not only Slavic people, but Greeks, Syrians, Turks, Romanians and others.
Traveling constantly across the continent, the missionary bishop came to believe that, despite the groups’ cultural and language differences, their common identity as Orthodox Christians was central to the church’s success in America.
Seeing the need for native-born Orthodox clergy, Tikhon founded three seminaries, as well as numerous church-sponsored schools for children. By 1905, he had formulated a process for organizing the church with the goal of building a self-supporting, multiethnic American Orthodox church (Orthodox Christians in North America 1794-1994; oca.org/history-archives).
Before Tikhon’s plans could be implemented, he was appointed bishop of a large diocese in Russia, and he never returned to the United States.
In 1917, only a few months after being elevated to be Metropolitan of Moscow, Tikhon was selected as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the turbulent Russian Revolution that followed, Tikhon struggled to protect priests and the faithful from persecution by the Bolsheviks and the later Communist rulers.
During the famine that struck Russia when most church property was confiscated, Tikhon was accused of subversion and placed under arrest in the Donskoy Monastery for 14 months. His health broken, Tikhon died April 7, 1925.
Tikhon was canonized twice — first in 1981 by a synod of Russian Orthodox bishops that was formed outside the Soviet Union and again in 1989 when relations between the Communist government and the Russian Orthodox Church improved during the period known as “Glasnost.”
Known as St. Tikhon of Moscow, the American Episcopal Church also commemorates him April 7 on its liturgical calendar.
Ironically, the legacies of those other famous folks and the industries they built or visited are gone from our communities, except for the Presbyterian church and Phoenix Forge — but the works of these lesser-known men who became saints live on here.