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The Maronite Seminary of Our Lady of Lebanon in Washington, D.C., opened fifty years ago this September. But the history of Eastern-rite Catholics in the United States goes back a lot farther than that.

The history of Eastern Catholics is of course tied closely to that of Eastern Orthodoxy. As a result of theological, political, linguistic, and social factors, Christianity experienced a series of fissures beginning in the fifth century—the most significant was the great eastern schism of 1054—which gave rise to a number of ecclesial bodies that, from the Catholic perspective, were schismatic, or separated from the authority of Rome. Over the centuries, various groups within these eastern churches sought and re-established a formal relationship with the pope, making them full-fledged Roman Catholics while retaining their traditional liturgies and customs. (Sometimes called "uniate" churches, the term is perceived to have negative connotations by many Eastern Catholics.)

Because of the geographical origin of early Americans, there were few Eastern Catholics in the United States until after the Civil War. As eastern European and west Asian immigration increased in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Eastern Christianity became a significant presence in the landscape of American religion. There are today more than half a million Catholics in the United States who are members of Eastern-rite parishes.

Bishop Stephen Soter OrtynskyGreek-rite Slavs from Austria-Hungary settled in the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania in large numbers. These Ukrainians and Rusyns were Byzantine-rite Catholics, whose churches had reunited with Rome through the Union of Brest (1596) and the Union of Uzhhorod (1646). The first Greek Catholic priest, Fr. Ivan Volansky, celebrated the first Eastern-rite Mass in the US in Shenandoah in 1884. Stephen Soter Ortynsky became the first American Greek Catholic bishop in 1907, although his lack of diocesan authority irked the Eastern Catholics who had long desired their own ordinary. The unstable ecclesial status of Eastern Catholics in America caused so much discontent that many of them transferred their allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church. The situation improved when Bishop Ortynsky was given full jurisdiction over Byzantine Catholics in the US (some 200 parishes) in 1913. Relations between Eastern Catholics and their far more numerous Roman-rite counterparts continued to be thorny, however, marked by such decrees as Cum data fuerit (1929), which forbad ordination of married men across all Catholic traditions in the US (notwithstanding the longstanding custom of married priests within the eastern churches).

Other Byzantine Catholics came from Italy (especially Sicily) and Romania. Christians in the latter had allied with Rome in 1700, when Transylvania became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Another strand of Greek Catholicism entered the nation in the 1880s when Melkite Catholics from Syria and Lebanon began immigrating to New York City. The Syrian Christians had separated from Rome in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the Melkite Church stemmed from the reunion of Syrian bishops beginning with Cyril, Patriarch of Antioch, at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The dominant group of Eastern Catholics from Lebanon were not Melkite, but Maronite. The history of the Maronites, dating to the monastery of St. Maro in the fifth century, is convoluted and disputed. Maronites themselves insist that they have always been faithful to Rome. Critics of this position argue that the Maronites embraced the Monothelite heresy in the seventh century. All accept the fact that the Maronites have been in full communion with the Vatican at least since the Fifth Lateran Council (1516). Many Lebanese Maronites emigrated during Ottoman rule between 1880 and the First World War, settling in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

A second wave of Eastern Catholics entered the United States in the wake of World War II. The uniate church in Romania was abolished under Communism, provoking many Romanian Catholics to flee. Similarly, Ukrainian Catholic numbers were bolsterd by displaced persons, refugees from eastern Europe following the war, settling in the United States.

In the 1960s, Syro-Malabar Catholics from India began arriving in the United States. Syro-Malabar Christians trace their history to the Apostle Thomas. During the centuries following St. Thomas's evangelism, the Christians of India were linked to world Christianity through the eastern churches of Syria. When Portuguese (Latin) Catholics arrived in India in the sixteenth century, the colonizers strove to integrate the Indian Christians into Roman Catholicism. From this tug of war resulted a split in indigenous Indian Christianity. The Syro-Malabars elected to unite with Rome while preserving their eastern liturgy. Other Indians refused to join Rome, maintaining their connection with Syrian Orthodoxy. Later, another group within the Orthodox fold also united with Rome; these formed the Syro-Malankara Church.

Chaldean Catholics hail mainly from Iraq. The Chaldean Church was formed when a group of bishops in the Assyrian Church reached an agreement with the pope in the sixteenth century. Chaldean immigrants to the US settled in large numbers in southeastern Michigan as well as southern California.

Famous Eastern Catholic Americans include artist Andy Warhol (Ruthenian), actor Danny Thomas (Maronite), and political activist Ralph Nader (Maronite). Chaldean Catholic Anna Eshoo was elected to the US Congress from California in 1992.

Notwithstanding the initial tension arising from Bishop Ortynsky’s status, many Eastern Catholics were eventually granted their own dioceses (called eparchies). Their geographical scope overlays the Latin-rite dioceses that cover the same areas. Reflecting their relatively early and substantial presence in the US, Ruthenians were the first to receive their own bishop when Bishop Ortynsky took charge of the Ordinariate, based in Philadelphia, in 1913. In 1924, the Byzantine Catholics split into two groups—those who traced their origins to the ecclesiastical province of Lviv (Ukrainians) and those whose origins were elsewhere. The Ukrainian eparchy of Philadelphia became an archeparchy in 1958, with suffragan eparchies in Chicago, Parma (OH), and Stamford (CT).

St. John's Byzantine CathedralFor those Byzantine (sometimes called Rusyn, or Carpatho-Russian) Catholics who were not Ukrainian, the Ruthenian Apostolic Exarchate of the USA was established in 1924. It became the Eparchy of Pittsburgh in 1963, and was raised to the rank of archeparchy in 1969. Suffragan eparchies are located in Arizona, New Jersey, and Ohio.

The first Maronite eparchy was established in Detroit in 1971; it later moved to Brooklyn. The patriarchal exarchate of the United States became the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts in 1976. The Chaldeans received a bishop in 1982, when the Chaldean apostolic exarchate of the US was formed; it became the Chaldean Eparchy of Detroit three years later. Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim, a native of Iraq, was the first Chaldean American bishop. Canton, Ohio is the center of Romanian Catholicism in the US, made an eparchy in 1987. The Syrian Eparchy of Newark was founded in 1995. In 2001, the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Chicago was erected and in 2005 New York became the seat of the Armenian Catholic Eparchy formed from the apostolic exarchate established in 1981.

The recent provenance of many of these eparchies reflects not only growing immigration in recent years from nations such as India and Iraq, but also increasing sensitivity on the part of the American Church and the Vatican to the pastoral needs of Eastern Catholics—exemplified also in Vatican II's Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite and the subsequent relaxation of the American mandate concerning priestly celibacy. These developments portend a bright future for these religious communities that are also part of the American Catholic past.

©2011 Posted July 23, 2011.
Photos, from top: Bishop Stephen Ortynsky, courtesy of Archeparchy of Philadelphia; St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral, Pittsburgh, courtesy of Lee Paxton, via Wikipedia;

Sources and Further Reading

Geoge A. Maloney, SJ, "Eastern Catholic Churches in America"; Paul Robert Magocsi, "Rusyn Catholics in America"; and Wasyl Lencyk, "Ukrainian Catholics in America"; in The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History

His Excellency Bishop Mar Ibrahim (Facebook)

USCCB, Eastern Catholics in the United States (at Catholic Information Network)

Catholic Encyclopedia

St. Josaphat Seminary