There is much to be proud of in our parish. Our God, each other, the deep history of our faith, the traditions, our parents, ancestors and youth. One aspect of Orthodoxy that a friend of mine recently said is that is quite remarkable how our faith has remained unchanged over the centuries. We not only have a history that is consistent in is beliefs, it’s true to Christ, hence the term ‘Orthodox.’ Filled with tradition and religious significance in each and every aspect of our faith, it has been the only real anchor in the Christian world despite numerous distractions and changes by denominations.
Our parish, St. John the Baptist, now filled with many nationalities, was founded by a group of immigrants from the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Referred to as Carpatho-Russia, Carpatho-Ukraine or Carpatho-Ruthenia, this area has been conquered and ruled by many nations including Hungary, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Ukraine and Poland. Because of the constant tumult, life for a Rusyn was not easy. Keeping our language, cultural traditions, religious practices such as a Slavic liturgy and married clergy was a struggle depending on who and what was the latest opposing power trying to coerce the population into national subservience. It took a great struggle by strong personalities to resist and pave a way forward for our ancestors. One of these personalities was a Greek Catholic priest by the name of Aleksander Dukhnovich.
Aleksander Vasilyevich Dukhnovich was a priest, poet, writer, pedagogue, and social activist. Born on April 24, 1803 Dukhnovich and who passed away on March 30, 1865, Dukhnovich would become known as the ‘Awakener of the Rusyn people.’ As much as William Shakespeare is identified as English, Ralph Waldo Emerson as American and Homer as Greek, Dukhnovich is Rusyn. Shakespeare gave us his sonnets, Romeo and Juliet, King Kear and other writings all of which are regularly studied by students, Dukhnovich writings were not meant for entertainment nor have they been shared in most if any schools except maybe in Slovakia or other areas close to the Carpathians. Dukhnovich’s poems were inspirational and spoke of the strength of his Rusyn nationality identity, culture, homeland, people, family and faith. His was a voice of rebellion and pride, a rebirth of an ancient Slavic people who’d been repressed by surrounding cultures.
Over the years Rusyn culture has been buried beneath Ukrainian, Polish and Hungarian influences which almost ended the Rusyn language and traditions. Dukhnovich would have none of this and while fighting for a separate Rusyn identity he was imprisoned under the Hungarian government. It was here, while in prison, Dukhnovich would write his most famous poem, one my father would often recite to his sons with his own brand of Rusyn passion – ‘Ja Rusyn Byl, jesm y budu’ or ‘I was, am and will remain a Rusyn.’ It is this stubborn determination and national pride that burned in Dukhnovich’s soul and much the same passion my grandfather Rev. Joseph Mihaly had for his heritage as he fought for our church and its people in the 1930’s and beyond. ‘Ja Rusyn Byl’ would become the Rusyn national anthem. With writers, priests and other leaders adding to the cause, an independent Rusyn culture endured and was finally recognized.
It is from this history that our church was culturally born, that and the strength of our Orthodox Christian faith of which our people, the founders of this church, fought to establish here starting in Bridgeport and then moving to other towns. For us it was on Broadbridge Avenue in Stratford. In the early days of our parish, nationalities could be generally translated into different Christian denominations – The Irish to Protestantism or Catholicism, English – Episcopalian, Germans – Lutheran, Spanish and French – Catholic, etc. Today, our faith is much more faith centered in the sense that Orthodoxy is cross cultural with the focus not so much on one culture, but on one’s Orthodox faith. You don’t have to be Rusyn to go to an Orthodox church that has roots in Carpatho-Russia or any other nation like Greece, Albania or Romania among others. Such a development has actually opened the doors wider to God making us all true brothers and sisters in Christ. What bonded and guided nations and villages of homogenous peoples, now bonds us as individuals and a Christian family no matter our cultural or historical differences so long as we abide by the shared Creed of Orthodox Christianity.
And yes, I am a Rusyn, an American and an Orthodox Christian and I’m proud of them all.