06 August 2010

A lost piece of Carpatho-Rusyn history in Streator, Illinois

Word of the impending demise of one of the oldest Slovak Roman Roman Catholic parishes in the U.S., shines a light on some nearly forgotten Rusyn history in Streator, Illinois, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.

St. Stephen's in Streator, Ill.
First, the situation at St. Stephen's, a Roman Catholic parish that was founded in 1883 by Slovak immigrants to what was a coal-mining community. Some sources consider it the first Slovak Roman Catholic parish in the U.S.

The Times, the local newspaper, reports that St. Stephen's, St. Anthony, Immaculate Conception, and St. Casimir (remember that name, because St. Casimir is the Rusyn connection) are merging into St. Stephen's church building, with the new consolidated parish renamed St. Michael the Archangel.

St. Stephen had been offered to the Slovak Union, but the expense of maintaining the building killed that idea.

Such church consolidation is a common thing as small parishes can no longer survive. But it means the loss of a landmark for the descendants of immigrants -- even if the building, which dates from 1896, survives.

Now, onto the Rusyn part of the story.

That St. Casimir church that's part of the merger originally occupied the structure that had been home to the Three Hierarchs Orthodox Church, a parish that was formed in the late 19th Century with a strongly Carpatho-Rusyn foundation.

At the time of its formation, the Streator Orthodox parish was one of only two "Russian" Orthodox churches in Illinois. The other was Chicago's St. Vladimir -- now Holy Trinity. And the uniqueness of the Streator settlement was honored by the Tsarist Russian government, which gave the parish the edifice of an Orthodox church built for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Here's the account, from "Orthodox America: 1794-1976:"

The Russian Exhibition at the 1893 World's Fair
"The chapel, which had been built in Russia, dismantled, and brought to the Exposition, was moved again: to Streator, Illinois, where another small community was established to service the church on a regular basis.

"A number of Slovaks -- Catholic and Uniate -- settled in Streator... in the late 1890s. Knowing of the return of Uniates to Orthodoxy in other parts of the country, Father John Kochurov began to learn their dialects in order to do missionary work among them. An Orthodox community was formed and Father Michael Potochny, who had been the choir director for Father [Alexis] Toth in Minneapolis, was assigned as the first pastor of the congregation."

Father Kochurov, by the way, is an Orthodox saint.
Father John Kochurov

Of course, we know that those "Slovaks" described as "Uniate" (or Greek Catholic), would have been Carpatho-Rusyns.

The next chapter in this bit of Rusyn history comes from William Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society. He wrote an article on the roots of Orthodoxy that appeared in Illinois Heritage magazine and, later in Springfield's "Illinois Times."

Furry wrote that the structure had been originally ordered by Tsar Alexander III, who "commissioned his favorite architect, Petrovo Ropette, to design the Russian Pavilion."

The architect is actually Ivan Petrovich Ropet, who pioneered the Russian Revival style. Here's a link in Russian, on the architect. And if you prefer English, here's the Wikipedia article on Ropet.

Furry wrote: "Father John arranged for the facade, tower and traditional ornamentation of the Russian Pavilion to be shipped to Streator, where all were reassembled as the new sanctuary for the Three Hierarchs Church, officially listed in the 1901 Steator city directory as the Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Church. Although the church's sanctuary was of simple construction, its ornate facade turned heads in Streator.

The lost church of Streator, Ill.

"After Father John left America in 1907, the church passed into the hands of a fringe Baptist congregation, which sold the structure in 1916 to the Polish Catholic community in Streator, which renamed it St. Casimir's. The church was demolished in the 1960s and a new modern building erected in its place."

And, also apparently lost was the Rusyn community of Streator.

In "The World's Columbian Exposition: A Centennial Bibliographic Guide," it's noted that "over the years, every detail of [the] ornate wood facade disappeared. At the time of its demolition in 1964 to make way for the congregation's present church, every surface of the original building had been covered with brick patterned asphalt siding."

An interesting footnote to this story is the fate of the bell from the Russian exhibit at the 1893 World's Fair.

The fine Orthodox History blog details the story of the bell, that was given to Chicago's Orthodox Church and would have made it into the belfry of what's now Holy Trinity Cathedral, founded largely by Lemko Rusyns.

Quoting Chicago Tribune articles of the time, the post details the theft of the bell in May 1902, as the new church, designed by Louis Sullivan, was nearing completion.  Three men, including at least one parishoner, were believed to have rolled the bell onto a wagon and taken it away -- presumably to be melted down for its metal.

It's not clear if that ever happened, or if the bell survived somewhere, and the author of the piece is still looking for answers:

"Alas, I haven't been able to track down the rest of the story," writes Matthew Namee. "If anyone knows what became of the bell, please send me an email."

And my plea is the same. Do any remnants of the architectural oddity that was Three Hierarchs church survive? While the building is long gone, perhaps a piece or two remains. At least, there have to be some  later, and better, photographs of this unusual relic.

If you know anything, send me an email.

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