St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church


St. John's Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of Newark's most interesting congregations and beautiful churches. Located at 719 Sanford Avenue in Vailsburg, this amazing church is a little bit of Kiev, transplanted to Essex County. The church itself is a beautiful combination of Modern and Byzantine architecture, through a Slavic aesthetic filter.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is said to be in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church accepts the authority of the Pope in Rome and holds all the same tenets as the Roman Catholic Church, but retains an Eastern rite liturgy, its own ecclesiastical hierarchy, and allows its priests to be married. Thus, in the United States, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has its own metropolitans and is independent of various Catholic dioceses.

Click here for St. John's own website

 

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, also called the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is sometimes called a uniate church, since it was once totally independent of the Roman Catholic Church, but has now reunited with it. Other denominations with and identical relationship to Rome are the Maronite and Melkite Churches of Lebanon, the Catholic Coptic Church in Egypt, the Chaldean Church in Iran and Iraq, and the Russian Catholic Church.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the Ukraine, after the Eastern Orthodox. Ukrainian Catholics live everywhere in the Ukraine, and comprise a majority of the population in western Ukraine, in the area of Lviv (aka Lemberg/Lvov).

Ukrainians in Newark and America

New Jersey received more Ukrainian immigrants than any other states except Pennsylvania and New York. The earliest Ukrainian immigrants to the United States arrived in the 1870s. Many went west to the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania, but a number also settled in New Jersey, especially Jersey City, where a Ukrainian Catholic parish was established in 1879. Interestingly, Ukrainians who arrived in the United States in this First Wave were never called "Ukrainians," even by themselves; at the time the preferred term was "Ruthenian" or "Rusyn." The Ukrainian homeland was under Tsarist domination at the time, and was often called "Little Russia."

The first Ukrainian community in Newark appeared in 1899. By the middle of the decade there was a large enough Ukrainian presence in Newark for John Cotton Dana of the Newark Public Library to produce Ukrainian-language advertising. The Church of St. John the Baptist, profiled in this feature, was founded in March of 1907 on Court Street.

In addition to this Catholic parish, there used to be a Ukrainian Orthodox parish in Newark and a Ukrainian Protestant one.

This is the Greek letter alpha, reproduced in mosaic with a Slavic aesthetic twist
Notice the iconostasis in the front of the altar. St. John's iconostasis was designed by Sviatoslav Hordynsky some years after St. John's Church was constructed.
Ukrainian immigration to the United States is thought of as coming in four waves. The first wave was before World War I, when hundreds of thousands of peasants came here for economic reasons. The next wave came between the world wars, when many Ukrainians came fleeing communism. The second wave comprised many intellectuals and writers. The third wave came after World War II, when a special directive of Harry Truman allowed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to settle here as refugees. The fourth wave of Ukrainian immigration is what has occurred since the fall of the Soviet Union.

From the beginning, Ukrainians excelled at ethnic institution building. By 1917, Ukrainians were organized enough to have Woodrow Wilson declare a "Ukraine Day" in the United States and favor an independent Ukraine at Versailles. In the 1930s Ukrainian-Americans lobbied and protested for Poland to ease its restrictions on Ukrainian culture and religion. The Rev. Danylovich of St. John's Church in Newark was a leader of the movement for a free Ukraine in the 1930s.

In Newark, Ukrainians had a variety of athletic and social associations, plus a chorus for Ukrainian music called a boyan. If you see something called a sitch, then it is a Ukrainian group. The word sitch meaning something like "fortress."

Read in a certain way, the stained glass and mosaics of St. John's tell the story of Christianity in Eastern Europe.

The stained glass and mosaics of St. John's were designed by Peter Petrovich Cholodnyj.

 

The History of the Ukrainian Catholic Church

For millenia, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were pagans, worshipping a pantheon of nature gods and possibly practicing human sacrifice. The peoples of what we now call Russia inhabited a swampy wilderness that was beyond the knowledge and influence of Christian Europe or the Islamic world.

The southern Slavs encountered Christianity well before northern Slavs did. The first missionaries to successfuly evangelize Slavic peoples were the brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who worked among the Khazars (actually a Turkic, not a Slavic, people) and the Czechs. St. Cyril is best known for devising an alphabet (based on Greek) for Slavic languages. In this stained glass Cyril is shown holding a manuscript.

The first Eastern Slav ruler to adopt Christianity was a woman, St. Olga. Olga converted to Christianity in Constantinople while she served as regent for her young son.

According to legend, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VII, was much taken by the Kievan ruler and wanted to marry her. Olga respected Constantine VII, and had him be her godfather at her baptism. After her conversion, Constantine did ask Olga to marry him, but wily Olga said no. Since he was her godfather, the marriage was illegal under Church law. Constantine VII's reaction was "Oh Olga, you have outwitted me."

Olga returned to Kiev and unsuccessfully tried to get her people to convert to Christianity in her lifetime. Later on, after her grandson converted the nation to Christianity, Olga was made a saint.

Olga's grandson, Prince Vladimir (called Volodymyr in Ukrainian), was the ruler of Kievan Rus who successfully evangelized the ancestors of today's Ukrainians.

According to a legend recounted in the chronicle of the monk Nestor, Vladimir had representatives come from all the major religions. Vladimir rejected Judaism because the Jews were scattered around the world, with no homeland. Vladimir rejected Catholicism (then just Western Christianity) because of its fasts. Vladimir rejected Islam because "drinking is the joy of Rus." Finally, Vladimir accepted the Eastern style of Christianity and married the Byzantine princess Anna, shown here at Vladimir's left. Notice the water in the foreground the mosaic. The water represents the Dniepr river, in which Vladimir's baptism took place.

Vladimir's conversion took place in 988, when the division between Western Christianity (Catholicism) and Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy), did not officially exist. Only after the Great Schism in 1054 did the Eastern Orthodox-Roman Catholic division became de jure and permanent. The Church in Kievan Rus at the time kept its Eastern Rite, but did stay in contact with the Pope. We will return to the founding of the Ukrainian Catholic church in a moment.

This mosaic was laid from 1988 to 1990, for the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. The artist was a Sviatoslav Makarenko Ukrainian-American artisan whose studio was in Yonkers. This mosaic was his last work. It is the same Sviatoslav Makarenko who designed the iconostasis.

Not all was smooth going for the Principality of Kyiv in the years after Vladimir's conversion. Two of Vladimir's sons, Boris and Gleb, were martyred in the first years of the 11th century.

Years later the two princes were canonized. There are churches and monastaries dedicated to them all over Russia and the Ukraine.

After the Great Schism of 1054, some churches of the Ukraine stayed with the Byzantine style of church worship, yet retained some links to the Pope in Rome. These churches are the ancestors of today's Ukrainian Catholic Church.

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, tarnishing the luster of Eastern Orthodox in the eyes of some. The aggrandizing efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow also caused consternation among Western Ukrainians. In the late 16th century, whe several major cities in the Western Ukraine came under the rule of Poland-Lithuania, and 1595-1596, several high-ranking churchmen went to Rome to make an arrangement for Catholicism in the Ukraine.

As part of the arrangement, the churchmen accepted the Catholic formulation of the Holy Trinity, where G-d, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are considered equal.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church was severely persecuted during the Soviet period. In 1946, the Soviets convened a spurious church council that severed the relationship with Rome in favor of traditional Russian Orthodoxy. Not until 1989 was the Ukrainian Catholic Church legalized again.

The right-angled Latin crosses displayed at St. John's reminds you that this is a Catholic church. Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian churches have angled crosses. The seal under the cross is the symbol of the Redemptorist Fathers, the order that runs St. John's Church.
The History of St. John's Parish

As mentioned previously, St. John's Church was originally located in a storefront on Court Street. The church there was very humble, but it was the nucleus of a strong Ukrainian community with a parish school, market, and credit union. In 1925 the church moved to Morton Street, where it stayed for over thirty years.

Education was always a priority of the Ukrainian community. In 1910, parish members began an evening school so that children could learn about their Ukrainian heritage. In 1939 an order of nuns established a day school, K-8, for the children of the community. In 1953, St. John's school relocated from Morton Street to Sanford Avenue in Vailsburg, ten years before the actual church moved. The 1950s were an excellent time for the school, by the decade's end there were almost 500 students enrolled. The school's success was due to the selfless efforts of the Basilian Sisters.

By the early 1960s, St. John's parish may have been the largest Ukrainian Catholic Parish in the United States, and the old quarters on Morton Street were hopelessly cramped. In 1957, St. John's church, led by Father Demetrius Laptuta, began a fundraising appeal for a new, larger church.

In 1960 the City of Newark purchased, and then demolished, the Morton Street Church to make way for public housing. The temporary loss of a church building gave impetus to St. John's fundraising for a new structure.

From 1963 to 1965, St. John's built the glorious church that we now admire. The architect Julian Jastremski (1910-1999) elegantly combined Slavic, Byzantine, and modern elements into something truly beautiful and unique. The congregation's ability to pay the $2 million cost is a testament to the security of Ukrainian-Americans in Vailsburg at the time.

 

 

No steel was used in construction. The arches and the walls were made of poured concrete, embedded with pink pebbles. Poured concrete is now a common construction method, but then it was rarer. Mosaics and stained glass for the interior were not finished until the early 1970s.

Jastremski's design won the award from the Newark Chamber of Commerce for most beautiful building built in Newark during the 1960s.

At eye level, St. John's has mosaics of the Stations of the Cross. I was told that stations of the cross was a Western-rite tradition, and would not be included in a design today.

On the middle level of the walls there are designs about the heating ducts. These designs are different versions of the trident, the "tryzyb," the emblem of the Ukraine.

Seen here is St. John's iconostasis. The iconostasis separates, or connects, depending on one's point of view, the nave of a church and the altar. Every iconostasis has three sets of doors: the ones on the side are called the North and South doors and may be used by laity, the ones in the center are called the Royal doors and can only be used by clergy. There are set formulas for how icons should be displayed. St. John's Royal doors have representations of the four evangelists on them.
St. John's Church has received several notable visitors in its Sanford Avenue location.

In 1968 and 1973 the leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Josyf Slipyj conducted masses here for thousands of faithful. Because of how he endured eighteen years of Soviet imprisonment, Cardinal Slipyj was considered a living saint by many Ukrainian Catholics.

In 1980 First Lady Rosalyn Carter visited as well for a campaign stop. She spent time at St. John's school, with the children. In 1989, the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund was founded at St. John's. This wonderful charity has sent over $50 million worth of medical supplies and food to Chernobyl victims.

Seen here is Mr. Leo Kolensky, my guide to St. John's Church. Mr. Kolensky escaped from Stalin in 1948. A retired Bell Labs engineer, he has lived in Newark since the early fifties. He is St. John's librarian.

This banner was made for the Apostolic Prayer Society in 1921, when St. John's was still on Court Street. Notice the poured concrete column.

The Apostolic Prayer Society has helped St. John's with fundraising on more than one occassion. In the early 1960s the Apostolic Prayer Society organized pyrohy (better known to Americans by their Polish name, pierogies) sales to pay for the new Vailsburg Church.

This is the basement social hall.
No ethnic neighborhood endures forever. Despite the Fourth Wave Ukrainian immigration of the last fifteen years, St. John's parish is shrinking. Most new Ukrainian immigrants prefer to live in Morris County, not Newark.

St. John's Parish school closed after the 2004 school year. Whereas the school once had nearly 500 students, by the last days the school had fewer than seventy in all nine grades. By the last years, the parish was subsidizing the school to the amount of over $200,000 a year.

Many congregants are elderly, and not every seat in the sanctuary is taken during mass. However, St. John's finances are stable and the church is still well led. Every Sunday St. John's has three masses; one in English, one in Ukrainian, and one in both languages. While the Ukrainian-American future may appear to be in Morris County, St. John's Church is still a healthy, vibrant community, housed in a breathtaking building.

Special thanks to Mr. Leo Kolensky, Mrs. Ksenia Hapij, Rev. Bodan Lukie, and Rev. Leonid Malkov for all their help.

Jeffrey Bennett, August 2006

|