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Fr. Alexis Toth, Bishop John Ireland, and the Grace of Reconciliation

by Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.


Anthony Clark writes on the history of the "two lungs" of the Catholic Church in the United States which have been marked, at times, by acrimony, misunderstanding, and controversy.

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Catholic World Report

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Ignatius Press, May 18, 2016

Christ, before his Passion, said to his apostles, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.”1 He was about to enter the garden to pray, and his disciples would soon fall asleep, flee him, and become divided. Christ’s agony in the garden envisaged the entire history of the Church; perhaps one of the Church’s most enduring traditions, unfortunately, has been division. William Blake (1757-1827) once wrote that, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than a friend.”2

One of the more ill-fated examples of division in the Church is the antagonism between the Eastern Catholic priest, Father Alexis Toth (1853-1909), and the Roman Catholic bishop of Minneapolis, John Ireland (1838-1918). According to several sources, when Toth and Ireland met on December 18, 1889, their brief exchange planted seeds that matured into an intra-ecclesial antipathy resulting in the departure of thousands of Catholics into Eastern Orthodoxy. Toth recalled that after handing the bishop his papers:

[N]o sooner did he read that I was a “Uniate” than his hands began to shake . . . .

“Have you a wife?” “No.”

“But you had one?” “Yes, I am a widower.”

At this he threw the paper on the table and loudly exclaimed, “I have already written to Rome protesting against this kind of priest being sent to me!”

“What kind of priest do you mean?” “Your kind.”

“I am a Catholic priest in the Greek Rite, I am a Uniate. I was ordained by a lawful Catholic bishop.”

“I do not consider you or this bishop of yours Catholic.”3

After Toth had returned from his audience with the bishop, Ireland directed a local Polish Latin Rite priest to “denounce Toth from the pulpit” and published a decree summoning all Catholics to renounce Father Toth.4 Ireland was not acting alone; many of his fellow bishops in America shared his interest in expurgating Greek Catholics, and their married priests, from the United States.

Not only did this encounter precipitate the exodus of many Greek Catholics, but Father Toth’s long friendship with his fellow Ruthenian priest, Father Nicephor Channath (d. 1899), was likewise strained. The story of Toth and Channath is, in the end, perhaps the most hopeful spark of Christian charity and reconciliation that emerges from the tragic incidents that transpired after Toth and Ireland set the stage for decades of disputation and division between Western and Eastern Rite Catholics in America.

A Landscape of Misunderstanding

The clash between Father Toth and Bishop Ireland was nourished on a landscape fertile for conflict. Latin and Greek Catholics have endured an uneasy rapport, and several factors contributed to this tension. As historian Bodhan Procko outlines the situation of the early Ruthenian priests coming to America, the first problem was “the lack of any official status for the Byzantine Rite in the United States and the absence of any church organization.”5 These priests arrived from their native country with rights of jurisdiction from their ordinaries back home, but once in America they served communities independent of one another and within the territories of Latin bishops who were either unaware of their activities or unwilling to accept their presence within their dioceses. Procko notes that “the majority of Latin hierarchy and clergy in the United States were unfamiliar with the usages of the Byzantine Rite.”6 Ignorance and territorialism were the antecedents of fear and conflict. With pressures from the American Latin bishops, Rome decreed that Byzantine Rite priests who arrived in America must report to the Roman Catholic bishops and operate under their supervision, and more significantly, they were required to be celibate; in addition; those priests who were married were required to return to Europe along with their families.

Numerous instances reveal that when Eastern Rite priests arrived in the United States, they were not well received by their Latin Rite contemporaries, and it was clear that the discipline of clerical celibacy was the main reason for the hostility displayed by Roman Catholic clergy. When Father Ivan Wolansky, a Greek Catholic priest from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv reached America on December 10, 1884, he was given a cold reception. Wolansky was sent to attend to the spiritual care of a growing number of Greek Catholic families who had immigrated to the US, and who felt out of place in the very foreign environment of the Roman Mass, bereft of the richly polychromatic beauty of Eastern iconography and the vacillating exultant and lugubrious melodies of Ruthenian liturgical chant.

What the Latin priests and bishops could not imagine was that their anti-Eastern prejudices deprived these immigrants not only of their long-hallowed form of worshipping God, but also their sense of cultural identity. Father Wolansky petitioned for an audience with the archbishop of Philadelphia, the Most Reverend Patrick J. Ryan (1831-1911), who disregarded his request. Ivan Kaszczak recounts that “the Archbishop’s Vicar General, Very Reverend Maurice A. Walsh (1832-1888), informed Wolansky that the Archbishop would not be seeing him – and furthermore, that there was no room for a married priest in the United States.”7 The disappointed and disheartened Father Wolansky sent a telegraph to his bishop back in Lviv, whose support could still not garner the acceptance of Philadelphia’s Latin Rite hierarchy and clergy. A painful chapter of Eastern and Western Catholic antagonism was underway.

In January 1915, a Roman Catholic author under the nom de plume “Foraneus” published a scornful protest against Ruthenian Greek Catholics in the American Ecclesiastical Review entitled “Some Thoughts on the Ruthenian Question in the United States and Canada”. That acidic essay was published more than twenty-five years after Alexis Toth’s unpleasant encounter with Bishop Ireland, and tensions between Western and Eastern Rite Catholics had only grown more acrimonious. Foraneus first complains that when Greek Catholics came to America, Latin Rite bishops were confronted with the awkward question of jurisdiction; he states that “from the days of the Apostles, there is only one bishop for every district,” a point that is manifestly contentious.8 The Church’s long history has seen Eastern and Western dioceses (called an “eparchy” in the Eastern Church) coexist and overlap in the same territory. Today in Chicago, for example, the city contains the cathedral of the Roman Catholic archbishop of the archdiocese of Chicago and the cathedral of the Eparchy of Chicago of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, each with equal authority to govern the Catholics of their own Rite within the same territory. Perhaps the most bellicose remark in Foraneus’ article is the comment:

Compared with the Latin rite, the Byzantine is and always will be in a state of inferiority. The Latin is universal, since it comprises many nationalities, none of which can claim the language of the sacred ceremonies as its own. Religion being for all, and the same for all, it would be lowered by being dragged down to the level of a merely national concern. The Latin language brings this to memory.9

Byzantine Catholics “always will be in a state of inferiority,” he argues, because the Latin language is a unifier of all cultures and nationalities. “It would seem,” he insists, “that the practice of the ‘West’ is more in accordance with the general principles of Christianity,” than the East.10 The opinions expressed in Foraneus’ hostile essay largely represented an American view, a view that was not shared by most Catholics in Europe, and certainly not shared by the Successors of St. Peter in Rome.

As can be expected, Ruthenian Catholic clergy by the turn of the century reacted with “a basically anti-Vatican movement that reached its peak in 1902.”11 They were not interested in denouncing their communion with Rome, but they were deeply exasperated by what they perceived to be a lack of hierarchical support coming from the Vatican. Aware of the frictions between Eastern and Western Rite Catholics in America at that time, Bishop Andrei Sheptytsky (1865-1944), the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, turned his attention across the globe to encourage Greek Catholics in the United States to, as Kaszczak notes, “preserve their union with Rome.”12 Proponents of this Eastern Catholic movement promulgated reactionary accusations against America’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, openly suggesting that that Latin Rite bishops had mistreated the Greek Catholics in their dioceses. In 1902, Metropolitan Sheptytsky attempted to “curb this rising anti-Vatican sentiment by issuing a pastoral letter . . . criticizing the ‘radical priests’ both for their actions and their anti-Roman views.”13 This created internal disputes between Greek Catholics, though despite these tensions the Eastern Rite Catholic population continued to swell.

By early 1904, America had ninety-five Byzantine Rite churches, mostly located in the Eastern and Midwestern states; Pennsylvania had the most, with fifty-seven parishes, and Ohio followed next with ten.14 These parishes were pastored almost entirely by priests from the Old Country: forty-seven were from Hungary, eighteen were from Galicia, and only two were from the United States.15 It is fair to admit that Eastern Rite Catholics at the turn of the century had largely formed into ethnic enclaves, though this was not uncommon of all immigrant communities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even of Latin Rite Catholics.

Wilkes-Barre and the Formation of Factions

Added to this mix of tensions between Latin and Greek Rite Catholics was an ongoing conflict within the Byzantine clergy. On October 29, 1890, the first gathering of Ruthenian priests was convened at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to consider how navigate the dominantly Latin Rite Catholic setting they had immigrated into. At the meeting were nine Greek Catholic priests, who collectively decided to petition the Church authorities in Rome for the appointment of a Vicar General to oversee all Byzantine Rite Catholics in the United States.16 In December of the following year, Ruthenian clergy gathered again and wrote a formal document to submit to the Apostolic Delegate on behalf of all Greek Catholics in America, and the intermediary between the Ruthenian clergy and the pope’s representative was Father Nicephor Channath, the close personal friend of Father Alexis Toth. Channath was not only expected to deliver the petition to the Apostolic Deligate, but he was additionally commissioned to function as the Greek Catholic intermediary between the Eastern Rite priests and the Latin bishops. Channath continued in this role until 1896, but he still could not curb the tide of factionalism between Greek Catholic priests who had divided into the radical anti-Rome group and the more moderate faction that still desired to maintain a peaceful accord with the Western Rite bishops.17

Perhaps the most notorious result of these factions was the conflict, mentioned above, between Bishop Ireland and Father Toth and Toth’s conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church; much ink is still spilled over this incident. From the Eastern Orthodox point of view, Toth’s conversion is described as a “return” to Orthodoxy, and from the Catholic point of view Toth’s fateful decision was an act of “disobedience” and a break from the authentic “Church founded by Christ.”18 Whatever the interpretation, as Procko puts it, Toth “became an energetic advocate of the Russian Orthodox Church among the Ruthenians in America and a bitter opponent of Catholicism.”19 By 1901, Alexis Toth had succeeded in converting thirteen Ruthenian Catholic congregations to Orthodoxy, causing nearly 7,000 Greek Catholics to become Eastern Orthodox.20 In the end, “Alexis Toth led fifteen Byzantine Catholic parishes with more than 20,000 faithful into the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church.”21

So successful was Toth in influencing Greek Catholic to become Orthodox that on May 24, 1994, he was canonized (glorified) a saint by the Orthodox Church in America.22 Needless to say, Alexis Toth, who had become an evangelist for Eastern Orthodoxy, and his close friend, Nicephor Channath, who was a tireless supporter of communion with the Successor of Saint Peter, had become bitterly estranged. By 1907, the pope was aware of the turbulent situation in America between Latin and Greek Catholics, and he had settled upon a possible resolution. During that year, Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) appointed Monsignor Soter Ortynsky, OSBM (1866-1916) the first Eastern Rite bishop of America. Despite Ortynsky’s tireless efforts to reign in tensions between Eastern and Western Rite Catholics, and the sustained conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy, conflicts and conversions continued during his life in America.

One event, however, shines through the shadows of this era with a light of Christian charity and reconciliation; Fathers Alexis Toth and Nicephor Channath were at last able to set aside their ecclesiological disagreements and embrace, at least in their hearts, the Christian unity called for by Christ.

Alexis Toth and the Grace of Reconciliation

On December 30, 1898, Father Channath lay dying on his hospital bed in Lackawanna Hospital in Scranton, Ohio. As he was nearing death, he agonized over the rupture between himself and his beloved friend, Father Alexis Toth. By then Toth was a Russian Orthodox priest, deeply despised by many Greek Catholic clergy, and seemingly unapproachable. Channath could not bear to die unreconciled to his friend and so summoned two Latin Rite Catholic priests to his hospital room and asked them an urgent favor. As the end advanced, the barriers and bereavements precipitated by cultural and ecclesiological difference faded in light of the grace of friendship and reconciliation, and when Father Toth received the two emissaries from his old companion his heart was softened. The next day, Nicephor Channath passed beyond the veil, and George Eliot’s (née Mary Evans, 1819-1890) remark that, “It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much,”23 seemed preferable to the spiritual malady of resentment. On the day of Channath’s funeral Liturgy, January 2, 1899, Father Alexis Toth sent a wreath of flowers to the body of his friend as an expression of his grief and reconciliation. Their love for each other as brothers in Jesus Christ had been restored, although the manager of the funeral home refused the flowers.24

When Toth learned that his wreath was refused, he issued a response in the Ukrainian periodical, Svoboda. Toth was deeply afflicted by this refusal, and recalled that Channath had sent the two Latin Rite priests to offer and seek forgiveness for the “unpleasantries” exchanged between the two friends. Toth wrote: “This was said in a Christian manner and I as a Christian and as a priest, touched to the depth of my heart, replied. . . . ‘I forgive all and remember no injury’.”25 In their supreme act of Christian charity and friendship, Nicephor Channath and Alexis Toth illustrated the grace of Christian reconciliation, despite the divisions that persisted between Toth’s followers and the Eastern Rite clergy in America who remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Reconciliation between Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics was more difficult to come by, and it was not until the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II (1920-2005) that conditions between these two Churches began to genuinely improve.

Perhaps it was the fact that John Paul II’s mother was a Byzantine Rite Catholic that made him especially sensitive to the situation of Eastern Rite faithful; he was known to have deeply esteemed the richness of the Byzantine Liturgy. On May 2, 1995, the pope issued an encyclical entitled Orientale Lumen, or “Light of the East,” in which he recognized the difficulties of being an Eastern Rite believer in a predominantly Western Rite Church. He wrote that a “conversion is . . . required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire catholic communion.”26

Not only did Pope John Paul II call Latin Rite Catholics to a “conversion” of heart toward their Eastern Rite brothers and sisters, but he also reminded all Catholics in communion of the Bishop of Rome that the Christian East is essential to the “full realization of the Church’s universality.”27 He also acknowledges how the Eastern Catholic Churches can enrich the spiritual experience of the Western Church, asserting: “Indeed, in comparison to any other culture, the Christian East has a unique and privileged role as the original setting where the Church was born.”28 While the Liturgy, spirituality, and theology of the Eastern Rites might at first appear foreign to many Latin Rite Catholics, these differences are part of what makes Catholicism truly catholic (universal), and they provide a window into how Christians have worshipped in the East for nearly two millennia.

And regarding the tensions that have plagued East and West for centuries caused by disagreements over the discipline of priestly celibacy, several Popes have tried, almost in vane, to calm the storm of controversy. When addressing this issue, Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) insisted that in the East there has never been a debate over the fact that some priests are celibate and some are married; married clergy is part of the East’s tradition. As Paul VI put it, that Eastern priests can be married “is due to the different historical background of that most noble part of the Church, a situation which the Holy Spirit has providentially and supernaturally influenced.”29 In reality, the different views of priestly celibacy is not merely a matter of discipline; they are a matter “providentially” ordained by the Holy Spirit. This view was again asserted on June 14, 2014, when Pope Francis ratified the “Pontifical Precepts About Married Eastern Clergy,” and declared that married Eastern clergy have full rights to practice their ministry in all territories of the Church, even those places “outside the traditional Eastern territory.”30

Perhaps the history of Eastern Rite Catholics in the United States would have unfolded in an entirely different fashion had Bishop Ireland and Father Alexis Toth met under the conditions outlined by Popes John Paul II, Paul VI, and Francis, but we can nonetheless be grateful for the improved atmosphere today between the “two lungs of the Church,” as John Paul II referred to the Eastern and Western parts of the Catholic Church. Today this relationship is marked by a spirit of collaboration, better understanding, and appreciation between the Churches, and the example of reconciliation between Alexis Toth and Nicephor Channath continues to bear fruit as past prejudices are slowly set aside to better realize the work that Christ has commissioned all his followers to accomplish.


1 Matt 26: 38 (NAB).

2 William Blake, “Jerusalem,” in The Poetical Works of William Blake, Viol. 2, Edwin J. Ellis, ed. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1906), 453.

3 This dialogue is quoted in D. Oliver Herbel, Turning Toward Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 25. See Kieth S. Russin, “Father Alexis G. Toth and the Wilkes-Barre Litigations,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3 (1972): 132-133.

4 Herbel, Turning Toward Tradition, 32. Also see Marvin R. O’Connell, John Ireland and the American Catholic Church (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988), 269-271.

5 Bodhan P. Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia: A History of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S.A.” (PhD diss, University of Ottawa, 1963), 34.

6 Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia,” 34.

7 Ivan Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky and the Establishment of the Ukrainian Cathlolic Church in the United States (Toronto, CA: The Basilian Press, 2013), 18.

8 Foraneus, “Some Thoughts on the Ruthenian Question in the United States and Canada,” Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 52 (January 1915), 43.

9 Foraneus, “Some Thoughts on the Ruthenian Question,” 46.

10 Foraneus, “Some Thoughts on the Ruthenian Question,” 46.

11 Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, 33.

12 Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, 33.

13 Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, 35.

14 Kalendar Greko Kaftoliceskaho Soedinenija (Munhall-Homestead, PA: Greek Catholic Union, 1905), 160.

15 Kalendar Greko Kaftoliceskaho Soedinenija, 160.

16 H. J. Heuser, “Greek Catholics and Latin Priests,” American Ecclesiastical Review, vol. 9 (March 1891): 198.

17 Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia,” 38.

18 See Herbel, Turning Toward Tradition, 37; Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia,” 41; and Declaration Dominus Jesus, no. 16.

19 Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia,” 41.

20 Procko, “The Byzantine Catholic Province of Philadelphia,” 42.

21 Athanasius B. Pekar, OSBM, Our Past and Present: Historical Outlines of the Byzantine Ruthenian Metropolitan Province (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1974), 39-40.

22 Herbel, Turning Toward Tradition, 11.

23 George Eliot, The Works of George Eliot, Vol. 7, Middlemarch (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1901), 359.

24 See Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, 25.

25 Svoboda, 26 January 1899. In Kaszczak, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, 26.

26 Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, No. 21.

27 Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, No. 21.

28 Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, No. 5.

29 Pope Paul VI, On Priestly Celibacy, No. 38.

30 Pontificia Praecepta de Clero Uxorato Orientaali (Pontifical Precepts About Married Eastern Clergy), 14 June 2014.

Anthony E. Clark is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.

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