In 1907 about 18 young men, heads of their households and all under 30 years old, gathered to start a church in Northeast Minneapolis. Ethnic Rusins, they had emigrated from an east European region that includes parts of Poland, Ukraine, Rumania, Yugoslavia and Slovakia.
The new parishioners called their church St. John The Baptist Greek Catholic Church. Their leader was Michael Rushin, a local businessman who owned a bar in Minneapolis’ Seven Corners district. Their first church was a building they bought for $335 from Holy Cross Church, a nearby Catholic Church. Their first priest, Father Eugene Volkay, was married.
This year, the parishioners of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church (as it is now called) are celebrating their 100th anniversary with a years’ worth of events. Their priest, Father Ihar Labasevich, is from Belarus; he, like Volkay, is married.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a married priest since the 1930s,” said parishioner Larry Goga. “He and his wife are both lawyers; they speak English, Rusin and Belarusin.”
According to the church’s history book, published by the Rusin Association in 1999, tearing down the old church was a controversial move in 1923. The building was a wood frame building, the oldest Catholic church building in Minneapolis. It was built for an Irish congregation in Northeast Minneapolis, who sold it to German Catholics, who sold it to the Polish Holy Cross congregation.
Many people, the history book says, believed the structure had historic and sentimental value, and might be needed in the future to serve a growing church population. But those who wanted a new building prevailed, and the old structure was razed to make way for the one now standing at 2215 3rd St. NE, completed in 1927.
Parishioners were working people. Most had little money in the early days; church records show that their total contributions to the church in 1918 were $557.50 for 93 people, about $6 each. The congregation struggled with building its identity in their new church home, sensing a constant threat to the independence of the Byzantine Rite church from the Roman Rite bishops. Roman Catholics and fellow Rusins of other churches sought to lure St. John’s parishioners to their churches.
But St. John’s congregation resisted and clung to their Byzantine Catholic heritage.
“Being at that time, the western-most parish of the Byzantine Catholic Church, it had no neighboring parishes for support, but survived in what was essentially a hostile environment,” according to the church history book. The Roman Rite Archbishops of the Diocese of St. Paul were especially antagonistic to the small church: they saw a Catholic Church with another Rite (that was not Roman) and a married priest as a challenge to their authority.
The St. Paul Diocese made its influence felt in the construction of the new church, which has a Western and Roman interior. There were no icons or royal doors. The only Byzantine hold-over is the three barred cross atop the steeple. The clergy began calling the Divine Liturgy the Mass, another Romanization still in use today.
St. John’s parishioners struggled against losing their independence and sought to retain their Rusin traditions and Byzantine liturgy. They started a “Ruska Skola” or Rusin School, to preserve their language and traditions.
Clinging to the old ways wasn’t easy, however. Church members tended to be transient in the early 1900s, traveling through the state seeking work or a place to live. Some returned to the larger Rusin communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The priests from St. John’s also served the Ukrainian community (that congregation eventually founded St. Constantine’s Church) and did missionary work in Minnesota’s Iron Range, in Chisholm, Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.
Back home in Northeast, from 1910 to 1930, there was outright animosity, sometimes erupting in violence, between the Catholic congregations.
The church history (dated from 1907-1957) says that many of St. John’s older members could remember violence and vandalism. It included fights, beatings, and even a shooting. Julie Hudak Haluska said that someone had fired a bullet into their house and it went right over her cradle when she was a baby. Mary Warhola remembered her father, George Regan, being beaten after he joined St. John’s.
Mary Yurch remembered being taunted by Polish children who called Rusins “Russians,” and chanted, “Polaks, Polaks ring the bell, All the Russians go to hell.”
There were good times at the church in those days, as well, however. The parish hosted annual balls, dancing to waltzes and polkas played by a three piece string orchestra and to the “Old Country Hungarian Charades.” There were ice cream socials featuring ice cream, Cracker Jacks and soda pop. Young men participated in sports and formed a choir. They met in a clubhouse behind the church and had a pool table; they also helped with church fundraisers.
Two changes in the 1930s and 1940s hit St. John’s parishioners hard: first, the diocese began trying to enforce the celibacy rule for priests (an order with which St. John’s never fully complied). Then, in the 1940s, St. John’s was ordered to adopt the “new” Gregorian calendar instead of the traditional Julian (in the 20th Century, it was 13 days behind the Gregorian). Some people left the church over these two issues, because they were seen as further eroding their traditions.
Goga said that through the years, St. John’s has “become known for being unknown. We’re a survivor among the Eastern Rite Catholic churches, and are the only Rusin church in the state. It’s been hard for us to maintain who we are; Rusins never had a country. They always lived in a central area, but it covered different nations.”
In recent history, the church suffered a nearly devastating blow: in the 1980s its priest, Robert Ruglovsky, was accused of sexually abusing some children in the congregation. “He went to prison, and we’ve had a hard time recovering from that. Some people left the church; they felt ashamed, even though they hadn’t done anything. We felt neglected by the Eparcy [in church hierarchy, one step under the Diocese], which is located in Ohio. Every church has a low point in its history, and that was ours.”
Although the church lost members over the incident, some of them the original Rusin families, it has also gained new ones.
“They are all welcomed here,” Goga said, adding many parishioners no longer live in the old neighborhoods; most now come in from the suburbs. Parishioners hold an annual rummage sale and fall festival and have potlucks during holy days. There is a church choir, led by director Tom Sery.
“A lot of our families are musical,” Goga said. “Some of them even had their own small bands.”
The youth group holds a pancake breakfast and donate the proceeds to charity, he added, “although we have a limited number of young people.”
Special events for the 100th anniversary have included hosting the Slovac Lipa Dancers in April and holding a Slovanic liturgy in July. Many people say they are encouraged by the new priest’s enthusiasm. “He has generated some interest. He’s young and has energy,” Goga said. “With his help, maybe we’ll be able to start building for the future.”