Life and Services for St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre and Minneapolis
Confessor and Defender
of Orthodoxy in America
Feast: May 7
Additional resources at OCA.Org – music, photos from canonization
St. Alexis Toth
St. Alexis of Minneapolis: “Confessor and Defender of Orthodoxy”
Our holy father Alexis was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on March 18, 1854 into a poor, Carpatho-Russian family. (His family had a strong Hungarian cultural influence—the family name Toth is the Hungarian word for their nationality.) Churchly service ran strong in his family: His father and brother were priests and his uncle was a bishop. Like many whose ancestors were Orthodox Christians in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Toth family was Eastern Rite/Uniate Catholic.
The young Alexis benefited from a solid education. In addition to the local languages of Carpatho-Russian and Hungarian, he also mastered Russian, German, Latin, and possessed a reading knowledge of Biblical Greek. He also showed great aptitude and pursued education in Church History and Canon Law.
He married Rosalie Mihalich, whose father, like his, was a priest. After their marriage, on April 18, 1878 he was ordained to the priesthood and assigned the second priest in a Uniate parish. While there, his wife and their only child died. Saint Alexis, trusting in God, persevered and did not waiver in his faith.
Leadership in Prešov
Just a year after ordination and at only 25 years of age, in May of 1879, Fr. Alexis was appointed secretary to Prešov’s Bishop, Chancellor of the Diocese, and director of an orphanage. In addition to his administrative duties, Father Alexis also taught Church History and Canon Law at Prešov Seminary. He continued these duties for a decade.
Arrival in America
In October, 1889 Father Alexis became the second priest to be sent to Saint Mary’s church, a small Uniate parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (St. Mary’s had sent the money needed for the Prešov Diocese to pay for a priest’s trip. Originally Fr. John Zapototsky was sent, but he stopped at Kingston, Pennsylvania en route to Minneapolis and decided to stay there—effectively stealing the money that St. Mary’s sent and bitterly disappointing them.)
On November 15, 1889, Fr. Alexis arrived in America and on November 27, he reached Minneapolis, serving his first Liturgy on Thanksgiving day only to find—as he later reported—“a church, but empty. No vestments, no sacred church vessels and other needed articles.” There was not even an iconostas in the church. He immediately embarked on a fund-raising campaign, soliciting money from the nearly 90 parishioners, and from friends of the parish and even strangers.
He was named the head of the Sts. Peter and Paul Brotherhood, which had served as the organizational backbone of the community. This mutual aid society helped raise money for the church and did much to coordinate its development in these delicate early years.
Only five weeks after his arrival, on December 19, 1889, Fr. Alexis went with one of the local Polish priests to present his credentials and secure the blessing of the local Latin rite Roman Catholic archbishop, John Ireland. While en route to the meeting, the Polish priest was called away to visit with some sick parishioners and Fr. Alexis was left to see the Archbishop by himself. However, Archbishop Ireland was leader among the Americanist Roman Catholics who favored “Americanizing” their Church. This view did not allow for the use of the Eastern rite in Liturgy by foreign speaking immigrants.
Archbishop Ireland refused to recognize him as a legitimate Catholic priest and withheld permission for him to serve in his diocese. Having been a professor of Canon Law and Church History, Father Toth knew his rights under the terms of the Unia and rejected the Archbishop’s stance. Archbishop Ireland wrote to his parish priests that they ostracize Father Alexis and forbid their parishioners from receiving sacraments from him.
Providing for the Church and Self
In spite of the quandary in which they found themselves, Fr. Alexis and the parish persevered in seeing to the material needs of the church. Fr. Alexis continued his fundraising efforts. Within one year of his arrival, he had solicited enough money to purchase five sets of churchly vestments, a Holy Gospel book, chalice, paten and other implements used for preparation and administering of the Holy Gifts to communicants and other sacred vessels, candelabras, a censer, processional banners, a plashchanitsa (Christ’s burial shroud for Holy Week), icons, and various other articles and books. All this cost 840 dollars. Also in 1890, he purchased a house to be used as the rectory, for $1,500. He also paid off $1,800 in debt which remained on the church. Thus, in about one year, Fr. Alexis raised $4,140. Leaving the parish with a significant but manageable debt of $1,980. (Roughly speaking, in year 2002 terms, the liturgical items would cost $30,000; the house $55,000; the debt reduction $65,000; the total he raised $150,000; and the debt left over $70,000.)
All the while, they were not paying Fr. Alexis, “but” as he later wrote to Bishop NICHOLAS in 1896, “always I have been calling God’s name, and I didn’t lose heart and didn’t fall into despair.”
Not only did Fr. Alexis not lose heart nor fall into despair while overseeing all the money donated for the church’s liturgical needs, but he responded to his own situation with entrepreneurial spirit. He opening a small grocery store for which he served as the baker. With this limited income, he fed himself but also provided his poor parishioners with an inexpensive supply of provisions and used profit from business to pay for a caretaker and chanter for the church. (He ran the store until 1891, when he passed the business over to a parishioner.)
Meeting of Uniate Priests
The following year, in October of 1890, the married Uniate priests (all but two in America) were told that they were going to be recalled to Europe. Fr. Alexis convened a meeting at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania where eight of the ten Uniate priests in America expressed there concerns that American bishops had given them a hard time and had petitioned Rome that the Uniate clergy be recalled to Europe.
In response to this meeting, all the priests in attendance were recalled to Europe.
Leaving the Unia
Fr. Alexis returned to Minneapolis and told his parishioners about his grave situation. He went on to declare that the best thing that he could do for St. Mary’s was to leave. The parish, after having faced such difficulties in their struggle to get a resident pastor, was not willing to let Fr. Alexis simply surrender and leave. A number of the parishioners said, “Let us go to the Russian Bishop! Why should we always bow before foreign bishops?”
On December 8, 1890, they wrote to the Russian consul in San Francisco, asking if there was a Bishop and, if so, what his name and address were. Receiving a response ten days later, they decided to send parishioner Ivan Mlinar to San Francisco to meet Bishop VLADIMIR (Sokolovsky) and explain their predicament.
On January 27, 1891, Fr. Alexis convened a special meeting of the church board of trustees and parishioners, wherein they unanimously voted to put themselves under the Bishopric of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska and to send Fr. Alexis and a parishioner to San Francisco to personally invite Bishop VLADIMIR to officially accept the congregation into his diocese.
In February, 1891 Father Alexis and the church warden Paul Podany went to the Russian Consulate and meet with Bishop VLADIMIR. Fr. Alexis repudiated the Unia and announced his desire to serve in his ancestral Church and that of his faith—the Orthodox Church. The Russians, only recently having been surprised by the presence of Uniates in America, were again surprised by their eager desire to return to the Church of their Fathers. Bishop VLADIMIR kindly agreed with their request to enter the Orthodox Church.
An eyewitness to the visit, choir director Paul Zaichenko, wrote
In the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of San Francisco, Bishop VLADIMIR is saying the Divine Liturgy. The choir, under my direction, is singing splendidly. In the center of the church stands a stranger. He is clean shaven, with a short military haircut. He wears a cassock, fastened with a row of buttons, and around his waist is tied a wide purple sash. He has a plump face, but with pleasant, lively features. His broad forehead, his bright eyes, that seem soft yet on fire at the same time, betoken the man’s intellectualism. He stands with eyes fixed upon the painting of the Last supper, and with his palms folded in the manner of a Catholic, prays earnestly; and it seems, that he is living through a spiritual turmoil, which reflects itself upon his features. For half an hour he stands motionless, transfixed in spiritual ecstasy. All eyes are on him, but know one knows who the stranger is.
Bishop VLADIMIR, in all his vestments, comes forward from the altar, holding the Bible and the cross. According to Church ritual, the stranger is accepted into the Orthodox faith. In a loud voice, he renounces papism and enters the fold of the Holy Orthodox Church. At that moment his face lights up with an internal light.
This new convert was Father Alexis Toth, young, handsome, and energetic. He had journeyed from far off Minneapolis to enter the Orthodox Church, in the Russian Cathedral of San Francisco.
The next month, Bishop VLADIMIR journeyed to Minneapolis and on March 25, 1891 received Father Alexis and 361 parishioners into the Orthodox Church. The parishioners cried out: “Glory to God for His great mercy!”
Uniates throughout America took note of this event and Saint Alexis, by preaching and writing about the false teachings and deceptions which had misled his people, found Uniate clergy and churches eager to hear him out.
He was again recalled by his now former Uniate bishop in Prešov. When this proved ineffective, he was given the “carrot and the stick” treatment.
On the one hand, it was said that Fr. Alexis had sold the Christian faith to the “Muscovites” for 30,000 rubles, that he was a cheater and a thief who stole orphans’ money in Hungary and ran away to America and in secret, Jesuit priests started to visit the parishioners and stir up doubts in their hearts.
On the other hand, the Saint was told that all he needed to do was repent and another parish in America would be given to him. When this failed, he was offered a bishopric if he’d repent of his decision and return to the Unia.
Although Bishop VLADIMIR immediately received them into the Church, it took until July, 1892 for the Holy Synod of Russia receive word and formally accept into the Diocese of Alaska and the Aleutians and then, this resolution didn’t get back to America until October, 1892, making a total of nineteen months since Bishop VLADIMIR received them into the Orthodox Church.
During these months, since he had given up operation of the store, St. Alexis went without a salary. His only income from the church was the paltry trebe (gratuities for priestly services) that his poor parishioners gave him.
In the meantime, however, Bishop VLADIMIR offered St. Alexis financial support by proposing that, in addition to St. Mary’s, he become pastor of a church in Chicago. (St. John Kochurov became the first resident pastor of that church, which would later become Holy Trinity Cathedral.) Knowing the holy priest’s trying situation, Bishop VLADIMIR offered to pay not only for travel expenses to and from Chicago, but, as he wrote to St. Alexis on September 12, 1891, “I would help you also privately until the matter is resolved by the Holy Synod.”
In spite of the hardships, St. Alexis found time to write for new converts, giving advice on how to live in an Orthodox manner. He stressed education, cleanliness, sobriety, and bringing children to the services on Sundays and Holy Days.
Saint Alexis was recognized as a powerful witness in preaching the integrity of the Orthodox Faith and Church especially vis-à-vis the Unia. He was frequently invited to speak at Uniate churches and the bishops under whom he served (VLADIMIR, NICHOLAS, Saint TIKHON, and PLATON) recognized his gift of preaching and his ability to relate to those suffering under the Unia. They often sent him to teach and preach to Slavic communities across the eastern US and even into Canada where he explained the differences between Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Uniatism, stressing that the true way to salvation is in Orthodoxy.
In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the Carpatho-Rusyn Uniates were growing weary of the poor treatment which they received, much like St. Mary’s in Minneapolis had endured. The parish trustees, who knew St. Alexis from his visit to Wilkes-Barre two years before, began to consider doing what St. Alexis and St. Mary’s in Minneapolis had done: Join the Russian Orthodox Church. On November 12, 1892, the trustees wrote to St. Alexis, asking him to assume leadership of their parish. St. Alexis feared that the letter was a simplistic joke and wrote back an extremely long letter explaining Orthodoxy, the Unia, and the significance of what the trustees were asking. They sent a simple telegraph response stating, “We know all of that, but some as soon as you can.”
Saint Alexis made the 1,200 mile trip from Minneapolis to Wilkes-Barre on December 3, 1892. He was led to the parish house which was filled with parishioners to whom he again explained what it meant to enter the Orthodox Church. The people were satisfied with all of that, but especially, with the prospect of finally having a bishop. The following day, a Sunday, the church was filled. St. Alexis gave a sermon which lasted for more than an hour and a half. He covered the history of the Unia including its origins, how it was enforced— particularly referencing one of its greatest enforcers, the supposed “Hieromartyr-Saint” Josaphat Kuntzevich, whom St. Alexis harshly but accurately referred to as a “jerk and villain,”—papal supremacy which the Saint identified as “a human invention;” how the Latin Church spoiled the Nicene Creed (i.e., by altering it to read that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son [contrast John 15:26]); Rome’s peculiar teaching of immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary; how “indulgences” are false and were invented to raise money, etc., and how all of these issues are opposed to Christ’s teaching and the patristic understanding of the Church.
After Liturgy, St. Alexis gave the parish until Tuesday night to think over their decision before they would be able to formally request of him to enter the Russian Orthodox Church. In the meantime, after long discussion with the trustees, he instructed them to go to the homes of parishioners and ask all of them if they desired to enter the Orthodox Church, to accept its faith, to sign over the church properties to the Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco, and finally, to renounce what he referred to as “the Uniate-Papist faith.” They were strictly forbidden to persuade people; they were only to have the parishioners freely sign the agreement, or put a cross by their name if they were illiterate.
St. Alexis, who had spent the intervening two days in Hazleton and Shenandoah, returned to Wilkes-Barre Tuesday afternoon and by 7:00 parishioners had filled the parish house, the yard, and the church’s basement. Saint Alexis gave a brief review of the Orthodox Church vis-à-vis the Unia and then asked if they wanted to enter the Orthodox Church, submit to the Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco, and give the properties to the bishop. They responded unanimously in the affirmative. Saint Alexis had the petition to Bishop Nicholas read in Ukrainian and read again in Slovak. He then asked if every one understood , to which they responded positively. He asked again if they freely give the church to the bishop, and they again affirmed their support. Finally, at 8:00, St. Alexis told them that he would give them another 15 minutes in which, if even one person objected, he would peaceably return to Minneapolis without even demanding payment for his travel expenses ($80, or about $2,850 in 2002 dollars) and the issue would be dropped as if it never happened. There was total silence as St. Alexis then left the room for 15 to 20 minutes. When he returned, he asked again if they wanted to enter the Orthodox Church and sign over the church properties. They agreed and the trustees signed the petition, as did the leaders of the parish’s two brotherhoods. Then the head trustee handed the key of the church to St. Alexis, saying, “I give to you our church and its property freely, with the agreement of the entire parish!”
Fr. Sebastian Dabovich
Before leaving Wilkes-Barre, St. Alexis saw the need to do follow-up work with them. He wrote to Bishop NICHOLAS requesting an assistant priest to serve St. Mary’s to free himself to return to Pennsylvania and complete the work of bringing the Wilkes-Barre community more fully into the Orthodox ethos and mentality. Bishop NICHOLAS assigned the first priest born in the United States: the Russian-educated hieromonk, Fr. Sebastian Dabovich. Father Sebastian was born to Serbian parents in San Francisco in 1863, during the American Civil War. (Saint Jacob Netsvetov was the first priest who was born in the New World. He was born in 1802 to an Aleut mother and a Russian father in what was then Imperial Alaska.)
Having received permission to return to Wilkes-Barre once Fr. Sebastian would arrive, the Saint returned home to Minneapolis on December 12, 1892.
St. Mary’s Loses St. Alexis
Fr. Sebastian was a thoughtful and quiet man, a humble and dedicated worker who loved teaching the Bible to students at St. Mary’s parish school. He was noted as one who always strove to better himself. However, in the three weeks of St. Alexis’ absence, which included Christmas and Theophany, Fr. Sebastian inadvertently causes a scandal when he celebrated a marriage for a parishioner. Since Fr. Sebastian was salaried from the Diocese and did not know the Uniate custom followed at St. Mary’s, refused to accept the trebe payment, saying that it was not necessary to pay priests for services. From this, a storm brewed. Saint Alexis, who had supported the parish with his store and endured so many months without receiving any salary from the Diocese or parishioners, was now seen as a money swindler.
When Saint Alexis returned from his three week sojourn, he found a grave problem. He attempted to restore the situation but Professor Zaichenko (who had been sent by the Bishop to run the parish school) and Fr. Sebastian knew themselves to be defending the Orthodox way. They neglected the pastoral hazards involved in what they were doing and opposed the Saint in his own parish.
Recalling these tragic events, Fr. Alexis later wrote to Bishop NICHOLAS that
…those same people, for whom I sacrificed everything and who, during the attacks of the Papists, stood as strong as a wall, and whom I had been protecting and saving, became so ungrateful… It was told to my face that “we do not want the ‘Hungarian’ as a priest anymore—we need a Russian priest!” …So I left Minneapolis and moved to Wilkes-Barre.
Conclusion of Midwest Service
Because of their tragic, ill-considered myopia, the parishioners of St. Mary’s rebelled against, and lost their champion. However, reminiscent of Genesis 50:20, (“and you, you purposed evil against me—God meant it for good, in order to make it as it is today, to keep alive many people.”) Fr. Alexis’ exile proved more fruitful than could have ever been dreamed. From the Wilkes-Barre church which Fr. Alexis had returned to the Orthodox Church while still the pastor of St. Mary’s in Minneapolis, he was able to lead many more Unites back to the Orthodox Church.
Saint Alexis, having previously worked with numerous local mutual aid societies and brotherhoods, had also seen their fragmented nature leading to redundant efforts and, over-all, a weaker financial situation. He received a blessing from Bishop NICHOLAS to convene a meeting of representatives from every one of the local Orthodox brotherhoods. The meeting, at Wilkes-Barre, convened on April 10, 1895. From this meeting the Russian American Orthodox Mutual Aid Society was born. (It would later be called the Russian Orthodox Church Mutual Aid Society, ROCMAS.)
Initially, membership included brotherhoods from Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Phillipsburg, Old Forge, Osceola Mills, in addition to Minneapolis, Bridgeport, and Streator. Within the first year, though, membership would increase to 18 brotherhoods. Eventually, almost 10,000 people would be members in 224 local chapters.
These united brotherhoods greatly helped in establishing new churches and missions as well as fostering communication within the American Church through their publication, The Light.
Our Holy Father Alexis’ efforts did not go unrecognized in his own lifetime. He received a jeweled miter from the Holy Synod, as well as the Order of St. Vladimir and the Order of St. Anna from Czar Nicholas II for distinguished service and devotion to God and country. In 1907, he was considered as a candidate for episcopal office. He declined this honor, humbly pointing out that this responsibility should be given to a younger, healthier man.
At the end of 1908, St. Alexis’ health began to decline due to a complication of illnesses. He went to the seashore in southern New Jersey in an attempt to regain his health, but soon returned to Wilkes-Barre, where he was confined to bed for two months. The righteous one fell asleep in the Lord on Friday, May 7, 1909 (April 24 on the Julian Calendar), the feast of Saints Sabbas and Alexius the Hermit of the Kiev Caves.
By the time of his repose, St. Alexis’ legacy had already been well established. He had personally overseen the return to Orthodoxy of up to 20,000 Carpatho-Russian and Galician Uniates and the formation or return of 17 parishes across America. With the assistance of his protégés in America and Europe, the total number of Uniates to make the return is estimated to exceed a quarter of a million.
Father Alexis, having freely taken on poverty so as not to burden his flock and having endured so much hardship and hatred from his same beloved flock, was properly and ceremoniously canonized on May 29, 1994.
An Indication of Holiness
In 1909, seven years after his death, St. Alexis’ body was being transferred to a new and more prominently located grave near St. Tikhon’s Monastery Church when his remains were discovered to be incorrupt.
An Intercessory Miracle
St. Alexis’ love and concern for his spiritual children did not cease with his death. Before closing the account of his life, it would be most appropriate to reveal but one example of his heavenly intercession:
A father had been separated from his son for twenty-eight years. When he was a child, the son had been taken to another state by his mother, where she changed his name, leaving his father was unable to locate him.
In January, 1993 the father prayed to St. Alexis to help him obtain information about his son. Placing his confidence in the boldness before God of the saint who during his earthly life had proven so effective in reuniting the separated, he awaited an answer to his prayer. The very next day, son telephoned his dad.
The young man had been in church when he was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to contact his father. Having learned from his mother that his father was an Orthodox Christian, with the help of an Orthodox priest, he was able to obtain his father’s phone number in a distant city. As a result of that telephone call, the young man later visited his father, who rejoiced to see what sort of man his son had become. The father gave thanks to God and to St. Alexis for reuniting him with his son.
His holy relics now rest at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania where the faithful may come to venerate them and to entreat St. ALEXIS’ intercessions on their behalf.
Archbishop Josaphat Kuntzevich of Polotzk “persecuted the Orthodox people with particular severity. Leo Sapega, chancellor of Lithuania, strongly warned Kuntzevich of the danger of his conduct in his letter of March 12, 1622. “…Your Sanctity assumes that you are permitted to despoil schismatics and cut off their heads; the Gospel teaches the contrary. The ‘Unia’ has not produced joy, but only discord, quarrel and disturbances. It would have been better if it had never taken place. Now I inform you that, by the King’s command, the churches must be opened and restored to the Orthodox, that they may perform divine service. We do not prohibit Jews and Mohammedans from having their places of worship, and yet you are closing up Christian temples.” Kuntezevich did not pay attention to this letter, pursuing his career of oppression until the inhabitants of Vitebsk rose against him and killed him on July 12, 1628 by throwing him into the river Dvina. The Roman Catholic Church canonized him in 1867…” (Toth, Alexis, Archpriest Alexis Toth: Letters, Articles, Papers and Sermons, vol. 1, Ed. & tr. George Soldatow. Chilliwack, British Columbia, Synaxis Press, 1978; p. 71 n84.) [Return to article]
John 15:26, “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” [Return to article]