In the Beginning
Around 1880 early Ukrainian settlers began to arrive in Olyphant, PA. They came from poverty stricken but simple peasant stock, emigrating from Ukrainian localities in the province of Galicia, a part of the huge Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. These territories today are divided among Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Rumania. They came from counties or districts in Galicia – Gorlice, Sanok, Yablinka, Zemplun, and so on – on the north and south sides of the massive Carpathian Mountain chain that cut through Middle Europe in a semi-circular swath. Most of these early immigrants were known as “Lemko’s,” so named because of a linguistic peculiarity in the dialect of the Ukrainian language which they spoke. The area they came from was fondly known as Lemkivshchyna (Lemko Land).
They came – people of simple peasant stock. People of the land who barely eked out an existence in a homeland where 2 percent of the population owned more than 95 percent of the land and its resources. They came to escape economic, social and political oppression to a land of freedom and opportunity. Some came with the aspiration of amassing enough wealth here in order to return to the homeland to better their economic status. Some came alone to earn enough for the passage to the New World of the families they left behind. Most remained here to struggle in a society where they were regarded as of lowly stature and treated as such. They struggled and suffered from indignities imposed on them by their neighbors and peers, and often from outbreaks of violence wreaked on them by other ethnic groups unable or unwilling to understand and at least tolerate their Slavic customs and traditions.
From an agricultural economy, squalorous living conditions and political repression, they brought into the heart of the Anthracite coal mining region a work ethic of diligence and sacrifice. They also brought with them a rich heritage of their Slavic ethnic culture, customs and traditions which were deeply rooted in Christian Catholic religious beliefs.
Life in the New World, in the coal mining region, was not easy for the early pioneers of our Parish. The jobs they received were usually menial and involved great physical strength. Being unfamiliar with the language and customs of their newly adopted country, they were forced to band together into their own community where they would be able to converse freely in their own native language.
They lived in houses rented to them by the coal company for which they worked. The Grassy Island section of Olyphant was among the first sections to house a settlement of Ukrainian immigrants. Others settles in the Fern Hill section, the Olyphant Flats and in adjacent boroughs such as Dickson City (known as Priceburg at the time), Throop, Blakely, Peckville and other areas throughout the Mid-Valley.
The people were not unaccustomed to hard work since they were a people of the soil and given to long hours and hard work. They managed to satisfy their economic needs and provide for their families. Since they had no formal place of worship nor a priest to tend to their spiritual needs, their social and spiritual life went largely unsatisfied.
In December 1884, the first Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite) missionary priest, Rev. John Wolansky, arrived from Galicia and took up residence in Shenandoah, PA, from which he began visiting the various communities of Ukrainian settlers throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. Under Father Wolansky’s guidance and direction, the first Ukrainian Catholic Church (in those days popularly referred to as “Greek Catholics” to signify its Christianity having come from Byzantium of the East and to distinguish the Eastern Rite from the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church) was founded in Shenandoah.
In 1885, at the invitation of the Ukrainian community in Olyphant, Father Wolansky visited them and administered the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). Thereafter, he visited periodically to minister to the spiritual needs of the community and to guide them in planning for the building of their own house of worship – a church.
On October 14, 1886, with Fr. Wolansky’s guidance, the Ukrainian community organized the Brotherhood of St. John the Baptist, a fraternal insurance organization. The Brotherhood immediately established a “Church Building Fund.” Soon thereafter in 1887, a group of 70 pioneers contributed in a one-day drive the monumental sum for that day and age of $4,000, and organized a cooperative store, which was then located at the corner Delaware Avenue and Grant Street (formerly known as Jones Street). With profit from the store amounting to $2,500 and a loan of $1,800, three lots were purchased.
On the corner of River and Grant Streets, a very small, wooden chapel facing River Street was built. Much of the labor that went into the building of this first church edifice was provided by the men of the Parish who came to the work site after a hard day’s work in the mines. Finally, it was a day of great rejoicing when the chapel structure was completed in 1888 and its bell tolled for the first time summoning parishioners to the first Divine Liturgy celebrated in their own Greek (Eastern) Rite Catholic Church. Thereafter, until his return to Galicia in 1890, Father Wolansky continued to visit the chapel and minister the Holy Mysteries periodically. The first marriage reputedly to have taken place in St. Cyril’s in 1888 was between Michael Wargo and Mary Beckage. The records of Baptism, Marriages and Deaths, which at that time were kept in Fr. Wolansky’s parish of residence, Shenandoah, show that on November 13, 1888, four marriages took place in St. Cyril’s chapel: Nicholas Telep and Mary Pavlyak, Andrew Senkovich and Anastasia Kretskiy, Phillip Nasov and Anna Kachmarchik, and Joseph Smetana and Justina Smakov.