A dear friend and former colleague in California once remarked acerbically that “San Diego County is about 4,100 square miles wide and half an inch deep.” His point in context was that most residents of the place had no idea of the area’s history — and likely would have cared less, anyway.
One suspects the same holds true for most people in the Twin Cities.
Oh, sure, we all know (vaguely) about the flour barons and the milling empire that arose on the banks of the Mississippi, and something of the heyday of the huge steam locomotives that powered commerce in the metro area. But the deep history and remarkable cultural diversity of the area probably remain a mystery to most of us.
For example, not many people know that Minneapolis produced a saint — Alexis Toth, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church who originally was sent here in the late 19th century from a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that today is part of the Slovak Republic.
The story is complicated, as befits the part of the world from which Toth hailed. He wasn’t even an Orthodox priest when he arrived here, but, rather, the pastor of a congregation of several hundred souls who were Greek Catholics, or Uniates, an Eastern branch of Catholicism in communion with Rome.
Father Alexis presented his credentials, as protocol dictated, to Roman Catholic Archbishop John Ireland in St. Paul. The legendary Ireland was a larger-than-life cleric who ruled the diocese with an iron hand. The meeting between the meek Toth and the leonine Ireland was not the archbishop’s finest hour. Toth was promptly shown the door after a dressing down by Ireland, who a) viewed the polyglot-tongued Uniates as antithetical to his determination to Americanize the Catholic church, and b) was irate that Toth was married, a dispensation granted by Rome to Eastern-rite clergy notwithstanding.
Hurt and angry at what had transpired, Toth’s congregation prevailed on him to petition the Imperial Russian Consulate in San Francisco for help, which was forthcoming. Father Alexis traveled to the Coast, no mean feat in those days, for a meeting with Bishop Vladimir, who subsequently came to Minneapolis to receive Toth and his 361 parishioners into the Russian Orthodox Church.
It was the first in a long list of conversions that eventually included various Eastern-rite parishes as far east as Pennsylvania. Through Toth’s efforts, more than 20,000 Carpatho-Russians and Galicians were embraced by the Orthodox Church. Moreover, the church has documented miracles over the years that it attributes to the intercession of Toth, who died on May 7, 1909.
To mark the centennial of Toth’s repose, St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in northeast Minneapolis will celebrate his life with a lecture tonight and a special program Thursday that includes Metropolitan Jonah of North America and Canada and Archbishop Job of the Diocese of the Midwest.
“When the Russian Orthodox Church accepted the Greek Catholics in Minneapolis, freely and generously and without demands, because it was the right thing to do, the church took a very big risk,” said Archpriest Andrew Morbey, the cathedral’s dean. “It was willing to reach out, to bless particular customs and practices, to integrate and celebrate cultural diversity and traditions to the greater glory of God and his church. It did this in Alaska, in Korea and China and Japan — and here in America, starting in Minneapolis!”
Say diversity these days and you are understood to be speaking almost exclusively in terms of race or sexuality. That’s too bad, for diversity is an exceptionally large, vibrant and multifaceted tapestry; among its more dazzling threads are the various creeds that Americans profess.
Full disclosure: I am a convert to Orthodoxy and a communicant of St. Mary’s. Our large and diverse parish is composed of people whose heritage includes Irish, Italian, Greek, Scottish, Ukrainian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Russian, Canadian, Polish, Ethiopian and Armenian. I’ve even met an Orthodox Jew at the cathedral. My heritage is French. Viva la diversité.