The Rusyn brotherhoods were probably the most powerful organizations among early Rusyn immigrants to America. They were involved in the redirection of Lemko culture from the Greek Orthodox to the Russian Orthodox church. They were also almost the sole source of social support for early immigrants. All the Rusyn language newspapers were published by these organizations, too. Irishtown was an important focal point for several of these brotherhoods.
The Russian Brotherhood Organization formed in Philadelphia in 1900 was the largest brotherhood. Other major brotherhoods, listed in approximate order of size with their base location and year of formation were: United Russian Orthodox Brotherhood (Pittsburgh, 1915), Russian Orthodox Mutual Aid Society (Wilkes-Barre, 1895), Russian Consolidated Mutual Aid Society of U.S.A. (New York City, 1926), Russian Orthodox Fraternity Lubov (Mayfield, Pa. 1912), Russian Independent Mutual Aid Society (Chicago, 1912), Russian Orthodox Ladies Mutual Aid Society (Wilkes-Barre, 1907).
The Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society (ROCMAS) was organized in Wilkes Barre on April 10, 1895 by Archbishop Nicholas and Father Alexia Toth from the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church. The society had its headquarters in the "Russian Building" at 84 East Market street in Wilkes-Barre. With time the society grew to encompass 200 to 250 individual lodges (called "brotherhoods). As there was roughly one lodge per city or town, this indicates the widespread importance of the institution. The society was given a more formal legal structure in 1912. At this time the society was granted a charter and corporative structure according to Pennsylvania state law (1912 ROCMA charter). The purpose of the society was to provide relief for members distressed either by illness, physical injury or disability. (1913 ROCMA by-laws). In the event of death, the society payed insurance benefits to the member's family. Life Insurance benefits were especially helpful to widows who were left with large families, since in those days there was no other type of financial assistance available from industry or government sources. The mutual aid society's insurance was their salvation.
ROCMA's constituent organizations, the local brotherhoods, carried out many purely social functions. Among these were its function as a social club, holding holiday celebrations and parties for local children, providing basic arbitration in disputes among members, visiting the sick, helping the needy, assisting the church, assisting at funerals and keeping an eye on morality and alcohol consumption among the members. These tasks are described in detail in the standardized brotherhood by-laws from 1913
One early member of ROCMAS was Viktor P. Hladyk. He was born in 1873 in the Lemko village of Kunkowa near Jaslo. Hladyk emigrated to the United States in 1893 at the age of twenty. He became attracted to ROCMAS and Alexis G. Toth's associated movement to convert Lemkos away from Greek catholicism to the Russian Orthodox church. As a result of his involvement Hladyk was given work as a typesetter for the Mutual Aid Society's newspaper, Svit. Svit's presses are believed to have been located in Old Forge, about 15 kilometers northeast of Wilkes-Barre. Hladyk, however, became dissatisfied with the political and cultural views of the Mutual Aid Society and Svit. In Europe, many Carpatho-Rusyn intellectuals were culturally and politically oriented towards the nearby Ukrainian city of Lviv. The ROCMAS leaders, including the editors of Svit, were bearers of this prevailing intellectual tradition. Hladyk and others felt that the adoption of Russian Orthodoxy mandated the redirection of Rusyn interests from Lviv to the the more distant Russian city of Moscow, center of the Russian Orthodox faith. Hladyk left ROCMAS and on July 1, 1900 he formed the rival Russian Brotherhood Organization (RBO) in the mining town of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.
According to its founders, the RBO was intended for "true Russians who loved their nationality and wished to free it from exploitation by Ukrainian radicals and priests of pro-Magyar leanings." The RBO was intended to counteract the "work of renegades and traitors of the Russian cause in the other Russian fraternal orders."
On February 1902, Hladyk and several other Russian-oriented Lemko activists met in New York City and decided to publish "a real Russian newspaper." They borrowed money for the purchase of a printing press and they published the first issue of a newspaper named Pravda (Truth) in late March. This paper had no connection with the European newspaper of the same name. Hladyk took his journalism seriously and participated in the Congress of Slavic Journalists in St. Louis in 1903. Initially, however, it was difficult to win readers away from Svit and other Rusyn language newspapers and in September 1903 Hladyk sold Pravda to the RBO for $400. The RBO wanted to use it to influence public opinion to their favor. Pravda was printed in Philadelphia by the Pravda Press and most of the RBO's activities were based in that city.
On July 30, 1907 the ROCMAS formed a companion organization for women called the Russian Orthodox St. Anna Sisterhood in Irishtown. Some ROWMAS membership certificates still survive.
Having been active in Irishtown since 1895, the ROCMAS had a very strong position in the town. In 1920, however, the RBO formed the "St. Nicholas Russian Brotherhood Organization of Hudson" in Irishtown. After this point both organizations coexisted in the area although ROCMAS remained the larger.
With ROCMAS headquartered in Wilkes-Barre and the RBO working out of Philadelphia, a third major brotherhood, the United Russian Orthodox Brotherhood of America (UROBA) had a membership centered in Pittsburgh. Like the other brotherhoods, UROBA published a weekly newspaper, "Russkij Vistnik". Judging by its publications, the UROBA seems to have had a subcarpathian orientation in political and linguistic matters which may have set it apart from ROCMAS and RBO.
Another brotherhood that was Lubov which published the newspaper with the same name. Although this brotherhood had its headquarters in Jermyn, Pennsylvania, it was quite active in Irishtown. The patron saints of the Lubov brotherhood were Saints Peter and Paul.
Still other brotherhoods, mostly with origins in other areas, made their presence felt in Irishtown because of population movements.
During the first years there appears to have been frequent semi-political antagonisms between the leaders of several of these organizations. Written material from the early period contains occasional accusations regarding insidious "leanings" or "orientations" among the leaders of rival organizations. It appears, however, that the average member paid little attention to such things. The points of contention regarded conditions in Europe and most Carpatho-Rusyns in America thought them irrelevant. The benefits of brotherhood membership were of much greater interest and the benefits were similar among all the brotherhoods. It seems that some people were simultaneously members of several brotherhoods.
Upon entering a brotherhood it was common practice to be given a rather elaborate membership certificate or contract describing the insurance benefits, a satin ceremonial ribbon and a medal or lapel pin (ROCMAS and RBO).
Each of the brotherhoods had a patron saint and on the day of the Holy Day named for that saint there was a special service at the church and the members of the society lined the middle aisle wearing these ribbons and holding lighted candles. These ribbons were also displayed at a member's funeral.
Although they have slightly expanded their focus of interest from the Rusyn community to the Russian Orthodox community at large, both the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society and the Russian Brotherhood Organization were still in existence at the dawn of the new millennium, providing insurance services to the Orthodox community very similar to those provided at the very beginning of their century-long existence.
Pictures courtesy of Eva Yaremko Penico and Anastasia Yaremko