100-year anniversary of Saint Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church foundation (Camden, Cherry Hill, NJ)

Saint Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church is celebrating the 100-year anniversary of its foundation. Throughout this century, the pastors and faithful parishioners have passed on the sacred worship traditions of our Eastern Church. The verse from John 4:37 comes to mind “one sows, another reaps; I sent you to reap a harvest you have not labored for. Others have labored for it; and you have come into the rewards of their labors”. Many have labored to pass down the love of our Church.

The parish church was established in 1923 in Camden, New Jersey. It was to be a center for the spiritual needs of the faithful as well as an extension of the Ukrainian community for cultural and social activities. This founding occurred eight years after the first bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic church, Soter Ortynsky, had died. In the early 1900's Camden was a prosperous industrial city and remained so until the 1950's. The Ukrainian community gathered to incorporate St. Michael's under the direction of Rev Peter Poniatishin, administrator of the “Ruthenium Greek Catholic Church” Diocese in the United States. St. Michel's first pastor was Rev. John J. Dorohovic and the first trustees were Peter Plaskon and Anthony Chubik. Onofry Lazor was the first church secretary. Among early organizers were Stephen Haday and Nicholas Lapiska.

In 1924 Rev. Andrew Rudekevich served at St Michel's and on March 30th the first baptism took place, that of Maria Patrilka. Rev. Eugene Bartosh served at St. Michael's in 1925. The first marriage , that of Michael Zawoyski and Anna Chubik was performed on January 14,1925. On August 12th  of that year, Michael Woloshin was the first parishioner to depart and be buried from St. Michael's.

In 1936 Fr. Roman Krupa, pastor of the Ukrainian Catholic parish in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, served at St. Michael's on Sundays and then Fr Anthony Ulanitsky served from 1943 to 1946. Fr. Leo Adamiak became the first resident priest at St. Michael's and we were his first parish. During this time, young men returning from the war were honored with several social events. Our next pastor was Fr. Isadore Nahayewsky. He and his wife were very active in the parish life where she helped in choir work and taught music. During  this time, many families and individuals from the Displaced Persons camps of Europe arrived. They had been victims of both Nazi and Communist persecutions. These new arrivals added new life to the parish activities.

In 1954 the ground next to 7th and Florence Street was purchased. During this year the iconostas was carved, the rear wall of the sanctuary was decorated and a parishioner, Michael Vakula, painted the various panels of the iconostas.

In 1958 the school hall was built at a cost of $ 60,000 and in only 3 years the mortgage was paid off. In 1964 Fr. Nahayewsky was transferred and Rev. Basil Losten was assigned as administrator and began undertaking various refurbishing and decorating projects. From 1965 to 1968 St. Michael’s was served by Fr. Augustine Molodowitz, Rev. Michael Poloway, and Rev Myron Plekon.

The '60s were a time of change post-Vatican II. The language was changed to the vernacular. Our Liturgies were filled with music, incense, reverence, and awe and the services continued to be in Old Slavonic and some transition to Ukrainian. In the words of Robert Taft “Liturgy teaches us balanced, objective, traditional and ecclesial prayer”.  As we sing “Hospodi pomiluj” in response to the litanies we lift up all the concerns of the human heart. Sometimes we can't fully articulate our faith but we can celebrate these sacred mysteries in our Liturgy.

In 1968 Rev Myron Kozmoski became pastor and served until    1974. The church in Camden was a much smaller structure than the present church in Cherry Hill. Michael Melnyk was the “dyak” and his rich tenor voice filled the church. The choir enthusiastically sang familiar hymns at the beginning and end of the Liturgy and the Liturgical responses were sung in Old Slavonic. The church had a bell tower in the vestibule and the bell ringer would be drawn off his feet as he grasped the bell rope as the bell pealed. The community would gather on Sundays and Holy days as well as the synaxis of the Holy days. Our brothers and sons served as altar boys over the years. After the Liturgy, the people would gather outside the front of the church to greet one another and catch up on the news of the past week. The community celebrated Easter dinners and feast day dinners together in the church hall. During the Christmas season, parishioners would visit homes and sing carols. Saturday morning religious classes were held in the parish hall for children.

But over time, the parishioners began moving to the suburbs. The neighborhood changed and became unsafe. Even the pastor's dog was stolen. The parish hall was vandalized and kitchen supplies were stolen. It was time to move!  There were many deliberations. Where would be the best place to serve the three counties of South Jersey? How large should the structure be? The two-and-a-half-acre property in Cherry Hill was purchased in 1970. To raise funds for our new church many dedicated hands pinched pierogies, we had chicken barbecues in Williamstown, and held rummage sales.

Rev Michael Rewtiuk then served at St. Michael's. Architectural plans were drawn up.  On May 16, 1976 groundbreaking for the site on Cooper Landing Road was made with Bishop Losten presiding, construction of the church began. The church, rectory,  and the hall at 7th and Florence St. were sold. While the new church building was under construction we celebrated services at Camden Catholic High School. Could the community stay together during the exodus? We finally moved into the basement of the new church in 1977 while the upstairs was being finished. Through the generosity of many donors the church was furnished the following year and we had a new home.

A new pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and remained pope until 2005. Bishop Sulyk was consecrated in Rome as Metropolitan of Philadelphia 1981.During this time we had many faithful pastors Rev Michael Rewtiuk, Rev Gregory Maslak, Monsignor Walter Paska (who would be ordained bishop of Philadelphia 1992 and serve as an auxillary Bishop of Philadelphia), and Rev Joseph Martyniuk.

The parish life continued. What were the lessons learned?  We offered praise and worship to the Trinity, celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus, prayed to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Parish life teaches one to be generous and patient. We had lively parish council meetings Through many projects the parish helps us to love our neighbor: reserve time to teach catechism classes, practice and organize music, prepare palms and pussy willows for distribution on Palm Sunday, set up chairs for meetings, clean the church, pinch pierogies. We collected clothes for Ukraine, high school students ran a food drive. We organized St. Nicholas celebrations for children.

On May 2nd, 1995, John Paul II promulgated an  Apostolic Letter “Orientale Lumen”, “the Light of the East” calling all members of the Catholic Church to an increased awareness of the rich spiritual traditions of the Eastern Catholic Church. We were further encouraged to preserve our ancient liturgical, disciplinary and spiritual traditions. While we were starting to use more English in parts of the Liturgy there were no standardized texts until “The Anthology of Worship” was published in 2004. During the pastorate of Rev John Ciurpita from 1997-2004, we learned much about and prayed and celebrated our rich Liturgical traditions. We celebrated Vesper Liturgies of St Basil and Presanctified Liturgies during Lent. We were challenged to become familiar with Vesper tones. Cantor workshops were offered in the Eparchy. We started singing the entire Divine Liturgy in English. Because the pastors were serving two parishes the English Liturgy was celebrated on Saturday evenings and the Ukrainian Liturgy on Sunday morning.

Monsignor  Martin Canavan, Rev. Petro Semanych, Rev. Ruslan Romanyuk, Rev. Paul Makar, Rev. Roman Sverdan subsequently served at St. Michael's. Deacon Michael Waak moved in the area and often assisted at St. Michael's. Bishop Sulyk retired to Cherry Hill and often concelebrated Sunday Liturgies as did  Rev. Paul Labinsky who retired from the Williamstown parish. Our pastors faithfully served the parish and celebrated the sacred mysteries of Reconciliation and Eucharist. They blessed marriages and Baptized and Chrismated our children. We buried our parents and loved ones.

  In the words of  Rev. Robert Taft commenting on the Liturgy: “Liturgy teaches us how to glorify God in Christ as church, together as one body, in union with and after the example of Jesus her head. Through this constant diet of Sacred Scripture, not only does God speak his word to us, not only do we contemplate over and over again the central mysteries of salvation, but our own lives are gradually attuned to this saving rhythm, and we meditate again and again on the mystery of Israel, recapitulated in Jesus, which is also the saga of our own spiritual odyssey”.

The Sunday Gospel readings “shatter our expectations”. When we reflect on these parables we find ourselves greatly challenged. In the past, Bishop Soter was initially preparing to go to Brazil and instead was assigned to Philadelphia. Recently, Fr. Evhen Moniuk was assigned to St. Michael's parish. Perhaps he expected the routine of parish life and instead, he faced in 2020 a once-in-a-century pandemic of Covid 19 and all the challenges that came with it.

This is a day to celebrate and remember the story of St. Michael's Church., Let us fondly recall our journey and pass on our traditions to our family and the next generation so that they too can celebrate the mystery of God with us.

Prepared by CLAUDIA PETRUNCIO

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