St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church

Українсъkа Катoлицъkа  Церква Св. Ӏвана Хрестителя

Celebrating
93 Years

1924-2017

Our History

The history of the founding of our parish is, in many ways, typical of many other Ukrainian parishes in the United States. Immigrants from Ukraine first began arriving on the East End of Long Island about a century ago, in the 1890’s and early 1900’s. Most were from villages in Halychyna (Galicia) in Western Ukraine and the Polish-Ukrainian border region. Arriving by steamship in New York, they were young, hoping to earn a decent living in America, perhaps to send money home to their families. Some found work on Long Island, on the potato and vegetable farms on the North Fork as far east as Greenport and Orient, and on the duck farms on the South Fork. Others found jobs as laborers and landscapers in the already fashionable Hamptons. Many had planned to return home, but the outbreak of World War I convinced most of them to remain in America. These pioneers lived frugally, and within a generation, many of them had already managed to buy farms of their own in North Shore communities like Wading River, Baiting Hollow, Manorville, Calverton, Jamesport, Mattituck and Laurel, and along the South Shore in Center Moriches, Eastport, Speonk and Quogue. Others became successful builders, businessmen, carpenters and masons, establishing themselves in Riverhead, Westhampton and Southampton.

Following World War I, the collapse of Austro-Hungary, and the loss of Ukraine’s brief independence, Halychyna came under Polish rule. Ukrainians had to endure post-war economic and political hardships. These conditions triggered the second wave of Ukrainian immigration to America and to Long Island. Many were sponsored by relatives already here. For example, by the early 1920’s, about ten Ukrainian families from the village of Liskovate, located southwest of Peremyshl in present-day Poland, had settled in the Westhampton area and were among the founding families of our parish. Others borrowed money for passage and sought out friends from their village who had emigrated before the war, and who would help them find work and shelter.

Many of the early immigrants from Halychyna were Catholics of the Byzantine (Greek-Catholic) rite. Since there were no Ukrainian churches on Long Island at the time, they attended local Roman Catholic churches, where some of them were married. Their children were baptized there, attended catechism classes and received First Holy Communion in the Latin rite. Already, the need for a Ukrainian Catholic church of their own was becoming acute.

The Ukrainian community on the East End began organizing even before World War I. In 1914 the Ukrainian National Association, a fraternal self-help and insurance organization, founded Branch No. 256 in Riverhead. It became the nucleus for social and community activities as well. It also brought together those Ukrainians who would become the founders of our parish. They began organizing community meetings around 1922 and petitioned the Very Rev. Peter Poniatishin, Diocesan Administrator for the “Ruthenian Greek-Catholic Church in the United States”, as it was then called, to send a priest and to authorize the formation of a Ukrainian Catholic parish.

Around 1922, Father Poniatishin, who then resided in Newark, New Jersey, began coming out to Riverhead, to celebrate Holy Liturgy in the Ukrainian (Byzantine) rite and to help organize the parish. He, or other visiting priests, would came by train on Saturday, and often stay overnight at the Soroczynski home on Pond View Road in Riverhead. Our most senior parishioners recall attending Sunday Liturgy there. The living room and dining room became a chapel, which was filled to capacity, standing room only. The Soroczynski house still stands. Father Maceluch’s journal mentions that one of the visiting priests, Rev. Volodimir Lotowycz, pastor of Jersey City, also celebrated Liturgy at the homes of Michael Duk in Eastport and at Hirczycia’s in Westhampton. The signatures of Father Lotowycz, Rev. Poniatishin, as well as of Lucian Soroczynski and F. Teodor Shwonik  as Lay Trustees, appear on the Certificate of Incorporation of “St. John the Baptist Ukrainian (Ruthenian) Catholic Church of Riverhead, Long Island” as a New York State Religious Corporation.

A fund-raising campaign for construction of a church began in earnest in 1923. Father Maceluch’s journal lists 47 donors in 1923, contributing gifts of $100, $50, and smaller amounts, totaling $1,800. A second list, dated September 1924, with 50 donors and many of the same names, totaled over $1,700. It was time to buy land.

During that time, a number of possible church sites were considered. William Chudiak recalls that a Protestant church building was available in Mattituck, but was rejected as being too distant from Westhampton and Wading River. A more central location was desired. Lucy Shwonik remembers her father examining a site on Second Street in Riverhead, but there was no room for a rectory or for parking. Then, a wooded lot across the street from the Soroczynski house, owned by Riverhead car dealer L.Y. Robinson, came on the market. According to parish records, the property was purchased for $1,580. The lot encompassed just the area of the present church and rectory. The rest of the land between the church and the pond was purchased from Mr. Robinson years later.

The Rev. Michael Kindey had just arrived from Ukraine and was appointed the first Pastor of the newly chartered church in September 1924. The parish paid his steamship fare of $100. He lived in the Soroczynski house for a modest rent of $10 a month. In 1926 Mr. and Mrs. Soroczynski sold the house to parishioner Anton Kaplar and returned to Ukraine. Fr. Kindey and subsequent pastors continued to stay at the house until the rectory was built.

The building committee hired a Riverhead architect to design the church, and a local construction company, where Lucian Soroczynski worked, was hired to build it. However, the funds raised in the first campaign were insufficient. William Chudiak and Olga Lomaga recall that their fathers, Nicholas Chudiak and Ivan Lomaga of Mattituck, applied to Suffolk County National Bank for a mortgage to build the church. Although the loan committee rejected their application, Frank Howell, the bank president, personally approved the $8,000 loan, saying, “I trust these men.”

To begin construction, the land was first cleared. Parishioners then excavated the foundation by hand and with the help of three horse-drawn scoops, driven by Yakiv Makhno of Baiting Hollow, Teodor Vorona of Wading River and Nicholas Chudiak and his 15-year old son William from Mattituck. A deep foundation was required, to make room for a large church hall in the basement. The excavation took one day. Construction of the church took three months and was completed in December 1924. According to Olga Lomaga, the cornerstone contains the names of the five principal organizers: Nicholas Chudiak, Ivan Lomaga, Lucian Soroczynski, Teodor Shwonik and Ilko Czornomaz. The first Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the new church in December 1924.

Father Kindey served St. John’s parish for two years. Under his spiritual leadership, catechism classes were begun. The First Holy Communion class of 1925 had 25 children. Some were already teenagers, but their parents had presumably waited until they could receive Holy Communion in the Byzantine rite. Another group of children, who had been baptized and received First Holy Communion in Roman Catholic churches, received the Sacrament of Confirmation, among them 14-year old Anna Bandrowski (Wivczar) and four of her brothers and sisters. The first of 24 children to be baptized in the newly-built church in 1925, was our current Trustee, Stephen Stadnicki. There were 18 more baptisms in 1926. Some parents brought their children to be baptized from as far away as Babylon, Amityville and Hempstead. The parish register also lists three marriages in 1925 and four in 1926.

Fr. Kindey was succeeded by Rev. Dmytro Gulyn (1926-1930). He arrived when the euphoria of building the church had passed, and parish politics, as well as the reality of repaying a large debt, were taking its toll. Paul Kijowski remembers Father Gulyn as a caring pastor who visited parishioners’ homes to teach the children catechism. To revive parish spirit, Father Gulyn organized the Brotherhood (“Bratstvo”) of St. John the Baptist and the Sisterhood (“Sestrytstvo”) of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Bratstvo maintained the church building and grounds, while the Sestrytstvo took care of the church interior. Anna Wivczar recalls laundering the altar linens for thirty years.

To help pay off its debt, the parish began having dances every Saturday in the church hall. These were popular not only with our young people, but with the Polish and American communities as well. Olga Lomaga also remembers summer dances held outdoors on a dance platform on Mr. Drop’s duck farm, near the present-day intersection of Routes 25 and 58. Another popular activity was the monthly amateur theatre productions (“predstavlenya”) of Ukrainian plays, performed by the parishioners themselves on the stage in the church hall. At Christmas time they performed Christmas plays and sang carols. Many of our older parishioners remember those activities with great fondness. Admission to these events was only 50 cents. Other fund-raising activities included dinner dances and New Year’s Eve dances. According to William Chudiak, all these fund raisers helped pay off the mortgage within ten years.

In 1933 the renowned master of Ukrainian dance, Wasyl Avramenko, visited our parish and helped establish the Ukrainian Folk Dance School of Riverhead, with Ivan Zablotzky as director. This popular ensemble performed for the American community as well as at parish events. In June 1936, during the tenure of Rev. Michael Prodan, parishioners decided at last to build a rectory, so that the parish could have a resident pastor. The task was given to Harry Wivczar, a parishioner and builder. Another loan for $3,000 was taken out at Suffolk County National Bank.  In November 1939 Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky finally came to consecrate the church. In April 1943 the church bell was purchased and installed for $435. The Stations of the Cross were purchased and dedicated in 1944.

From 1944 to 1947 St. John’s was again without a pastor. During that period the Basilian Fathers from the monastery in Glen Cove filled in on Sundays. The Ukrainian-American Social Club was organized and its members also helped take care of the church and rectory. 1947 marked the beginning of the “third wave” of Ukrainian immigrants - World War II refugees from camps for displaced persons in Germany and Austria. This new wave of immigrants also brought new parishioners to St. John’s, among them Myroslaw Dowbusz, our long-time Cantor (“Diak”). In February 1948 Rev. Eugene Maceluch, himself a recent immigrant, was appointed pastor. Father Maceluch was St. John’s first married priest with children. In fact, their daughters, Irena and Olga, were both married in St. John’s church, in June 1948 and May 1949 respectively. Fr. Maceluch was known as an eloquent preacher as well as a poet. A collection of his sermons and poetry were later published as a book.
The year 1949 was an important milestone in our parish history - the 25th anniversary of our church. In preparation, a week-long mission was conducted in November by Rev. Michael Wawryk. The high point was the Silver Anniversary Banquet, held at John Duck’s restaurant in Eastport, with 273 people in attendance.

Fr. Maceluch did much for the parish during his 11-year tenure. He organized and conducted catechism classes for public school children, who were released from school twice a week for religious instruction. There were Saturday classes in Ukrainian language and religion, as well as Sunday school between Masses. As many as 30 children attended these classes. But perhaps Fr. Maceluch’s greatest achievement was humanitarian. Between 1949 and 1956, he organized and coordinated a parish campaign of sponsorship of Ukrainian refugee immigrants. With his guidance and assistance with formalities and letters to immigration authorities, our parishioners sponsored 74 Ukrainian families, totaling 147 individuals. Although most of these immigrants eventually moved elsewhere, a number of families remained on Eastern Long Island and are still members of our parish.

In September 1959 Fr. Maceluch was transferred to another parish. He was replaced by Rev. Paul Graskow, a native of Minneapolis. Shortly after his arrival, Fr. Graskow began a program of expansion and renovation. In 1960, an additional piece of land adjacent to the church was purchased from L.Y. Robinson’s widow, with a $3,000 loan from Providence Association of Philadelphia. This became the church parking lot. In August of that year the first annual Chicken Barbecue was held, which has since become the parish’s main fund raising event.

The following year a pledge drive was begun to raise funds for the remodeling of the church. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council’s decision to revive ancient traditions in the Eastern rite Churches, Fr. Graskow’s goal was to transform the original Roman Catholic-style interior with traditional Byzantine elements. The iconostasis (“Iconostas”) enclosing the sanctuary replaced the communion rail. It carries the traditional array of Byzantine-style icons: Christ the Teacher, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and other Saints. The highly stylized design in enameled wrought iron and polished bronze, with colored glass jewels, was executed in Italy. The bronze tabernacle was also imported from Italy. A large icon of St. John baptizing Our Lord Jesus Christ in the River Jordan replaced the Latin-style crucifix on the wall behind the altar. The famous Ukrainian artist, Petro Andrusiw of Philadelphia, was commissioned to create this icon. The classic Byzantine icons of the Mother of God over the left side altar, and of Christ the Teacher on the right, were painted by world-renowned iconographer Sviatoslav Hordynsky in New Jersey. To prepare the church for these renovations, our parishioners remodeled the Sanctuaty with wood paneling. The dedication and blessing of the new iconostasis and tabernacle by Bishop Joseph Shmondiuk of Stamford took place on December 13, 1964, the 40th Anniversary of the church. The celebration culminated in a banquet, with the bishop in attendance. Coincidentally, the dedication took place just three weeks after the promulgation of the historic “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches” by the Second Vatican Council.

On the other hand, 1964 was also the year the parish gave up a long-standing Byzantine tradition - the Julian calendar. The parish petitioned the bishop, and in January 1964, received permission to convert to the Gregorian calendar.

Father Graskow is remembered for his efforts to reach out to our Roman Catholic neighbors. In his biographical sketch, published in 1968 in the banquet program celebrating the 25th anniversary of his priesthood, it was written, “He has greatly improved relations with the many neighboring parishes of the Suffolk area through his informative lectures on the Byzantine Rite, and the celebration of the Byzantine Liturgy in those parishes.” He also served as the chaplain to the local Knights of Columbus lodge. And during his tenure, St. John the Baptist hosted a Deanery conference in 1970, with about 25 priests participating. Fr. Graskow served until 1972, when he was transferred to Buffalo, NY.

Rev. Volodymyr Korchynsky arrived in February 1972. In 1974 the parish celebrated another milestone, its 50th Anniversary. A banquet was held, with Bishop Shmondiuk attending. In 1975 the present pews were purchased and the entire church was carpeted. Fr. Korchynsky passed away on June 20, 1978, the only pastor to die while serving our parish.

The following years must have been difficult for the parish, judging by the high turnover rate of priests serving St. John’s. Of the nine priests who served between 1978 and 1994, most stayed no more than one or two years. (Msgr. Nicholas Babak stayed the longest: 1982-1988). Nevertheless, the parish endured.  Rev. Ivan Mak arrived on December 1, 1980. In his journal we read about his efforts to revive parish life. A children’s choir, under the leadership of Natalia Andrusiw performed Ukrainian and American Christmas carols at a local nursing home and at a Riverhead radio station. A church choir was formed to sing responses at Sunday Liturgy. On January 20, 1981, Fr. Mak and a delegation from our parish attended the signing by the Riverhead Supervisor of a proclamation designating January 22nd as Ukrainian Independence Day. That day the Ukrainian flag flew in front of Riverhead Town Hall. Fr. Mak makes note in his journal of parish activities, like the pre-Lenten “Zapusty” and Easter “Sviachene” dinners, of purchases for the church and rectory and of the many hours of work donated by parishioners for their upkeep and improvements. Sadly, he also notes that in the first six months of 1981, ten parishioners passed away, but no new members arrived.  The Rev. Edward Czudak (1990-1991) and the Rev. Stephen Shubiak (1991-1994) led our parish during the early 1990s.

With the arrival from Ukraine of Rev. Ihor Tarasiw with his wife Lyubov and their daughter Sophia in 1994, our parish has experienced a mini-revival: attendance improved, recent immigrants from Ukraine (the “fourth wave”) have begun attending  the 10 o’clock Liturgy, several children have been baptized and several more received First Holy Communion. Mrs. Vera Smith taught Catechism classes, as she has done since the 1960’s. Father Ihor initiated in 1996 (the 400th anniversary of the Union of Brest) a series of instructional sermons on the history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, on the meaning of our Byzantine rite and on the interpretation of our Liturgy. In preparing for the new Millennium, Fr. Ihor’s sermons have recently focused on a systematic review of the Catechism. Looking to the future, Fr. Ihor hopes “to foster a spiritual renewal in our community, to revive our Eastern traditions, and to encourage all parishioners to live according to the Christian faith and God’s commandments.” Fr. Ihor led our Parish from 1994-2008.  Fr. Maxim Kobasuk acted as interim pastor until January 2009. He brought a sense of healing to our parish and positioned us well to move forward.

The trend in reviving our community and church continued under the pastoral and administrative guidance of Father Vasyl Kornitsky who arrived in January 2009 and Father Roman Maylarchuk who arrived in December of 2012. Our current Pastor is Father Bohdan Hedz who arrived in September of 2014. This past year has seen a sharp upswing in religious and social events including religious and language education/training for our children, fund raising projects and renovations. We see a very bright future for our parish and welcome all who wish to be part of our community.

Our parish social and fund-raising activities include the Pre-Lenten and Fall dinners, our Spring and Christmas Bazaars, and of course, the annual Chicken Barbecue, which draws up to 1,000 attendees. Many needed renovations and repairs have been done, and the rectory and the sacristy have been repainted, thanks to time and labor donated by our parishioners. But, there is still much to do.

Our parish recently celebrated its 90th Anniversary and we honor all who have worked and given of their talents and treasure over the years  to support and sustain a viable Ukrainian Catholic community here on the East End of Long Island. We hope and pray that with God’s grace, St. John the Baptist parish will continue to thrive and grow in the coming years, and go on to celebrate its Centennial in the year 2024!

Многая літа!

Mnohaya Lita!