St. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre

St. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre

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The facts of St. Alexis’s life are well documented – born in 1854 in Austro-Hungary into a clerical family (his father and brothers were priests, and an uncle was a bishop), ordained in 1878 to the priesthood of the Uniate church in Hungary. He spoke a number of languages, he married Rosalie Milhalich and was assigned to a parish, but not long after, Rosalie and their only child died. He recovered from the loss of his family and spent almost ten years as a professor at seminary, specializing in church history and canon law, and as the Administrator of his Diocese. In 1889, he was appointed to serve as pastor of a Uniate parish in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It was here that his road to sainthood really began. The Catholic bishops in the United States were dedicated to assimilating all of their flock into American life, culture, and understanding, and in order to do that, resisted recognition of the Uniate church in their country. When Father Toth arrived and reported to the local Catholic bishop, the hierarch refused to recognize Father Toth’s priestly status. As an expert in canon law, Father Toth knew that the Uniate clergy were fully accepted and recognized by the Vatican. Harsh words were exchanged on both sides, and it ended with Father Toth returning to his parish, continuing to serve his people.

As part of their program of assimilation, American Catholic bishops had appealed to Rome to recall all Uniate priests in the States. Father, gathering other Uniate priests who had experienced the same hostility and persecution, appealed to Europe for help, but to no avail. In 1891, fearing imminent deportation, he suggested to his parish it might be better for him to resign and leave for Europe, but they refused and encouraged Father Alexis to travel to San Francisco in order to convert to the Orthodox faith. His presence there was so striking that the choir director recorded his impressions of the “young, handsome and energetic” priest: “it seems that he is living through a spiritual turmoil, which reflects itself upon his features. For half an hour he stands motionless, transfixed in spiritual ecstasy. All eyes are on him, but no one knows who the stranger is.” The director also noted, “In a loud voice, he renounces papism and enters the fold of the Holy Orthodox Church. At that moment his face lights up with an internal light.”

Bishop Vladimir, who had received Father Toth into the Church, travelled to Minneapolis the following month, where he brought the entire congregation of St. Mary’s into the Orthodox Church. For the rest of St. Alexis’s life, the blessed saint defended Orthodoxy and, in humble submission to his bishops, visited Uniate-Carpatho parishes and encouraged them to rediscover their original faith.

It was not easy – the Blessed Father did not receive financial support for a long time. Instead, he earned his living by opening a grocery store and bakery, with which he also provided for the poorest members of his parish. Yet he continued to fulfill his duties as priest, as well as giving to the poor, notably to clergy who were worse off than him. He “contributed to the building of churches and to the education of seminarians in Minneapolis.”

In 1892, at the earnest behest of the trustees and parishioners at Wilkes-Barre PA, Father Toth accepted the leadership of the parish. But it wasn’t simple or easy – the parish was Uniate when they wrote begging the saint to come and lead them. He saw it as a simplistic joke, and tested their resolve strongly before finally agreeing, if his bishop allowed it, to become their priest. He insisted that the trustees visit every family and obtain signatures on a petition to become Orthodox. He called a meeting to ensure, with his own eyes and ears that they understood and agreed, unanimously, to what they were asking. Even then, he instructed them to talk it over once more. He said that he would leave them in peace for a quarter of an hour. If, at the end of that time, even one person objected, he would not submit the petition to his bishop and he would not serve as their priest. When he returned, the decision was still unanimous, so he arranged for an assistant to care for his St. Mary’s church family while he led the Wilkes-Barre parish into the faith.

The pressure from his enemies didn’t decrease once St. Alexis left the Uniate church. He was recalled to Hungary by his former bishop. When that didn’t work, they tried to bribe him. He was offered another parish in America if he ‘repented’ and returned to his old church, and when he refused, was offered a bishopric. He was attacked and slandered – accused of having “sold the Christian faith to the ‘Muscovites’ for 30,000 rubles,” accused of being “a cheater and a thief who stole orphans’ money in Hungary and ran away to America.” His life and the lives of his parishioners were threatened. Yet he forgave and often asked his bishop to forgive his own shortcomings and omissions.

“In 1902, he received the parish of St. John the Baptist in Mayfield, Pennsylvania, into the Orthodox fold. Elevated to the rank of protopresbyter, he was in the forefront, over the years until his death, of receiving parishes from the Uniate Church into Orthodoxy. Through his efforts, over 20,000 Carpatho-Russian and Galician uniates were re-united with the Orthodox Church.”

It’s perhaps the strongest testament to his faith and devotion to God that in spite of the accusations hurled against him, and in spite of the viciousness of the attacks against the saint, he never responded in kind. It was his policy always to treat others’ beliefs with respect and dignity, and he counselled not only his parishioners, but all, through his writing, to “respect other people and to refrain from attacking their faith.” His letters and articles have been circulated in Hungary and his work recognized in Russia.
His devotion, humility, and constant defence of the Orthodox faith didn’t go unrecognized. He received honors from the Russian Holy Synod as well as a gold ecclesial crown from the Czar and a gold embroidered altar cloth from a women’s monastery in Russia. He declined, on the basis of age, the nomination to Episcopal office.

Father Toth’s health began to decline in 1908 and he took time off in an attempt to regain his strength and vitality, but on his return to Wilkes Barre was confined to bed for another two months. He reposed on May 7, 1909, and in his will asked forgiveness from everyone – and he forgave everyone who’d ever done him wrong. But even after his death, he continued to affect the living and to pray for them. His remains were found incorrupt when moved to St. Tikhon’s monastery in 1916, and in 1993, he was instrumental in reuniting a father and son who had been separated for over twenty-eight years. His relics are still housed in the monastery church. He was canonized on May 29, 1994.

By his holy example of humility, charity, obedience, and steadfast faith in the face of sustained and vicious opposition, St. Alexis was a true beacon of light for many who were searching for the safe harbour of the Orthodox faith, and his light still shines for us today.

For more information on St. Alexis and his work, these sites have some information:
https://oca.org/saints/lives/2009/05/07/101300-repose-of-st-alexis-toth-the-confessor-and-defender-of-orthodoxy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_Toth

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mcnamarasblog/2009/05/st-alexis-toth-of-wilkes-barre.html

http://orthodoxcanada.ca/Saint_Alexis_Toth

Today in history: the death of St. Alexis Toth

http://midwestdiocese.tripod.com/id27.htm

http://www.cin.org/clash.html


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Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is bevcooke.ca and her blog is http://bevnalabbeyscriptorium.wordpress.com/. It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.