Fran Evanisko (Frank to his pals) -- geographer, AOF Director and erstwhile AOF President -- reminisces about his childhood and his spiritual awakening, such as it was, in the Russian Orthodox Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. To comment, you can contact him via any officer on the AOF Contact page.
A Fragment of My Otherwise Non-Existent Spiritual Autobiography
By Francis E. Evanisko, June 27, 1976
I have, in the past, considered writing an autobiography, but have never attempted one because of the confusion that ensues whenever I begin thinking on the subject. Every thought is tied to so many others, that it seems impossible to give a valid, coherent account of what I am, and of how I came to be such as I am. Furthermore, I have difficulty imagining how one would organize a work of this sort. It becomes readily apparent, at least to me, after reflecting upon the matter, that a life cannot be depicted as a series of discrete events, presented in chronological sequence, without grossly misrepresenting the continuous, holistic character of human existence.
This was supposed to be my spiritual autobiography, full and complete. But I, being one, who is afflicted with a strange love for the insignificant, obsessed with an overpowering compulsion to digress, was able to produce only what would be, at best, one chapter in my voluminous spiritual autobiography, were it ever written. This chapter, A Fragment of My Otherwise Non-Existent Spiritual Autobiography contains a description of the conditions in which the awakening of my spiritual consciousness took place, from my first introduction to the world of spirituality in the Russian Orthodox tradition to my falling away from that church.
We, the Russian Orthodox people, were set apart from the rest of the community, which was predominately Roman Catholic. Due to the animosity that existed between the two faiths, we had to be able to defend our beliefs, our faith, and our traditions.
I was baptized at Christ the Savior, and American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, by Father Miller, shortly after my birth. The building which housed this church was an old brick structure, the object of much ridicule, which had formerly been a bakery. My parents had intended to have me baptized as Frank Evanisko, Junior. However, Father Miller said that ‘Frank is not a Christian name’, and so refused to baptize me as such. My parents settled for Francis but never called me that. They called me ‘Frankie’ instead, and so did everyone else.
My family was deeply involved in the affairs of the church. We all attended liturgy every Sunday. My Mother and Grandmother played bingo there regularly, and Mom also attended the card party almost every Friday night. My father was an officer of the church for several years, but Dad seemed less zealous in his station than Mom and Grandma were in theirs.
I, as an American Carpatho-Russian youth, was expected to believe in one god, two Easter bunnies, and three Santa Clauses. Two Easter bunnies because the eastern rite churches take the Jewish Passover into account when setting the date for Easter, while the western rite churches don’t, so every three out of four years the eastern rite and western rite Easters fall on different dates. Our house was visited by an Easter Bunny on both Easters. However, every four years the two Easters coincide. I wondered how the bunnies handled that, did they cooperate in some way, or did one take the year off? Three Santa Clauses because the Eastern rite used the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar and consequently the Eastern Christmas falls on January 7th every year, and as with the bunnies, both the Russian Santa Claus and the American Santa came to our house. Also, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of our church, and he delivered gifts at night every December 6th. Saint Nick was the low end Santa. He only brought fruit, nuts and some candy and stuffed them in a sock. The American Santa was the big-ticket Santa. He brought the fancy toys. Russian Santa was more modest, he would bring maybe a game and a piece of clothing or two. I was also expected to believe that, at some point during the pageantry of the Holy Liturgy, little lumps of bread soaked in red wine were, not symbolically but actually, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. One of the greatest disappointments of my life was the discovery, on the day of my first Holy Communion, that the body and blood of Jesus looked, tasted, and smelled exactly like little lumps of bread soaked in red wine, a mystery beyond my humble comprehensive powers1.
My Grandfather, my Mother’s Father, who was in no wise a wealthy man, was supposed to have been instrumental in spearheading a successful campaign to have a new Cathedral, the diocesan headquarters, constructed in our town. I always doubted the importance of my Grandfather’s role in this accomplishment. He seemed, to me, to be such a dull, inarticulate man who laid on the floor most of the time getting larger and larger until he had to be buried. What influence had he? The story of his accomplishment was, however, confirmed, in my mind at least, on the day of his funeral. Thirteen priests took part the performance of the funeral service, and all of them work purple robes, lavishly embroidered with golden thread. Very unusual! This new cathedral, I’ve mentioned, was built on a piece of property one block from the old bakery, which came to be used as a center for church functions such as Sunday school, wedding receptions, festivals, and banquets. The completed cathedral was a magnificent structure. Architecturally, it was not particularly unique. It had a rectangular body constructed of beige brick, and a barn-like roof, with three domes, two small ones in the front, and one very large one at the rear of the church, which spans the breadth and width of the area above the alter. The entire roof and the domes alike were covered with gold leaf, which could be seen from the surrounding hill tops glimmering in the sun. Housed in the two smaller domes were a set of carillonic bells, chimed a melodious warning, and then the time at least once every hour, and rang as a noxious din in the ears of the Roman Catholic residents who predominated in the surrounding environs. They complained that the bells confused their children attending the public school directly across the street. Their petitions requesting that the bells be toned down were never successful, as far as I know.
Inside, the cathedral was truly glorious; bright, airy, spacious, and marvelously decorated. There were twelve, large, stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of Christ, from nativity to resurrection. The brilliantly blue ceiling was embellished with paintings of angels, Christ, and some of his favorites including, I believe, Peter and Paul. Separating the body of the church from the sanctimonious altar was a structure characteristic of all Eastern Orthodox churches, the iconostas. The iconostas is a screen of icons, religious paintings, depicting personages worthy of halos. Not everyone was worthy of the same kind of halo, however. Some of the halos were barely visible hoops of gold inscribed about the head, and others were solid discs of gold as prominent as the head itself. There were various degrees of haloic prominence between these two extremes. The icons were suspended, from the floor almost to the ceiling, in a white, wooden framework enhanced with gold scroll work, and imitation marble half pillars which were decorative, not supportive. There were two large doors, also covered with icons, in the center of the iconostas, which opened to reveal the altar. The altar rested on a two-tiered platform. On the front of the altar was an all-white, lighted representation of de Vinci’s Last Supper in bas relief. On top of the altar was what reminded me of a small palace, in which resided the Holy Eucharist.
There was only one thing missing from the scene. To the left of the altar was a large ornate throne, fit for any king, which was to be the resting place for the Most Eminent and Benevolent Archbishop of the diocese. The throne was vacant! The Most Eminent and Benevolent Archbishop was an old man who refused to leave his home in New York City. We would just have to wait patiently until the old codger died, and a new Most Eminent and Benevolent Archbishop was chosen, before the majesty of our resplendent cathedral would be complete. The old man lived on and on, and was still alive when I left home. He was then over ninety. His death, whenever it did come, was too late for me.
I don’t know if old Father Miller ever set foot in the new cathedral, but I am sure that he never performed the Holy Liturgy there. I also know that he didn’t die for several years after the construction of the new church, because he would occasionally come to visit my Grandparents at their home. The priest who replaced him was Father John Y., later to be known successively as Monsignor John Y., the Reverend Monsignor John Y., and finally, the Very Reverend John Y.. I wouldn’t say that he was a pompous man, though he may have been one, but he was hard, obstinate in his opinions, and bad tempered. I was afraid to approach him, and never said more than “hello Father” to him unless he spoke first. If he asked a question, I answered as briefly as possible and passed on, even at confession.
The Liturgy in our church was notorious for its lengthiness. On special holidays, a single service could last over four hours. These services consisted of the congregation standing in unison until my feet were sore, and my legs were too weak to bare me up straight. With this accomplished, everyone would kneel down. There were two ways to kneel. Young people were expected to kneel straight up with their backs upright. Many of the adults, on the other hand, kneeled with their buttocks resting, resting on their seats and their backs hunched over with their heads and forearms resting on the back of the seat in front. The congregation would remain in this position until my knees were sore and my back wouldn’t stay straight without a great deal of conscious and excruciating effort. After this round of kneeling, I got a break and was allowed to sit down with the rest, while Father John delivered his sermon. I don’t recall the topic of a single one of those sermons, but I do remember that Father John often found a way to remind the people in the congregation, very forcefully, of their obligation to contribute more time and money to the church. After all, the maintenance of such a magnificent cathedral is a large responsibility, and we had to set a good example for the smaller parishes under our jurisdiction. End sermon! At least one more round each of standing and kneeling followed the sermon. Then we sat again while Father John read the special announcements, and at the very end, we all got to hear Father John honor everyone of those who donated one dollar or more the previous Sunday by reading aloud the names of each donor and the amount of their contribution. Donations were collected in special envelopes with preprinted names on them; that’s how he knew. I was now permitted, along with everyone else, to leave the church, but could not yet go home. Sunday school was next. Here I learned what we, the Orthodox, which means true, Christians believe: that old religion is right religion. It’s quite simple. The church with the most ancient customs is the true church, and no church had customs as ancient as ours. Our creed had been unchanged since the very first Ecumenical Council in Nicaea a real long time ago. We still use the old Julian calendar for calculating holidays, and still take into account the Jewish Passover when setting the date for Easter; that’s admirable. We were also given other instruction. We learned in what manner the universe was created. We learned what the mortal sins are, and were taught the seven things we could do, I’ve forgotten what the call them, for which we would never be forgiven. I’ve also forgotten what they are; this is likely one of them.
One of my favorite topics of discussion in Sunday school relate to a tenet of the church which forbade the presence of statues, typical of Roman Catholic churches, in all Eastern Orthodox churches. After all, statues are graven images, and their presence in church amounts to idol worship. “But”, I would ask, “Aren’t our icons also idols.” I was told they weren’t. “Well then”, I would say, “how about the bas relief of the Last Supper on the front of the altar, surely that is a graven image.” “No”, they would answer, “graven images must be three dimensional, like the golden calf, bas relief has only two dimensions. “Okay then”, this was my last shot, “at the top of our iconostas, there is a wooden carving of Jesus on the cross with two ladies standing at his feet. It is not bas relief, but definitely stands away from the wall, how about that?!” “If you take notice Frankie”, they explained”, the back of that wooden carving is entirely flat, so the representation is, in reality, only two and a half dimensions.” “Now I understand.”
Another good topic for discussion was the question as to whether or not Roman Catholics could get into heaven. The view of our church with regard to this question was that, even considering their idolatry and deification of the Pope, there was an outside chance. This was a better break then they gave us. (Since that time, the position of both churches has softened greatly with respect to this issue).
We were also told that the Earth is an absolutely perfect circle, and that the reason things stayed down is because the Earth is spinning around so fast; so fast, in fact, that we don’t notice. These last propositions are not tenets of the church, but they are no more ludicrous than, for example, that two of every kind of animal in the whole world were all on one boat at the same time, and though they didn’t sound right to me, even at the age of five, I kind of half accepted them as a part of what we as Orthodox, which means true, Christians believed. I could go on, but enough of this nonsense. I went and joined the Air Force. Lord, have mercy on me!!!
1. Years after writing this, it came to my attention that the priest used the term “transformed” when he should have said “transubstantiated”. After the liturgical conversion, the substance in the Eucharis is the body and blood of Christ, but remains in the form of bread and wine. So, the substance has changed, but the form remains the same. This makes a lot more sense.