Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania
Orthodox Church in America
Remembering Archbishop Benjamin (Basalyga) - September 10, 2023

During the first half of the 20th century, as Orthodox churches throughout the world increasingly grappled with many sociological transformations and political uncertainties, bishops and clergy played a key role in guiding the Church through one of its most challenging transitional periods.

That was especially true in western Pennsylvania, where Orthodox churches under the Metropolia gradually began to forge their own American identity. It was through the tireless work of Archbishop Benjamin (Basalyga) that this transition was made much easier.

On Sunday, September 10, 2023, His Eminence Melchisedek and the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania will honor the 90th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Archbishop Benjamin, the boy from the small village of Olyphant, Pennsylvania, and son of immigrants, who went on to become the first American-born bishop.

“It is very important for 21st century members of this historical archdiocese to pause and honor this outstanding hierarch of the Holy Church on this consecration anniversary,” said the Very Rev. William (Bill) Evansky, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania and rector of Holy Ghost Church in Ambridge. “His contributions to our Church reverberate to this day.”

Like many other first-generation Slavic-Americans, Basil (Vasily) Gregorievich Basalyga grew up in a blue-collar community that placed a priority on hard work and strong Christian values.

Basil, who was born in 1887 to one of the earliest families to emigrate to the United States from the Carpatho-Russian region of middle Europe, quickly demonstrated a zeal for spiritual life. After graduating from the newly opened Russian Orthodox Missionary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he held positions as a choir director and parish teacher at parishes in Charleroi and Pittsburgh.

In 1905, Basil went on to complete a six-year course of study at the Russian Orthodox Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, before finishing his studies at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan. In 1911, he was tonsured to be a monk with the name Benjamin, then several months later he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Archbishop Platon.

with Wilmington parish council
with Wilmington parish council
with Wilmington parish council

During the next two decades, Fr. Benjamin held assignments at numerous parishes throughout the United States and Canada, where he helped to improve the organization and strength of those parishes.

One of those parishes was St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church in Wilmington, Delaware. The Very Rev. Timothy Hojnicki, rector of Holy Apostles Mission in Mechanicsburg, PA, who grew up in Wilmington, remembers the stories his family told him about Fr. Benjamin.

“Fr. Benjamin was well loved for his kindness to people at our church and the community,” said Fr. Timothy. “My great-aunt, who was a young girl at the time, had a learning disability, and Fr. Basil took her under his wing and taught her how to read and do arithmetic. She progressed so much that she eventually earned even higher grades than many other students in her class. She never forgot Fr. Benjamin’s generosity and that was a sentiment shared by many other people in Wilmington.”

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America (Metropolia) soon recognized Fr. Benjamin’s exceptional pastoral qualities and ordained him to the Holy Episcopate in 1933. He became the first bishop of the Orthodox Church who had been born in North America.

Archangel Michael Cathedral
Archangel Michael Cathedral
Archangel Michael Cathedral

Bishop Benjamin was assigned to the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and West Virginia, where he served at the former St. Michael’s Church in Pittsburgh. He quickly made a favorable impression on the faithful of his archdiocese.

“Bishop Benjamin showed an interest in the well-being of every member of our church,” recalls Neil Daniels, who served as an altar boy for Bishop Benjamin at St. Michael’s Church. “He was a great role model and teacher, as well as exceptional leader.”

During the early years of his episcopate, Bishop Benjamin created a long-needed bilingual (English-Slavonic) prayer book, and he was instrumental in arranging for American students to receive free education at Yugoslavian theological schools.

Bishop Benjamin’s leadership qualities caught the attention of the Lesser Synod of Bishops of the North American “Metropolia,” when they decided to send Bishop Benjamin to Japan in 1946. Bishop Benjamin’s mission was to guide the Orthodox Church of Japan in its recovery from the devastation caused by World War II.

Despite having to deal with problems caused by jurisdictional conflicts, Bishop Benjamin was instrumental in restoring Church life in Japan. He also helped to raise donations to rebuild churches and establish organizations.

“Bishop Benjamin knew that he had a daunting task rebuilding the church in Japan, but he accepted this assignment as the will of God. He did his job and did it well,” said Fr. Timothy.

For his many contributions to the Church of Japan and the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North America, Bishop Benjamin was elevated to the dignity of archbishop by the Metropolia bishops in 1947. His Eminence returned to the United States in 1953, when he once again assumed leadership of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

On November 15, 1963, Archbishop Benjamin fell asleep in the Lord during the Eleventh All-American Sobor in New York City. He was interred at the cemetery of St. Tikhon’s Monastery.

Even though Archbishop Benjamin died nearly 60 years ago, his impact on the Orthodox Church has not been forgotten.

w/ newly-ordained Fr Vladimir Soroka, & Frs Gregory & Igor Soroka
w/ newly-ordained Fr Vladimir Soroka, & Frs Gregory & Igor Soroka
w/ newly-ordained Fr Vladimir Soroka, & Frs Gregory & Igor Soroka

“Archbishop Benjamin was a key player during a pivotal time in the history of the Orthodox Church in America,” said Fr. Timothy. “He was at the forefront of the movement to form an independent and self-governing Orthodox church in this country. As a Pennsylvania boy, he understood the needs of American-born Orthodox Christians. That’s why so many people identified with Archbishop Benjamin and admired him.”

Fr. Bill added that Archbishop Benjamin’s ministry set a wonderful example for future generations of Orthodox Christians to follow.

“The troparion to St. Nicholas of Myra and Lycia, an honored saint and beloved hierarch, says in part: ‘You appeared to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence,’” said Fr. Bill. “By all accounts, the late Archbishop Benjamin was a bishop who led and inspired his flock by those God-given attributes. His memory continues to inspire us even today. It is those same attributes that all of us in the diocese—clergy and laity alike—must remember and emulate in our day and age to bring the joy of Christ to all the corners of this Archdiocese for the next generation of Orthodox believers.”

Photos are courtesy of Canadian Orthodox History Project, where you find information about many more Orthodox faithful working in God's fields in North America. 

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