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Bonfire promotes Carpatho-Rusyn culture

Sunday, August 21, 2016

By Peter H. Milliken


Sponsors of an annual harvest celebration hope it will increase awareness of a little-known and often-misunderstood ethnic group, known as the Carpatho-Rusyns, whose immigrants made a notable impact on the Mahoning Valley.

Carpatho-Rusyns are a stateless group from the Carpathian mountains of Europe, with their own language and culture.

Immigrants from that group, who came to the Youngstown area in the early 20th century to work in the steel mills, founded many of the churches that dot the Mahoning Valley’s landscape today.

The celebration is the fourth annual Rusyn and Slovak Vatra picnic from noon to 8 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Infant Jesus of Prague Byzantine Catholic Church, 7754 South Ave.

The festival is sponsored by the 60-member Youngstown-Warren Chapter of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society.

Vatra means bonfire in the Carpatho-Rusyn language, and the event will feature an actual bonfire as it carries on the traditional Carpatho-Rusyn celebration.

“Our vatra fire, the bonfire at the end of the event – that’s the big thing that keeps people there,” and makes them feel as if they are in Eastern Europe, said Mike Vasilchek of Youngstown, secretary and publicity chairman of the local society.

Attendees will enjoy “the food, the camaraderie and the music,” including singing around the fire in the evening, mostly in English, said Jim Basista of Weathersfield, local society president.

“The ethnic music is top- notch,” Vasilchek said.

Slavic folk musicians Dean Poloka and Tom Katrenich & Co. will perform.

A Byzantine Catholic Divine Liturgy will take place at 6 p.m.

Ethnic foods will include homemade holubki (stuffed cabbage), pirogi with butter and onions, haluski with dumplings, kolbasi with sauerkraut, vinegar-cucumber and sweet onion dill salad, slanina (smoked bacon) and krupi (smoked ham and barley soup).

“The smell from the slanina being roasted on the fire is very appealing,” Vasilchek said.

“Old Country” village maps, genealogy material and ethnic sales tables will help attendees discover more about their Rusyn and Slovak culture.

“We have some maps, specifically, that locate Rusyn villages in Slovakia and through Poland and Ukraine,” to assist in genealogical research, Vasilchek said.

“We seek to promote and educate and inform people about the small ethnic minority called Rusyn,” said Bettianne Diles of Braceville, a trustee of the national Carpatho-Rusyn Society.

“We are not Russian,” Vasilchek said.

The festival, which will use a large tent and covered pavilion, will take place rain or shine. Admission is free and all are welcome.

The Carpatho-Rusyn Society estimates people of Rusyn descent number more than 1.2 million in Europe and more than 650,000 in North America.

The society’s national headquarters and cultural center is in a 1903 vintage former cathedral in Munhall, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

Basista estimates between 600 and 800 people of Carpatho-Rusyn descent reside in the Mahoning Valley.

With a homeland located where the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland converge, Carpatho-Rusyns have been dubbed “the people from nowhere.”

Famous Americans of Carpatho-Rusyn descent include the late artist Andy Warhol; the late Michael Strank, the Marine who led the flag-raising at Iwo Jima; Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and former secretary of Homeland Security.

Among the Mahoning Valley churches founded by people of Carpatho-Rusyn descent are: St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic churches, both in Youngstown; Infant Jesus of Prague Byzantine Catholic Church in Boardman (site of the vatra); St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Campbell; and St. Nicholas and St. John’s Orthodox churches, both in Warren.