Doctor bites policeman in Chicago religious dispute

St. Volodmyr and  Olha Cathedral

The episode took place in Chicago about half a century ago. At the time some 100,000 Ukrainians lived in the greater Chicago area, mostly in a near-west neighborhood referred to as the Ukrainian village. They were mostly (c.70%) Catholics of the Byzantine or Eastern rite, adhering to the old Julian calendar and celebrating Christmas and other feasts fourteen days later than anybody else.

The crisis came about in 1963 when the Bishop of the Ukrainian diocese decided it was time to change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, in response, it seems, to a survey conducted in the community. A group of traditionalists violently opposed this change, claiming it was in response to an unrepresentative pressure group. Convinced that such a change would seriously threaten the survival of Ukrainian culture in Chicago – at all times a fragile flower in the American melting pot – they organized, formed a committee for the defense of traditions, and began a well organized campaign.

The situation came to a head in January 1968 at the feast of the Epiphany (by the old calendar), when a crowd of parishioners, mainly elderly women in traditional garb, brought glass jars and little jugs to be filled with water and blessed according to custom. The priest refused to perform the rite saying that the Epiphany had taken place two weeks earlier. Violence broke out, the parishioners attacked two priests, and in the melee one had his face cut and the other was pinned to the floor by the irate crowd. Twenty policemen came to the scene to break up the fight, and several people were arrested including a physician later accused of biting a policeman. The next day it was explained that the dissidents, as well as the members of the committee who had incited the demonstration, had automatically excommunicated themselves by their attack on the priests

St. Volodmyr and  Olha Cathedral

As a result of this melee some 1000 families or 4000 people broke away from the church. For a while they were offered asylum in the neighborhood Orthodox Ukrainian Cathedral. Eventually they were allowed to form a “parish of peculiarity” within the Eastern Catholic Church, retaining the right to use the old calendar and say the mass in Ukrainian. Later this group succeeded in raising three million dollars and commissioned a new cathedral to be built within a short distance of the old one. This cathedral, of Vladimir and Olha, was a gorgeous modern building with Byzantine religious scenes filling the walls and ceilings, a masterpiece of the seventy-nine-year-old Ivan Dicky. Originating from the Luhansk area of the Ukraine, Dickey had ornamented some 100 Byzantine churches in many parts of the world, including in 1920 the memorial tomb of the Karageorgevitch for King Alexander of Yugoslavia at Topolo near Belgrade. So within a few years the Ukrainian community could boast of having two cathedrals, a new one with an old calendar and an old one with a new calendar.

Some fifty years later the rancor has died down. Many of the young generation have not have even heard of the events recounted here.  Some people of the village go to one church and some to the other, and there is only one Ukrainian bishop for the entire diocese. Many young people have indeed moved to the suburbs, where they have built yet another cathedral. In the village there is only one Ukrainian school, and priests from one of the churches sometimes officiate at the other. The ethic area itself has somewhat shrunk as a result of the inroads of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. But many of the street signs are still in Ukrainian; several restaurants serve ethnic food; and the gorgeous frescos of St. Volodmyr and  Olha remain there to be admired, the  golden dome of that cathedral rising splendidly to the sky within a few hundred yards of the older National Cathedral of St. Nicholas.


GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief (Summer 2017)