The facts of St. Alexis’s life are well documented – born in 1854 in Austro-Hungary, ordained in1878 to the priesthood of the Uniate church in Hungary, widowed and left childless soon after. 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.
THE NEW WORLD
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 his bishop, the hierarch refused to recognize Father Toth’s priestly status. In fact, as part of their program of assimilation, American Catholic bishops had already 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, at the encouragement of his parish, Father Alexis traveled 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.»
HIS FAME SPREADS
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.»
TOLERANCE AND HUMILITY
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 from the Czar and 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.
Bev. Cooke is a young adult writer and has been Orthodox for about five years. She lives with her husband and son in Victoria, British Columbia Canada and attends All Saints of Alaska OCA church. She has two books out with Conciliar: Keeper of the Light, an historical novel about St. Macrina the Elder, and Royal Monastic, a biography of Princess Ileana, and a mainstream young adult novel, Feral, with Orca Book Publishers.