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What is a “Byzantine” Catholic?

Byzantine Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ, Who came into the world and assumed our human nature by becoming a man so that He could save us from our sins by His passion, death, resurrection and ascension to Heaven. We are the witnesses to God’s saving action in human history, and the bearers of the Good News of Christ to the ends of the earth.

The “Byzantine” Catholic Church traces its foundation to the 12 Apostles of Christ who were the companions of Jesus as He walked on this earth some 2000 years ago. After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), the Apostles began to proclaim the Gospel, first to Jerusalem, then to the Gentiles.

More than One Kind of “Catholic”?

While most Catholics only think of the Catholic Church as being comprised of the “Roman Catholic” Church, there are, in fact, almost 20 different “churches” which comprise the “Catholic” Church. The largest, and best known, of those churches is the “Roman” Catholic Church. However, the next largest church within the Catholic Church is the “Byzantine” Church.

As the Christian Church grew, each nation and culture that received the Gospel in turn influenced the growth of the Church. Even at a relatively early stage in the history of the Church, two major heritages developed and remain with us today: the Greek-speaking “Byzantine” tradition of the Christian East; and the Latin-speaking or “Roman” tradition of the Christian West.

The Church in the West had its principal center in Rome, and is known in our present-day as the Roman Catholic Church. The Church in the East grew and developed from the Churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria and Constantinople. These Eastern centers shared a common language, Greek, which formed the basis for the development of the Eastern Christian tradition. The Byzantine Catholic Church shares in the inheritance of the first Greek-speaking Christian communities of the Eastern Mediterranean world, founded by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Byzantine Catholics were often referred to as “Greek Catholics.”

The Birth of the Byzantine Church

A landmark event in the history of the Church, and particularly the Eastern Church, was the decision in 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine to move the Imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, a small town on the Bosphorus strait which he renamed Constantinople (and which is presently Istanbul, Turkey). This had a dramatic impact on the Eastern Church.

The Byzantine Empire, centered on Constantinople, flourished for over 1,000 years. Naturally, the Church based in the empire’s capital city of Constantinople came to have a dominant influence in the Christian East, spreading a religious culture that had been cultivated in the Greek-speaking world – the "Byzantine" religious culture.

Byzantine Catholics in America are the spiritual descendants of the Christians who are the heirs of this Byzantine religious culture, and who therefore trace their spiritual heritage to the Great Church of Constantinople.

The spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Catholic Church is the same given to us by the Apostles and which matured in the Christian East, during the period of the Byzantine Empire. This heritage includes the doctrines, liturgical practices and underlying theology and spirituality, which came from the Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire.

Are “Byzantine” Catholics Really “Catholics”?

Yes. The Catholic Faith is shared equally by Catholics of the Western or Roman tradition, by and Catholics of the Eastern or Byzantine tradition. Both are under the protection of the Ecumenical Pontiff, the Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI.

Therefore, a Roman Catholic is free to attend Sunday Liturgy in the Byzantine Church just as a Byzantine Catholic may choose to attend Sunday Mass in the Roman Church.

The same Catholic faith is shared between both Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

The Seven Sacraments

Like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we Byzantine Catholics share in seven sacraments, instituted by Christ to give grace. In the Byzantine Church, sacraments are referred to as “Holy MYSTERIES” in order to emphasize mysterious work of the Holy Spirit at work.


The first sacrament, or Mystery, is the Mystery of Holy Baptism. Baptism is our personal participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Byzantine tradition, Baptism is administered by total immersion into blessed water in order to emphasize the washing of rebirth that takes place.


In the Byzantine Church, Baptism is immediately followed by the second sacrament, Confirmation – which is known as “Chrismation” in the Byzantine Church. In Holy Chrismation, in which we are anointed with the Holy Chrism, bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit upon each of us individually. Chrismation is our personal participation in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Sealed with the Holy Chrism, we are anointed as prophet, priest and king, and are given the means – the Holy Spirit Himself – needed to grow in holiness and live the Christian life; we are given individually "the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth", who will guide us throughout our lives as Christians.


The Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the sacrament of Christ’s true Body and Blood. The Byzantine Church, following the command of the Lord to ‘let the little children come to me’ (Mt 19:14), administers the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist to infants on the same day, so that they become full members of the Body of Christ, fully integrated into the Church, and full participants in the gift of New Life in Christ.


Through Holy Confession we admit and confess our failures and are reconciled both to Christ and His Body, the Church, and are empowered again through God’s grace to live the New Life in Christ. In Holy Confession, we repent of our sins, and receive forgiveness and absolution, and the grace to persevere in this world to live the New Life in Christ, in spite of our failures and shortcomings. It is a Byzantine tradition to confess our sins in the presence of a priest while facing an icon of Christ.

Holy Anointing

In the Byzantine Church the Sacrament of the Sick (Extreme Unction) is more commenly referred to as the Mystery of Holy Anointing with Oil, where are anointed with blessed oil for our illnesses, both bodily and spiritual. The entire Church celebrates this Mystery on Holy and Great Wednesday in anticipation of the Holy Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection.


In the Sacrament of Marriage, or the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, a man and a woman are called together to live as one through mutual self-giving and selfless love. In the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, the couple are crowned with the divine grace and strength to grow together in love and holiness, and live the New Life of Christ more abundantly.


The Church, the Body of Christ, is a universal priesthood of believers. Yet among this universal priesthood, some are called to serve the Church in a particular way in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. The Mystery of Holy Orders calls men to serve the Body of Christ as deacons, priests and bishops through the laying on of hands, in which Christ Himself gives them the grace and power to perform this service in His name for the sake of His Body.

The Divine Liturgy (The Mass)

Byzantine Catholic worship joyfully celebrates the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth in and through its divine services and liturgical life. Byzantine Catholics are witnesses to the reality of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and follow Christ, in and with Him, to His heavenly Kingdom in the Divine Liturgy, the principal liturgical service of the Byzantine Church.

In the Divine Liturgy, we begin worship by assembling together as the Body of Christ, and celebrating the presence of Christ among us with psalms and hymns. Standing attentively in His presence, we are taught by His Words in the Epistle and Gospel, and learn how to apply the Gospel to our lives in the sermon. We then respond to God by freely offering the sacrifice of our own lives to Him in the form of bread and wine, and, uniting our sacrifice with Christ’s own eternal sacrifice, we ascend with and in Christ to His table in His heavenly Kingdom, where He feeds us with the gift of His Body and Blood, transforming us into His Body, making us bearers of Christ and partakers in His nature, and uniting us with Him in His Kingdom. Following the Divine Liturgy, we return to the world as "witnesses to what we have seen" in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God before our eyes, and as missionaries to the world, sanctifying it with the presence of Christ.

Byzantine Catholics celebrate the Presence of God at worship and recognize this presence in all senses and forms of expression in various forms. We endeavor to experience God in sacred religious poetry and hymns, inspiring chanting styles, bright, brocaded vestments, the burning of incense, the use of candles, and the veneration of icons. The Byzantine Catholic worships God with his whole person, and recognizes the presence of God in all of his senses, bearing witness to the fact that, in Christ, there is no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, but that in the Kingdom of God, which is manifested in this world by the Church, all things are fulfilled in Christ to be what they were created to be – namely, a means of communion with Him

Inside a Byzantine Church

Byzantine Catholic churches are designed to manifest, or make present, in their architecture and arrangement, the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sanctuary, located behind an icon screen, manifests Heaven, the dwelling place of God. The Holy Table (or, altar) manifests the Lord’s banquet table to which all are called. On the Holy Table are placed the Book of Gospels and the Holy Gifts during the Divine Liturgy, and in the center of the table stands the tabernacle (artopohorion) containing the reserved Eucharist.

Separating the altar area (the Sanctuary) from the pew are (the Nave) is a large wooden screen called the Icon Screen, or iconostas. This represents the natural boundary between God and man – earth and Heaven. During the Divine Liturgy, however, the two center doors of the icon Screen are opened. This reminds us that during our time with God in Church there is no longer a separation between earth and heaven. God is with us and we are with God! We have been transported, even if only for an hour, into the heavenly realm – to the very presence of God!

For this reason, the Byzantine Church is adorned with images, called icons, of the saints – the inhabitants of heaven. When we attend the Divine Liturgy, we are co-celebrating with the heavenly hosts of angels and saints – and the iconography that surrounds us in the nave manifests this reality for us in a graphic way. Standing in the nave as the Church, we look forward to the sanctuary, as we, in our individual lives in this world, and collectively as the Church, look forward to the ultimate coming of the Kingdom of God.

During the Divine Liturgy, the Kingdom of God is revealed and made manifest to us, to the Church, and we approach the sanctuary to receive communion with God, and thereby to experience here and now the Kingdom of God on Earth. The design of the church building, therefore, reflects our understanding of the Church, and the central facets of our Christian faith regarding the meaning and goal of our lives.

History of Saint Mary's Church

The Byzantine parish about which your are reading is Saint Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church, located at 695 North Main Street in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

The roots of Saint Mary Parish can be traced to an area nestled in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Our founding fathers were of the Slavic heritage; they were Rusyn by nationality and religiously, Eastern Catholics of the Byzantine Tradition.

The founding fathers of this parish immigrated to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After celebrating religious services in private homes, plans were made for the construction of a church in Wilkes-Barre on North Main Street. The cornerstone was blessed on the Feast of the Assumption in 1888. In one year, the parish had grown in numbers that it necessitated the building of a larger edifice. The new Church was built almost directly across the street from the old church. In the spring of 1907, construction of the new church and parish house began. The first Divine Liturgy in the new church was celebrated on Palm Sunday, 1908. Within the next decade the Church was beautifully appointed with icons and a floor to ceiling iconostasis was installed. This was all accomplished under the leadership of Rev. Nicholas Chopey, who would serve the parish for 54 years.

September, 1909 marked the opening of the first Byzantine Catholic parish school in the United States, staffed by Prof. Theodore Ratzin and other lay teachers. The first mission group of the order of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great began their first school year in September 1925 with 292 pupils. A new school building was constructed in 1929. This was the year of the first graduating class. The parish grew and prospered. Under the leadership of Prof. Stephen J. Pauley, St. Mary's Choir was formed and gained notable recognition. Prof. Pauley also directed a Children's Choir.

Very Rev. John D. Taptich was assigned to succeed Fr. Chopey as Pastor in 1957, to be followed in 1965 by Rev. Msgr. Andrew Sokol. Under Msgr. Sokol's leadership major renovations and property alterations took place. This included the forming of a driveway ramp and modernization of the church interior. During this period, the merger of St. Mary's School and St. Stanislaus School took place. It was renamed North End Elementary Catholic School. (The merger was dissolved in 1985 and a few years later the school was renamed St. Mary's Catholic School.)

During the pastorship of Rev. John Fetsco, C.SS.R, the Saint Nicholas Apostolate organization was formed which is a ministry to the sick and shut ins and senior members of the parish. The chapel at the cemetery in Dallas was completed in this period and opened for committal services. Improvements to the church included construction of the candle room and a handicap-accessible entrance ramp.

Rev. Msgr. John T. Sekellick became Pastor of St. Mary's in 1987. Under the guidance of Msgr. Sekellick, a Centennial Committee was formed and culminated in a joyous celebration of the 100th anniversary of St. Mary's Parish. This milestone celebration took place in October 1988. Approximately 900 people gathered to participate in the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and festivities afterwards. Msgr. Sekellick was succeeded by Fr. James Demko as pastor. Although Fr. Demko stayed only a brief while at St. Mary's, his kind and gentle demeanor is remembered fondly.

The current Pastor of St. Mary's is the Very Rev. James G. Hayer. He has refurbished the interior of the church with many beautiful icons and other liturgical appointments. The convent chapel has also been refurbished and daily services are held there. Fr. Jim has organized a Byzantine Catholic Youth Group, which serves community outreach programs and also provides spiritual and social activities for the youth of our parish. Unfortunately, after more than three quarters of a century, St. Mary's School was closed in 2003 due to dwindling enrollment. Catechetical studies for students continue with Sunday classes staffed by two Sisters of St. Basil and lay teachers. Fr. Jim's enthusiasm has sparked new vigor in the parish. Many traditional Byzantine services have been revived. Fundraising and social activities have been successfully launched. But, above all, the spiritual needs of the parish are being met with daily Divine Liturgy, three weekend Liturgies, Great Lent and Advent Services and other services throughout the liturgical year.

An Invitation

All Christians are witnesses to the New Life that Christ has given to us in His Church. The Byzantine Catholic faith, however, is not simply a way of life, a set of doctrines and beliefs, ritual practices and customs. Our Byzantine Catholic faith is Life itself. It is a Life that is truer, fuller, more abundant and more authentic than any other life – it is Life which is everlasting and has no end, and over which even death has no power. We warmly invite you to join us and share in this New Life in Christ!