The Very Rev. Igor Soroka will spend his last Easter as pastor of Donora parish
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
The Very Rev. Igor Soroka, 91, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Donora, prepares for services last month.
Dr. Dimitri Petro, choir director at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Donora, receives communion from Father Igor Soroka.
Father Soroka uses the communion chalice to bless members of the parish who are ill.
Father Soroka presides over service last month in the church he has spent 58 years serving. “I had many opportunities from larger parishes,” Father Soroka said. “It would have been better for [my family] as far as our livelihood.” But he and his wife, Irene, decided to stay in Donora.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
DONORA — His voice has thinned from when his rich baritone rang out at long-ago Duquesne Tamburitzan performances or at choral concerts and Divine Liturgies across more than half a century.
A little stooped for his 91 years, he walks slowly but still confidently about the only church he’s ever led as pastor, a sanctuary whose oxidized onion dome soars dramatically over its hillside neighborhood in this weathered mill town.
The Very Rev. Igor Soroka is expected to preside today at the Divine Liturgy for Pascha, or Easter, in his 58th consecutive year as pastor at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. He expects it to be his last in this role before retiring in the coming weeks.
Father Soroka is capping a ministry in which he played a pivotal role in a national communion of Orthodox churches as it made the transition from an ethnic Slavic church, defined largely by immigrants like his Russian-born father and priest, to an American church worshiping in English. Orthodox Christians throughout the country have sung the choral prayers he arranged.
Yet for all his renown within the Orthodox Church in America, Father Soroka has done something that he didn’t expect to do when he became pastor of St. Nicholas on Dec. 1, 1959.
Like an oak tree with a wide-ranging canopy, he has stayed rooted in one place.
“I thought I would be here a couple of years,” he said. “But then I got attached to the people of the church. They were very welcoming.”
After a few years in Donora, with their children growing and attending school, Father Soroka and his wife, Irene, decided to stay put.
“I had many opportunities from larger parishes,” he said. “It would have been better for us as far as our livelihood. We just thought, well, [the parishioners] were faithful to us, we ought to be faithful to them.”
He spoke in an interview in his small, wood-paneled office, located in his rectory next to the church. The office walls serve as a sort of mini-biography. They are adorned with landscape paintings by his late wife, family photos that depict three generations of priests; and plaques reflecting his national service to the church and his very local civic commitments to his Monongahela Valley community.
How long has Father Soroka been a pastor at his Donora parish? When he started:
Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, a dozen presidencies ago.
The city’s steel and zinc mills were still operating, sustaining a population of 11,000, though the mills would soon close and the population dwindle by more than half.
One hometown Hall of Famer, Stan Musial, was still taking the field for the St. Louis Cardinals, while another, Ken Griffey Jr., wouldn’t be born here for another decade.
Father Soroka continued in ministry even as he weathered a series of health scares a decade ago, along with the grief of losing Irene, his close partner in ministry, to cancer in 2004.
Heading into retirement
Father Soroka, who turned 91 on April 1, said he’s retiring now because he’s increasingly feeling the physical demands of the robust Orthodox liturgy, with its lengthy stretches of standing and chanting. He’ll be looking to move out of the rectory to an apartment somewhere in the region. Even in retirement, he plans to help out at churches as needed.
“If I felt I had a little more strength, I would stay,” he said. “At the same time my concern is for the parish. I have to think about them, not just think of myself. Naturally they want to get a priest who can do more to receive people and add new members.”
Parish council president Nick Milchovich said Father Soroka’s long commitment to Donora is remarkable.
“The way the Mon Valley has been, it would be very easy to pack up and leave,” Mr. Milchovich said. “He stayed and he’s fought the good fight. I’m very sad to see him go, but I’m very happy for him, because he’s retiring on his terms.”
Longtime parishioner Bill Priatko, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player, called Father Soroka “not only our wonderful priest, he was for me a dear friend.”
Mr. Priatko recalled how his son Dan suffered a severe head injury in a car crash in 1985 in eastern Pennsylvania soon after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. Father Soroka drove across the state to pray with Dan, a former St. Nicholas altar boy, and stayed by his bedside for hours. “His prayers, compassion and concern were an inspiration and somehow Dan rallied from near death,” Mr. Priatko said.
Archbishop Melchisedek — leader of the Archdiocese of Western Pennsylvania — said he doesn’t know of any other current pastor serving a parish as long as Father Soroka, either here or elsewhere in the Orthodox Church in America.
Finding a successor for Father Soroka, whose tenure exceeded that of his 19 predecessors combined, will be daunting, said Archbishop Melchisedek.
“How do you replace the irreplaceable?” he said.
Father Soroka’s influence extended far beyond his own parish.
He authored or co-authored — sometimes with a brother, the Rev. Vladimir Soroka — a half-dozen books of liturgical music, which have been widely used in the Orthodox Church in America. They provided settings for English-language services such as the Divine Liturgy (communion) and morning and evening prayer.
Some still refer to these liturgies as the “Soroka red book, blue book and green book,” said Archbishop Melchisedek.
“The Soroka brothers were serving the church at a very critical time when a transition was being made to the use of English,” Archbishop Melchisedek said. “They led the way, and in certain cases they’ve not been surpassed or replaced.”
To help make the liturgy more accessible, Father Soroka said he created musical settings and harmonies for English translations of the archaic Slavonic-language liturgy.
The goal was to “have more people singing, and praying, because singing is praying.”
That work began even before he was ordained a priest, during years when he led parish music programs. He was so busy with music that he put off ordination until his early 30s. “I was always a little mad at myself that I didn’t get ordained sooner, yet sometimes how things work out,” he said. Also, he said, the experience helped him as a priest to understand the needs of lay people better.
The clerical life is a Soroka family tradition. Father Soroka was born in McKees Rocks, the son of a Russian immigrant priest, the Rev. Gregory Soroka, and his wife, Anastasia. His father would see three of his sons — Igor and the late Leonid and Vladimir — fulfill his wish that they go into the priesthood. Father Igor Soroka’s nephew, the Rev. Thomas Soroka, is also a priest at St. Nicholas Church in McKees Rocks.
As Father Gregory Soroka worked at various parishes around Western Pennsylvania, young Igor often accompanied him on visits with parishioners, where he saw firsthand their struggles to make ends meet during the Depression.
“I did a lot in the church even when I was growing up, with the choir, singing, helping with the services, so it became a part of me,” he said.
Not that his repertoire was limited to church music. It also included Russian folk songs and American show tunes. At his father’s request, he would sing for houseguests, performing tunes like “Old Man River.”
Eventually his father settled into a long-term pastorate in Charleroi, where Igor graduated from high school. He then went to St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in eastern Pennsylvania. Father Soroka still displays a photo in his office of an especially influential monk there, a reminder of “what it means to belong to God.”
After graduating from St. Tikhon, he began a series of jobs directing parish music programs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan. He also earned an undergraduate degree at Duquesne University and sang in its Slavic cultural ensemble, the Tamburitzans. While serving a Detroit parish, he met his wife, Irene, who sang alto in the choir.
The tone of their church-centered marriage was set on their honeymoon trip, which included a visit to a monastery in New York state.
Throughout their nearly 50 years of marriage, Irene Soroka helped her husband prepare for services, sang in the choir and served on various parish organizations. They had four children. Her death in 2004 was “a big loss to the church as well as myself,” he said.
After Father Soroka entered the priesthood, the local bishop agreed to Donora parishioners’ request that he be their pastor. They had known him from his work with his father in nearby Charleroi.
The Donora parish was founded by Slavic immigrants from Russia and the Carpathian borderlands of Eastern Europe. Parishioners built the sanctuary brick-by-yellow-brick after their shifts at the mills.
When Father Soroka started at St. Nicholas, the parish had about 120 members, he recalled. Like many Mon Valley churches, Orthodox and otherwise, it has decreased, along with the region’s population and industry, but it maintains a vibrant congregation of about 70, he said.
In the 1960s, when the mills were closing, Father Soroka and other Christian and Jewish clergy organized in an attempt to ease the blow. “We would meet with the union people and the officers and so forth and with the local authorities, the mill owners, to see if we could get things going.” But the mill owners “had made up their mind” to close. He later served as president of the Donora Chamber of Commerce and on committees to revitalize downtown and the economy.
Music in his heart
Father Soroka also formed a Cathedral Choir, which for more than half a century has gathered Orthodox singers from Western Pennsylvania for special events.
He organized many choral conferences for the Orthodox Church in America, and he was the first director of its department of liturgical music. The church made him one of the inaugural recipients in 2014 of its St. Romanos Award, honoring those who made significant contributions in liturgical music.
Dimitro Petro, who was both the Soroka family doctor and, for the last half-century, director of the parish choir, said Father Soroka’s pitch was so precise that he often didn’t need a tuning fork to cue the choir.
Dr. Petro recalled attending a liturgy conference with Father Soroka in New York, during which they went to dinner at a Russian-themed restaurant, complete with a instrumental trio playing folk music from the old country. Father Soroka, with an extensive knowledge of the repertoire, sang along for an impromptu set to the applause of patrons throughout the restaurant.
Father Soroka led numerous local and regional clergy associations, yet he kept busy at his little parish, leading youth groups in everything from Russian lessons to Christmas caroling to Halloween parties to blessings of homes and graves.
“With all the positions he’s had on the national level and in the archdiocese and then in the community, first and foremost was his dedication to serving our church here and the local parishioners,” said his son, Mark Soroka, who lives with and assists him. “The other things were important but secondary to what he wanted to do with the parishioners. At the same time he was a very humble person.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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