Remembering Father Vansuch
Remembering Father Vansuch
The Bethlehem archpriest's message, and the way he delivered it in his
By Jim Kelly
Special to The Morning Call
April 26, 2008
It was his rich, baritone voice that first got your attention -- whether
proclaiming ''Christ Is Risen'' at Pascha, or gently whispering words of
to you in a moment of personal crisis.
He used that powerful voice to carry Christ's message to your intellect, but
was the power of his faith and the way he lived his life that carried
Archpriest Eugene Vansuch into the hearts of thousands.
Father Eugene's voice was silenced March 23 by a massive heart attack. But
message, and the way he delivered it in his 41-year ministry, endures.
As we approach the Orthodox Pascha this evening, it seems appropriate to
memorialize a man who devoted his entire life to the altar of Christ's
Resurrection. This is a humble attempt to shine the light that was Father
to a wider audience.
Perhaps the first thing you should know is that most Eastern Orthodox
marry before being ordained. And Orthodoxy provides us with a huge bonus --
priest's wife, affectionately known as Matushka or Mother. Hers is an
title, but her job may be even harder than the priest's.
For 41 years Father Eugene and Matushka Frances (Papaharalambos) Vansuch
a dynamic duo of Orthodoxy.
Father Eugene took care of the priestly functions while Matushka Fran
out many social functions within the church. Together they raised three
Damian, Basil and Jason, while embracing a large circle of parishioners and
friends in all parts of the country.
Father Paul Lazor, who attended St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in
N.Y., with Father Eugene, noted at the funeral that Father had served in at
least six different churches and in at least 10 church offices and
But Father Eugene was so much more than a long list of committees, meetings
numbers. He was all that, and more ...
That Father Eugene was widely loved was evidenced by nearly a thousand
who filled St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church of Bethlehem to overflowing
through two days of services. Two Metropolitans, three bishops and more than
priests served. His funeral cortege to Union Cemetery of Hellertown numbered
more than 100 vehicles. This was not your ordinary funeral.
It was a wonderful tribute to Father, said Matushka Fran, speaking at the
funeral repast. ''You all touched our lives in a special way. You were all
special to my husband. He loved what he did. From me, I just want to thank
for being a part of our life.''
Of all of his parishes, he spent the most time at St. Nicholas. He was there
19 years, longer than any other pastor in the church's long history. It's a
place where a few stories help define this special priest.
Parishioner Ola Tatusko's husband, Russell, was in hospice for cancer.
would pay regular visits to Russ,'' she noted, often around lunch. ''He
ask the nurse to allow him to feed Russ, and that would be part of his
The peoples' priest
They called Diana ''The Peoples' Princess,'' she said. ''I think Father was
''The Peoples' Priest.'' All that, and more Â.
Patty Felix, another long-time member of St. Nicholas remembered that Father
on his way to the airport, heading to Chicago, when he got word that her
was dying. He canceled the trip and tended to his parishioner instead. Patty
asked him what he would have done had he already been on the plane. ''I
have gotten off in Chicago and come right back, of course,'' he replied. All
that, and more Â.
That was just about the case when another member of St. Nicholas, Edwinna
Fartuch, found herself in a life-or-death struggle with cancer. She was
serious operation and, being a devout woman with great faith, she sought
confession before the operation. But Father had just arrived in Alaska,
to one of his many church duties. A hospital chaplain was sent to her, while
Father cut short his trip and rushed back.
''He flew right back to be with me,'' Fartuch said, ''and went straight to
hospital from the Philadelphia airport. She commented that ''When Father
with you he provided a wonderful connection of his faith.'' All that, and
At an age when most men his age would be slowing down, Father left St.
to become executive director of the Fellowship of Orthodox Stewards. While
living in Easton he worked out of the Synod office in Syosset, N.Y., and
traveled across the country for three years trying to increase stewardship
When that role ended he took a new position with St. Vladimir's Orthodox
in Trenton, N.J., once again commuting from his home in Easton. By all
the congregation there was overjoyed with their new priest.
He was a wonderful ambassador of Orthodoxy, appearing on local television,
representing Orthodoxy locally and nationally. He led by example.
When there was work to be done, he didn't give orders and say handle it. He
pitched in and got dirty just like the rest of the parishioners. And no
how tired he was physically, the spiritual aspect of being a priest had to
taken care of first, last and always. All that, and more Â.
He was the man who came around the corner of the hospital room at any time
day or night when you, your wife, or your child was sick or dying, and he
pray for you and with you and tell you that we'll get through this together.
And more Â.
Every cleric buries the dead of his flock in their church, but not all
will help bury someone not connected to their church. Linda Reinhart, a
co-worker of Matushka Fran writes: ''Even though my family and I were not
Russian Orthodox, when my father passed away Father Eugene was there to
us. He really did not know my father as he lived in Florida and had just
to Pennsylvania to be close to the family when he became ill.
''When it came time for his memorial service our church pastor was out of
Thankfully, I also had asked if Father would speak and as was always the
was more than willing to give of himself.
''He got up and spoke and even though he had only met some of my family that
and knew only a little about my father, what he said was the perfect thing
comfort us and also honor my father. It was like he knew him all his life.
just had a special gift!''
A special gift
That gift was captured aptly by Father Michael Oleksa during his sermon at
funeral. Father Michael is a native of this area, who has served in Alaska
more than 30 years.
Father Michael noted that Father Eugene and Matushka Fran struck up
conversations everywhere they went. As Father Michael related it, a waitress
told them that she and her fiance were having trouble getting married at a
Catholic church, because she was not a parishioner there. After listening to
situation Father told her, 'I know the priest there. I'll put in a good
By the way, the couple got married at that church, Father Michael said,
a good laugh from the somber crowd that had been dabbing their eyes and
back tears during the heartfelt, elaborate funeral services.
''Some people fear any dialogue with 'the world,' or even with people of
faiths,'' Father Michael elaborated. ''Father Eugene knew that his Paschal
experience was not jeopardized by engaging and embracing others, just as
could violate the religious restrictions that separated Jews from Samaritans
speaking to the woman at Jacob's Well. The Joy of Pascha liberates us to
to and accept and love everyone.
''Paschal Joy led Father Eugene from the central point of his life, the Holy
Altar, outward into the world, into his community, and beyond, to the
of the Faith.
''May we remember him and follow his example as the very image, the icon of
an Orthodox Christian and an Orthodox priest should be, filled with the
certainty of the resurrection, as the Paschal People we were all baptized
chrismated to be, celebrating the Eucharist together in that Faith and Joy
'as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim my death,
confess my resurrection till I come.' ''
And in those rare moments when Father Eugene was free to pursue worldly
he enjoyed being a dad, watching his sons play their sports or following the
college and pro teams of Ohio, his home state. He also loved Neil Diamond,
wife laughed, and went to several of his concerts.
Words of a son
Middle son Basil wrote: ''My brothers grew up playing football and baseball.
opted for soccer; not the most popular or understood sport two decades ago.
parents supported me and drove me to practices, but couldn't make a lot of
games. I felt my parents were proud of me, even if they couldn't be there
because of church-related activities and even if they didn't understand much
about soccer. A few years ago, my dad gave me a scrapbook he had made of my
''It had pictures, newspaper photos and articles, game scorecards and
handwritten notes. I cried when he gave it to me. I never knew he cared so
about me and my passion for soccer, since it wasn't American football, his
passion. (I'm crying now as I'm typing this) In that same visit to us in
Vermont, he saw our house for the first time.
''We had a great visit and when they were leaving, he hugged me and told me
proud he was of me as a father and a husband. He may have said it before on
phone, but it never meant as much as it did at that moment.''
The youngest son, Jason, his mother says, knew from age 5 that he wanted to
Father, just like Dad.
Some 23 years later, he got his wish becoming Father Jason. Today he serves
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Norwich, Conn. ''If there is one thing that
can remember the most -- which is very hard because every memory of my
memorable, I will have to say it was to serve my first Pascha as a newly
ordained priest with my father by my side.
''There is nothing in the world that compares to serving with your father at
Holy Altar. And as The Orthodox Church prepares to celebrate the Feast of
Resurrection of Our Lord, my father's favorite feast of the Church, I will
always remember how he greeted all of us with the joyous words of: 'Christ
risen! Indeed he is risen!' with his face glowing with much joy.''
That is how the great majority of his parishioners will remember him. And
surely will forever remember his weekly farewell: ''Have a good day! Have a
week! And may the lord be with each and every one of you!''
As we say in the Orthodox Church: Memory Eternal!
Jim Kelly is a retired Morning Call editor.
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