Ohio Township man fortifies Carpatho-Rusyn culture

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When the world's largest Carpatho-Rusyn cultural organization converges this weekend, a local man will be recognized for his work in bringing the Pittsburgh chapter together 20 years ago.

The Carpatho-Rusyn Society plans to recognize John Righetti, 56, of Ohio Township as part of its 20-year anniversary celebration in Munhall and Homestead, and kick off a year of events.

Righetti, the founding president and current president emeritus, will receive the society's Michael Strenk Award for his contribution to Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

“It is really about how the person is giving themselves in service, not only to the Rusyn community, but also contributing to this American success story that we all share,” said cultural activist Maria Silvestri, event organizer and spokeswoman. Silvestri said Righetti is only the second recipient of the award.

The award will be given during the group's banquet on Saturday in the National Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural and Educational Center in Munhall.

Righetti brought together the founders of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society in Pittsburgh in 1994.

Today, the society is a nonprofit organization that boasts 11 chapters and more than 1,400 members, including several from Sewickley. The society is the largest exclusively Carpatho-Rusyn cultural organization in the world, Righetti said.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would take off as readily as it did,” he said.

Carpatho-Rusyns originated from the Carpathian Mountain chain of East Central Europe. When Communism fell in Eastern Europe, he said, Carpatho-Rusyns revived their culture everywhere they lived — Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia and the United States.

“In 1989, when Communism fell, much of us in the world were shocked to find that, literally within months of the fall of Communism, every country where Rusyns lived in Eastern Europe developed a Rusyn cultural organization,” Righetti said.

His idea to unite in North America developed out of a trip to Poland, where about 200 Rusyn leaders met to discuss the international Rusyn agenda, and how the stateless Slavic people — who didn't have a home country — could keep Rusyn culture vibrant and growing.

“I went representing the Rusyn community of the United States along with four other people. One of them was an elderly gentleman from Butler,” said Righetti, whose mother is Rusyn and father is Italian.

When they returned, Righetti told the man from Butler about a trend he'd noticed: American organizations were divided along religious lines, rather than cultural first. The two decided someone needed to start a national organization that united Rusyns in North America.

“So we did,” Righetti said.

In 1993, Righetti pulled together seven other young Rusyns. The first meeting took place on April 17, 1994, at the University of Pittsburgh. Righetti said 45 people joined on the spot and the Carpatho-Rusyn Society was founded.

The plan was to develop the organization in Pittsburgh and begin a chapter in Cleveland after a decade. Two years into it, Righetti said, there were chapters in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New Jersey.

The society later purchased the old Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall and converted it into the National Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center, which also houses the national museum. New displays will be featured to show the history of the Rusyn experience, including costumes.

The goal is to educate the Rusyn world and grow the culture and continue to evolve for the future, he said.

“It has educated thousands of Carpatho-Rusyns about their heritage and lots of non-Rusyns,” he said.

More than 600,000 Americans are estimated to be of Carpatho-Rusyn heritage and Pittsburgh boasts the largest settlement in the United States, according to the society.

Larissa Dudkiewicz is a freelance writer.

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