Oldest Catholic pastor presides over Olyphant parish
BY CHARLES SCHILLINGER
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OLYPHANT — Monsignor Stephen Hrynuck zipped into his office with a smile and quick greeting and abruptly walked out.
His head popped back into the office: “Come in here. Come in here. It’s much more comfortable.”
With his guest seated, the pastor was once again moving through rooms, dismissing offers for help with this or that.
“I’m all right. I’m all right,” said Monsignor Hrynuck, who runs SS. Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Olyphant.
He walks with a bit of a hunch in his back — one of the few signs that this man is 96 years old — and though he speaks briefly of his back pain, he doesn’t show it.
“We have to have a cross,” he said about the spinal stenosis from which he suffers. “This is my cross to bear.”
But don’t bother trying to slow down Monsignor Hrynuck — he said he is only taking orders from the boss upstairs. And as the oldest pastor of a Catholic church in the United States, he said he plans to enjoy every last breath God gives him.
“My time is coming up, and I am ready,” he said. “But I will never retire. God will retire me.”
His largest audience yet
Every year, local priests meet annually at a retreat. This past year, the priests scored, having as their retreat master Father Benedict Groeschel, the host of a popular show on the Eternal Word Television Network, or EWTN, an international Catholic media network.
Father Groeschel and Monsignor Hrynuck hit it off.
“He was enamored by (Monsignor Hrynuck),” said Father Paul Wolensky, pastor of St. Vladimir Church in Scranton. “We all are.”
Though Monsignor Hrynuck receives calls from people around the globe who watch his liturgies on the Internet, he acknowledged his largest audience ever will likely be when millions of people tune into Father Groeschel’s show at 7 p.m. today, when he will be a guest. EWTN is on channel 12 with Comcast.
Monsignor Hrynuck was too humble to say he’s excited, but admitted he alerted his barber to the occasion prior to having his hair cut.
Father Wolensky said his colleague is amazing, spiritually and physically.
“Physically, for a 96-year-old, he puts us all to shame,” he said. “When God does take him, I don’t know what we’ll do without him. He’s a delightful man.”
From orphan to pastor
Monsignor Hrynuck said his grandmother, at an early age, went to Jerusalem and other Holy cities and prayed that her son would be a priest. Those prayers were not answered — “at least not the way she expected,” he said.
What she received instead were two grandsons, both ordained as priests: Monsignor Hrynuck and his brother, the late Father John Hrynioch.
At an early age, Monsignor Hrynuck was orphaned and left with an uncle in his native Philadelphia to support him. After high school, his uncle said he would only continue supporting him if he went to Temple University to become a doctor.
“I didn’t think I would be a good doctor, but what could I do?” he asked.
A friend of his parents convinced Monsignor Hrynuck to knock on the door of the bishop’s home in Philadelphia and tell him he wanted to be a priest.
Two weeks after doing so, he was on a plane to Italy. He was ordained in Rome 70 years ago, on April 3, 1938.
He took his first position in Minneapolis and also served in several seminaries. He had a prestigious career in Washington, D.C., before being convinced to take a humble post in a small town north of Scranton.
“Born in Philadelphia. Ordained in Rome. And got stuck in Olyphant,” Monsignor Hrynuck said, obviously joking. He loves the area enough to be here forever — buried in a cemetery by the church.
Church in crisis
When Monsignor Hrynuck took the position in Olyphant on July 1, 1951, at the age of 40, he had to two priests assisting him. Now, at the age of 96, he handles marriages, funerals, confessions and almost all masses on his own.
That there are so few priests to keep churches open is one reason he will not retire.
“The Church is in crisis,” Monsignor Hrynuck said.
He described as “tragedies” the sex abuse scandals that have swept through the Catholic Church, the high rate of divorces, the low number of young people becoming priests. But he noted there is a very recent swell in people interested in becoming priests. And he has faith things will turn around.
“There is tragedy in Christianity, but it’s temporary and it (the Church) will come back,” Monsignor Hrynuck said. “(Jesus Christ said) the Gates of Hell will not prevail. We have a promise, an assurance, that the Church will never be destroyed.”
Secret to longevity
When asked how he has maintained good health at his age, Monsignor Hrynuck paused for a moment — and then started speaking Italian. He knows it fluently — and speaks pretty good German as well. He knows almost a dozen languages, though many now he can only read and write.
While in Italy as a young man, he said, a 95-year-old told him the secret to longevity.
“Drinking water makes you sick. And wine makes you sane,” Monsignor Hrynuck said in Italian, then translating it back to English.
He never took the man up on that advice and didn’t have any secrets or answers himself.
“I don’t know — God knows,” he said.
But, he places most of the credit for his longevity on people who keep him in his prayers.
“Many people pray for me, and I think their prayers keep me going,” he said.
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©The Times-Tribune 2008