The Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great began with one extraordinary family living in the Eastern Roman Empire during the 4th century. Basil the Elder and his wife Emmelia hailed from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and had nine children. Macrina was first, followed by Basil. The others included Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste, Naucratius, as well as four sisters. Gregory of Nazianzus was a schoolmate of Basil and became a close friend. This remarkable family helped form the Christian faith as we know it, especially regarding monasticism and our understanding of the Holy Trinity.
Asia Minor was a hotbed of activity for the early Church and produced many saints, including the Sisters’ founders Macrina and Basil. They were born during a pivotal stretch of history between the legalization of Christianity and its promulgation as the imperial religion. Their father, Basil the Elder, was a teacher of rhetoric who died when his two oldest children were still teenagers. Afterwards, Macrina worked alongside Emmelia at home while Basil went abroad to continue his education. Basil returned about a decade later, by then well known for his rhetorical brilliance.
Two extremely important events took place shortly thereafter. First, Macrina confronted Basil, who “had become excessively exalted by the idea of his own gift of oratory,” according to their brother Gregory of Nyssa. She humbled Basil so effectively that she changed the course of his life. Second, Macrina convinced Emmelia to make the household into a monastery. This entailed far more than physical changes: the female slaves and servants would now be their equals. It is difficult to overstate how radical this was for the time. Other women eventually joined them, and the monastic community flourished. Meanwhile, headed in a new direction thanks to his older sister, Basil engaged in a life of asceticism and would later be consecrated bishop of Caesarea.
Basil and his best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, are Doctors of the Church–a title conferred to just thirty-six of the thousands of canonized saints. Basil received this distinction for his writings and tireless efforts against heresy. He composed theological and apologetic works as well as monastic rules. Basil’s rules along with the monastic community Macrina founded at their family home influenced monasticism all over Christendom. Basilian monasteries proliferated throughout the Byzantine East for more than a thousand years, a process roughly paralleled by the Benedictine movements in the Latin West. Moreover, Benedict of Nursia himself underscores Basil’s importance in his own rule.
So where does Ukraine enter the story? Long before it was a modern nation, the land now occupied by Ukraine was part of a medieval kingdom known as Kyivan Rus’. King Volodymyr the Great, sovereign of Kyivan Rus’, introduced Christianity to his people in 988, and countless Basilian monasteries were founded there in subsequent centuries. Thus, Basilian monastics–both women and men–have lived in Ukraine for a very long time.
Two remote historical events factor into why the Sisters of St. Basil came from Ukraine to the United States. In 1054, the bishops of Rome and Constantinople broke communion for largely political reasons. This tragic event is known as the Great Schism. Thereafter, Christians in the Byzantine East were known as Orthodox while those in the Latin West were Catholic. Kyivan Rus’ was located in the former part of Christendom, so it became Orthodox by default.
The situation remained unchanged for more than five hundred years until a group of bishops worked to re- enter communion with the bishop of Rome (the Pope). They succeeded in 1596 with the Union of Brest which brought many in Western Ukraine back into communion with Rome while still preserving their Eastern Christian identity. This explains why the Sisters of St. Basil are Catholic yet not Roman Catholic: their ecclesial heritage is Byzantine rather than Roman. Consequently, the Sisters’ liturgical tradition derives from Constantinople, their devotional images are strictly iconic (i.e., no baroque paintings or statues for that matter), and their eparchial (diocesan) priests may be either celibate or married.
The Union of Brest affected mostly Western Ukraine, especially Halychyna and the Carpathians. Ukrainians who arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily from these Catholic regions. They gathered first in rural areas such as the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania and later in industrial centers including Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. During the 1900s their population grew large enough that the first Eastern Catholic bishop of the United States, Soter Ortynsky, petitioned the Sisters of St. Basil in Yavoriv, Ukraine to send members of their Order to care for the immigrants’ children and orphans.
In 1911 four Sisters of St. Basil arrived and set up a monastery in Philadelphia, right near the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. This was the founding of the Jesus, Lover of Humanity Province. The Sisters very quickly began teaching children and orphans. They helped raise the latter both in Philadelphia as well as Chesapeake City, MD as Bishop Ortynsky purchased land there shortly before his death in 1916. Then in the late 1920s, the Sisters acquired property in Fox Chase where they built the Motherhouse and opened Saint Basil Academy in 1931 and Manor College in 1947. In 1948 they purchased real estate on Lindley Avenue in the Logan section of Philadelphia upon which they built Saint Basil Orphanage Home and Saint Basil Elementary School. The Jesus, Lover of Humanity Province grew throughout the twentieth century and its Sisters conducted schools all over the United States.
To conclude, the history of the Sisters of St. Basil originates in the 300s with the saintly family of Basil the Elder and Emmelia. Their two oldest children, Macrina and Basil, undertook the work that continues seventeen centuries later. Through faithful dedication Macrina founded the first of many monasteries, while through her virtue and maturity she guided her younger brother towards holiness. Macrina and Basil’s monastic example spread all over the world, first in Asia Minor but then in Europe, the United States, Latin America, and even Australia. The Sisters’ schools and other ministries are vital parts of their legacy as are the students, alumnae, and supporters who share in this tradition begun so long ago.
Sean McLaughlin, Director
Basilian Spirituality Center