Saint Nicholas Feast Day
1907 Pass Over Icon
A new icon was commissioned to commemorate the 111th anniversary of the Monongah (West Virginia) and Darr (Pennsylvania) mine disasters that occurred on December 6 and 19, 1907—the two dates of St. Nicholas feast. Because hundreds of miners went to church on those days instead of work, they were spared certain death [passed over] in the mine explosions that claimed the lives of 660 miners who went to work on those two days.
“Keep Holy the Sabbath,” says the Divine. In fidelity with this command European serfs were freed from work to worship on Sundays and feast days, before the emancipation of the Habsburg Empire in 1783 and the Romanov Empire in 1861. Unnecessary labor or business and shopping or housework were shunned. The Feast-day of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is celebrated on two calendars, December 6th on the Gregorian calendar in the West and on December 19th on the Julian calendar in the East.
The Saint Nicholas Feast Day 1907 Pass Over icon was blessed following the Divine Liturgy, December 2, 2018, at Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church, Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The icon was gifted in loving memory of Tatyana Helena Jula by her parents Michael and Maria Jula, sister Anastasya Jula with husband Julian Gil, and art teacher Michael Kapeluck.
Immigrants from South Central and Eastern Europe were slow to arrive in America before the start of the US Industrial Revolution. At that time much of Europe still used the feudal system. Serfdom—the slave caste for landed gentry—was difficult and demeaning work. The only relief the church could provide to ease their lives were “no-work” holydays that avoided unnecessary labor, business, shopping, or housework.
During the Industrial Revolution Pennsylvania was a popular destination for non-English speaking European emigrants. In 1907 southwestern Pennsylvania was known for shipping, coal pit mining, iron smelting, steel forging and glass-making. Southeast of Pittsburgh, in Jacobs Creek, the Darr Mine was one of many mines that preferred to employ English-speaking white Anglo-Saxon Protestant managers. They were paid 25 cents per day, equal to $15 now. English-speaking foreigners labored for a dime—$6 today. Non-English speakers and native peoples made only 5 cents per day—equal to $3 today.
The darkest month ever in US coal mining history is Black December 1907 with more than 700 deaths. That full year’s mining deaths claimed 3,242 known men and boys. The Monongah Mine disaster numbered 361 dead. This tragedy would have numbered 60 to 100 more except December 6th was the Roman Catholic Saint Nicholas holyday. Many miners, following morning Mass, went home with their children to marvel and play with the anonymous gifts from “Bishop Nicholas.” Of the three gifts, one was for practical use, the second for play, and the third for wonderment. Switches were also left for more mischievous children; lumps of coal have since taken the place of switches. Adult gifts reflected the trinity of virtues: faith, hope, and charity, that is love.
At that time Eastern Rite Catholics, together with their Orthodox brethren, followed the ancient Julian Calendar that puts Saint Nicholas Day on December 19. A group of Eastern European miners reported they would not be working on Thursday, December 19th, for religious observance. The circuit rider priest from Leisenring, Pennsylvania, was coming to Jacobs Creek that morning to chant the Divine Liturgy. The manager questioned the miners about their Saint Nicholas Feastday. Then Pittsburgh Coal’s regional manager told the miners if they didn’t show up for work on “Santa Claus Thursday,” they needn’t bother showing up on payday. He decreed that they would be fired, their credit cancelled, and they would be evicted, all before Christmas.
At 11:30 am. Thursday December 19, an explosion occurred in the Darr Mine, killing 239 men and boys. If it were not for the hundreds of Ruthenian Greek Catholics observing their feast day, it would have been the singular worst mining disaster in US history. Newspapers of the day reporting the disaster told about the Saint Nicholas observance saving hundreds of miners. During the Christmas holidays of 1907, oligarchs like Andrew Carnegie wore mourning black.
In southwestern Pennsylvania this tragedy, and the lives lost and the lives saved by being passed over because they worshiped on Saint Nicholas Feast rather than working in the coal pits, is still remembered and commemorated in St. Nicholas Day worship.
Writing the Pass Over Icon
See how the iconographer developed the icon
“New icon tells story of St. Nicholas and coal miners of Pennsylvania” by Nikolas C. Kotow, The Ukrainian Weekly, January 11, 2019
From Michael Jula, text adapted from Erin Hilty Wilson. Used by permission.