St. Irenaus of Bac: A Serbian Saint for Carpatho-Rusyns (1884-1955)

A Serbian bishop, who served for a time as a bishop of the Orthodox Church in Carpatho-Russia, was canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church of Serbia on October 2, 2022. 

The future saint was born as Ivan Chiric  in a family of priests in Sremski Karlovce, Serbia on May 1, 1884.  He was educated in his hometown and also in the city of Novi Sad.  Ivan graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy in 1906 and defended his doctoral thesis in Vienna in 1908.  Later that year he was tonsured a monk with the name “Irenaeus” and ordained deacon and then priest.  With his advanced education, Father Irenaeus became the head librarian of the Patriarchal Library and also taught at the Karlovac Seminary in the area of theology and liturgics. 

In 1919 Father Irenaeus was elected Bishop of Timok and in 1922 was transferred to the Diocese of Bac.  He had a talent for languages and was involved in translating the Scriptures and liturgical texts from Hebrew, Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German and Hungarian.  Bishop Irenaeus was especially known for his work translating the Holy Bible, especially the Old Testament, into Serbian and authored several commentaries on books of the Old Testament. 

In Carpatho-Russia

In the early years of the 20th century there was a growing movement among the Rusyn people away from the Greek Catholic Church to their ancestral Orthodox Faith.  This Greek Catholic or Uniate Church was formed from a document signed in 1646 (the Union of Uzhorod) which allowed the Orthodox people to keep their liturgical life but to accept the authority of the Pope.  This union with Rome was forced upon the people by the Hungarian authorities with the approval of many Orthodox clergy who desired the higher standard of living they would receive as Catholic priests.  Any attempt to maintain the Orthodox Faith was met with arrests, persecution and violence.  With the end of World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the persecution eased and the Orthodox Faith revived among the people.  Many priests and bishops, especially from Serbia, aided in this flowering of Orthodoxy in the Carpathians.  Among them was the Bishop Irenaeus who became the head of this new Orthodox Church of Carpatho-Russia in 1927. 

In Serbia

Bishop Irenaus returned to Bac to aid his people who suffered greatly during World War II.  He worked tirelessly to protect and help his people and was successful in rescuing 2,800 children and 189 mothers with babies held at the Hungarian  sarvar concentration camp and in 1942 helped to establish a hospital in his diocese. 

With the ascent of the Communists to power in Serbia, Bishop Irenaeus became the target of the hatred of the new, godless government.  He was placed under house arrest for 17 months.  During the 1946 feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord as a festal procession was taking place around the church the bishop was insulted, beaten and nearly lynched by the Communists.   The bishop suffered injuries from which he never recovered.  He fell asleep in the Lord on the eve of the feast of the Annunciation in 1955 and was buried in the crypt of St. George Cathedral in Novi Sad. 

Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

His Canonization

On May 23, 2022  the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church of Serbia, resolved to list Bishop Irenaeus among the saints as a “Confessor of the Faith” (one who suffered for Christ).  The feastday of his remembrance was established on the anniversary of his falling asleep in the Lord:  March 24 (Gregorian Calendar) / April 6 (Julian Calendar).   

The solemn service of canonization took place at the Cathedral in Novi Sad led by His Holiness, Patriarch Porfirije of the Orthodox Church of Serbia along with dozens of bishops from around the world including Archbishop Juraj of the Diocese of Michalovce and Kosice in Slovakia.  At the Little Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, Bishop Nikodim of Dalmatia read the decree of the Holy Synod of Bishops glorifying not only St. Irenaus but also the New Martyrs of Bac. 

Father Edward Pehanich