By Gretchen McKay


Finding God, and community, in a loaf of Easter bread

Categories : Food , Positively Pittsburgh

Slava Martyn never could have imagined that one day he’d find God, in Homestead, by baking bread.

With a pastry brush dipped in egg wash, he leans over the pan of uncooked dough in front of him. With the delicate yet precise hand of an artist, he paints the loaf’s bumpy surface until the entire top is slick and sticky with egg. Satisfied, he reaches for the next of the 20 or so pans lined up on the table.

It’s methodical work, making the rich and eggy Easter bread known as paska for St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church in Homestead, and he does it without talking. But you can tell it suits the Russian-born Dr. Martyn. He gets plenty of practice paying attention to small details in his day job as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Just around the corner in the church’s brightly lit kitchen, laughter rings out. They’re a happy bunch, this small posse of women gathered around a stainless steel table with their Bulgarian priest, wearing the same pink hairnets as Dr. Martyn. They trade stories and laugh as Helen Sucevic dips her hand into a large container of dough. Grabbing a handful, the 69-year-old places the mixture on a kitchen scale and when satisfied it’s the perfect size, tosses the small ball onto the middle of the table. Another woman picks it up, rolls it into a skinny log, then slides it down the table to Dr. Martyn’s wife, Valentina.

In just a few seconds, she braids the log like a little girl’s hair into a thick, doughy plait, tucks the ends under, and then plops it into  a metal baking pan. Another plait goes on top.  After Dr. Martyn works his magic with the egg wash, he transfers the loaves into a revolving pizza oven to cook, 25 at a time.

As the bread bakes,  the egg wash will also, creating the Easter bread’s distinctive glossy sheen and deep chestnut color. 

Dr. Martyn, 52,  didn’t grow up religious. He didn’t even go to church until he, his wife and their baby son immigrated to Pittsburgh from Ukraine in 1996 through the green card lottery.  In the 1970s and 80s, the Russian Orthodox Church was severely repressed both in Siberia, where he grew up, and St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine.  While he believed in God, he wasn’t allowed to show it.

Then they settled in Greenfield. And Dr. Martyn’s mother, who’d immigrated with them, decided they needed to go to church. A friend told them about St. Gregory’s. The great influx of Slavic immigrants who came to work in the steel mills that once lined the riverbanks of the Monongahela saved their pennies to convert a Protestant church  below the train tracks into an Orthodox structure in 1913. They scrimped again when the new Homestead Mills claimed their land, and they had to build a new church up the hill on East 15th Street.  Something about the tiny parish just felt … right.

Within three years, Mrs. Martyn was singing in the choir. She says,  “God brings you to him.”

The couple joined the church’s paska-making crew a few years ago. They like how the word-of-mouth bread sales raise much-needed dollars for the church’s coffers, and upholds a cultural and religious tradition.

You have to give something back to God, and help a church survive, Dr. Martyn says.  “Tradition will disappear if you don’t support it.”

The pair had ready teachers in old-timers like Mrs. Sucevic of Baldwin Borough.  She’s been a member her entire life and has been paska-making the week before Easter longer than she can remember. She learned from her mother and namesake bubba, who immigrated in 1918 from the former Czechoslovakia to Colver, a small mining town in Cambria County.

She recalls how St. Gregory’s started its paska fundraiser 30 years ago with a member’s 100-year-old recipe, to complement the church’s annual nut horn cookie and nut bread sales at Christmas. Then the ladies got older, and making paska went by the wayside.

They’d start it up again about 10 years ago, when parishioners decided they weren’t raising enough money with their holiday bake sale.  They now sell about 150 loaves in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Recipes can vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker.  Back in Ukraine, says Mrs. Martyn,  the bread is made with ricotta. But some ingredients are the golden standard: lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. It’s a treat after the Lenten fast.

The bread itself is not terribly difficult to make. But it does take time. The dough has to raise before it can be divided into balls, and raise again after the logs have been braided into loaves. Then the loaves have to be constantly basted with butter as they go round and round in the rotating oven. It takes about four hours to complete the process.

The three parts of the braid symbolize the Holy Trinity, and there’s symbolism in the bread’s color, too, says Father Evgeni Peykov, who became priest last fall. The white interior represents the Holy Spirit, and raisins symbolize the blood of Christ and the wine taken during Holy Communion.

Many of the parishioners who buy the bread will bring it in a basket with other traditional foods to the church on Holy Saturday. That’s when Father Peykov celebrates Osvyashcheniye, or the traditional blessing of the meal to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

When your life is drastically upended, like theirs was when they left Ukraine for the promise of the U.S., it’s easy to feel cut off and alone, says Mr. Martyn. The church opened up their doors to them, and made them feel like they belonged.

In making paska, and keeping the Russian Orthodox traditions alive, he says, they’ve found a way to give back.