Part III: Organizations and Contributions of Slovak-Americans
Two major forces emerged almost at the same time, each spearheaded by a leader of uncommon stature, each generating much good in three specific areas: on behalf of the Slovaks in America, on behalf of the Slovaks in the homeland and on behalf of the Slovak contribution to the adopted country of so many thousands of immigrants from Slovak lands.
These two forces are Slovak national fraternal organizations: The National Slovak Society, founded on February 15, 1890, under the inspired leadership of Peter V. Rovnianek; and The First Catholic Slovak Jednota (Union), organized through the genius of Father Furdek, with its preliminary advisory meeting of May 5, 1889, and its formal founding on September 4, 1890.
Both of these organizations were a response to the long felt need for local societies to merge into larger units for mutual advantage. By 1893 Slovak immigrants had established 277 independent local societies in various Slovak American settlements, with these states leading: 148 in Pennsylvania, 33 in New York, 30 in Ohio, 19 in Connecticut, 12 in New Jersey and 8 in Illinois. Others were found in Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and elsewhere.
As early as 1887, St. Stephen’s Society in Passaic, New Jersey, had raised the proposition of federating local lodges into larger and more effective units. From time to time the idea was again taken into consideration and it was given renewed endorsement but suitable action was not initiated. In 1888 Julius Schwartz-Markovič undertook more vigorous recommendations through his articles and editorials in Nová vlasť (The New Homeland). Other leaders, notably Peter Rovnianek and B. Lajciak, warmly encouraged a program of this kind also.
Although there were differing opinions about a generally endorsed basic norm for unification, the wishful idea began to crystallize into reality by 1890. Peter Rovnianek, who stood for one massive organization under the banner of nationalism, took up the cause with flaming patriotism and tremendous enthusiasm. His eloquent appeals carried a ready conviction, and his personal magnetism began to attract growing support. Some, however, had more or less defined reservations about Rovnianek’s liberal thinking and his expressed anti-clericalism. He professed non-sectarianism and advocated an attitude of neutrality in matters of church and state. Through it all, nevertheless, there were occasions when his crusade for impartiality and neutrality revealed his preferences for the purely secularist.
Father Kossalko and Father Bella
These priests led a campaign to foil Rovnianek’s ambitions. They were churchmen of a gentry mentality, interested in preserving the Old World order and the interests of the Magyar government. They were apprehensive about the strength that the common man would have through the strengh of a national organization interested in his welfare. In a newspaper of their own they bitterly assailed Rovnianek and the prospect of a national Slovak organization, even resorting to personal abuse and caustic disparagement in order to thwart the prospect of Slovak-American unity.
Paradoxically, the effort to create unity was characterized by extreme disunity and divisive hostility. Bitter differences in national feeling came to the fore and church loyalties developed into powerful polarizing factors. Catholic, Lutheran, and agnostic distrusted one another with inflexible tenacity. The outcome could have been not only critical but disastrous.
Father Furdek was not outside the sphere of this turmoil. He was convinced that the only solution to this impasse would lie in action to protect the loyalties of the immigrants for both their church and their nation. Though Rovnianek had magnanimously offered him the top position or office in his projected Slovak national society, he could not endorse Rovnianek’s aspirations completely. Furdek believed that it would be best for the Slovaks in America to unite according to their church affiliations. Slovak Catholics needed a strong Catholic Slovak American organization and the Slovak Lutherans would definitely benefit from a united Slovak Lutheran organization. Others could similarly work for a common objective, established on a firm unifying bond. There would be ample membership for all. Interacting among them would be their national spirit and their sense of identity in an adopted country. (Both the National Slovak Society and The First Catholic Union were mentioned briefly earlier. Here they are explained more fully and placed in a somewhat different context.)
The National Slovak Society
Supporters of Rovnianek’s movement met in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 15, 1890 where they formally founded the National Slovak Society. The charter branches of this organization were represented by: Stephen Dravec of Hazleton, Pa.; Anton S. Ambrose of Plymouth, Pa.; Peter V. Rovnianek of Pittsburgh, Pa.; John Miller of Cleveland, Ohio; Reverend L. Novomesky, a Lutheran pastor of Freeland, Pa.; and John Rybar of Braddock, Pa.
Peter V. Rovnianek was elected president and he successfully guided the society for a number of years. The National Slovak Society adopted the motto: Liberty — Equality — Fraternity! Its expressed goals were:
To unite persons of Slovak and Slavonic ancestry in a fraternal benefit society;
To cherish among its members the language and traditions of their ancestors; to encourage respect for the land of their ancestors; and to foster pride in their ancestry;
To preach and practice the gospel of fraternity, charity and benevolence;
To uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and to preserve the democratic way of life;
To assist their kinsmen across the Atlantic in their efforts to make and keep their homeland, in the heart of Europe, a land of free men with free institutions;
To publish and circulate Slovak literature and to patronize Slovak arts and sciences; and
To protect its widowed, its orphaned, its sick, disabled, distressed and aged.
The First Catholic Slovak Union — Jednota
On May 5, 1889, the Slovaks of Cleveland met in a founding session and organized a local St. Joseph Society, much like the local societies in many other Slovak communities. Father Furdek was chosen president and James Gruss became vice-president. Bylaws for the society were drawn up by Father Furdek. Before long, however, Father Furdek yielded the presidency to Gruss because parish duties prevented him from attending meetings regularly.
Early in its history St. Joseph Society was approached by emissaries from the Rovnianek element in Pittsburgh. They were treated as guests and were given the privilege of addressing the assembled group in Cleveland but prematurely and unbecomingly they presumed to indoctrinate the Cleveland Slovaks against priestly guidance. This experience made it clear that the influence of such agents could bring about alienation from the church, anticlericalism an eventually even agnosticism. Father Furdek’s misgivings were not groundless and clearly it was time for decisive action.
At their meeting of April 13, 1890, St. Joseph Society of Cleveland voted unanimously for a mass meeting of American Slovaks on September 4, 1890. This historic gathering brought together representatives from many local societies in the United States. It became the founding session for a national organization of Slovak Catholics that is generally known as the Jednota (Yed-no-ta), a word which means unity or union. Officially it is called the First Catholic Slovak Jednota. The charter societies which had official representatives at this meeting were: St. Joseph, Cleveland, Ohio; St. Michael Archangel, Pittsburgh, Pa.; SS. Cyril and Methodius, Minneapolis, Minn.; St. Joseph, Pittsburgh-Allegheny, Pa.; St. Stephen, Olyphant, Pa.; St. Stephen the King, Streator, Ill.; Sacred Heart, Houtzdale, Pa.; and St. Wendel in, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Father Furdek chaired this convention on his parish premises in Cleveland, and he presided at the elections which put the following in office: George Onda, president; John Bakos, vice-president; Reverend E. Gelhoff, recording secretary; J.A. Filek, financial secretary; John Prokopovic, treasurer; and Martin Slanina, auditor.
Membership in the Jednota was open to all who professed the Catholic faith and recognized the Pope as head of the Church. They could be either Roman or Byzantine Catholic. All members were bound to discharge their religious obligations faithfully; enroll their children in Catholic schools; take an active part in parish life and contribute to the support of the church and school; and shun disrespect for and mockery of church services and ritual and never write in an anti-clerical or anti-Church spirit.
The motto of the Jednota was “For God and Nation!” The main objectives of the organization were to cherish and deepen one’s salutary faith; to support fellow members, their widows and orphans; and to defend and promote the Slovak language, to cultivate national consciousness and to cherish the Slovak cultural heritage.
Both the Jednota and the National Slovak Society promoted humanitarian, cultural and patriotic ideals. Both became a vital force in Slovak American life as well as in the history of the Slovak people in their homeland.
In its official 1974 edition of statistics, The Fraternal Monitor lists these figures for current standings of Slovak American fraternal societies:
|Name of Society||Certificates in force||Assets||Insurance in force||Net Interest Rate|
|First Cath. Sl. Ladies Ass’n.
Organized in 1892
|First Cath. Sl. Union (Jednota)
Organized in 1890
|Ladies Pa. Sl. Cath. Union
Organized in 1900
|National Slovak Society
Organized in 1890
|Pa. Slovak Cath. Union
Organized in 1893
|Slovak Catholic Sokol
Organized in 1905
|Slovak Gymnastic Union Sokol
Organized in 1912
This listing is merely representative of the organizational leaven that was at work among the Slovaks in America. It also reflects some of the survival capacity and suggests the growth potential maintained by not a few of the benevolent societies of the Slovaks in America.
Rovnianek himself did not hesitate to marvel at the real significance of what the Slovak element had dared and what it had achieved in this new world: “The National Slovak Society was the first organization in the history of the oppressed Slovak nation to raise high its national standard and to proclaim its Slovak character. Actually, before the founding of the National Slovak Society there was no Slovak organization whatever — neither in the Tatra lands nor in America.”
The combined strength of each organization, collating the membership of various branches and lodges, gave it enviable prestige, security and meaningfulness. Furthermore, in time of need or crisis, there was a distinct advantage in pooling the power of these distinct societies into a still more formidable body and an unmistakable manifestation of solidarity.
In 1897 Slovak American journalists established a committee to raise financial aid for the cause of supporting Slovak leaders undergoing persecution in the homeland. In 1905 thirteen organizations and nine newspapers sent representatives to New York to form a similar committee for a like purpose. In the following year there was a meeting of Slovak priests in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to protest the brutality of the Černová massacre in Slovakia and to launch a Catholic Congress on behalf of religious and national interests, creating a public manifestation of protest against injustice at home. Because those in the homeland were forcibly silenced, the Slovaks in America felt a moral obligation to raise their voices in a loud and justified outcry against injustice and inhumanity.
In 1907 a National Slovak Congress was convened. It was a historic event which demonstrated a tremendous witnessing of Slovak American unity publicly appealing against the inhuman violation of rights suffered by the Slovaks as a minority in Austria-Hungary. Over 10,000 Slovaks of all religious denominations converged upon Cleveland for this spirited rally. They came from all parts of the United States. The Connellsville, Pa. area arranged for a train of 16 passenger cars to transport those who wished to participate.
The Slovak League of America
Created in the enthusiasm of the Cleveland Slovak National Congress of 1907, the League is a mighty Slovak American politico-cultural body pledged to care for and promote the welfare of Slovakia and its aspirations for statehood and to cultivate the Slovak heritage and Slovak interests in the United States.
Early in the 20th century Magyar oppressive forces in Europe realized that some significant counter-movements from the United States were championing the cause of their Slovak subjects, bound in such fast serfdom that they were unable to resist on their own behalf. Magyar power saw that the Slovaks who had migrated to America where they thrived in the spirit of freedom and democracy had acquired a vitalizing sense of national consciousness and self-worth. They were ready to secure alleviation for their countrymen and their national institutions in the homeland.
Even before the Slovak National Congress in Cleveland, as it has been noted, the Slovaks worked through their local and national societies which by this time had a combined membership of more than a hundred thousand. In the single year 1906, Slovak Americans managed to send their homeland over seventy thousand crowns for political and national endeavors. Besides this financial aid, they offered invaluable moral support as well. Sadly enough, this unprecedented show of self-defense only bred harsher reprisals from the Magyars. It would have been unworthy of the Slovaks to accept further oppression and humiliation with mute meekness and an abject attitude of fatalism.
The Slovaks of America had to act for the homeland. To be at all effective, however, their action had to be unified. Years before this, they learned through forming their national fraternal societies, that in union there is strength. Yet as early as 1897 when the Lattimer Massacre in Pennsylvania drew blood, took a toll of lives, and in its aftermath staged a travesty of legal justice, they came to a conviction that they needed more than national fraternals. They had to have a corporate union of all organizations, of all fraternals and of all cultural bodies. Local protest meetings and regional public demonstrations against the political injustices of the Magyars were effective in their own way, but it was time for a climax.
On the initiative of Father Furdek such a movement became a historic reality on May 26, 1907, when the National Slovak Congress was convened in Gray’s Armory in Cleveland. More important than the mammoth attendance of individuals was the meaningful founding of the Slovak League of America. In it was coordinated the combined strength and prestige of all Slovak American organizations, for in it were concentrated the ideals and the objectives of The National Slovak Society, The First Catholic Slovak Jednota, The Slovak Evangelical Union, The Slovak Gymnastic Union Sokol, The Catholic Slovak Ladies Union, The Independent National Slovak Society, The Ladies Pa. Slovak Catholic Union, Sojuz, The Cleveland Slovak Union, The Passaic Slovak Union, Zivena, and The Ladies Evangelical Slovak Union.
Together with its ladies auxiliary Včielky (Bees), the Slovak League of America has achieved inestimable good on two continents as it continues to be the embodiment of the collective idealism and dynamism of leading Slovak American organizations, publications, and journalists united in a common cause.
The intrepid Father Furdek inspired the philosophy of fruitful action for the Slovak League of America when he urged that the proceedings of the founding session concern themselves not with, demeaning invectives and useless complaints but with effective action and with wholehearted non-partisan measures for achieving the greatest possible good on behalf of the suffering nation. The immediate objective was to work decisively for the liberation of Slovakia, “for the glorious day of the Slovak nation’s resurrection.”
The official publication of the Slovak League of America is the annual titled Slovakia. It is an English journal currently in its twenty-fifth volume. Because of its valuable historic content and excellent quality, this periodical is read not only by members of the League, but it is also welcomed in outstanding American libraries, colleges, and universities where it is often used as a reliable resource tool.
The Slovak League of America has a rich history of accomplishments on two continents. Much of the burden of events leading up to and culminating in the creation of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918 fell to the lot of the Slovak League of America and its capable leaders. Often the League speaks out fearlessly on behalf of the Slovak nation denied a voice to speak for itself.
This unique Slovak American organization alone forms a substantive chapter in the history of Slovak and Slovak-American development. This limited survey cannot do justice to all its meritorious accomplishments beginning with its action to liberate Slovakia and continuing through the noteworthy events of the Memorandum of 1914-1915, the Cleveland Agreement of 1915, the American delegations that were sent abroad on political missions, the meeting with General M.R. Štefánik in America, the valuable volunteer service and financial aid given in both World War conflicts, the Million Dollar Drive, the Pittsburgh Agreement of 1918, the reception of Monsignor Hlinka in the United States, the creation of the Slovak state, the 1945 Washington Resolution, the work of the Slovak National Council and the Slovak Liberation Committee, Youth Conferences and cultural programs.
The Slovak Catholic Federation of America
When there were evident signs that liberalism and a host of secular forces were at work not only to damage the Christian way of life among many immigrants but even to attract them into joining questionable activities and circles, it was time for establishing deterrents to such perils.
On the invitation of Father Murgas, a conference was held in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. on February 22, 1911. Bishop Michael J. Hoban of Scranton, Pa. and Bishop Joseph M. Koudelka, Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland (later Ordinary of Superior, Wisc.) on this occasion joined an assemblage of 36 Slovak priests and 200 delegates to discuss effective means of strengthening the loyalties of Slovak Catholics to their faith and to explore suitable projects on behalf of Slovak youth.
The founding of the Slovak Catholic Federation was the outcome of these deliberations. It was conceived as an organization of laymen working with the clergy to protect and promote morality, faith, Christian education, a Catholic press and good works.
Over the years it has achieved many of its fine ideals. Reviewing some of its accomplishments we may note:
Support of the Catholic publishing institute Society of St. Adalbert in Trnava, Slovakia, and aid to impoverished churches in Slovakia after World War I;
During and after World War II, notable aid through a Slovak Catholic relief association formed under the auspices of the NCWC on behalf of war-ravaged Slovakia and its widely scattered refugees;
Assistance for Slovak students at seminaries in Rome, preparing for an eventual apostolate in Slovakia (The Slovak Institute of SS. Cyril and Methodius and the Pontifical Nepomucenum);
Promotion and enrichment of the heritage of SS. Cyril and Methodius;
Maintenance of an American cultural committee to honor and preserve Slovak Catholic traditions and to circulate Catholic literature;
Consistent cooperation with other federated Catholic societies in America; and
Fostering Catholic youth activities among persons of Slovak origins.