Part III: Organizations and Contributions of Slovak-Americans


Early in Slovak American history, children did not enjoy the opportunity to go to school. Little boys who had come to America with the early immigrants were put to work. Mine bosses needed them for jobs at the breaker, splitting some of the larger lumps that came up from the deep mines and separating the slag and stone from the coal. Their families needed the extra pay that such work would bring, much as they would have liked to see the boys educated in the American way. No doubt, some families accepted the practice because at first they looked upon it as just a temporary arrangement. It seemed to be a faster way of making the savings that they hoped to take back to the homeland on their return.

Times changed, however, and it became apparent that many would stay on in America and make permanent homes here. It was clear too that if the best values of the Slovak people were to be preserved and strengthened, it was vital to provide schools for the children. In their new world the young needed to enrich their minds with all that American schools offered but they were aliens among other children, exposed to all the cruelties that children can so readily inflict on those whom they do not accept because they are “different,” because they are at a disadvantage with a language barrier, or because their ways and culture are strange in a new world.

Concerned pastors recognized what this situation meant. They understood this too: if the next generation and succeeding generations were to remain loyal to their faith and their ancestral roots, they would have to have suitable educational opportunities. If adults already showed signs of becoming halfhearted about church attendance and personal spirituality because the problems, the pressures, and the influence of their environment were encroaching on their sense of lasting values, what would happen to the young without adequate training?

When Father Gelhoff came to St. Stephen’s in Streator, Illinois in 1887, he had the vision to see what needed to be done first. Since the parish had a church that served the worship needs of the time, it was advisable to look to the future.

School Beginnings

Since 1886 Joseph Yambra, a St. Stephen’s parishioner who was a teacher, had been conducting some classes for children in his own home. This was a fair beginning but it was not enough. In 1888 Father Gelhoff built a parish school and two teachers from the parish, Joseph Yambra and Adalbert Kroener, were in charge of instruction in it until arrangements were made with the Sisters of St. Francis from Joliet, Illinois, to staff the school permanently. This was, no doubt, the first Slovak elementary school in the United States.

St. Michael, Braddock, Pa.

A sizable and growing settlement of Slovaks were engaged in the steel works as early as 1880. By 1890 they founded St. Michael Society which was incorporated into the Jednota within a year. One of their first group concerns was to save voluntary contributions out of which they purchased a Protestant church in 1890 and renovated it to serve as St. Michael’s Catholic church. Bishop Phelan endorsed their efforts and in 1891 Reverend Raymund Wider came to Braddock as the pastor of St. Michael’s. He was the first pastor of the first Slovak parish in the Pittsburgh diocese. This founding of St. Michael’s was a typical pattern for the founding of many Slovak parishes in America.

In 1896 Reverend Albert Kazinczy became the pastor of St. Michael’s. Although he was just a recently ordained priest, he was a capable administrator and he was convinced that the parish had to make some worthwhile provisions for educating children. This was not a newly discovered need. It had been discussed and reviewed on many occasions. Providing classrooms or building a school for a waiting student body was not a problem of unusual proportions, but it would take at least a minor miracle to staff a school adequately.

At various priests’ conferences it was generally agreed that parish schools would thrive best under the management and tutelage of teaching orders of Sisters. Father Kazinczy was convinced of this too, but there were no prospects of finding such Sisters to teach the children of Slovak immigrants. To make a beginning, he started with his organists as temporary instructors.

The Sisters Come

After repeated appeals and much negotiating with the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Hungary, he finally welcomed five of these Sisters who came from abroad to take charge of his school. They set in motion a parochial school system in the soft coal area and became well established in the United States. Unfortunately, their numbers were limited and they could hardly meet the needs of the Braddock area.

Despite the teacher shortage, more and more schools were becoming a reality, and temporary arrangements were made for conducting classes while hope grew stronger that proper provisions would be made as soon as circumstances permitted. In 1900 Reverend Bartholomew Kvitek opened St. Michael’s school in Chicago. In 1912 Reverend Louis Biskupski built a three story ten classroom school at St. Stephen’s in Streator.

Other religious denominations also undertook the founding of elementary schools. A Lutheran school was begun by Reverend L. Novomesky in Newark, New Jersey.

The Pastor’s Burden

In some localities provisions were made for at least Sunday School instruction. Usually this responsibility fell to the pastor himself. Attempts were made also to have the children receive instruction in Slovak reading, grammar, singing, and catechetics once or twice a week after regular school hours or on Saturday afternoon. The parish organist often assisted the pastor with these classes and took pride in his role as teacher. But despite this help, it is undeniable that it was too much to expect the priest to be the spiritual leader and minister, organizer, counselor, fund raiser, laborer, teacher and whatever the need of the hour might require of him. The message was loud and clear that full time Slovak Catholic schools were an essential part of every parish unit.

Two major obstacles challenged the realization of such a blessing. There was no corps of bilingual teachers for these prospective schools and neither school buildings nor funds for building schools were available among the struggling Slovak workers, many of whom very likely were considering a return to their native land as soon as they had improved their economic condition. Besides, in their homeland, schools and churches were supported by a patron or by public funds. Rarely did parishioners bear this burden. The American idea was strange to them and the building of schools was still something that they felt they could not afford. Here again it fell to the lot of the pastor to educate the immigrants and to help them adopt measures for educating their children in American schools even at the cost of additional sacrifice.

Father Matthew Jankola

Concerned pastors often analyzed this problem individually as well as collectively. Fathers Pavčo, Jankola, Murgaš, Martinček, Pavolčik, Stas, Furdek, and others repeatedly probed the school question and gave it much thought but the most energetic and determined action was undertaken by Father Matthew Jankola. After several serious disappointments, he finally had the joy of placing several candidates under the training and formation program of Mother Mary Cyril, Superior General of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Marywood College in Scranton, Pa.

Teaching Sisters

Mother Cyril’s charismatic gifts of the spirit made her the ideal co-worker with Father Jankola. She provided the gentle and understanding details to complement his vigorous breadth of vision. She arranged and carried out the program of sound preparation as he envisioned the ideal realized. Out of their combined and blessed efforts a new American foundation of teaching Sisters, the Congregation of the Sisters of SS. Cyril and Methodius was established in 1909. This religious society is the first Slovak community of Sisters in the history of the Church, for although many Sisters devoted their lives in various apostolates in Slovakia and attracted thousands of recruits to their ranks, they were all branches of existing foundations that had roots in some other country or national group.

Out of the original band of three young Slovak American Sisters, the congregation has grown into a community of over 400 with headquarters at the motherhouse in Danville, Pa. Today the Sisters of SS. Cyril and Methodius work in the teaching and nursing apostolates in seven states of our country. They teach in 30 parish schools, 8 high schools and one boarding and day academy. They also conduct a psycho-educational clinic and a music conservatory, serve the aged in 3 homes, and devote themselves to a special undertaking to preserve the Slovak cultural heritage at Jankola Library, a center rich in Slovak and Slavic resource materials — books, newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets, annuals, phonograph records, tapes, slides, and so on.

Other Slovak religious communities that either came from abroad or evolved out of parent foundations also undertook teaching in parish schools. Among them are several branches of Franciscan Sisters (Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Lacon); Dominican Sisters from Oxford, Michigan; Benedictines of Oak Forest, Illinois; Vincention Sisters of Charity (Pittsburgh, Pa. and Bedford, Ohio).

Educational Progress

By the mid 1920’s there were over 50 Slovak Catholic parish schools in the United States. The Chicago school of St. Michael the Archangel at that time had an enrollment of 1,250 students. Several others had 500 students or more. St. Cyril Academy was opened in 1922 and Benedictine High was opened in 1927. In 1938 K. Culen wrote that the Slovaks in America had schools staffed by over 500 Sisters of various communities teaching well over 50,000 students.

Out of really meager statistics on this point, we glean the information that Slovak Lutherans had 3 full time schools and about 30 summer schools. They also had arrangements in about 40 locations for Slovak classes on Saturdays and Sundays.

Benedictine Influence

Very many young men of Slovak origin who went on for professional training found excellent opportunities at St. Procopius College in Lisle, Illinois, conducted by Czech Benedictine Fathers. Under their fine guidance this college promoted instruction in Slovak arts, literature, language, and history, and it cultivated an excellent spirit among young men of Slovak families. It graduated a great number of well trained Slovak priests, doctors, lawyers. business administrators and professional people in many fields. (The present Slovak Benedictine St. Benedict’s Abbey in Cleveland is an offshoot of the St. Procopius Benedictine.)

A similar center was St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, Pa., a Benedictine institute with monks of mixed nationalities. Hundreds of Slovak young men graduated from St. Vincent’s. Academic instruction was often supplemented by the activities of various literary and reading circles, dramatic clubs, music and fine arts societies, and choral groups. In the course of its history, St. Vincent’s had a number of Slovak priests on its staff. After the St. Thomas Literary and Homiletic Society was established, the Slovak division devoted part of its Sunday afternoon meeting time to guidance and practice in delivering Slovak sermons. Most of the Slovak priests of the Pittsburgh diocese were alumni of St. Vincent’s College.

Adult Education and Cultural Extension

As it became clear that America would be the permanent home of many Slovak immigrants, many leaders encouraged the working man to apply for naturalization. In many localities arrangements were made for adult education classes and many Slovak newspapers and publications carried articles on American history, government, and citizenship. Appropriate handbooks were also prepared in Slovak so that the basic information could be readily assimilated without language problems. The next step would be for the applicant for citizenship to express himself in English on subjects from this reserve of knowledge.

All those who prepared themselves for naturalization and attained their goal were proud of their American citizenship and could confidently identify themselves with all that characterizes the American citizen, his duties, and his privileges.

Other interests also attracted many to cultural matters. In some localities there were reading clubs. Some groups of young ladies cultivated crafts and arts with special attention to typical Slovak embroidery, concentrating on folk designs, characteristic stitches and techniques, and the use of traditional colors.

Most popular of all were choral and dramatic societies. Every sizable community of Slovaks enjoyed staging a play or several dramatic and choral programs every year. Cleveland, for example, had a well-known singing group called “Krivan.” It was founded by culturally minded members of the National Slovak Society on January 28, 1906. and distinguished itself singularly under the professionally gifted director Dr. M. Francisci and his successors. From time to time its presentations were supplemented by dramatic numbers.

Another outstanding group was the church choir organized by Father Jankola in Bridgeport, Conn. For the training and advancement of this society, the pastor sent the promising young George Lukac to St. Procopius College in Lisle, Ill. for specialized music study. After completing the prescribed courses, Lukac had a brilliant career as parish organist and director of church music, classical song, and folk music at St. Cyril’s parish. Years later Lukac transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, where he and his son continued their musical careers with great success.

In 1921 Cleveland’s branch of the Slovak League of America founded Stefanikov Kruzok, the Stefanik Circle, with a dual purpose. It was to take an active interest in promoting Slovak dramatic art and entertainment, and it was to raise funds for erecting a public memorial in honor of the Slovak diplomat, aviator and soldier General Milan R. Stefanik. All the members studied and worked with great enthusiasm and talent. They took pride in producing many theatrical numbers and in wearing hand embroidered costumes of typical Slovak fashion whenever they appeared as a formal group presenting a program of Slovak dance and song. They produced a significant number of plays and concerts and by 1924 they had the satisfaction of celebrating a gala event: the unveiling of a handsome statue of Stefanik in Cleveland’s Wade Park. By 1952 they were still an active group of about 70 members devoted to Slovak American cultural interests.

From live theater it was just a step to programs on the air when communication arts moved into radio and television. As a matter of fact, Slovak Americans participate not only in broadcasting cultural programs and having their share of technical experts who assist in producing programs, but they can also pride themselves on the achievements of Father Joseph Murgaš who has a number of U.S. patents to support his success in devising the tone system of wireless telegraphy or radio work which preceded and excelled the efforts of Marconi. His experimental work was done in Wilkes-Barre, but the fruit of his research and technical skill has gone to all parts of the world. Today many broadcasting stations throughout the United States produce a Slovak radio hour regularly on a weekly schedule or several times a week.


Slovak Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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