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Slovak Immigrants in Illinois

Jillian Turner
Brookwood Junior High School, Glenwood

The vast majority of Slovaks settled in the northeast and midwest, with fully half of them ending up in Pennsylvania. Most Slovaks labored in coal mines, steel mines, and oil refineries.

Chicago was a popular destination for Slovaks. The first Slovaks in Chicago came before the Civil War and settled as families in the area on North Avenue and Lake Michigan. They became notable during the Civil War when a Colonel Geza Mihalotzy organized a company of militia named the Lincoln Riflemen of Slovak Origin.

Many of the Slovaks were gymnasts and members of a "sokol." A group of the sokols, known as the Slovak Catholic Sokols, concentrated in Chicago Heights. They practiced in the basement of St. Paul's Catholic Church on "The Hill." My grandfather belonged to this group when he was young, and he competed on the "flying rings."

Illinois has the third largest Slovak population in the United States, the bulk of whom live in Chicago and its collar counties. The largest number live in suburban Cook County, about 38,000 of those listing first or second generation ancestry as Slovak. Another 15,000 live in DuPage County, 11,000 in Will County, with 6,000 living in Lake County. Most Slovak Americans are assimilated into mainstream middle-class communities, but some concentrations remain around Fifty-second and California Streets, Gage Park, Garfield Ridge, and the West Lawn neighborhoods in Chicago. Large numbers also live in the suburbs of Berwyn, Westchester, Joliet, and Streator. Census information is sketchy, and it is difficult to tell how many Slovak Americans were born abroad. In 1990 about 1,300 in Chicago and 6,500 in the metropolitan area reported they were born in Czechoslovakia or Slovakia. There is no way to tell how many of these


people were Slovaks. Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia in 1993. In the late 1880s and early 1900s vibrant Slovak settlements were established both in Chicago and Blue Island, Chicago Heights, Cicero, and Riverside. The majority of the forebears of Slovaks arrived in Illinois at that time. At one time, the Chicago area had ten Slovak Roman Catholic churches. The first Lutheran church in Chicago for Slovak immigrants, Trinity Lutheran, was established in 1893 at May and Huron Streets on the north side. Five years later, the first Roman Catholic church for Slovaks, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, was established on the south side at Forty-eighth and Damen Streets. Trinity Lutheran, now at 5106 N. La Crosse Street, still has a Slovak congregation. Sts. Cyril and Methodius Roman Catholic Church, founded in 1890, still serves the needs of the Slovak community of Joliet and Will County. The Slovak Roman Catholic Church of St. Simon the Apostle, established in 1926 at Fifty-second and California, is the only remaining Roman Catholic church for Slovaks in Chicago.

Many Slovaks in the area known as the Back of the Yards neighborhood worked in the slaughterhouses of the Chicago Stockyards, while others labored on railroads and in the steel mills. Henry Ford employed a number of Slovak drotari (wire-workers) in the manufacture of wire wheels for his Model A automobile, while Pullman employed others. American author Upton Sinclair immortalized the Slovak stockyard workers of Chicago in his novel, The Jungle. Additional immigrants arrived after World War I and again after World War II. The final surge came when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Border guards unofficially opened the borders to allow people to escape.

Most Slovaks who emigrated came before 1933. Most of the 1968 immigrants and second-generation Slovak Americans are bilingual. Slovak immigrants are about 75 percent Roman Catholic, 15 percent Lutheran, 5 percent Greek Orthodox, and 5 percent Jewish.

There are many traditions that Slovak immigrants brought with them from their homeland. Among Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Slovak Christians, the most universally kept tradition is that of the family dinner on Christmas Eve, most often referred to as Stedry Vecer, (the Beautiful Evening) or Vilija (The Vigil). Among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the special foods for Easter are an equally cherished custom that involves taking those foods in baskets to church to be blessed by the priest. For Slovaks of the Jewish faith, the celebration of Passover likewise decrees the preparation and serving of specifically designated foods for the Passover Seder. Religious laws and customs govern traditions of birth, coming of age, courtship, marriage, and death.

Christmas Eve dinner is likely to include oblathy (a flat wafer spread with honey, to which garlic is sometimes added), hribova kapustanica (a mushroom or mushroom/sauerkraut soup); farina with honey and cinnamon, fried fish, peas, mashed potatoes or pirohy (a potato filled dough, boiled or fried and served with butter and onions), and a dish called opekance or bobalky, which consists of small yeast dough balls, scalded milk, sugar or honey, and freshly ground poppy seeds. The meal is usually followed by unshelled mixed nuts and various fruits, as well as servings of ham or crescent-shaped pastries called rozky filled with walnut, prune or other fruit filling, and walnut and poppy seed-filled pastries rolled up like jelly rolls and called orechovy kolac and makovnik. Also served is a braided, sweet Christmas bread called Vianocka and wine. On Easter, there are hard-boiled eggs, sunka (smoked ham), klobasy (smoked sausage), slanina (smoked bacon), cvikia s krenom (a mixture of grated beets, horseradish root, salt, and vinegar), rye bread, syrek, (a custard-like cheese made of eggs, milk, salt, sugar, and vanilla) and a baked stuffing called pinka or nadievka, made from white bread rolls, diced ham, eggs, onions, broth, and various seasonings. Easter breads called paska and babka, as well as vel konocy, baranok (a special Easter cake in the shape of a lamb) also are served. As on Christmas Eve, rozky and wine round out the meal.

There was considerable travel back and forth for immigrants and the first two generations born in the United States. This is especially true since Slovakia became a free and democratic country. The Slovak World Youth Congress draws from all over the world to the Slovak Republic. Slovaks also come to Chicago to visit relatives. For younger immigrants who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, America is a fairy-tale-like magnet. In 1998 President Michal Kovac of the Slovak Republic came to Chicago to accept the American Bar Association's prestigious 1995 CEELI award for his efforts to establish democracy in the Slovak Republic. Slovaks have immigrated to Chicago but obviously maintain strong ties with their homeland.[From Joseph Cada, Panorama; David Levinson, American Immigrant Cultures; Cynthia Linton, The Ethnic Handbook; Stephen Thernstrom, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; student historian's interview with Judy Turner, April 30, 1999; Peter P. Yurchak, The Slovaks.]


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