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A Slovak revelation in the Big Apple

NEW YORK: Manhattan Island's East 66th Street houses Italian restaurants, news-stands operated by middle-Eastern immigrants, the brick and concrete halls of a metropolitan university, skyscrapers, posh apartments manned by doormen in red suits, and a large, modern, Roman-style church. Every Sunday morning, through the church's stone walls, seep songs and prayers in the Slovak language.
The 600-seat cathedral, St. John's Nepomucene, was built in the 1920s by Slovak immigrants and used to be the heart of a thriving Slovak and Czech neighbourhood in New York City's upper-east side. Today it is a one-building Slovak enclave in what has become a wealthy and ethnically diverse area, most of the original Slovak inhabitants having died and their descendants scattered. Nevetheless, mass continues every Sunday at 11:00, the lone regular and large-scale gathering of Slovaks in the world's immigrant capital.
On a recent Sunday, over 100 showed up for the service, some travelling over an hour from New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens.


Father Martin Svitaň is looking for a replacement who can stop St John's Nepomucene going the way of other ethnic churches in New York.
photo: Ctibor Bachratý

NEW YORK: Manhattan Island's East 66th Street houses Italian restaurants, news-stands operated by middle-Eastern immigrants, the brick and concrete halls of a metropolitan university, skyscrapers, posh apartments manned by doormen in red suits, and a large, modern, Roman-style church. Every Sunday morning, through the church's stone walls, seep songs and prayers in the Slovak language.

The 600-seat cathedral, St. John's Nepomucene, was built in the 1920s by Slovak immigrants and used to be the heart of a thriving Slovak and Czech neighbourhood in New York City's upper-east side. Today it is a one-building Slovak enclave in what has become a wealthy and ethnically diverse area, most of the original Slovak inhabitants having died and their descendants scattered. Nevetheless, mass continues every Sunday at 11:00, the lone regular and large-scale gathering of Slovaks in the world's immigrant capital.

On a recent Sunday, over 100 showed up for the service, some travelling over an hour from New Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens.

"I could go anywhere for mass. But I like hearing a Slovak sermon, seeing Slovaks I know." said Helena Vilacky, 64, from Bayridge, Brooklyn. "Here I feel like a Slovak again."

Apart from summer, when families take vacations, between 200 and 300 Slovaks regularly turn out for the mass, said Father Martin Svitaň, who like Vilacky and many others in attendance immigrated following the Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

After mass, doughnuts, coffee and wine were served in the church basement before a wall-sized map of Slovakia, an exhibit of Slovak folk dress, and pencil sketches of Bratislava's Michalská brána (Michael's Gate), Košice's gothic St. Elizabeth cathedral and other Slovak landmarks. Conversation topics ranged from a recent survey that ranked Slovakia number five in the world in education, to plans for a Slovak picnic the following week, to memories of the political upheaval in the late 1960s.

"On working days I speak English only," said Iveta Hlinka, 30, who came to the US seven years ago and now comes to mass every week. "On weekends I like practising my language and seeing my people."

Lifeline for immigrants

According to the Bratislava-based House of Slovak Expatriates, Slovaks emigrated to the US last century in four waves - before and after the first world war, after the second world war, after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, and after the 1989 revolution. During the 1991 US census, 118,000 people claimed Slovak ethnicity in New York state, which has an overall population of around 16 million, over half of which live in the sprawling New York City area.

For Slovak immigrants arriving in New York, St. John's has always offered a focus for the Slovak community and a helping hand. Besides Slovak mass, the church puts on dinner dances, provides space for Slovak folk-dance rehearsals and an office for the American Slovak League, and gives Slovak lessons to pre-schoolers. Father Svitaň often cooks traditional Slovak meals for guests, and on a recent weekday permitted a group of 20 Slovaks to sleep in the church's basement.

"I was surprised when I came here in 1964 that a Slovak church existed in Manhattan," said Marta Catalano, who spent her first years in America working in a shop where she made 1,000 watches every day. "I'm still coming because I like it that we Slovaks help each other, and because I want Slovak life to continue here."

"A lot of young people also come here to get advice from Father Svitaň or some of the other older Slovaks," said Hlinka. "We also sometimes refer those in need to two immigration lawyers in New York who speak Slovak."

Uncertain future

Manhattan used to be the site of scores of ethnic churches, many of which were closed during the second half of the 20th century. There are no longer French or German or Italian ethnic churches here, and a Hungarian cathedral near St. John's has been without a Hungarian priest for 20 years. So far St. John's has fought off extinction, but with a scattered community and shaky financing, the outlook is not good.

"All ethnic churches are dying in New York City," said Father Svitaň. "It's a question of money. If you can survive, you can stay ethnic. No one wants to support an ethnic church."

Impecunious immigrants translate into modest collections for the church. As a result, Svitaň, the lone full-time pastor, has had to save and raise money wherever he can since taking over in 1999. He rents out the church's hall and convent and small school and goes without a cook, accountant and maintenance man.

"As long as another reasonable Slovak priest takes over after I'm gone, the church can survive," said Svitaň, who plans to leave in 2004. "So far I haven't found anyone interested in taking the job, and I'm getting no support from the clergy in Slovakia. If a Slovak priest does not take over, the church goes under the control of the local diocese."

The community that once supported and benefited most from the church began to disappear in the 1970s, as those from the first two waves of Slovak immigrants started to die while their children moved to other places in the New York City area and beyond. At the same time, rising rents in New York - a new studio apartment today goes for $3,000 a month - has made an influx of new immigrants impossible.

In the 1970's and 1980s, English become the language of the St. John's services except for one mass on Sunday, and in 1985 a kindergarten-to-eighth-grade Slovak elementary school was closed. But with Slovak immigrants arriving today in a steady stream, and no fixed community to help them, the role of the church may be more important than ever before.

"We do our best for Slovaks here," said Svitaň. "It means a lot to immigrants to take sacraments - baptism and marriage and so on - in Slovak. St. John's also in one of the only places in New York for Slovak heritage. I hope it will continue after I'm gone."

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