CALLED by his biographers “radio’s forgotten genius”, “priest-scientist” and “Renaissance man”, he is considered to be a pioneer in the domain of wireless transmission. Even though he was an emigrant, he directly participated in the founding of the first independent Czechoslovak state. Jozef Murgaš, known in the US as Reverend Joseph Murgas, is one of the few Slovaks that have become famous worldwide.
Although four score years have passed since his death, this priest’s legacy as an inventor and artist is, according to his admirers, still very strong.
Accused of Pan-Slavism, Jozef Murgaš left his homeland at the age of 32 for Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he became pastor. In the early 1900s, he developed a revolutionary “tone system” that improved the wireless telegraphy methods invented by Guglielmo Marconi and Thomas Edison. As a signer of the 1918 Pittsburgh Agreement, he organised a fundraising campaign that managed to raise more than a million dollars for the newly-created Czechoslovakia.
He died in Wilkes-Barre, leaving many precious scientific documents, but also, for example, an extensive butterfly collection from across the world.
At the end of May, a commemoration ceremony on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of his death entitled “Can You Hear Me?” was held in the central Slovak village of Tajov, where Murgaš was born in 1864.
A part of the programme, in addition to a thanksgiving mass and the debut of a new biography of Murgaš, was a teleconference among Slovak and American representatives, the prime topic of which was the importance of the promotion of the priest’s achievements.
Soňa Šváčová from the Museum of Literature and Music in Banská Bystrica, which co-organised the event, said that co-operation with the Pennsylvanian Slovak Heritage Society has been settled thanks to the exchange.
“We are planning to launch a comprehensive documentation of Murgaš’s works and make them available to a wider public,” she told The Slovak Spectator. “The nation owes him a lot and, even though he has received comparatively high attention from historians, there is still room for more recognition.”
However, it seems that not only Slovaks feel indebted to Murgaš. Edward Kemp, public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Slovakia who attended the ceremony, said he would also like to honour Father Murgaš for his place in the common history of Slovakia and the US.
“He was an immigrant, like many other Slovaks, who made a large personal contribution to both his new and his old country,” Kemp said.
In Wilkes-Barre, this contribution is very obvious even now, according to the locals.
“Father Murgaš worked incessantly for the betterment and uplift of his people in the religious, social and industrial spheres,” said Noreen W. Foti, president of the Sacred Heart Wilkes-Barre Foundation. “When he first immigrated to the United States and was installed as pastor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, there was only a small wooden church for the growing Slovak population. He was able to organise his congregation, raise and borrow money to build our present Gothic-style church, with a seating capacity of approximately 600.”
Moreover, Murgaš built a school, which was until recently used for elementary Catholic education and he acquired a parcel of land in Dallas, Pennsylvania for a cemetery and a parish park where a swimming pool, mini-golf and picnic grounds were later constructed according to the priest’s designs.
As Foti told The Slovak Spectator, people in the Wyoming Valley and northeastern Pennsylvania still cherish the priest.
A State Historical Marker on the grounds of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church honouring Father Murgaš as the pioneer in the development of wireless telegraphy, a monument replicating the twin towers used by Father Murgaš for the first wireless transmission of sound over land and a Murgaš Audio-Visual Centre at King’s College are examples “demonstrating what Slovak heritage means to the area”, she said.
Her compatriot Jayne Moore, who teaches in the mass communications department of King’s College, agreed with Foti that Slovak traditions were indeed very strong in Wilkes-Barre.
“On North Main Street you can see the Slovak Catholic Church, the Slovak Club and a Slovak store, and my cousins – who are Slovak – have a funeral home right next to the school,” she said. “So even though the light is not shining as brightly on the older ethnic groups, a greater focus now being placed on our new immigrant population, the Hispanics, the Slovaks are still visible and have great presence in the Wyoming Valley.”