Nativity BVM Parish lives on as part of Cleveland's Slovak community

By John Sabol

The Roman Catholic Parish of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary has its roots in the city's original Slovak Catholic parish, St. Ladislas. After the founding of St. Ladislas in 1885, Slovak immigrants continued to arrive in Cleveland. They gradually outgrew the neighborhood around St. Ladislas, settling two miles south in the area of Cleveland called Newburgh on what is now the southeast side of Cleveland. Many of these immigrants had found employment in the nearby American Steel & Wire Co. plant in Newburgh and in numerous foundries and other shops in the area.

Slovak families began moving to the Newburgh area as early as 1900 -- three years before Nativity was founded -- and they were later joined by newly arriving immigrants, contacted by relatives in America. These forces caused the Irish, who had lived in Newburgh since 1865, to disperse to other areas of the East Side. As more immigrants arrived to join relatives and friends they continued to find housing and employment in that area.

The area was settled largely by Slovak immigrants from Saris, Spis and Zemplin counties. Information from the 1900 Census and from Cleveland city directories shows three or more families renting in one house -- primarily along E. 93rd St. (Woodland Hills Ave.), from Way Ave. north to Union Ave. Two of the more prominent boarding houses were nicknamed "The Ship" and "Castle Garden," named for the site where many of these immigrants entered the United States in New York before Ellis Island was established.

For at least two years they continued to walk to worship at St. Ladislas Church until finally they petitioned Cleveland Bishop Ignatius Horstmann to establish a Slovak Roman Catholic parish in the Newburgh area. It was difficult to establish a parish for Slovak Catholics in Cleveland at that time -- primarily because of the scarcity of priests who could minister to them in their native tongue. In 1902, when they had petitioned the bishop, two other Slovak communities had also asked the diocese to establish parishes -- one on the Near West Side, which would become St. Wendelin Parish, and another in Lakewood, just west of Cleveland, which would become Sts. Cyril and Methodius Parish.

The founding members of Nativity paid out almost $2,500 in seed money to establish the parish. This was at a time when many of them were working 12 hours a day for $1.25. The first Masses in early 1903 were celebrated in rented rooms owned by Dr. Mae Schimkola, a neighborhood physician. By December 6, 1903, the community had built and consecrated its first church.

Early parishioners were from the easternmost areas of present-day Slovakia. Early records of Nativity indicate that parishioners were from such villages as Uzovsky Salgov, Dravec, Brezovica, and Sabinov in Saris County; Porelinec in Spis County; and Bela nad Cirochou, Snina, and Trebisov in Zemplin County. The accompanying chart indicates the many villages and concentrations from specific villages that made up the original population of the parish. Later immigrants from villages further west would swell the parish buildings to capacity through the 1920s.

The first resident pastor was Rev. Joseph Ptasinski, who served from 1903-1904. He was succeeded by three other priests -- Rev. Julius Kitter (April-October 1904), Rev. Ladislas Necid (October 1904-November 1907); and Rev. Joseph Adamek (November 1907-November 1908). These priests left for a variety of reasons, including lack of fluency in the Slovak language, disenchantment with life in America, and transfer to another, larger parish.

The fifth pastor of Nativity, Rev. Vaclav A. Chaloupka, took over leadership of the fast-growing community in January 1909. A Bohemian by birth, he stayed on to lead the parish for the next 47 years, until his death in 1956. Fr. Chaloupka had already mastered the Slovak language during his term as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Marblehead -- about 80 miles west of Cleveland. Moreover, immediately after his ordination in 1902 he had served as an assistant pastor with Rev. Stefan Furdek at Our Lady of Lourdes Czech parish in Cleveland.

The first parish school was located on the second floor of the church building and facilities at the fast-growing parish could barely contain the swelling population. Fr. Chaloupka's first priority was to build a larger school that would also house a community center for Slovaks living in the area. "It makes no sense for young men to be shooting dice under the streetlight . . . when they could be playing together in our new school building," Fr. Chaloupka wrote in an early parish report. By 1913 a modern school was built on the site of the first church, which was physically moved one block south.

A strong leader, Fr. Chaloupka encouraged his parishioners to retain their Slovak identity, while at the same time he urged them to seek out all the benefits of life in America -- including citizenship. He offered citizenship classes in the school and sponsored many immigrants on the road to naturalization. At the same time the newly built school was the site for movies about the Slovak folk hero Janosik and for visiting Slovak bands and dance troupes.

But he went beyond building to teach people to care. Because many in the neighborhood didn't have phones he offered the phone at the parish rectory as a central exchange for the neighborhood. It was not unusual for Fr. Chaloupka to travel to a nearby parishioner's home to tell him that he had an important phone call at the rectory -- usually involving employment.

An amateur beekeeper, he distributed a jar of honey to each parish family just before Christmas each year. The honey would be used with the oplatky at the traditional Slovak Christmas Eve dinner (stedry vecer).

By the mid '20s the immigrant population along with the children of the original members of the parish had greatly increased the size of Nativity BVM Parish. More that 1,000 children in eight grades were packing the school, and other buildings on the parish property, and the original church had become woefully small. The parish's next project was the construction of a new church, which was built and dedicated by 1926.

During the 1920s, Fr. Chaloupka added a new dimension to parish life when he opened up property he owned on Kelleys Island (in Lake Erie) as a camp, known as the Villa, for parish children. Through most of the '20s and through the '30s, parish children had the opportunity to spend a week or more on the island -- away from the polluted city -- at a reasonable price. As late as 1940, the camp fee for parishioners was only $6 for two weeks. The camp provided a welcome change for Depression-era children, who looked forward to swimming, hiking and fun.

The success of the Villa would not have happened without the many parents and other parishioners who spent almost the entire summer cooking, cleaning and even doing the laundry to make the camp work. Many of the buildings still standing today were the work of parish men. The camp had become an extension of the parish.

Through World War II and into the postwar era, the parish flourished, finally to be done in by suburban flight. In 1952 Fr. Chaloupka saw the effects on the parish, when he wrote:

"They were both raised in Nativity Parish. . . . They lived sensibly, and saved all they could. When they had a nice bank account, along came a glib-talking real estate agent and sold them a lot in Garfield Heights. . . . They never noticed that it was far from the nearest Catholic church and school. Only after they moved into their new home did they realize this. . . . Then too they found that school facilities were taxed -- The existing school space was very crowded. There was no room in the Catholic school and in the public school the children were placed in temporary rooms. All this because the parents wanted a home on the Heights! . . .

"There would be more happiness in the world today if people would evaluate what they have where they are and compare it to what they would get where they want to go. Mortgages and taxes and inconvenience bring not happiness but ulcers and unhappiness. Think it over."

Fr. Chaloupka died in 1956 and was succeeded by seven other pastors. Nativity's demise was inevitable. Its school closed in 1972. Its last resident pastor left in 1984. In 1990, even the stained glass windows, paid for by hard work and sacrifice by parishioners and parish organizations, were taken to furnish another church in Lorain County.

But the handful of hardy parishioners who remained -- some still living in the neighborhood, others commuting each week for meetings and masses -- kept the traditions and the parish alive. They were as pioneering as those who chose to found a parish in this neighborhood. Throughout its history, the parish worked hard to preserve Slovak language, culture and traditions. Representatives of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese working on archiving the parish records remarked that Nativity had more records written in the parishioners' native tongue than any other nationality parish in Cleveland.

One of the last traditions, which died with the parish, was the yearly Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve. Schoolchildren used to present it, and each Christmas Eve, those who sang the Slovak carols as angels, shepherds and peasant girls became schoolchildren again as their minds wandered back to a much happier time, when everyone thought Nativity -- and the neighborhood -- would last forever.

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish closed its doors forever on December 27, 1992. For 90 years, it symbolized the history of thousands of Slovak families. For many newly arrived immigrants who crossed an ocean under less-than-ideal conditions and circumstances, Nativity harbored their dreams of America -- a land with more diversity than they had ever seen. For their children and grandchildren, it was a link to the past -- to their cultural heritage.

For almost 90 years, it represented a cultural link to Slovak ancestors and for its founders it represented the hope that they could find success and freedom in this new land. They had taken a mighty risk, leaving an area where their families had lived for centuries for a relatively new country where even their ethnic origins would be regarded as a mystery. Nativity and other nationality parishes helped these newcomers to reduce that risk -- to ensure that they could find their place in the American mainstream and still retain their own identity.

The parish community was so strong that even 10 years after Nativity's closing more than 400 former parishioners came together for a 100th anniversary celebration -- not only of Nativity Parish but of the Slovak community on Cleveland's Southeast Side.


John Sabol is a local historian and genealogical researcher living in the Cleveland area. He has been researching his own family history since 1977 and has written two histories and produced a video presentation on the history of Nativity BVM Parish.

From the March 2005 issue of Nase Rodina, official publication of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International.

Copyright 2005 CGSI, Inc. Reprinted with permission.