Enduring in Oregon parishes are once-mighty guilds of Catholics with roots in central and Eastern Europe.
The First Catholic Slovak Union and the First Catholic Ladies Slovak Association have hundreds of members in the state and now cooperate. The groups offer insurance to members, but also perform charitable acts, give scholarships and form fraternal bonds. “A lot of people don’t know we exist,” says Alfred Novacek, a member of St. Birgitta Parish in outer Northwest Portland.
Members come from all over the region but bases of operation are St. Birgitta as well as St. Patrick Parish in inner Northwest Portland and St. Wenceslaus Parish in Scappoose.
“There are a lot of Czechs and Slovaks out there,” says Novacek, who is fluent in Czech. “They may want to get their children and grandchildren involved.”
Novacek, 81, came to Oregon 15 years ago from Nebraska, a hub of Czech and Slovak culture.
The two associations began at the end of the 19th century in Ohio. Immigrants from central and Eastern Europe were coming to the United States in large numbers and needed solidarity and support — plus life insurance because of dangerous labor. At their height, the organizations had hundreds of thousands of members nationwide and had clout. During World War II, they donated for ambulances at the war front. In the late 1940s, they pressed Congress to confront Slovakian communists in Europe.
At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the Chapel of Our Mother of Sorrows was funded by the First Catholic Slovak Union in 1965. It is the shrine’s most visited chapel.
One of the more famous members in Oregon is Archbishop John Vlazny, who led the Archdiocese of Portland from 1997 to 2013. Father Frank Knusel also belongs.
Like many fraternal groups, numbers and activities have faded. Catholic Slovaks at one time marched on the feast of Corpus Christi and for funerals. “No more,” Novacek says. “I don’t know what to tell ya.”
The association started at St. Patrick in Portland in 1905 and at St. Wenceslaus in Scappoose in 1924. A precursor Czech-Slovak alliance was called the Catholic Workman.
Sally Schmit, secretary treasurer of today’s group, says there is a long Slovak tradition in the Portland area. Her husband’s father started the local chapter of the Catholic Workman. The immigrants labored in logging, fishing and eventually shipbuilding. Many kept shops. Good works continue. Schmit just cut a check for a student attending University of Portland.
Anyone of Slavic descent and Catholic of whatever rite living in the United States or Canada is eligible, along with his or her spouse. To ask about joining the groups, call St. Patrick Parish at 503-222-4086, St. Birgitta at 503-286-3929 or St. Wenceslaus at 503-543-2110.