SLOVAKS. At one time in the early 1900s, Cleveland was reputedly the city with the largest number of Slovaks in the world. As of 1970 an estimated 48,000 persons of Slovak birth or ancestry resided in Greater Cleveland, making Slovaks one of the city's major immigrant groups. However, it is impossible to deduce the exact number of Slovaks resident in the city at any time, since, except for a brief period during WORLD WAR II, the Slovak state has not existed in modern times. Slovak immigrants were therefore listed as Austrian or Hungarian prior to WORLD WAR I, or as Czechoslovakian following the war. This lack of official identity forms, perhaps, the main aspect of the local community's history; one of its chief goals has been the recognition of its ethnic distinctiveness as well as of its cultural contributions.

Immigration to Cleveland began in the late 1870s, when the city's immigrant officer began counting a large number of "Slavonians" (perhaps Slovaks and SLOVENES) arriving in the city. It is estimated that there were 35,000 Slovaks in the city by 1918. The first area of settlement was on E. 9th St. near the CUYAHOGA RIVER. As numbers increased, some Slovaks began residing along Buckeye Rd. and parallel streets from about E. 78th St. to Woodhill Rd. Some of these came to live near their place of employment, the NEWBURGH plant of American Steel & Wire. Other Slovaks moved to the west side, and even farther to LAKEWOOD. There, in the "Birdtown" area (Quail, Thrush, Plover streets), they lived near Union Carbide Co., then NATL. CARBON CO., where they worked.

Like many other ethnic groups, Slovaks established churches once their neighborhood populations had grown large enough to support them. The first Catholic Slovak parish was ST. LADISLAS (1889) on E. 92nd St. In 1974 a new St. Ladislas was built in WESTLAKE, but it was not composed exclusively of families of Slovak descent. In 1892 Slovak Lutherans organized their first Cleveland and third U.S. congregation, HOLY TRINITY. Originally on E. 20th St., in 1959 a new parish was established in PARMA, where in the 1980s a small minority of the members were of Slovak ancestry. Eventually, Slovaks founded some dozen churches—Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist. Among those still in existence in the 1990s were the Catholic parishes of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ST. WENDELIN, St. Benedict, and SS. CYRIL & METHODIUS. Protestant churches included SS. PETER & PAUL LUTHERAN in Lakewood, Holy Trinity Lutheran, Pentecost Evangelical Lutheran, Gethsemane Lutheran, and DR. MARTIN LUTHER EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN. By this time, most of the Protestant churches were located in the city's western suburbs, reflecting the move of the population to those areas.

In addition to individual churches, several major Catholic religious orders in Cleveland have been closely associated with the Slovak community, most prominently the Benedictines. In 1922 the dependent priory of St. Andrew was created from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Procopius in Lisle, IL. It eventually became the first and only Slovak abbey in the U.S. In 1922 these Slovak Benedictines also assumed pastoral responsibility for St. Andrew (Svorad) parish on Superior Ave. and E. 51st St. In 1927 the Benedictines established a high school attended mostly by Slovak young men: Benedictine High School. The Benedictines also staffed Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Parish in 1986 and served as chaplains at the Ladies' Assn. retirement home, VILLA SANCTA ANNA. In 1929 the Benedictines assumed publication of the monthly religious magazine, Ave Maria. In the mid-1930s, a delegation from the Slovak cultural institution Matica Slovenska visited Cleveland; they later presented a large number of publications to ST. ANDREW ABBEY, which became part of the library of the Cleveland branch of today's SLOVAK INSTITUTE, a resource center for the study of Slovak culture and literature. The institute was first founded in Cleveland in 1952, and in 1963 became affiliated with a newly established one in Rome. The institute published a bimonthly, Most (the Bridge, 1955- ); it and Ave Maria are 2 of 3 publications for Slovaks that remain of around 30 once printed in Cleveland. Notable among the early Slovak publishers in Cleveland was JAN PANKUCH.

Slovak fraternal-benefit societies were established as the community grew. Two established in Cleveland became national in scope, with the city serving as their headquarters. In 1890 Rev. STEPHAN FURDEK of Cleveland proposed a union among various independent fraternals. In September of that year, the FIRST CATHOLIC SLOVAK UNION, originally only for men, was founded at a meeting of 8 societies from 4 states with 400 members; in the 1980s membership had grown to over 79,000, with national offices in Cleveland. In 1891 Rev. Furdek established a weekly newspaper for this union called Jednota (Union); in 1911 the union relocated its printery to Middletown, PA, where it continues publishing Jednota in an English-Slovak version. The second organization was in response to the need to insure women and children. In Aug. 1892, delegates of various independent societies from 4 states founded the FIRST CATHOLIC SLOVAK LADIES UNION (now Assn.). There were fewer than 100 members; in the 1980s membership was over 90,000, with national offices in Independence in 1995. Since their beginnings, both unions have supported Slovaks with more than insurance. The Slovak Ladies Union established Villa Sancta Anna, a retirement home on Chagrin Blvd., in 1960 and annually subsidized it with $100,000. A third national Slovak organization founded in Cleveland that continued having national and even international importance is the Slovak League of America, an umbrella group of all major Slovak societies. In the early years of this century, Slovaks in Austria-Hungary were the object of laws and regulations that discriminated against the use of their language and attempted to stifle their native culture. In response, there was a call among Slovaks in America for an All-American Slovak Congress, the first of its kind. It was held 26 May 1907 in GRAYS ARMORY, with some 7,000 participants. Rev. Furdek presided over this meeting and became the first president of the Slovak League formed at this gathering.

As the early Slovak immigrants became assimilated into American society, they began using the American political process to achieve some of their national or ethnic goals. As early as 1893, Slovaks formed a Republican Club. In 1902 Slovaks, along with other Slavic groups and Romanians, successfully opposed the erection of a statue in PUBLIC SQUARE of Louis Kossuth, who was considered an enemy of the non-Magyar nationalities in Austria-Hungary. The statue was subsequently erected in UNIV. CIRCLE (see KOSSUTH MONUMENT). In 1911 and 1914, Slovaks again rallied other groups to protest visits of officials from Austria-Hungary. With the outbreak of World War I, Cleveland Slovaks became more concerned with the fate of Slovaks in Austria-Hungary. On 22 Oct. 1915, in the BOHEMIAN NATL. HALL on Broadway, the CLEVELAND AGREEMENT was signed by the Slovak League for U.S. Slovaks and the Bohemian Natl. Alliance for U.S. Czechs. This agreement called for formation of a federal state of Czechs and Slovaks, Czechoslovakia. On 15 June 1918, the Cleveland branches of the Slovak and Czech groups that had signed the agreement hosted Thos. G. Masaryk, the first president of Czecho-Slovakia after World War I, just 2 weeks after he had helped realize the Pittsburgh Agreement, which even more affirmed the spirit of the Cleveland Agreement. During the 1920s and 1930s, Cleveland Slovaks joined other Slovaks in agitating for the realization of the Pittsburgh Agreement; many Slovaks felt that the Czechs had not fully shared power with the Slovaks in the new Czechoslovak state.

The intense national consciousness of Cleveland Slovaks was also reflected in their artistic and cultural activities. Gen. Milan Rastislav Stefanik, an aviator and national hero during World War I, served as the focal point for such activity. In 1921 the Stefanik Circle was formed not only to promote Slovak dramatic art and entertainment but also to raise funds for the erection of a statue to Stefanik, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1919; this group still had about 70 active members in the 1950s and staged several productions in the mid-1970s. In June 1924 the statue, by the noted Slovak sculptor Frico Motoska, was unveiled at a site in WADE PARK at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. and East Blvd. Other drama and choral societies were established throughout the history of the community. One of the earliest was Krivan, founded in 1906 by Dr. Miloslav Francisci, the son of a famous Slovak writer, who immigrated to Cleveland in 1886. Besides directing Krivan, he composed a number of dramas and operettas in Slovak. Besides Krivan and the Stefanik Circle, there were 5 other societies in Cleveland affiliated with Catholic or Lutheran parishes. By 1986 none remained active.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Slovak immigration decreased significantly. After World War II, and the events of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, immigration to Cleveland was negligible. By the 1980s, most individuals of Slovak ancestry in Cleveland had moved to the suburbs of Parma, BEDFORD, or GARFIELD HTS. Despite the aging of the 1st-generation population and its general dispersal, an annual Slovak Festival was still being held on Labor Day in the 1980s. In 1983 in recognition of the continuing Slovak presence and spirit in the Cleveland area, a Slovak language-and-culture lectureship was created at JOHN CARROLL UNIV. and subsidized by a Fulbright agency, the Council for the Intl. Exchange of Scholars, which concluded in 1995.

The collapse of Soviet influence over its former eastern-bloc allies in the late 1980s provided Cleveland Slovaks with renewed hope for the independence of their homeland. Following the creation of an independent Czecho-Slovak state during the "Velvet Revolution," Cleveland Slovaks reestablished contacts with Slovakia, including the creation of a sister-city program with Bratislava. When Slovakia achieved its independence on 1 Jan. 1993, a new series of cultural contacts with their now-independent homeland were begun, including tours and trade missions. It may well be that such continuing activity in the face of a dearth of new immigrants reflects the Slovak community's persistent longing to assure the establishment of its ethnic distinctiveness, a goal that has been the focal point of much of their local activity in the past 100 years.

Gerald Sabo

John Carroll Univ.

Barton, Josef J. Peasants and Strangers (1975).

Ledbetter, Eleanor. The Slovaks of Cleveland (1919).

Megles, Susi, Mark Stolarik, and Martina Tybor. Slovak Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1978).

Article Categories