Slovak Lutheran Church

Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church, now a private residence.
Rev. Louis Sanjek. In In Silence (1938).
Rev. Louis Sanjek. In In Silence (1938).

With John Žinčak Smith’s role amongst Mahanoy City’s financial elite already firmly established, he began to expand his interests beyond the Carpatho-Rusyn community itself. In 1923, he opened the American Bank with a number of partners, which aspired to serve not only the Carpatho-Rusyns or the Slavs but the entire city. The Record American predicted that the bank “bids fair to be one of the most influential institutions of the state,” largely owning to “the progressive ideas” of its management (January 2, 1923). Indeed, one of the ways in which Smith broadened his customer base was to create a board of directors consisting of a prominent member of each ethnic group, and the representative of the Slovak community in town was the Rev. Louis Sanjek. Sanjek was a prominent Lutheran pastor who served from 1917 to 1924 in the Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church in Mahanoy City, and in addition to his business relationship with Smith, he also formed an immediate and lasting bond with Emil Kubek as well.

Louis Sanjek in Europe

Born in 1889, Sanjek grew up in Hrascina, Hungarian Kingdom (now Croatia) and went to study philosophy and theology and the State University in Zagreb. As he was preparing to become a Catholic priest, Sanjek’s mother died unexpectedly, which provoked him to doubt the legitimacy of the Catholic Church and its dogmas. Sanjek particularly objected to the idea that his mother would have to suffer, even if temporarily, in Purgatory, which he felt was “purely an invention” built upon “superstition and ghost stories” (1938, 119).

Sanjek decided to transfer to a different seminary to see if a change of scenery would ease his grief and assuage his concerns. He moved to the port of Senj, where the church services were conducted in Church Slavonic, and this “appealed to [Sanjek’s] nationalistic tendencies” (1938, 128). However, while Sanjek was there, the Vatican took control of the city of Rijeka away from the Senj bishopric and transferred it to Hungarian control, and this decision proved to be the final straw for the young Croatian patriot:

History shows that the Popes had always been more favorably inclined to the enemies and oppressors of the Croatian people, than to the people themselves. […] The avowed desire was a definite proof to us, how far the Vatican was willing to go in order to injure our national Croatian interests. In this particular instance the idea was to weaken the Croatian bishopric of Senj, with its old privilege of the Slavonic liturgy, which had been for centuries a thorn in the flesh of the Roman Church. […] I determined then to leave the Seminary in Senj, being unwilling to be ordained in the Church, whose autocratic head showed such one-sided attitude to my Croatian people. (1938, 133, 137)

Convinced that “the interests of Rome lie in the same direction as those of all dictators, namely: exploitation” (1938, 120), Sanjek felt that he was out of options and, in 1911, decided to emigrate to the United States in search of “freedom and a better life” (1938, 139).

After settling on the Upper East Side of New York City, Sanjek went to work in the Bank of Europe owned by the Czech author Thomas Capek. He began attending the Protestant churches in the neighborhood and became particularly impressed by one Lutheran priest, Dr. A. L. Ramer, who had learned Slovak to tend to American Slavic Lutheran communities. Ramer suggested that Sanjek’s theological training and Slavic background would highly qualify him to be a priest for South Slavic Lutherans in the United States, and Sanjek followed suit by completing his studies in the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. After his ordination in 1914, Sanjek served as a pastor for three years in the Philadelphia area. Since there was a great deficit of Slovak Lutheran priests, he decided to accept a vacancy in the Holy Emmanuel Slovak Lutheran Church in Mahanoy City.

Louis Sanjek in Mahanoy City

Sanjek also served in the Slovak Lutheran Church in St. Clair, Pennsylvania. The church is now home to the St. Clair Community and Historical Society.
Sanjek also served in the still-active Saint Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church in Mt. Carmel and the Slovak Lutheran Church in St. Clair (above), which is now home to the St. Clair Community and Historical Society.

When he arrived in Mahanoy City in 1917, Sanjek was immediately impressed by the moral character and resourcefulness of his Slovak parishioners, which surprised him since he had heard many stories to the contrary: “Coal miners were described to me as ill-mannered and given to fighting.” However, he found that his miners were “respectful toward their pastor,” “good church goers,” and “at times of unemployment did not flock to welfare organizations” (1970, 45). Their only vice, he admits, was that they were inclined to drink the “hard stuff” a bit too often but concedes it was to “wash down diminutive particles of coal dust” (197044).

While Sanjek was a Croatian serving in a Slovak parish, he found that the two Slavic groups had a great deal of shared experience as ethnic minorities living within the Hungarian Kingdom. “The common ties of the Slavic races, my understanding and knowing our past common sufferings under the same alien rulers,” Sanjek writes, “aided me greatly in the performance of my pastoral work among the Slovak people” (1938, 162). For all of the affection Sanjek had for his working-class parish, he nonetheless valued the contemplative lifestyle. Before taking the assignment in the Coal Region, Sanjek heard stories of small-town priests who were forced to perform church renovations themselves due to the lack of financial support, which initially gave him great pause: “I could not imagine, how men of such a high education could be forced to do manual labor [and] began to believe that the new country to which I was going, did not have a very high regard for the educated class.” (1938, 141-142). For this reason, Sanjek was very pleased upon arriving to Mahanoy City to find a kindred spirit living just a few blocks away in the person of Emil Kubek.

 Sanjek and Kubek

Sanjek called Kubek his “closest friend among the town’s clergy” (1970, 45), and even though they were of different faiths and different nationalities, the two priests seem to have bonded over their love of education, shared commitment to their respective nations, willingness to work across ethnic lines, and deep frustration over Rome’s refusal to honor the centuries-old traditions of its ethnically-Slavic churches. This final point was of immediate concern to Kubek, for the Carpatho-Rusyns had been in a long struggle with the Vatican over the appointment of a Greek Catholic bishop and the ability for Eastern-rite Catholics to maintain a married clergy.

In 1907, the Vatican issued a decree called Ea Semper, which gave Rome additional powers over the regulation of American Greek Catholic churches and explicitly forbade the appointment of married priests to American Greek Catholic parishes. “Ruthenian clergymen will be admitted to the Latin seminaries in the area where they were born or in which they are domiciled,” reads the decree, “but only those who are celibate at present and who shall remain so many be promoted to the sacred orders” (cited in Magocsi 1984, 31). While Ea Semper was only loosely enforced, it enraged Carpatho-Rusyns, who viewed it as an encroachment on their ability to conduct the affairs of their own churches. Sanjek himself was a strong advocate for a married clergy, which is one of the factors that led to his break with the Catholic Church in the first place.

Easter Gift - Two (1)
Louis Sanjek’s translation of Kubek’s “Easter Gift” (1921).

Sanjek and Kubek’s friendship also resulted in a number of creative partnerships. After Sanjek initiated a renovation of Holy Emmanuel, Kubek’s son Anthony donated two oil paintings to the new church (“Christ as the Gates” and “Christ in Gethsemane”), and St. Mary’s Choir performed at its grand reopening (1970, 45; 1938, 181). Most importantly, Sanjek translated “An Easter Gift” from Carpatho-Rusyn into English, which was published in the Mahanoy City Record American in March 1921. This seems to be the first of Kubek’s texts to be translated into English, but since Sanjek didn’t speak Carpatho-Rusyn and only had a working-knowledge of Slovak, his version of “An Easter Gift,” while generally following Kubek’s text, makes a number of minor cuts, edits, and additions. Unfortunately, Sanjek’s translation didn’t reach a broader audience until the text was rediscovered in the summer of 2015 by Paul Coombe.

Louis Sanjek in Silence

Sanjek seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his time in Mahanoy City, which he describes as a “most happy” experience. However, his grueling pastoral duties began to take a toll on his health. In addition to serving in Mahanoy City, St. Clair, and Mt. Carmel, Sanjek made periodic trips to a parish in Steelton, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Harrisburg) and Proctor, Vermont. Furthermore, after the Spanish flu pandemic hit central Pennsylvania in 1918, Sanjek’s health began to fail him as a result of tending to the sick and dying. “With a heavy heart” (1938, 184), Sanjek was forced to leave Mahanoy City in 1924 to take a less physically taxing position in New York City.

After serving in various parishes there, Sanjek began to experience severe problems with his vocal chords, and, in 1938, he found himself confined to a solitary hospital room, unable to speak at all.  “For some reason,” he writes, “my power of speaking weakened and my vocal cords did not function properly” (1970, 49). During his convalescence, he began to reflect on the long religious tradition of solitude and wrote an autobiography entitled In Silence.

In it, Sanjek describes how he used his seclusion as an opportunity to take stock of his life and search for truth: “Knowing my physical condition and strength, and assured of my organic health, I began to contemplate, not so much on the future, for ‘the morrow will take care of itself’ but I rather visualized in my memories crowded as they were with experiences of the inner and external nature, which had become my lot in the Old and also in this New World” (1938). In Silence is a thoughtful and introspective look at Sanjek’s life that touches upon Croatian and Slovak history, theological and political issues, and the Slavic communities in the United States, and despite the difficult circumstances that produced the book, Sanjek displays a gentle sense of humor throughout.

Although Sanjek was unable to serve as a pastor after being released, he went on to have a long, successful career in the National Lutheran Council and later in life wrote another autobiographical-cum-theological treatise Deus Una Veritas: God the Only Truth (1970). He died in Brooklyn, New York, in 1976 at the age of 87.

The following excerpts from In Silence describe his relationship with Kubek and Smith and his time in Mahanoy City.

In Silence
By Louis Sanjek

Mahanoy City Parish

[…] The Mahanoy City congregation was a comparatively old one. Its members had come from two extreme sections of Slovakia and this made the work a little harder, because both groups wished to retain the customs and characteristics of its locality. These were in many cases extremely divergent viewpoints, and it was necessary for the pastor to be tactful and diplomatic.

The town itself was cosmopolitan in character, with the Slavs predominating. There were Catholic congregations of Slovak, Polish, Lithuanian German nationalities, and Ukrainian Greek Catholics, with other foreign congregations, both Catholic and Protestant.

Nevertheless, I found a friendship prevailing among the linguistic pastors of different faiths. Quite a number of them were broadminded toward the beliefs of others, though, some were not willing to discuss the religious questions.

The Lithuanian Roman Catholic priest, in our conversation, acknowledged that the Church Reformation was a timely one, but he could not understand, why Luther, being a Roman Catholic priest, ever entered matrimony. […]

I said to the priest: “The ideal of a catholic priest, as standing between God and mankind is great, if interpreted as your Church does, but, the ideal of a Christian pastor with a family is also a beautiful one.” […]

The priest seemed to have agreed with me and evidently took my advice seriously; for not many months after our discussion, he left the priesthood, married a girl from his previous congregation and returned to the old country where he entered a teaching vocation.

At another occasion, the Slovak Catholic priest of the town began to praise his good work, because he baptized two Slovak girls who were previously Lutheran, and by this act he received them as members of his church.

The mother of these girls was a good member of my congregation. Her second husband, the father of the girls, was a Roman Catholic. The girls were baptized in their mother’s faith while still in the old country. It was customary in Hungary, in cases of mixed marriages, that the sons follow the father’s and the daughters the mother’s faith.

When the family came to the United States, the father insisted that the girls join the Roman Catholic Church. Naturally, the priest seconded him and later baptized the girls. What was especially displeasing to me, was the fact, that as Christians, we acknowledge only one baptism. Therefore, I asked the priest, whether he would baptize the child, if, in case of necessity, the child was baptized by a midwife. He answered to the contrary. “But,” I told him, “you baptized the girls just because they were baptized by a Protestant pastor.”

What a logic, and what a religious bigotry! Such an act can only find comparison in cases where a non-catholic is accepted into the Roman Church, having been coerced into joining on his death bed. Such actions make a farce out of sacred religious acts and that is carrying human abuses too far.

The priest, of the Greek Catholic church, helped me to chastise the Slovak priest. That priest, Father E. Kubek, is well known among his people as a writer of note. He was more than a model for many a pastor. Although he belonged to Rome’s jurisdiction, yet, this did not make him narrow-minded when dealing with people of opposite faiths. He was a fine example of a Christian leader, a great asset to our community, and respected by all people. He carefully educated the people of his parish and they were held in high regard by their fellow Americans. One of his church councilmen, was a man of great wealth and prominence. He came to the United States as a poor boy. By industrious work he acquired much wealth. He organized a bank, to which he invited the various foreign leaders of the community, one from each nationality, to became directors of this bank. He selected me to represent the Slovak people. It was then that I found my previous banking experience to be of good service. It enabled me at the meetings of the Directors to fully understand the problems of the investments. The bank became a growing concern. At the end of the first year, it had over one million dollars in deposits, which is unusual for a town of about 15,000 population, and two other banks. […]

Coming to the coal region it was a strange sight for me to see the returning miners black as the chimney cleaners in my own homeland. I found it difficult to recognize my own church members on the street. In spite of their coal dust covering, these miners are clean in their living habits. Upon arriving home from work, they found tubs of hot water prepared for them and soon the dirty looking miners appeared as clean as the average workingman.

The only weakness I found among these people, was their habit of hard drinking. Saloons were to be found on every corner, and these carried, for the foreign born miners, the association of the old country “Inn”. There was much carousing and drunkenness on pay days. If a Slav had any objection to drunkenness, it was usually more from the standpoint of economy than ethics. […]

It would not be fair to say that only Slavs are drinkers. The habit is wide spread among all nationalities in the mining fields, and they have plausible excuses for it. In the steel factories, the excuse is that the drink is used to wash down the steel dust. In the coal regions, it was used to wash down the fine particles of coal. […]

The majority of the Slav coal miners are thrifty, as can be seen by the fact, that they own large parts of real estate in the coal regions. These people are fond of gardens, which they carefully tend, thereby developing beauty, even in the black hills of the Eastern Pennsylvania regions.

Walk to:
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
459 West Mahanoy Street
Mahanoy City, PA 17948

West End Walking Tour - FINAL

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