By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHOENIXVILLE – In the early 20th century, when Phoenix Iron Works was the industrial heart of Phoenixville, in Chester County, workers came from all over to toil in the great mill. A fair number of them were from Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and neighboring Slovakia.
Sacred Heart Church was established in 1900 to serve the Slovak Catholics, and three years later Holy Trinity was founded for Polish Catholics.
Even as the fires of the open hearth furnaces transformed basic iron and carbon into steel, over time most of the descendants of the immigrant pioneers, through the process of the “great melting pot,” became simply unhyphenated Americans transforming America itself through the process.
Holy Trinity and Sacred Heart are twinned parishes now, with Father Michael Rzonca as their joint pastor. English is the language of worship, with most services virtually indistinguishable from those of any territorial parish. Nevertheless, there are still pleasant echoes of the ethnic past and age-old customs are especially remembered during solemn seasons, including Lent and Easter.
Bernardine Franciscan Sister Marie Janeen Obara grew up in a house near Holy Trinity Convent, where she lives and recalled many Lenten traditions. Just as other cultures eat donuts or hot cross buns on Shrove Tuesday, the Polish custom is Paczki, a filled donut without a hole, sprinkled with powdered sugar. On that evening there would be a dance, the Paczkowy Ball, which marked the end of festivals until after Lent.
Polish Lenten devotions included Gorzke Zale (lamentations), a Sunday vesper service.
“Lent was a time of strict discipline. You didn’t go to a movie, there was no eating between meals,” Sister Janeen said. Because most forms of entertainment were frowned upon, Sister Janeen remembers Lent as a time when many women did crocheting and embroidery of fine lace. It was also a season for reading, especially spiritual reading.
Lent, because there was no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, also meant meatless pierogies, sardines and herring.
During Holy Week the church was beautifully decorated, a custom that still exists, and on Holy Saturday the parish priests would visit every house to bless the Easter foods. On the table would be displayed a plate with salt, pepper and vinegar, symbolizing the Lord’s Passion. Along with the bread and holiday foods there would be butter pressed into the shape of a lamb, symbolizing the Lamb of God. There would also be the Easter holy water and a few thorns reminiscent of the Passion, both previously obtained at the church.
The Easter foods are still blessed, but now the people take it in baskets to the church on Holy Saturday, Sister Janeen said.
Traditional Polish hymns would be sung at the Easter service of course, and this remains through the singing of “Serdeczna Matko” (Beautiful Mother) on Easter as well as other special occasions.
At Sacred Heart, the Slovak customs were very similar to the Polish customs, according to Ann Marie Matonak, who was born in the parish and whose mother, Mary Matonak, 97, has spent her entire life there. Although hymns are no longer sung in Slovak at Sacred Heart, Matonak remembers as a child that the Passion was sung in Slovak on Good Friday, but even then “the choir was mostly elderly,” she said.
Unlike the Polish custom, the food was always brought to Sacred Heart to be blessed; it was never done in the home. Now the two communities, Polish and Slovak, have a joint blessing ceremony.
Matonak’s basket will be covered with a beautifully embroidered linen cloth brought to America by her grandmother “Baba Bodnar” from Czechoslovakia in 1908 and used every Eastertide since. It will contain paska (Easter bread) and cirak (Easter cheese) which she still makes every year from eggs and milk. The basket will also have grated beets with horseradish, kielbasa, ham, dyed eggs and the butter lamb, among other items.
Her ancestors would definitely approve.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.