My Great Grandfather Stephen Sabo and the Family Name Change

I’ve mentioned before that both of my grandmothers were still alive when I started working on the family history. My dad’s side of the family is all Slovak. His parents were first generation Americans, born in PA and NJ.   I never knew my paternal grandfather, George Sabo, as he died of tuberculosis when my father, also George and an only child, was ten years old.

I grew up in Passaic, NJ, which was a city that blossomed with the start of the Industrial Revolution.   The Passaic River generated power needed by the factories, which were filled through the years with waves of immigrant groups. The Slovaks began arriving in the 1880’s.  My paternal grandmother was Julia Scerbak. Julia knew a lot about her family history, even maiden names of her grandmothers and about the time when her grandparents died in Slovakia (then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire).

However, she knew little about my grandfather’s family, with the exception of the names of his parents and siblings, who they married and that they came to NJ from Delano, PA and that they were definitely Slovak, not Czech or Russian. She said she didn’t care for most of her in-laws, but did say her mother-in-law, my great grandmother, Mary Kacsenyak, was a very kind woman. Stephen, her father-in-law was, according to her,  mean. Looking at the two photos, her descriptions would seem to fit the looks on their faces.

These are two of the three only surviving photos of Stephen Sabo and his wife, Mary Kacsenyak. In the 1920 census of Passaic, NJ, Stephen, Mary and their youngest child, Stephen Jr., were living at 77 Hope Avenue.

Mary died in Passaic on 5 March 1926 so it is likely that the two photos I have were taken in the 1920’s possibly at 77 Hope Avenue.

Now, the question here would seem to be “Why is this a brick wall?” The answer is that without having the benefit of my grandmother’s knowledge I probably would never have found them, at least not until the state of New Jersey has a computer searchable database of brides and grooms available.

One of the first documents I sent for back in 1979 when I started down this path was my grandparents’ marriage certificate. My grandmother Julia was born in Passaic in 1893. She was baptized at St. Michael Greek Catholic Church, today St. Michael’s Cathedral. Her parents were married in the same church and she and my grandfather were also married there. So, I mailed away for two documents – the church record and the state record of their marriage, which took place on 6 September 1910.

I was quite shocked to receive a reply from the state of New Jersey saying that no marriage record had been found. My grandmother was a very religious woman and I could easily see my grandparents not bothering with a silly little thing like a state license as long as they married in the church. However, my grandmother said that George did, indeed, go to Passaic City Hall and file the paperwork.

I was even more shocked to get a letter from the pastor of St. Michael’s Church the following week, also saying that no marriage record was found. My grandmother was very mentally acute, even in her 80’s, so I had a hard time believing that she was wrong about the date.

In my next conversation with her, I told her that neither the state of NJ nor St. Michael’s had a marriage record for George Sabo and Julia Scerbak on 6 September 1915. Here was the next shocker: She said that is because the family name was Kucharik! I was 27 years old and had never, ever heard that the family name was anything other than Sabo.

When I sent off second requests for the marriage record of George Kucharik and Julia Scerbak on 6 September 1915, I received back envelopes containing the two documents.

My great grandfather did what many immigrants of that era did – he changed the family surname. However, instead of Americanizing the name – Kucharik means “Cook” – he went from a Slovak name to a Hungarian name. Sabo means “Taylor.” My grandmother had no idea why he changed his name.

In 1900, the family was enumerated as Kuharik:

However, in 1910, the name was misspelled as Kukarik:

Next, my grandparents married in 1915 as Kucharik:

But by 1920, I found the family as Sabo.

I have no way of knowing if World War I influenced Stephen’s decision to change the name, as the family was not enumerated as Sabo until 1920 and I have found no other documents before 1920 that contain the surname “Sabo.”

When Mary died in 1926, she died as Mary Sabo, with no mention of the Kucharik surname.

This brick wall would have been left standing for many years if my grandmother hadn’t told me “That’s because the family name was Kucharik.”

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