I would like to thank Mark S. Auerbach, City Historian of Passaic, NJ for the time he has spent detailing stories of early Passaic and for the images which he has so kindly given me permission to include in my posts about early Passaic and St. Michael’s Church.
The Slovak immigrants who processed through Castle Garden and arrived in Passaic were likely amazed by what they saw because Industrial Passaic couldn’t have made itself less like Udol if it tried.
The 1880 census of Passaic shows residents who were predominantly native born Americans with a spattering of immigrants from the British Isles.
The First, Second and Third Street neighborhood at that time was composed of native born Americans and immigrants from Britain, Sweden, Germany and one young couple born in Prussia. Most of the adults worked in the cloth mills nearby. In fact, they were so close that they all could easily walk to work. (The mills declined by the middle of the 20th century, but I’m old enough to remember a couple that stayed in business that long.)
The 1890 census is long destroyed, but in this case, the 1900 census gives an accurate look at how St. Michael’s neighborhood had evolved after 1880.
Between 1880-1900, the neighborhood had completely changed. this census page shows seven native born Americans, all children of immigrant families. Most of the residents were from “Austria” or “Rus Pol” (Poland). Native language was not a question asked on this census, but many of the surnames can be identified as Slovak. Occupations were mostly laborers and mill hands.
In the middle of all this ethnic change, the Udol immigrants not only found a strange language and a neighborhood completely unlike the village, but these devout church goers also discovered there was no Greek Catholic church to be found.
For people whose life was centered around their church, this situation could not be allowed to continue. The church not only provided for their spiritual needs, but was the familiar rock that tied them to family, friends and their village lives.
In the 1880’s, there was only one Catholic church in Passaic – St. Nicholas. That is where the early Slovaks worshiped, but the church was Roman Catholic, not Byzantine (Greek) Catholic. By 1890, a group of Slovaks, which included many from Udol, met and decided to purchase the Dundee Evangelical Mission Chapel at the corner of First and Bergen Streets.
The chapel was enlarged and a rectory built and St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church was a reality. Fr. Nicephor Chanath was the first priest to serve at St. Michael’s, which he did faithfully from October 1890 to December 1894., when he was transferred to St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church in Scranton, PA.
Rev. Chanath was an appropriate choice to be the first pastor of St. Michael’s, a brand new church. Fr. Chanath was, himself, only about 25 years old in 1890 and was also a new immigrant to the United States, having been born in Hungary. His time at St. Michael’s was short, but he laid the foundation from which the church prospered and grew.
I have not been able to find a photograph of Fr. Chanath – perhaps none exist of him – but I was able to locate him at St. Mary’s after he left Passaic. Sadly, he died at the very young age of 34 on 31 December 1898 of influenza and is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Scranton.
The second pastor of St. Michael’s was Rev. Eugene Szatala, appointed to replace Fr. Chanath. His tenure was also fairly short. By the time Rev. Molscanyi arrived in March 1902, the parish had grown dramatically and had outgrown the space of the old church.
There now was a thriving, vibrant Slovak community that had extended its social customs and religious life from Europe to Passaic. Over six hundred families, many from Udol and Hajtovka, belonged to the parish and Passaic had not even reached its peak immigration point.
It was time to construct a new church building from scratch. Next, the cornerstone to the future was laid.