An Heirloom & A Brick Wall That Wasn’t

I’ve been pondering for the last couple of weeks. I needed to make a choice of my favorite heirloom or of one I wish I had. I don’t know of any lost heirlooms. I guess they were lost before anyone in modern times knew of them. I do have a number of items that have been passed down through my family and I’ve already written about some of them, like Nammie’s rocking chair.

However, I chose a piece of paper as one of the most special heirlooms that I have. To understand why I chose a piece of paper, you need to know a bit of the back story. Nana was still with us back in 1979 when I first caught the genealogy bug. One of the first documents I tried to obtain was a marriage certificate for her and my grandfather, George, who I never knew. George died of tuberculosis when my father was only ten years old.

My grandparents were parishioners of St. Michael’s Church, today Cathedral of St. Michael, in Passaic, New Jersey. I wrote both to St. Michael’s and to the state of New Jersey requesting a copy of the record of their marriage, which took place at St. Michael’s on 6 September 1915. The first reply came from the state – no record of the marriage. Okay, now my grandmother was very religious and I could see her possibly thinking that the state record was an added expense and just the church wedding would do. However, Nana assured me that George went to City Hall to obtain a license. Hmmm. A couple of days later, the reply came from St. Michael’s Church – NO RECORD of the marriage! Not possible. Something was very wrong. I queried Nana again about the date, but her mind was as sharp as a tack. I was sure they married on the date she gave me so why couldn’t a record be found by either the church or the state????

I asked Nana about all this again. How was it possible that no record of the marriage of George Sabo and Julia Scerbak could be found? Out of her mouth popped, “That is because the family name was Kucharik!” What???? My great grandfather changed his name when he arrived in America, but he didn’t Americanize it, he dropped the Slovak name “Kucharik’ (Cook) for the Hungarian name “Sabo” (tailor).

Armed with this new knowledge, my second requests for marriage records and then census hunts yielded baptismal, marriage and death documents from both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then came a thirty year brick wall, or so I thought.

What would the outcome of my searching been had Nana already passed away? She didn’t care much for her inlaws, except for her mother-in-law, who died a month after my father’s birth. After 1936, when George died, she had little contact with them.

I was able to quickly jump the pond back to Ujak (now Udol) and Hajtovka, Slovakia, the villages from whence the Scerbaks came. Nana said she had no idea where the Kuchariks were from, except that they also spoke Slovak. Vital records gave mother-in-law Mary’s maiden name as “Estok.” Dead end. Home village in Europe? “Gajdos.” Another dead end as a query for records in Gajdos, Russia came back negative. No record of the family.

Nana died in May 1985. She was a hoarder, not in the sense of filling the house from top to bottom with junk, but she hoarded old receipts, photos, documents, letters, that has proved to be a treasure trove through the years. Among the boxes of hoarded mementos, I found my treasured heirloom:

St. Mary’s Church, Mahanoy City, PA

This is the original baptismal certificate issued when my grandfather, George Kucharik, was baptized at St. Mary’s Church in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

I often wondered how I would have ever found my grandfather’s family in ANY records, whether they were in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or back in the home village in Slovakia. I didn’t find this paper until after Nana had passed away.

Even with this document, I couldn’t find their home village until 2011, which provided the title for this post – An Heirloom & the Brick Wall That Really Wasn’t. Kucharik family research was at a dead end from 1985 until 2011 and became one of my major brick walls.

Take a look at the parents’ section of this certificate:

Stephanus Kucharik
origene et Sebes loku:
Jaros, Hungaria et
uxor eius Maria Ka
csenyak Gr Cath

Stephen Kucharik
origin (is) Sebes (location?):
Jaros, Hungary and
his wife Maria
Kacsenyak Greek Catholic

Remember, in the 1980’s, there was no internet and gazetteers showing old names of villages in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire were not exactly easy to find. I did wander over to the Family History Center in Los Angeles, but had no luck finding these places.

This is a major reminder to all, regardless of how long one has been researching, to go back and take a second, third or even fourth look at the information that has already been discovered.

This most definitely was a brick wall that only existed because (1) I misread one letter years ago and (2) I needed both a detailed gazetteer and someone who could read this document correctly.

This one piece of paper was the key to unlocking my grandfather’s family history. I had planned a trip to Salt Lake City early in 2011 to work on another long-time brick wall, that of my Danish great grandmother. I decided to bring along the baptismal certificate and to ask for help at the Eastern European help desk in the Family History Library. As luck would have it, one of the volunteers spoke Slovak, knew much of the Slovak history, took one look at the certificate and the non-brick wall totally crumbled.

Yes, Stephen Kucharik’s ancestral village was “Sebes” (pronounced like “Sheb-ess”), but the area was divided into “Also Sebes” and “Felso Sebes,” so my early attempts at finding the villages didn’t include looking under the letters “A” or “F.” Sebes was not found under “S.” Secondly, today, the town is known as Vysna Sebastova and I certainly wasn’t checking the “V” listings, either. Lastly, remember I mentioned that I misread one letter on the baptismal certificate? Well, “Jaros” wasn’t “Jaros” at all, it was “SAROS.” Saros was the Hungarian county name for that area of Slovakia, which, by the way, included my grandmother’s ancestral home. It turns out that the Kuchariks were living only about forty miles away from the Scerbaks in the 1800’s.

I have often thought about how my Kucharik research would have progressed if Nana hadn’t told me about the surname change or if she had died before I ever had a chance to answer that question. That is why my grandfather’s baptismal certificate is one of my most valued heirlooms. Even without Nana’s help, this 122 year old piece of paper would have eventually allowed me to trace the Kucharik and Kacsenyak families from Passaic back to Mahanoy City and then to their ancestral home.

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