As my research into the one-place study of St. Dimitry’s Church parish, comprising the small villages of Udol, where the church is located, and Hajtovka, one mile away, it is time to share what life would have been like for my ancestors.
Both Hajtovka and Ujak, as it was originally named, are mentioned in the Middle Ages, appearing in Saros County records in 1427. Ujak’s name indicates its birth as UJ = new and LAK = settlement.
This region represents a crossroads of sorts, where settlers from far and wide made their homes. People from today’s Germany, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and points east left their marks.
Hajtovka and Ujak sit on the banks of the Poprad River in a valley near the Tatras Mountains in eastern Slovakia.
The earliest settlers, who arrived by the 1200s, were mountain shepherds, livestock herders and farmers from an area of Romania called Wallachia; the people were known as Vlachs.
This Google Maps image gives a sense of the rolling hills and valleys at the foot of the Tatras.
The two villages seemed to thrive for over 100 years, as they were part of the Plavec castle estate well into the 16th century, but by the 1550s, the villages were deserted and all but disappeared from existence.
A short 40 years later, a new group, the Rusyns, an eastern Slavic ethnic community, began migrating into the hilly land that is home to St. Dimitry’s parish today. The exact origins of the Rusyns – whether from Ukraine or Russia – is uncertain and the topic is somewhat controversial even today.
What is clear, though, is between the 1300s and 1600s, Rusyns steadily moved westward and settled 200-300 villages in the eastern portion of modern day Slovakia, along the borders of Ukraine and Poland.
Primitive new homes in Ujak and Hajtovka were built by these Rusyns and, by 1600, there were 17 serf houses plus the Soltys house, for the noble who owned the land.
Rusyns were easily identified by (1) their dialect related to the Old Russian language and (2) their fervent faith and membership in the Eastern rite Orthodox/Catholic church.
A bit of church history is necessary here to understand the differences between the Roman Catholic religion and what became the Greek Catholic, or Byzantine Rite, Church.
In 1054 A.D. the Roman and Orthodox churches split into two factions. The differences in religious beliefs kept them apart until 1646, when the Orthodox Church united with Rome. That was an event not welcomed by many Orthodox church members, but, by 1672, the Greek Catholic Church was officially recognized (apart from the Orthodox rite, which continued to be a political issue well into the 20th century).
Therefore, with the division between Orthodox and Byzantine, Rusyns had to choose between religious practices and traditions. They chose the Byzantine, or Greek Catholic Church.
Those who have grandparents or earlier ancestors who belonged to the Greek Catholic Church almost surely are of Rusyn descent.
Ujak became almost exclusively Greek Catholic. Few Roman Catholics could be found there even in the 1800s. Hajtovka, a village less than half the size of Ujak, was also predominantly Greek Catholic, but there were a number of Roman Catholics living there who worshiped in the nearby village of Plavnica. More on that in the next post.
Greek Catholic churches were built in a distinctive wooden style, which unfortunately means that few early churches survived as the structures burned down. Divine Liturgy (rather than Mass, as in the Roman Catholic rite) was celebrated in Church Slavonic, the modern day version of the Old Russian language.
Sections inside the church were divided – one area for men, one for women and one for the priest. While portions of the Divine Liturgy are sung, no musical instruments are used during the service.
The Rusyns brought with them not only their religious practices, but distinct Rusyn dialects, which over time, have taken new words into the language – from Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and even Germans. In modern times, English has also enriched the Rusyn language. These language influences reinforce the central idea that Ujak and Hajtovka are located in the heart of cultural and ethnic crossroads.
Life didn’t change much for the villagers from the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century. In 1755, the village of Ujak burned. The church was built on a hill slightly above the village to save it from town fires. I haven’t found evidence that the church burned at that time, but St. Dimitry’s was rebuilt in 1866.
By November 1827, when St. Dimitry’s Church records begin, there were 88 homes in Ujak and, based on history, there were perhaps 40 homes next door in Hajtovka.
St. Nicholas, the protector of the poor and of herds, is a popular figure in Greek Catholic churches. It may be a reflection of the hard lives they led for centuries.
Next, we will look at life in the 1800s through the eyes of my ancestors.
Background history about the area was found at Farnost Udol, where Google Translate was my friend, and in An Ethnic History of Slovakia, by Jan Botik, PhD, published in 2021, pages 180-202, which has been translated into English. I downloaded the PDF, but now that I am searching for the original link, it isn’t showing up.