Social Context & the Life of Stephen Kucharik (1855-1933)

Most of the family sketches I write are created and shared in terms of life facts – birth, marriage, death, homes and emigration. I purposely write in that style because my intent is “cousin bait” – finding new family members who are interested in learning more about our common ancestors.

However, I fully embrace the concept of social context that molds and influences our ancestors’ lives. Social context can often answer the “why” in our families’ lives, too. Therefore, today, I’d like to share the life story of my great grandfather, Stephen Kucharik.

He sure wasn’t the most popular member of the family. My grandmother called him “the old rummy.” When I shared some photos with my grandfather’s sister-in-law, hoping to confirm the identity of people in the pictures, Mary took one look at the only surviving photo of Stephen Kucharik. I asked if she recognized him. Her answer: Why would anyone want a picture of that rotten old man?

Although being “rotten” isn’t necessarily a corollary of living a difficult life, that personality trait was no doubt formed, in part, from the social and economic situations in which Stephen grew up.

To better understand Stephen Kucharik’s life story, it is necessary to study life in the village of Okruzna, Slovakia, where he was born. First, Okruzna, on the southern side of the Carpathian Mountains, was in the western-most portion of the swath of land where Carpatho-Rusyns had settled hundreds of years before. The Kuchariks were Rusyns – a Slavic people that has never had a homeland of its own. One defining characteristic of Carpatho-Rusyns in the Presov area of Slovakia is membership in the Greek Catholic, also known as the Byzantine Catholic, Church.

While knowledge of the local historical events isn’t necessary to understanding 19th century life, it is vitally important to understand the after effects of centuries of difficult life.

  1. Being in the “crossroads” of Europe, there were frequent political and governmental boundary changes.
  2. The local church was the dominant force in the villagers’ lives. They were “hatched, matched and dispatched,” so to speak, through baptism, marriage and burial. The parish priest was often the only literate man in the neighborhood and he was kept busy.
  3. Sunday Mass or Divine Liturgy provided holidays, but were more like relief from daily hard labor.
  4. Most of the men were shepherds or peasant farmers, who worked land owned by others, barely eking out a subsistence living for themselves and their families.
  5. Villagers lived in homes, more like shacks, that they didn’t own, often with several extended families sharing a tiny space.
  6. While women gave birth to many children, the infant mortality rate was so high that sometimes only one or two out of seven children lived to adulthood. Babies were usually baptized within 48 hours of birth because of the mortality rate. If Greek Catholic, they were confirmed at the same time.
  7. The adult mortality rate wasn’t so great either. Epidemics of typhoid fever, smallpox and cholera swept through areas every 20-30 years, wiping out hundreds of adult lives.
  8. There was no opportunity for education until the turn of the 20th century, when schooling was common up to the fourth grade.
  9. Unfortunately, alcoholism was common among many.

Thus, when Stephen Kucharik was baptized on 6 February 1855, he was the third born child of John Kucharik and Maria Repka, but one of two surviving siblings. His birth was followed by that of five siblings in 1857, 1859, 1861, 1864 and 1865, two of whom died young, two of whom I can find no further record (and likely also died young) plus a sister, Maria, born in 1864, who died in 1916 in Vysna Sebastova.

Imagine giving birth to eight children, but only three lived to adulthood. Death was a fact of life, with both the priest and the grave diggers kept busy in these villages.

As a young child, Stephen would have been cared for by his mother at home. However, as soon as he was old enough to be more of a help than hindrance, he would have had house chores and then sent off to work with his father.

There was no first day of school for Stephen. There probably wasn’t even a school in any of the nearby villages. The 1900 census has tick marks for “can’t read/write” for both Stephen and his wife, Maria.

Weddings were a cause to celebrate and most Rusyn young men married between the ages of 21 and 25. Young women were also usually of legal age, but, occasionally, couples were 19-20 years old.

Stephen was very much like his contemporaries as he married Maria Kacsenyak on 28 August 1877, at the age of 22. Maria was 18 years old and a Roman Catholic. The Kacsenyak family also lived in Ruska Nova Ves, which was about 11 miles from Okruzna, where the Kucharik family lived.

I have no idea how they met – perhaps at market day in a town midway between the two.

I also don’t know if Stephen willingly married Maria or was told it was going to happen by his or her or both of their fathers. The reason I say that is their first child, John, was born three days BEFORE they married, on 25 August 1877 and baptized on 26 August. I had to double check that record to make sure I had both dates correct!

Stephen and Maria were married in the Roman Catholic church in Ruska Nova Ves, but their children were all baptized in the Greek Catholic Church, first in Okruzna and later at St. Mary’s in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

There was no opportunity for bettering their lives in the village, so c1880, Stephen Kucharik made his first trip to the United States. Emigration years on noted on censuses can be notoriously off target. However, in both 1900 and 1910, the same year was recorded so it is likely Stephen did make his first trip here around that time.

I’ve no idea where he heard about the opportunity to emigrate and 1880 is just about the first year that Eastern Europeans were being recruited to fill job openings abroad. Where he ventured is unknown, but because the family initially settled in the town of Delano near Mahanoy City, that might have been his first destination. He hasn’t been found in the 1880 census.

The 1900 census of Passaic, Passaic, New Jersey indicates that wife Maria and children John and Mary followed in 1883.

My grandmother told me that Stephen first work for the railroad (Reading Railway) in Pennsylvania. I have inherited the watch he used to tell time.

The Reading Railway’s principal business was to haul anthracite from the local mines around Mahanoy City.

Stephen seems to have not followed the traditional FAN club path, as I know of not a single person who followed the family from Okruzna to Pennsylvania or to New Jersey.

There was a definite Rusyn community, though, given that St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church was built in Mahanoy City, a small borough with just .5 square mile of land space.

However, I suspect that during the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that lasted until 1897, might have meant that Stephen lost his job as a conductor on the train.

Stephen’s and Mary’s youngest child, also Stephen, was born in Mahanoy City on 18 February 1897. Sometime within the next three years, the family moved to Passaic.

There were two big draws to Passaic – a growing Carpatho-Rusyn community and several large mills that hired immigrant labor to fill jobs.

By 1900, the Kuchariks lived at 70 First Street as renters in a multi-family building and within walking distance or a short trolley ride to work.

I don’t know how religious the family was, but they would have attended Mass at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, about a half mile away, until St. Mary’s Slovak Roman Catholic Church and St. Michael’s Greek Catholic Church were completed in the early 1900s.

Stephen’s occupation was “laborer,” as was that of his 23 year old son, John. Daughter Mary, 19 years old, worked as a mill hand.

Mary was at home with daughter, Anna, 11 years old, and sons George, 6, and Stephen, 3. She reported having given birth to eight children with five surviving.

Although neither Stephen nor Mary had the opportunity to go to school, all of their children did, at least until they finished the 8th grade.

In 1910, Stephen, Mary and sons George and Stephen were at home at 2 Second Street, Passaic, New Jersey.

Sadly, Mary reported giving birth to 9 children with only 4 surviving. Eldest son John died during the first decade of the 20th century. I have not been able to find even a clue as to exactly when he died, but from city directories, I believe it was probably around 1902/03. Mary also gave birth to and lost her youngest child.

Stephen worked as a laborer in a bleachery, Mary was at home, George was a shipping clerk in a mill and Stephen Jr. was at school.

By 1920, Stephen, Mary and Stephen Jr. were the only ones at home, renting at 77 Hope Avenue, Passaic. Both Stephen and son Stephen worked at the bleachery.

An interesting turn of events happened during the 1910-1920 decade. When my grandparents married on 6 September 1915, World War I had already started, although the United States had not yet entered it.

There was much discussion among the Carpatho-Rusyn community about choosing sides, not so much to support warring countries, but to take a stand about the future of Carpatho-Rusyn people back in the homeland. Some emigrants to America supported the Ukrainians, some the Russians, and some the Hungarians.

About this time, Stephen Kucharik decided to change the family surname from Kucharik to Sabo. Both are relatively common names, as the Slovak surname Kucharik means “Cook” and the Hungarian surname Sabo means “tailor.”

I can’t prove anything about Stephen’s political leanings on the issue, but have to believe that he supported Hungary. Otherwise, why would he change his surname to one that is very Hungarian? By the way, the change wasn’t done with any legal proceedings in the court system. At the time, as long as a name change wasn’t implemented for reasons of subterfuge, people were free to make a change.

Maria (Kacsenyak) Kucharik died of pneumonia on 5 March 1926 at the age of 67 years in Passaic. She was buried at St. Peter’s Greek Catholic Cemetery in Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey.


Maria (Kacsenyak) Kucharik (Sabo), c1920

By all family accounts, Mary was a gentle, warm, well loved person. My grandmother didn’t care for many of her in-laws, but she was fond of Mary. I am surprised that she didn’t have a prayer card from her funeral. That makes me think that the family didn’t choose to have any made. They didn’t have a lot of money and that was a funeral expense they could avoid.

The last few years of Stephen’s life must have been sad. He hasn’t been found in the 1930 census. By this time, I am sure he was drinking a lot and my grandmother said his children passed him from home to home, taking turns housing him. My grandmother said they let him live in the cellar when it was my grandparents’ turn.

I can easily see my grandmother neglecting to tell the census taker that Stephen lived in the basement if he happened to be living with her at the time. It may have been the same situation with his other three surviving children.


Stephen (Kucharik) Sabo, c1920

Stephen died on 4 June 1933 in Wallington, Passaic, New Jersey of a cerebral hemorrhage and arteriosclerosis. I don’t know if he had a stroke or died as the result of hitting his head in a fall. He may have been living with son Stephen and his wife, as they were living in Wallington at the time of the 1930 census. Stephen was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery, next to Mary.

It’s also a sad commentary that my grandfather was the informant on the death certificates for both of his parents. While he knew that his maternal grandparents were Michael Kacsenyak and Anna Haluska, he had no idea of the names of his paternal grandparents and gave a birth year for his father of 1866, no month or day known. That made Stephen 11 years younger than he actually was.

In summary, I can’t say whether Stephen’s life in America was better than it would have been had the family stayed in Okruzna. Either way, he lived a hardscrabble life, born into meager economic circumstances.

Children:

  1. John, born 25 August 1877, Okruzna, Slovakia; died between 1900-1910, place unknown; unmarried.
  2. Mary, born 15 January 1881, Okruzna, Slovakia; died 29 October 1973, Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey; married (1) Andrew Palasko, 3 February 1902, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania (2) Ladislav Bubbly, 1906, Passaic County, New Jersey.
  3. Anna, born 4 February 1885, Okruzna, Slovakia; died soon.
  4. Anna, born 18 April 1889, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania; died 7 June 1959, Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey; married (1) Nicholas Pezont, 1906, Passaic County, New Jersey (2) George Janicko, after 1944.
  5. Child, born and died young.
  6. Child, born and died young.
  7. George, born 24 May 1893, Delano, Schuylkill, New Jersey; died 27 November 1936, Haledon, Bergen, New Jersey; married Helena (Julia) Scerbak, 6 September 1915, Passaic, Passaic, New Jersey.
  8. Stephen, born 18 February 1897, Mahanoy City, Schuylkill, Pennsylvania; died 20 May 1976, Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey, married Mary Mikulik, 23 January 1924, Passaic County, New Jersey.
  9. Child, born and died 1900-1910.

With the exception of Mary losing her last child, I’ve guessed where the other children might have been born.

There are descendants today from Mary and George. Anna had no children. Stephen had one son and one daughter, but neither of them had any children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Social Context & the Life of Stephen Kucharik (1855-1933)”

  1. What an excellent, detailed analysis of this man’s life and circumstances, beginning with the comments you heard about him–rummy and rotten. I like the way you wove in historical context. Great post!

  2. Such a great example of the importance of context, at how we shouldn’t just be collecting names and dates, but real people who lived lives we can’t even begin to imagine. Understanding the circumstances in which our forbears lived gives such a richness to our work. Little wonder your great-grandfather looked so careworn – the life he’d led must have been so difficult, starting in a place where he likely wouldn’t have had proper nutrition or any real chance to make a life of any meaning. I posit that his emigration did improve his life at least somewhat as he at least had some measure of independence in the US, though life still would have been far from easy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.