This year, I ‘ve decided to begin a new project featuring the women in my family tree, beginning with my great grandmothers.
So often, their stories are lost or are just seen through the lives and accomplishments of the men in the family and historical context is often ignored. Four factors influenced the lives of everyone, regardless of when or where they lived – political, social/cultural, economic and religious events impacted lives, whether in small or big ways.
This series will talk about the lives of my female ancestors on both sides of the family tree, as perhaps seen through their eyes, although the posts won’t be written in first person with some commentary about historical context.
Today, Maria Kacsenyak, one of my paternal great grandmothers, will open this ongoing series.
Life in the Presov region of what is now eastern Slovakia has always been difficult. The majority of people were peasants, working hard just to survive in an area where land was generally poor for crops, political change was frequent as the area was frequently in the cross hairs of opposing armies and there was no opportunity for education, unless a promising young boy was selected to study for the priesthood.
This is a small geographical area with the longest distance, from Ruska Nova Ves (bottom red arrow) to Okruzna (red arrow on far right) only about 11 miles.
The population was overwhelmingly Catholic. However, while the area is considered part of the Rusyn community and, therefore, Greek Catholic (today called Byzantine Catholic), there were a number of Roman Catholic churches in the area, most likely to be attended by ethnic Slovaks, rather than Rusyns.
However, while that statement is generally true, there were no church objections to parishioners intermarrying, which happened frequently.
What was also true is that they were economically poor with no opportunities to better themselves. Most men were small farmers, shepherds, perhaps carpenters or millers, if they were lucky.
Their daily lives – births, marriages, deaths and holiday celebrations – centered completely around their church.
In reality, life for these peasant families wasn’t much different in 1859 compared to 1825, 1775 or even 1700. Modern conveniences like electricity didn’t arrive until the 1960s!
There were no doctors nearby. Long time home remedies provided the only medicine, along with prayers when illness or injury were severe.
After a hard day of mostly physical labor, the men would get together to enjoy drinks and alcoholism was a rampant problem in many families.
What was life like for Maria Kacsenyak?
Maria Kacsenyak was born and baptized Roman Catholic on 14 August 1859 in the village of Nizna Sebastova (at the top of the map) which today is in the Presov region of Slovakia.
She was the eldest of nine children – two boys and seven girls – born to Michael Kacsenyak and Anna Haluska.
As was common, her parents had a mixed (Catholic) marriage. Although Maria’s father was Roman Catholic, her mother was Greek Catholic. Looking back to her grandparents, John Kacsenyak was Roman Catholic, his wife Anna Fucsik was Green Catholic. Andreas Haluska was Greek Catholic, while his wife, Maria Hovance, was Roman Catholic.
Therefore, with such a blended religious background, Maria was likely very comfortable worshiping in both the Roman and Greek Catholic village churches.
In spite of the seemingly large family and many siblings, Maria suffered much heartbreak as at least four of her siblings died as very young children and I can only account for one other sibling having children – her sister, Barbara, born 1864, who had a child out of wedlock in 1894. Infant Anna died at the age of 7 months in 1863, another Anna died at the age of 4 years, 1 month in 1870, brother John was buried at the age of 2 months in 1868 and sister Elizabeth lived only one day in 1875.
The mortality rate for everyone was extremely high so, unfortunately, childhood deaths were very common.
As a young girl, Maria would have lived the same daily life that females had for hundreds of years, helping around the home and outdoors where needed.
By the age of 6 or 7, she would have been expected to help care for younger children, help her mother prepare meals and feed the animals, if the family was lucky enough to own any.
There was no opportunity for an education, as there were no schools in the villages in those days. No one except the village priest was literate.
Politically, Maria, her family and friends, probably didn’t notice any change, but in late 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was established allowing Magyars (Hungarians) to pass their own laws and interact with those living in the Hungrian Kingdom as they wished.
The only person who would have implemented a change would have been the parish priest, as records could no longer be recorded in Latin. Overnight in early 1868, the church book entries changed to Cyrillic script. This was because, under the new laws, everyone in the kingdom was considered Magyar and ethnic minorities were to be assimilated.
Growing up, Maria likely had no idea she would ever travel more than a very few miles beyond Nizna Sebastova. She also had no idea that the United States and the Industrial Revolution would affect so many of her friends’ and family’s lives.
Maria’s adult life began with some scandal, as she became pregnant out of wedlock in November 1876 when she was 17 years old.
This would have brought shame to not only her, but to her family. Whether Maria was allowed to remain in her family home during the pregnancy and birth is unknown. It’s possible she might have been sent to live with grandparents in Ruska Nova Ves.
Stephen Kucharik, later her husband, appears to have been the father of her first child as infant John Kucharik was baptized in the nearby village of Okruzna on 25 August 1877. His parents were called Stephen Kucharik and Maria Kacsenyak and his birth was entered as legitimate.
This is important and indicates that Stephen and Maria, and perhaps her family, were involved in some subterfuge.
Local culture dictated that the bride should marry in her church, but children born to the couple would be baptized in the groom’s church. That isn’t what happened here. Stephen Kucharik was, indeed, from Okruzna, but the couple must have told the priest that they married elsewhere and he didn’t demand a certificate form the other church.
That is because, in spite of that baptismal record indicating that baby John was legitimate and born to a married couple, the marriage entry for Stephen and Maria is found three days later on 28 August 1877 in Vysna Sebastova, not in Maria’s home village of Nizna Sebastova. The priest in Okruzna was unaware that the couple was not married when newborn John was presented for baptism.
In that time period and place, a young girl who became pregnant before marriage would have been somewhat of a social outcast and Maria was only a few months past her 17th birthday when it happened.
Whether there was family pressure to marry, I have no knowledge. However, I can say with certainty that, after studying the church records of my paternal grandmother’s village, I only remember one instance in which a young unmarried mother married the child’s father.
I would hope that Stephen and Maria had a happy life together in the early years because, by all accounts, he was a difficult man with whom to live.
There was a pause in child bearing for several years unless Maria suffered a miscarriage, as her second known child, Maria, was born 3 1/2 years after her brother, on 1 January 1881, also in Okruzna, where the young family was living.
There was a second pause in child bearing years after Maria’s birth as Stephen Kucharik reported in the 1900 U.S. census that he first went to America in 1880, with Maria, son John and daughter Maria following in 1883.
Emigration dates in the U.S. census are notoriously inaccurate and 1883 is a bit too early for Maria and the children to have left because another daughter, Anna, was born and baptized on 4 February 1885 in the village.
The Kuchariks were just one of hundreds of Rusyn families who emigrated to the United States for a better life and greater economic opportunities. Knowing what I do about Stephen’s personality, I doubt that he gave Maria much say in the matter and I never asked Nana or her sister-in-law Mary if they knew how Maria felt about moving across the ocean.
Maria must have been sad leaving her home, her parents and friends, because, as far as I have been able to determine, the Kuchariks never returned to Europe after their emigration. Therefore, the day she left her home was the last day she ever saw her mother, her father and her siblings.
The family first lived in Delano, Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, in a coal mining area of the state. Stephen may well have first worked in the mines, but eventually got a job working for the railroad taking tickets.
Delano was, and is, a small town. In 1900, the population was 1278; today, there are fewer than 300 residents.
Baby Anna died sometime before 18 April 1889 when another daughter, also named Anna, was born in Delano. Her birth was followed by two more children, my grandfather George in 1893 and Stephen in 1897.
The family worshiped at St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church in Mahanoy City, founded in 1890 by Rusyns and still active today. John Z. Smith, organizer and co-founder of the Greek Catholic Union, was a parishioner.
Between 1897 and 1900, Maria, Stephen and their children – John, Maria, Anna, George and Stephen – moved to Passaic, New Jersey, another city with a high concentration of Rusyns.
Alcoholism was a serious issue back in the village and drinking problems often continued after families left for America.
I mentioned that Stephen was a difficult man, as I heard that both from my grandmother and the wife of Stephen and Maria’s youngest son.
Stephen was a bit of an intimidating looking man. This is the only photo I have and it might be the only time his picture was taken.
He not only became an alcoholic, but Stephen made the newspapers seven times between 1908 and 1916, having been fined for drunk and disorderly conduct and, in 1924, he fell out of a second story of the building at 77 Hope Avenue, in which he was living. He refused hospital attention and said he wasn’t hurt!
77 Hope Avenue (green & pink building)
Maria didn’t have an easy life with Stephen. I am fortunate to have several photos of her, all taken in her later years.
I think the photo on the left might have even been taken at the door of their home on Hope Avenue.
My grandmother didn’t know much about her in-laws life in Europe, but she said Maria was a cook for the “emperor.” The Kuchariks didn’t live anywhere near Franz-Joseph, but I think perhaps she worked for one of the local noble families. She was called a servant in the baptismal record of her first child.
My grandmother adored my grandfather, but didn’t care much for the rest of his family except for Maria. Nana said Maria was a very kind person. She died long before I was born, but I think Maria has a kind face and she looks happy in these photos in spite of the hard life she led.
Maria left only a small paper trail of her life, pretty much the “hatched, matched and dispatched” records, several U.S. census records and one city directory listing in Pennsylvania.
Somewhat surprising to me is that Maria/Mary was never working outside the home in any of the three censuses – 1900, 1910 and 1920 – in which she appeared. The family wasn’t very well off financially and many of the immigrant women also worked in the Passaic mills to make ends meet. Perhaps Maria was one of the women who offered child care for others in her home.
Maria died on 5 March 1926 in Passaic at the relatively young age of 66 years.
I am a little surprised that Nana didn’t have a funeral card for her mother-in-law, as she saved her prayer cards. There was no death notice reported in the newspaper and I suspect that Maria had a simple funeral Mass said and was then buried at St. Peter Greek Catholic Cemetery in Garfield, Bergen, New Jersey.
One last note – aliases were common among Rusyn families. The Kuchariks were also known as the Tomko family and, after Stephen and Maria emigrated to America, they used the Kucharik surname and then added Sabo to the mix.
By 1920, they exclusively used Sabo as their surname.
Children of Maria and Stephen:
1. John, born 25 August 1877
2. Maria, born 1 January 1881
3. Anna, born 4 February 1885
4. Anna, born 18 April 1889
5. George, born 24 May 1893
6. Stephen, born 18 February 1897
7. Child, born and died before 1900 census
What became of Maria’s children? Her son John died between the 1900-1910 censuses and apparently was unmarried. Maria, who went by Mary in America, married twice and had 6 children. Daughter Anna born in 1889 married, but never had children. George had one son, my father, also George, and Stephen married and had a son and daughter, but no grandchildren. Therefore, Mary and George are the only children with living descendants today.
I wish I had had the opportunity to meet my great grandmother, but almost three decades separated our lifetimes.