Tag Archives: Ujak Slovakia

Factory Beginnings & Quasquicentennial of Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, Passaic NJ

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 story of the founding of St. Michael’s Church in Passaic, New Jersey will be the subject of the next few posts and is written in memory of my grandmother, Julia Scerbak Sabo, my “Nana,” who was born on 17 August 1893 in Passaic. She was a devout Catholic and lifelong parishioner of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, which today is the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, Byzantine Catholic Rite, located at 96 First Street, Passaic, NJ.

What is a “quasquicentennial”? It is the 125th anniversary of an event. St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church was founded in 1890 in Passaic so this year is its Quasquicentennial Anniversary.

In order to tell the story of St. Michael’s, a little bit of the history of Passaic, New Jersey needs to be told first. Passaic was originally called Acquackanock back in 1679 when the Dutch settled the area, so its history is lengthy. However, Passaic didn’t become a city until 1873 and didn’t really begin to grow until the 1880’s. The 1880 census shows a population of about 6,500 people, but that was about to change.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century continued to influence American life in the 19th century. Factories were springing up all through the northeast after the Civil War and Passaic was no exception. You see, Passaic had two items that interested businesses that operated factories. First, the Passaic River flows along the eastern border of the city.

With the addition of the Passaic Dundee Canal, completed in the early 1860’s, flowing water, needed by factories, was readily available. (There will be more about the Dundee Canal in a later post.)

Dundee_Canal_1997Wikimedia Commons
Portion of Dundee Canal in Recent Times
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Train service had also been established in Passaic prior to the Civil War and the main track ran through downtown Passaic near the areas where factories were being built. Therefore, goods could be produced in Passaic and then easily shipped to their destinations. The Erie Railroad ran the trains through the city until well into the 20th century. (More on the Passaic trains in a later post, too.)

What was life like for the mill workers? One thing is for certain, it didn’t change much over the period of forty years or so. While there were cotton and wool mills in Passaic in the 1860’s, they didn’t really thrive. In 1887, Botany Worsted Mills came to town. (Worsted fabrics are fabrics in which the fibers have been combed so they all run in the same direction, producing a finer fabric.) Botany Mills was a big company and it needed a lot of mill hands.

Botany Worsted Mills, Passaic, N. J.(PMC) - 1900
Botany Worsted Mills
From the American Textile History Museum collection
 in Lowell, Massachusetts

Other mills soon popped up along the Passaic River and the Dundee Canal. These photos of workers in the mending department of  Gera Mills include Minnie Wnuk Tarris, grandmother of Margaret Tarris Bauer of www.pysankybasics.com, who kindly gave permission to share these with you.

Minnie WnukTarrisGeraMillsMendingDept1939
Minnie Wnuk Tarris at her desk in Gera Mills

gereamills1Mending Department of Gera Mills, Supervised by Minnie

My grandmother, Julia, is second from the right, standing, in this picture below taken at one of the mills. It may have been Botany since they hired “Hungarians,” which at the time included many ethnic groups that were part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. My grandmother was Slovak.

Factory Where Julia WorkedPassaic Mill Hands

Julius Forstmann opened his mill in the early 1900’s and became another large factory employer.

Although his factory is long gone, Julius Forstmann’s name is still recognized in Passaic, as his former mansion was razed and the land  became the site for the new Julius Forstmann Public Library on the corner of Passaic and Gregory Avenues. Although involved with the design of the new library, Mr. Forstmann passed away before the building was completed and the new library opened in 1941.

An aside – Passaic, with its immigrants forging new lives, had many families with little money. I grew up loving books and became a teacher, likely in part due to the fabulous children’s section of the Forstmann Library, where I could read to my heart’s content. Of 290,000 books in the collection, in the 1950’s, 152,000+ were children’s books. Mr. Forstmann, a very wealthy man, gave an invaluable resource back to the city.

Day-to-day life was hard in the mills, but it still held more hope for the future than the workers’ European homes and the dire poverty most had left behind. They were still poor in America, but better off than before.

A typical work day was eleven to twelve hours long. Fifty-five and sixty hour weeks were common for the time period. There were no paid sick or vacation days and if you didn’t show up for work, you were easily replaced. By the 1920’s, about 16, 000, mostly immigrants, worked in the Passaic mills. Men typically earned $1000-1200 per year, but a basic standard of living for the time necessitated an income of about $1400 per year.

Ventilation was poor in the factories and since workers often came to the job when sick, tuberculosis was a common affliction. Most couldn’t afford any kind of medical care so home remedies were the order of the day. The young girl on the left in this photo is Maria Scerbak Tidik with her future husband Stephen Tidik. Maria, or Mary as she was called in America, was my grandmother’s younger sister. She emigrated to Passaic with her husband and two young children in the mid-1920’s, but quickly caught tuberculosis and died at the age of 26 in 1926.

Safety measures were almost non-existent; management had all the rights and made all the decisions. It was pretty much “my way or the highway” when a mill hand had a difference of opinion with the boss.

Sunday, however,  was the day of rest. By 1890, many of these new mill workers were from two small, neighboring villages in today’s Slovakia, called Ujak (today, Udol) and Hajtovka. These villagers formed the nucleus of those who founded St. Michael’s in 1890.

Next post – the life left behind in Udol.



Helena Anna Scerbak, aka Julia Sabo

I told the story of my grandfather, George Kucharik, aka George R. Sabo, the other day, on the 78th anniversary of his death. Today, I would like to tell you about my Nana, Julia Scerbak Sabo. Like George, Julia had a bit of a name change. She was born in Passaic, New Jersey on 17 August 1893, the first child of Michael Scerbak and Anna Murcko, Slovak immigrants from the tiny village of Udol (then called Ujak) in today’s Slovakia. The village sits in the Tatras Mountains. I explain to people that if you were a bird and flew southeast from Krakow, Poland over the Tatras, you would be in Udol.

Like so many others in the neighborhood around First Street, Michael and Anna worked in the factories. Julia was baptized at St. Michael’s Church and given the name “Helena Anna.”  Now, it doesn’t take much to figure out that “Helena” would like be “Helen” in an anglicized version. However, my grandmother told me that girls named “Helena” were called Julia here in America. She did have an aunt named “Helena,” born in Udol and called Julia in America. Maybe it was a family thing, I don’t know, but I never understood how “Helena” turned into “Julia.”

The Scerbaks lived in Passaic until about 1897 or 1898 when they returned to Udol. I asked Nana why they went back. She said her mother said the air in Passaic wasn’t very good for her and she wanted to go home. Anna was a smart lady – all the fumes from the (unregulated) factories produced a lot of very unhealthy smog and toxins.

As far as I know, Anna never returned to the United States. Michael did make at least one trip and, from conversations I remember with Julia, he likely visited here at least a couple of times.

Julia returned to the United States in November 1910, just missing the census. She was seventeen and traveled with a cousin and some other people making the trip from Udol to Passaic.

I have no photos of her as a child. I doubt Michael and Anna had the money for that in Passaic and I don’t think there were many photographers running around Udol in 1900. They likely wouldn’t have had money for photographers there, either. The earliest photos I have of her are when she was twenty when she was in the wedding of John Biss and Helen Osifchin on 6 September 1913 at St. Michael’s Church in Passaic.

Julia, marked with “x” on left in back

I originally thought that Julia was the young lady with the “x” marked out in the back on the right. Nana said that was her cousin, Susanna Patorai.

Julia married George Kucharik/Sabo – exactly two years after the Biss-Osifichin wedding – on 6 September 1915, also at St. Michael’s Church.

George & Julia Wedding Party
George and Julia with Their Wedding Party

My father, George, born on 9 February 1926 in Passaic, was George and Julia’s only child. My grandmother never mentioned whether she had lost any children and I never thought to ask back then. Nana did say that George was born at home and he weighed over nine lbs. at birth! Julia was a small woman, about 5′ 2″ and slender. Giving birth to a nine pound baby at home was not an easy task.

Julia took care of George and helped out at the meat market throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. My grandfather died in 1936, but I believe my grandmother continued to help out at the store. The Central Market not only made it through the Depression, but did well. It also prospered during World War II, but, ironically, it didn’t survive the post-war economic boom in the 1950’s.

As far as I know, Julia never worked outside the home except at Central Market. After George died, she did rent out a back room in our two-family house at 49 Summer Street to make some extra money.

Julia was an talented gardener; she loved flowers. There were always plants in bloom in the spring while summer brought all the garden tomatoes.

When the 1940 census was released, I was excited to find her and my father. Nicholas Tidik, son of her deceased sister, Mary was also living in the household. I was surprised to see her age: 35! (Remember, she was born in 1893 and corrected store clerks when they gave her the wrong change when she was 90.) I guess she didn’t see the need to tell the census taker how old she really was!

Sabos are three families up from bottom

Julia was an active member of St. Michael’s Church, belonging to the Rosary Society. She had a wide circle of friends, whom I now recognize as fellow immigrants from Udol.  She and her brother, Peter Scerbak, took part in church plays.

She raised my father as a single parent and made sure he got a good education. This photo of Julia and son George is from around the time he graduated from high school:

George & Julia in Front of House
Julia and My Father, c1945

Nana was very religious. Although she always attended St. Michael’s, she often visited other Catholic churches around Passaic. I can remember being taken with her on these walks, stopping in at St. Nicholas, Holy Trinity, St. Anthony, St. Mary, Holy Rosary, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. . . .we always walked to these churches and they were spread out around the city.

St. Michael’s Church celebrated its 90th anniversary in 1980. Remember how Julia didn’t like the census taker knowing how old she really was? Well, the pastor of St. Michael’s called and asked us to bring Julia to their banquet dinner at the church celebration. She was to be introduced as the oldest living member who was baptized at St. Michael’s. We took her to the banquet and she was introduced. Nana was 87 and was not happy that everyone knew it! She liked it even less when she saw this in the Eastern Catholic Life newspaper:

Cathederal Parishioners Honored (Julia Sabo)
Julia at St. Michael’s Celebration

She lived a long, healthy life. I don’t ever remember her going to the doctor’s except for once when she was in her 80’s and had the flu. Actually, I think the doctor made a house call.

Julia's Obituary
Herald News Obituary, 31 May 1985

Julia died in her sleep on 24 May 1985. She had been baptized at St. Michael’s, married there and her funeral was held there, too. She was buried next to husband George, whom she outlived by 49 years. On her other side was my father, who predeceased her by 8 weeks, passing away from lung cancer.

I’m very grateful for all the years I had growing up with Nana as she always lived with us. I am also very grateful that she broke down our family history brick wall. If she had passed away before I started researching, I likely would never have learned that our family name wasn’t Sabo, it was Kucharik!