Friday, April 26, 2013

The 1925 Church of St. John Nepomucene -- No. 411 East 66th St.

photo by Alice Lum
The Slavok movement into the United States started slowly.  In the 18th century only a relative handful of immigrants from Slovakia, then a portion of the Kingdom of Hungary, were documented.  But following the American Civil War, the Hungarian Nationalities Law of 1868 initiated magyarization—the forced adoption of the Hungarian culture and language by non-Hungarian nationals.  Suddenly mass immigration of Slovaks into America began.

Unlike some other ethnic groups that swelled along the East Coast in the 19th century; the Slovakian population tended to move on from the port cities to the open farmlands.  More than half of the 500,000 immigrants between 1880 and 1925 settled in Pennsylvania, while others went further into the Midwestern states of Ohio and Illinois.

The early Slavokians who stayed in New York remained on the Lower East Side—an area filled with Hungarians, Germans, Polish and other Central European immigrants.  By 1891 the Slovakian population here was large enough that the Society of St. Matthew was formed; a Catholic group that dearly wanted its own parish.

The powerful Archbishop Michael Corrigan approved the formation of the St. John Nepomucene Parish and on October 25, 1895 the first mass was held on East 4th Street in the Lower East Side neighborhood.   The congregation took its name from the Bohemian Saint John of Nepomuk.  The 14th century priest was the confessor of King Wenceslaus and his queen.   Legend and history collude to tell his fascinating tale.

In 1393 the king, concerned that his wife may have a lover, demanded that John reveal the queen’s confession.  The priest refused, resulting in his torture.  When he still withheld the queen’s confession, on March 20 the frustrated King Wenceslaus had him tossed into the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge in Prague where he drowned.

Five hundred years later the parish named for the saint had trouble keeping its congregation together.   Life for the mostly-impoverished immigrants who did not speak English was difficult.  Equally hard was finding a local Catholic priest who spoke Slovak.  Fifteen priests would come and go within the first thirteen years of the parish’s existence.

The parish survived, however, and grew.   As the Yorkville neighborhood became the preferred home of Hungarians, Slovaks and Poles in the first decade of the new century, St. John Nepomucene relocated to No. 350 East 57th Street in a former synagogue.  By the early 1920s the congregation had grown large enough to support a school.  Another move was deemed necessary.

Land was purchased on East 66th Street near First Avenue and architect John Vredenburgh Van Pelt was commissioned to design a grouping of church, school and rectory buildings.   Born in Philadelphia, Van Pelt was as well known as an architectural historian and author as he was for his designs.  If the idea to build a church that reflected the Slovakian heritage of his clients ever occurred to him, he discarded it.

Instead he turned to the Southern Sicilian Romanesque style, drawing inspiration from the Clunic and Benedictine Moissac Abbey in Tarn-et-Garonne, France.   Completed in 1925, the red brick and limestone church was embellished with fine base reliefs, thin stone pillars upholding a handsome corbel table, an intricate rose window, and dramatic hooded entrance.
photo by Alice Lum
On the inside, Van Pelt provided a more substantial nod to the roots of the parish.  The triptych mosaic over the altar depicted scenes from the lives of brother saints Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity to the Slavs, and that of St. John.

The group of structures cost the parish $300,000, over ten times that amount by today’s standards.  Van Pelt was apparently pleased with the result, for just four years later he designed the new Church of the Guardian Angel on 6th Avenue—a scaled-down near copy of St. John Nepomucene.

Guardian Angel, in the Chelsea neighborhood, was a scaled-down version.
Part of the Yorkville neighborhood continued to fill with Hungarians and Slovakians through the Great Depression and the “New York City Guide” published by the Federal Writer’s Project noted “The Hungarian daily, Amerikai Magyar Nepszava, is found on the newsstands in this vicinity; Tokay wine is featured in the liquor stores; and in the delicatessens are sold goose livers and the famed Hercz, Pick, and Drossy salamis from Budapest.”

The church was the scene of Slovak weddings and funerals and the center of social life for many of the immigrant families.  As mid-century approached Reverand John Lissie was priest here.   The down-to-earth Father accepted an invitation to go fishing on East Chester Bay in the Bronx with neighbor and parishioner John Mihalek on November 5, 1948.  It turned out to be a bad idea.

The men rented a rowboat from Miek’s Boat House and rowed far out onto the bay where they enjoyed a relaxing afternoon fishing.   As the sun began to set, however, a dense fog rolled in, enveloping the boat and the amateur fishermen.

“The victims of the sea fog,” said The New York Times, ”were helplessly lost and began shouting for help.  Around 7:30 p.m. Maxwell S. Greenwald heart the calls coming out of the thick fog.  He and his brother called for police, then, assuming the men were in the water, stood on the bank and yelled back into the fog.  They repeatedly told the pair to keep their heads above the water.

Thirty minutes later, at last, a launch found the floundering priest and his parishioner and towed them back to Fort Schuyler.

photo by Alice Lum
On September 10, 1976 The New York Times reminisced about the quickly-disappearing Slovak neighborhood around the church.  “You’d better look quick, because it will all be dead in five years.  Ten at the most,” residence Josef Sereda told a reporter.

The newspaper found remnants of the old Slovakian neighborhood still intact—“Charles Weigl’s butcher shop with the basics of Czech cooking and Karel Pan in his Little Slovakia bar”—but it noted that “By the 60’s much of the neighobrhood’s old cohesiveness had already gone.  New generations of old immigrant families ahd become Americanized and moved away.”

Father Torok of St. John Nepomucene chimed in.  “This is becoming a gourmand and show-business place,” he told the reporter.  “Very chic,. First Avenue, Friday night is a show in itself.  You know, across the street there was for many years Mr. Drabik’s funeral home.  Now it’s an ice-cream parlor.”

Not all of the Slovakian culture was gone yet, however.  One of St. John Nepomucene’s parishioners was Ferdinand Peroutka; a man with an amazing past.   In 1924, the year that the first bricks were laid for the new church, Peroutka was living in Czechoslovakia.  A young, idealistic journalist he founded the political weekly newspaper Pritomost. 

Peroutka’s paper would become the leading liberal voice of Czechoslovakians in the years between the two world wars.  He later was editor in chief of the weekly Dnesek and of the daily newspaper Svobodne Noviny.  The outspoken journalist made an enemy in the Nazi Party and when Czechoslovakia fell to the Germans he was imprisoned at Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps for six years.

With the end of the war he was released in 1945 and returned to Prague where he picked up his battle against oppression.  As the editor in chief of Lidove Noviny, he fought the infiltration of the Czech government by Communists.  When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, he was fired.

Recognizing the danger, he fled to the United States in 1950, to become head of the Czechoslovak service of Radio Free Europe in New York.  He wrote a weekly column for Radio Free Europe, as well as several plays and books, including his 1959 “A Democratic Manifesto.”

After the inspiring Peroutka’s death on April 20, 1978, a memorial service was held at St. John Nepomucene Church.

photo by Tomas Nemcok

As always, though, memorials at St. John were conducted for rich and poor, great and small.  Richard Demattia became a neighborhood fixture in the 1980s, known to doormen and school children.  Although not indigent, Demattia was homeless; apparently by choice.  He chose, too, to sleep on the steps of St. John Nepomucene.

“People in the neighborhood say they thought they recognized him, that he might have lived here once,” Reverand Robert Tomlian, pastor of the church told reporters, “He was here so long that they began to consider him as part of the group.”

Demattis purchased The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal every day and went about his normal routine, never asking for a handout.

“You would see him eating at the normal times,” said Father Tomlian, “He would get himself these plastic things from the deli salad bars.  Occasionally, people in the neighborhood would bring him food from their homes.  But he wasn’t depending on people.”

Early on the morning of February 16, 1989 Demattia spoke with a construction worker then went back to the church steps.  “He must not have felt well,” Father Tomlian told The New York Times, “because after that, he lay down on his bedroll outside the church.”  And he died.

Police found $2000 in cash in his pockets and a bankbook with $638 in his savings account.   The Times reported that “the neighborhood was saddened.”

The 8:00 morning mass the following day was offered in memory of the homeless man who slept on the church steps.

While the neighborhood continues to change, St. John Nepomucene still conducts one mass every day in Slovak and hears confessions in Slovak, English, Czech and Polish.  The remarkable Romanesque-style building, erected for Slovak immigrants nearly a century ago, stands as a reminder of when Yorkville was a close-knit Central European community.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. These posts are fascinating! Keep up the good work!:)

  2. Your posts are fantastic, Tom! Such a wealth of information. I'm from that neighborhood, and was baptized and had my first communion at St. John Nepomucene, so it was interesting to me to read so much about the history of that beautiful little church. Father Torok's comment about the neighborhood becoming show-bizzy and the funeral home across the street becoming an ice cream parlor was funny. Nowadays, people bemoan the loss of Peppermint Park, an original NYC ice cream shop, which is now a Dunkin' Donuts, a large corporate chain. I look forward to the next post ... fascinating stuff!

  3. Great information, Tom, thank you so much.

    I'm training to be a Big Apple Greeter, and your posts are priceless. Thank you.

    For out of towners who would like a four hour introduction to NYC, all five boroughs, at no cost, contact:

    Thank you. Bob

  4. Thank you for this wonderful history about my first parish. My paternal Slovak grandparents immigrated from Czechoslovakia and raised their children in Yorkville including my dad. My parents, sister, and I and my grandparents lived in the railroad apartments on E. 67th St between 1st & York in the 1950’s and were parishioners of St. John Nepomucene Church. I was too young to attend the school but my sister was a student there from 1st to 4th grade and the nuns taught both English and Slovak. My sister also made her first communion in the church. I never did get to go to school there because in ‘59, at the age of 6, my family was forced out of the apartments we lived in and moved to Queens. Our apartments were torn down and replaced with high rise apartments for Sloan Kettering medical staff. I’m guessing the lack of affordable housing was a large reason for the disappearing Slovaks in the neighborhood in the 60’s.

  5. Another outstanding post from Tom Miller. I lived in the neighborhood for almost a decade and never got around to researching this magnificent and unusual edifice. Your architectural insights are highly appreciated and your cultural research is enriching. A walk through the neighborhood will have more meaning forever after.

    1. Thank you for the kind compliment. It is rewarding to know the posts are useful and meaningful to readers like you.

  6. I attended St. john Nepomucene church when I was a boy. the year was 1974-1975 before my mother pulled me out of there due to being mistreated by the Nun's/The sister's. My time there also was not good among the other students either. Years after I left st. Johns' I would encounter a few of the former students from st. John's which wasn't good either. My name is Charlie and to this day I still live in the area.