SLOVAK – Bennie Duch enjoys visiting his hometown of Slovak.
“There is no place like Slovak when you leave,” Duch said. “When we moved, it was not but 50 miles north of here, but it was like living in a different time zone. The people weren’t raised in a close community.
“Everybody here went to church together on Sunday mornings,” he said. “We all stopped at the store most of the time to get a newspaper and spend our dime or 15 cents, and then you saw your neighbors when you got out of church.”
A recent visit had him recalling the two-room Catholic grade school he attended as a boy. It was a memory he and several others fondly spoke of during Slovak Heritage Day Feb. 25 at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak.
Slovak Heritage Day is an annual event where people can get together and discuss their memories and heritage. Slovak is an agricultural community founded in 1894 in Prairie County by Slovakian immigrants. Participants are encouraged to share memorabilia, family information and photos.
Ben and Amber Hooks enjoy attending each year. They now host a children’s craft corner, including the Slovakian tradition of decorating colorful eggs.
“It just makes it that much more special realizing cultures can stay with us here in the United States,” Ben Hooks said of the event his family helped start. “We are all southern good ol’ boys, but we can still appreciate how and why our ancestors came here.”
Slovak Heritage Day began in 2015, a year after Beth Hooks Lewis, her brother and sister-in-law Dan and Paula Hooks and their friends visited Slovakia. They went on a genealogy tour, which included a visit to the village their ancestors once lived in and meeting cousins who still lived there.
After the trip, parishioners decided to host Slovak Heritage Day, which included presentations, food, polka music and dancing. Slovakian immigrants and descendents heard about the event, such as Jana Ma?ugová McWilliams of Jacksonville, who moved from Slovakia in 2001. She set up a display on Christmas traditions, while her 15-year-old daughter Veronica’s booth focused on family memories.
That history interests Zuzana Palovic with Global Slovakia, a nonprofit she created to share Slovakian heritage and culture worldwide. Her family settled in North America, but as an adult, she moved back to Slovakia to understand her roots better. She is currently working on a fifth book about Slovak settlers.
“I think it is going to be the one most interesting to our heritage-minded folks here in the United States,” she said, “because it documents the story of their predecessors coming by boat, steamship through Ellis Island and settling first in Pennsylvania in the coal mines and steel mills. Then, gathering in different parts of the United States, like Slovak, Ark., where they came to farm.”
Research for her coming book led her to discover the Arkansas community. She was later invited to present at Slovak Heritage Day. Footage from the event will be included in a documentary hoped to be released later this year. Palovic said, “it is very important that we have it released this year because this year is the 30th anniversary of Slovakian independence.
“We want to use this as a platform to kind of highlight many remarkable things about Slovakia but also the many remarkable things about Slovak descendants who are living abroad,” she added. “This is a remarkable community in the sense that they have maintained ties for so long and across three or four generations.
Brian Lisko agreed, as he showed his 3-year-old daughter Lucy the various memorabilia and photos.
“It is amazing for this community to be here and still be as culturally intact as it is,” Lisko said. “I really think, because of it being out in the country, this has remained not just the religious hub but the social hub for this community.”
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