ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Those Who Remain Behind

Though small and isolated, Jakubany stands as a citadel of faith

Last December, on the feast of St. Nicholas, a group of excited preschool children gathered around a priest in a classroom in the remote village of Jakubany in eastern Slovakia. Father Damian Saraka was there to usher in an annual custom; to greet the beloved St. Nicholas and his scary sidekick, the devil. This year, the young Greek Catholic priest had another reason for attending the event. Dorothy, his daughter, sat among the giddy children.

Every feast of St. Nicholas, the bishop and his less than saintly companion visit Jakubany, checking whether or not children know their prayers. St. Nicholas rewards those who do with candy and other goodies. The devil threatens to punish those who do not.

Under communism, authorities discouraged the custom in favor of the more secular Santa Claus. But in this Rusyn Greek Catholic village, residents flouted the restriction and continued to host the saint and the imp, impressing upon their children the necessity of prayer.

Before his current assignment in Jakubany, Father Saraka lived and worked for five years in a hamlet of 80 people near Slovakia’s border with Ukraine — his first parish after his ordination to the priesthood in Prešov. Alcoholism was rife in the tiny community and only four men had jobs.

“When people came to the house to do some work,” the priest remembered, “they would first ask for alcohol. To them, it was like putting gas in a car.”

In Jakubany, things are different, he said. Villagers want to work.

As elsewhere in eastern Slovakia, the country’s least developed region, unemployment in Jakubany runs high. The few jobs available — almost exclusively in the construction, service and teaching sectors — pay poorly. This dearth of opportunity compels young villagers to look for work in Slovakia’s larger urban centers or in the neighboring Czech Republic. Young, unmarried men often share information about available jobs even further afield, such as Britain, Ireland or the United States.

“Younger people move to the nearby town of Stará L’ubovňa for work and get flats or houses there,” said Mária Pol’anská, the school’s director. “Open borders [within the European Union] allow a lot of people to go abroad to look for work. Some come back, some don’t.”

Mrs. Pol’anská has four children and six grandchildren, but none live in Jakubany. “My children married and went off to Stará L’ubovňa, to Holland and elsewhere. They talked about who would stay and take over the family home, but in the end they all left.”

While Mrs. Pol’anská has considered leaving Jakubany and joining members of her family, she has decided against it for now. “My home is here, my old mother is here.”

Recent migration has not yet depopulated the village of its 2,500 residents. The municipality has invested considerable sums to improve infrastructure. A new road was built and an updated sewage system is being installed. There are also plans to construct new apartment buildings.

“The population has now stabilized,” said Michal Kundl’a, village historian and a retired teacher. To lure back those who left, the village has made land available at low rates. “We hope those who went abroad will return and build their own homes.”

But Jakubany may not be able to hold back migration’s sting much longer. More than a third of its population is over the age of 60 and, with few job opportunities, many young families struggle to stay afloat. According to Mrs. Pol’anská, the number of children in preschool has also dropped from 73 to 56 in recent years.

About 300 students, including a growing number of Roma, attend the village’s only public school, which includes classes from first through ninth grades. For high school, students from Jakubany travel to nearby Stará L’ubovňa or Prešov.

Until recently, village youth rarely went to university. For many years, careers in the skilled trades —carpentry, masonry and plastering — promised a comfortable living, particularly in Britain or North America. These days, a growing number of Jakubany’s young people, lured by the prospect of lucrative professional careers abroad, are now setting their sights on a college education.

At the village school all students must take a course in religion or ethics. Most choose religion class, which Father Saraka and a colleague teach. The priest also teaches a section specially designed for Roma students.

Unlike the Rusyn majority, the number of Roma children in Jakubany has increased in recent years. None are enrolled in the preschool. For the most part, if a Roma child attends preschool, he or she does so intermittently and is considered by the school as a “visitor.”

According to the school’s director, not sending children to preschool is a relatively recent trend. Under communism, she explained, all children enrolled in the program, mainly because the government closely monitored attendance.

“Maternity leave and benefits were tied to attendance,” said Mrs. Pol’anská. But under democracy, people are free to do as they want: they must take the initiative to do it.

“Roma usually choose not to send their children to preschool.’

Over the past five years, Jakubany’s Roma community has grown from about 600 to 800 people, now making up about a third of the village’s total population. To assist the increasing number of Roma students, the school employs a first–grade teacher, who is Roma and speaks the Romany dialect used in the village. Most Roma children speak Romany as their first language and many need individual help with Slovak.

In addition to teaching religion to Roma students, Father Saraka celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the Roma chapel each week and visits Roma parishioners in their homes. Father Saraka laments the widespread anti–Roma stereotypes, particularly among older villagers. But he remains optimistic that attitudes toward Roma are changing for the better, at least among the younger generation.

“A priest’s role is to evangelize and to lead people to a spiritual life. My work is to say that through Jesus comes truth and light. My work is to show the way,” he said.

The earliest historical record of Jakubany dates from 1322, when the governing nobleman of Stará L’ubovňa ordered the construction of a new village. Initially called Stefanoce, the village’s name changed to Jakubany about 1348.

Poor Rusyn shepherds and farmers first settled there, clearing the surrounding forests for pastures and fields. For centuries, this distinct ethnic Slavic group has lived in scattered communities throughout the mountainous Carpathian region.

While Jakubany remains overwhelmingly Rusyn, historical circumstances have often blurred the villagers’ ethnic identity. “In the First Republic [1918-39], people were Rusyn, then Slovak, then Ukrainian. Then they got scared and chose to be Slovak, but spoke Rusyn,” explained Mr. Kundl’a.

Most of Jakubany’s residents speak Rusyn, even if they have a mixed ethnic heritage. Though his father was Slovak, Mr. Kundl’a speaks Rusyn. The son of a priest, Father Saraka is also ethnic Slovak, but he grew up in a Rusyn village. As do most Greek Catholic priests in Slovakia, he celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic and Slovak. He hears confessions, however, in Rusyn.

When iron was discovered in the nearby mountains in the early 19th century, Jakubany experienced a population boom, peaking at 2,800 villagers in 1825. But when the iron ran out, the village gradually declined. Most of those who remained worked in the forests. Economic depression in the first half of the 20th century — particularly during the World War II era — hit Jakubany hard, driving many villagers to emigrate to the United States or Ukraine.

In the 1950’s, Communist authorities imposed collective farming and seized nearby forests, restricting access only to the military. Dramatically, these measures changed Jakubany’s way of life. By the 1970’s, large contemporary residential buildings designed for multigenerational use replaced many of the village’s traditional small log houses. Most of the remaining relics now lie uninhabited. Ironically, during much of this period, Jakubany enjoyed its highest level of prosperity and stability.

“Jakubany is a very Greek Catholic village,” said Father Saraka. “And traditions are very strong here. Their faith and traditions help the villagers keep their Rusyn identity.”

While Jakubany had always been Greek Catholic, Czechoslovakia’s post–World War II Communist government suppressed the church and forced its members to enter the Orthodox Church, whose Byzantine rites and traditions they shared. When Jakubany’s Greek Catholic pastor refused to comply, he was imprisoned and replaced by an Orthodox priest, who was largely ignored by the villagers. Many clung to their Greek Catholic faith at home, only attending church services during special occasions, such as weddings.

In 1968, amid a period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring, a Greek Catholic priest returned to Jakubany. When he tried to reclaim the parish, his Orthodox counterpart refused to leave. For four weeks, the Greek Catholic cleric celebrated liturgies outside the parish church. Taking matters into their own hands, villagers eventually removed the Orthodox priest from the church. The police arrested 10 people, sentencing each of them to two years in prison. For a time, authorities again banned the celebration of the Greek Catholic liturgy.

At the center of the storm was a striking stone structure, Italianate in style, dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. Villagers built the church about a century ago after the original wooden one, then dedicated to Sts. Cosmas and Damian, burnt. The present church dominates the village, serving as its focal point and principal tourist attraction.

“The church is very much the center of the community here,” said Father Saraka. “It helps older people keep their traditions and younger people to understand them better.

“But we have a problem with people observing religion as they would a tradition. Traditions are not the purpose of faith: they should help people with their faith.

“When young people leave,” the priest said, “they often lose their faith as they lose their traditions. I want to help them realize the beauty of life lived in accord with Jesus.”

Jakubany has a rich cultural heritage, including distinctive folklore, music, dance and dress. Villagers developed traditions in relation to their deep, historical relationship with the forests, pastures and mountains that surround the community.

“People here were woodlanders, living in forest chalets and gathering mushrooms,” said Michal Kundl’a, the village historian. Mr. Kundl’a has studied Jakubany’s history since his college years. He also established a folklore society, which he ran for 27 years.

When Father Saraka first came to the village, however, the folklore society no longer held meetings. Sensing something was missing, Father Saraka encouraged Mr. Kundl’a and others to revive the group.

“Everyone still knew the songs, but they weren’t doing anything with them. I asked about the folklore group and lit a small fire, but it was the people here who took it and made something big of it,” recalled the priest.

Active again, the folklore society now organizes seasonal events and takes part in regional festivals and competitions. For religious celebrations, many villagers wear hand–stitched costumes and perform time-honored dances. But these traditions are not limited to special occasions. Most older women still wear traditional dress to church.

Father Saraka also encouraged Mr. Kundl’a to write a book on the village’s history and its traditions. Taking the priest’s advice, Mr. Kundl’a wrote the book, which was published in 2004. An instant sensation locally, it sold out in two weeks. Currently in its second printing, it is now being translated into English.

In 2005, a group of Americans whose parents or grandparents emigrated from Jakubany visited the village. Everyone in the village got caught up in the excitement.

“They prepared some special presentations for the visitors,” said Father Saraka. “When they saw how well that went, people really got involved.” The priest himself exhibited some of the 9,000 photographs he has taken documenting village life.

“My business is your business,” said Father Saraka with a smile when describing relations among the village’s residents. In Jakubany, neighbors rank second only to family. For generations, extended family lived and worked close to one another, often sharing households. Even today, most of the village’s elderly live with their families. But, Father Saraka worries that the village’s traditional family is disappearing.

“Contemporary children probably won’t grow up to take care of their parents because their parents are away at work all day. That changes family relations. Fewer families live and work together as in the past. More men with families are leaving to work abroad, which also changes family dynamics.”

Yet despite changing economic and social pressures, residents keep positive. Helena Knazovická and Magda Dzedzinová, preschool teachers, tell a joke about the people who live in Jakubany. Once long ago, a plane flying over the village crashed nearby. The passengers who landed on their feet ran away, while those who landed on their heads stayed in Jakubany. The women laughed, but then quickly listed reasons never to leave. They boasted that Jakubany had the best air in central Europe, the cleanest water, the most beautiful nature – no matter what season – perfect for swimming, hiking, mushrooming, skiing and skating, and of course the best goulash parties around.

“People here are openhearted mountain folks. They are used to speaking their minds and moving on. They’re ordinary people, helpful and willing,” said Mr. Kundl’a.

“They love their priests, especially this priest and the last one. Neither has held himself above the people. Both have taught that love is the best thing we have, that rich or poor we can help, give to and love one another. They have strengthened the faith of people who remain here.”

Jacqueline Ruyak is a frequent contributor to ONE magazine.

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