How My Slovak Grandparents Continue To Inspire Me

My name is Fr. Jared Orndorff. I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Cleveland, cialis canada OH, on May 10, 2008. I believe that the witness of my maternal Slovak grandparents helped inspire me to enter into the vocation of priesthood!

Branch 553 (and the adjoining Jednota Club) was founded in 1914. My great-great grandfather Vincent Petrasek was one of the founding members that today can be seen on a picture hanging on the wall at the Jednota Club on Morgan Avenue in Akron, OH. The Petrasek family has had a history of involvement in the club and the first manager was my Great Uncle John Petrasek in 1938. In later years, my Grandfather Stephen Petrasek was president and now his brother, my Great Uncle Joseph Petrasek is president and Cousin Greg is vice president. I also am a member of the branch.

My Grandfather Steve made many trips back to the homeland of Slovakia while he was working as a tire engineer for Firestone, a major tire manufacturer located in Akron, OH. The most recent was in 2004, before his death in 2007. I was unable to go because I was in First Theology at St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, OH, as part of my preparation for the priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland. Steve traveled with my Uncle Larry, Great Uncle Joe, and Cousin Greg. Steve and Joe took Larry and Greg for an experience of a lifetime on a trip to see where their grandparents were born.

Great-great Grandfather Vincent Petrasek was born on October 4, 1889 in Varin, Slovakia – which was then Austria-Hungary. Varin, a quaint town in the Vah River Valley, is near the Slovak county seat of Zelina. My family visited the house where he was born and raised with his two sisters and two brothers by their father Jan Petrasek and mother Anna (Zacik). They even brought home a brick from that house to keep as a family heirloom. They visited the church and school that my great-great grandfather attended which was the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in 1233.

From there, they went to the village of Great- great Grandmother Maria Katarina Kurnat who was born on December 10, 1894 in Nowa Biala, Austria-Hungary. Nowa Biala means “New White” in English. They visited the house next door to the one that my great-great grandma was born in, enjoying lunch with her first cousin Sylvestor Kurnat (who was 94 years old at the time) and his family. He had fond memories of Maria holding his hand and taking him to church when he was a child. They walked to St. Katerina (St. Catherine) Church, which was built around 900AD and is still beautiful today. The altar was built by a cousin that they met by the name of Andrej Skupin. His work is absolutely beautiful. Nowa Biala is now a part of Poland near Nowy Targ. In the 1920s Slovakia and Poland traded territories and this part of the Slovak county of Spis was annexed by Poland. Although the town is now a part of Poland, the area is steeped in Slovak traditions and the people even sing nationalistic Slovak songs, which they sang with my visiting relatives.

During WWII, the Nazis tried to burn down the church in Nowa Biala. Armed with nothing but pitch forks, Sylvestor’s son Frantisek and other brave townsmen surrounded the church to defend it. The Nazis killed four of the men and then decided to leave and not kill the remaining men but burn the church. There is a memorial in town for the four brave countrymen that gave their lives to save the church. They are the heroes of Nowa Biala.

My grandfather Steve was raised in a Catholic Slovak family in the Firestone Park neighborhood of Akron, OH, and went to grade school at St. John the Baptist, a Slovak parish in Akron. He attended Garfield High School where he met his future wife Doris who graduated from the same high school.

My grandmother Doris, who was not a practicing Catholic during her growing up years, converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage to my grandfather on June 29, 1946, and together they grew in faith and raised their three children (my mother Catherine, and my two uncles Jim and Larry) in the Church. I remember as a child that saying the grace before meals was so much different at home than it was when we ate with Grandpa Steve. He prayed so loud, and in a funny language! It was about that time that my grandfather began teaching my brother and me about our Slovak heritage.

Steve made many trips to Rome and witnessed many audiences with Popes. He was the third of five boys in the family and his mom selected him to attend classes and learn proper Slovak. On trips to Europe, he was easily understood as his command of the language was not compromised by speaking a village dialect or mixing English and Slovak words together as many children of Slovak Americans learned to do growing up.

I remember when they attended the First Catholic Slovak Union’s National Convention in Boca Raton, FL, 2006 while Steve was president of Branch 553. Steve was a guest speaker, along with Chuck Bednarik, the NFL Hall of Famer and former player for the Philadelphia Eagles. Both talked about their Slovak heritage and Steve spoke about his career – not only as a tire engineer but also in auto racing. Steve received a standing ovation when he was done. Steve was very generous with his time and talents, always repairing cars and providing tires for the Vincentian Sisters of Charity at St. John’s. A funny story that is related by his son, my Uncle Larry, went like this: On spring break as a teenager Larry remembers spot- ting for Grandpa at the Indianapolis 500 race- way while top driver AJ Foyt was testing tires for Firestone, the tires designed by Steve. A promotional studio wanted to film a tire commercial involving my grandfather. There had to be about 10 different takes of Steve rolling the tire up, setting it on a stack of tires, licking his fingers, and rubbing the tire to show the tread wear. This went on until Grandpa’s mouth was black with tire lamp black carbon. Larry and Jim laughed and joked about it.

About two months later, the nuns came to the house to have Steve mount tires again for their car. Even though this was a particularly stressful time in his life when he had virtually no time to himself, he found it in his heart to take care of the nuns. When his son questioned the fact that maybe the nuns were imposing on him, he said, “Don’t worry, the Good Lord will take care of me some day.” After the nuns left, checks started arriving in the mail in compensation for using Grandpa’s likeness on television in the commercial he helped make in Indianapolis. Grandpa said, “Remember when you laughed because I had tire carbon on my face and thought the nuns were taking advantage of me? Well, the Good Lord is showing His appreciation.”

When Steve passed away on September 15, 2007, Doris passed way two months later, on November 12, of a broken heart. While she had medical issues too, the loneliness was apparent to family members. I think Steve chose September 15th on purpose, as it is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows, Patroness of
Slovakia! It was truly my grandmother who was sorrowful; I believe she didn’t want to go on without Grandpa and just gave up. I was ordained a deacon on November 4, 2007, and the first homily I ever preached was at my grand- mother’s funeral.

I am pastor of St. Joseph Church in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. And behind my desk in my office is a crucifix that belonged to my grandparents. On the counter is a Slovak flag and an Icon of Our Lady of Sorrows. My grandparents still share their faith and heritage with me as I try to live out the values they taught me.

Submitted by: Father Jared Orndorff
Branch 553