Albina Senko was 10 years old, newly arrived in America from a native land that is now the independent state of Slovakia, when she attended her first function at the Kollar Club. It was a Christmas party in 1946, and a bearded figure in a red suit gave her a coloring book with crayons.
“I had never gotten a gift before. I’ll never forget what it meant to me,” she said.
Christmas parties were just one of the many reasons newcomers and their kin gravitated to their second home at the Slovak club on the South Side. Formally known as the John Kollar Slovak Literary and Library Society of Pittsburgh, it is celebrating its 100th year of existence.
The social network of a century ago was a flesh-and-blood one, not a digital one. One component of the Slovak network was the Kollar Club, named for a Slovak poet. The club’s original mission, as stated in its constitution, was to aid its Slovak members to become American citizens, to educate them in the English and Slovak languages and to care for the future of Slovak youth. To be in good standing, a member must have attained U.S. citizenship within five years of arrival.
English was taught to arriving immigrants so that they could get jobs in the steel mills and coal mines, and so that they could write their names instead of having to make an “X” on their paychecks. The club has evolved through the years, but it is still a haven that preserves the culture, music, customs and food of the Old Country.
The club is part town hall, tavern and community center for those who shared a common culture and were starting a new life. Through the years, the Kollar Club was the place for Christmas and Easter events, New Year’s parties, Valentine Day’s dances, wedding receptions, glee club concerts and the like. It was a spot to raise a glass with an old friend or share a drink with a new one.
Its collection of black-and-white photos is in reality a family album, starting with the neighborhood where it is situated. The club sits on Jane Street in the front row of houses next to a CSX railroad line alongside the site where the Jones & Laughlin Corp. once fired its furnaces at the South Side Works. One of the first things workers encountered on their walk home after their shifts was the Kollar Club.
At one time, club members spruced up a nearby open space created by a stone quarry and converted it into a ball diamond. Baseball teams sponsored by the Kollar Club were once a big part of the club’s identity. The club once published its own newsletter, a sort of primitive blog. The Kollar News was a way of publicizing community events. During World War II, the newsletter — dedicated as “To Our Boys, From The Boys” — published letters from members serving in uniform overseas. It also brought news of casualties suffered in the campaigns.
Two red, white and blue flags adorn the Kollar Club’s interior. One is the Stars and Stripes; the other is the banner of their ancestral homeland. The Slovak flag was donated by Albina Senko and her husband, Joseph, the honorary Slovak consul for Pennsylvania and executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association. The consulate was opened here because there are more Slovaks in the Pittsburgh area — more than 100,000 in all — than in any place outside the homeland.
The WPSCA has sponsored language classes at the Kollar Club, but with a twist. Recent classes taught the descendants of the founders to speak in Slovak as a way of preserving their native tongue.