The Battle at St. Ladislas

Hungarians and Slovaks vie for Control of First Church

Description

On Sunday, August 2, 1891, the congregation of Hungarian (Magyar) and Slovak parishioners gathered in St. Ladislas Roman Catholic Church on the southeast side of Cleveland for mass. Father John Martvon, the church's Slovak pastor, began the mass in Latin, but when the time arrived for him to give his sermon, he began to speak in Slovak. This touched off a riot at the church. The Hungarian parishioners began cursing the priest, which drew an angry response from the Slovak parishioners. Then, someone yelled, "Kill the Slav priest!" Soon, Slovaks and Hungarians were battling one another in the church, while one of the Slovaks, Jacob Gruss, stood by the altar in front of Father Martvon, brandishing a pistol to keep the threatening Hungarians from harming the priest. Eventually, Cleveland police officers from the nearby Fifth Precinct arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowd before anyone was seriously injured.

The riot at St. Ladislas on August 2, 1891, was the opening salvo in a battle for control of the church which had been built just two years earlier in 1889. The church had been built to serve Roman Catholic immigrants from Hungary--primarily Magyars and Slovaks, who had been moving to the southeast side of Cleveland-- near the iron works and other factories, since the early 1880s. While these two ethnic groups were from the same country and shared the same religious faith, they had animosity towards one another as the result of a Hungarian nationalist policy known as "Magyarization," which sought to suppress the language, culture and identity of Slovak and other non-Magyar ethnics living in Hungary.

Throughout the month of August 1891, Slovaks and Magyars continued to wage their battle. The Cleveland police officers who staffed the Fifth precinct station remained on high alert throughout the month, especially after another riot broke out in front of Father Martvon's residence on South Woodland Avenue (Buckeye Road) on August 15. While Magyar parish leaders deplored the violence, they hired two prominent Cleveland attorneys--Martin A. Foran, a former county prosecutor and former congressman, and Joseph C. Bloch, a Jewish lawyer born in Hungary, in an attempt to convince the Cleveland Catholic diocese to award the church to the Hungarians and to instruct the Slovaks to build another church somewhere else.

In the twelve day period between August 6 and August 18, at least four meetings were held in which the warring ethnic groups yelled at each other, pleaded with each other, and tried to convince each other to agree to a deal which would give one or the other exclusive control of the church. In the end, the advantage was with the Slovaks. While the Hungarians had hired two of Cleveland's best attorneys to argue their case, the Slovaks, who had not hired legal counsel, instead relied upon their parish priest Father Martvon and Our Lady of Lourdes pastor Stephen Furdek, both Slovak immigrants, to argue their case to the diocese. It was a winning strategy. The Hungarians saw that the Diocese was not going to award them St. Ladislas so they settled with the Slovaks. They relinquished their claim to the church and built a new church--St. Elizabeth of Hungary, two blocks away. The Slovaks paid the departing Magyars $1000 and St. Ladislas officially became Cleveland's first Slovak Roman Catholic Church.


Photos Show

St. Ladislas Church

Undated photograph of the original St. Ladislas Roman Catholic church that stood on the northeast corner of Holton and Corwin (East 92nd) Avenues, facing Corwin Avenue. The church was built in 1889 and was used by the parish until it was moved in 1906 to make way for a new and larger brick church. The riot between Magyar and Slovak parishioners on August 2, 1891 took place in this church.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Not just another hot August in Cleveland

In the month of August in 1891, Cleveland newspapers swelled with stories about the battle for St. Ladislas Roman Catholic Church waged by its Magyar and Slovak (referred to as "Slav") parishioners. As this headline from the August 3, 1891 edition of the Cleveland Leader indicates, the battle was touched off on August 2, 1891 by a riot at the church that imperiled the life of its pastor, Father John Martvon, an immigrant Slovak priest who was charged with serving both Magyar and Slovak parishioners.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections

Rev. John Martvon (1857-1948)

Father Martvon was the first pastor of St. Ladislas Roman Catholic Church and a casualty of the battle between Slovak and Magyar parishioners for control of the church. After having his life threatened on at least two occasions during the month of August 1891, he left St. Ladislas in July 1892 and returned to Europe. Father Martvon subsequently returned to the United States in 1894, becoming pastor at St. Andrew's Slovak Catholic Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. When he died at age 91 in 1948, he was at the time the oldest priest in the United States.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Violence Flares Again.

The "race" war between the Magyar and Slovak parishioners of St. Ladislas flared again during the evening of Saturday, August 15, 1891. A crowd of about 100 Magyars surrounded the residence of Father Martvon on S. Woodland Avenue (Buckeye Road). The gathering turned violent when Magyars began throwing stones, bricks and pieces of scrap iron at the residence, breaking windows, damaging the interior of the residence, and terrifying both Father Martvon and his housekeeper. Once again, police officers were summoned from the nearby Fifth Precinct station to disperse the crowd.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Fifth Precinct Police Station

1898 photo of Cleveland's Fifth precinct police station, known as the Guard Street station, which was located near Woodland Avenue and East Madison (East 79th Street), less than a mile from St. Ladislas Church. In August 1891, the station was staffed by Sergeant George J. Griffin and four patrolmen. During that month, the station remained on high alert and was on at least two occasions summoned to the St. Ladislas church neighborhood to quell riots by the church's Magyar parishioners.

Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Gallery.

Rev. Stephen Furdek (1855-1915)

Known as the Father of American Slovaks, Father Furdek immigrated from Hungary to America in 1882. In the mid-1880s, while serving as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, a primarily Bohemian parish, he organized and founded St. Ladislas parish to minister to Slovak immigrants. When the Magyar parishioners of St. Ladislas rioted in August 1891 and attempted to obtain control of the church, Father Furdek was instrumental in persuading the Cleveland Catholic diocese to award the church instead to its Slovak parishioners.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Hon. Martin A. Foran (1844-1921)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Martin A. Foran was one of Cleveland's best known and best connected attorneys. In addition to his law practice, he served as County Prosecutor, was elected to several terms as a Democrat congressman from Cleveland, and completed his career as a Judge of Common Pleas Court for Cuyahoga County. In 1891, he represented the Magyar parishioners of St. Ladislas church in their attempt to wrest control of the church from its Slovak parishioners. Despite his skills and efforts, Foran was unable to persuade the Cleveland Catholic Diocese to award the church to the Magyars.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Scwartz Library. Special Collections.

Two views of the second St. Ladislas Church

In 1905-06, the old St. Ladislas church building which was the subject of the 1891 battle between its Magyar and Slovak parishioners was moved and replaced by a new and larger red brick church shown in the photos above, which was dedicated on October 6, 1906. The left image shows the new red brick church with white trim and steeple. The second image shows the church years later after its red brick and white trim had been blackened by soot from Cleveland's southeast side factories, and after the steeple, which had deteriorated, was removed in 1920.

Images courtesy of the Slovak Institute.

St. Ladislas Parish Site - 1952

This Sanborn Insurance map shows the location of the second St. Ladislas church on the corner of East 92nd Street and Holton Avenue. The building immediately to the rear of the church (fronting on Holton) and marked as a "school" is the original St. Ladislas church built in 1889. After it was moved, It served as a school building until the early 1960s when it became the parish hall.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Scwartz Library.

Still standing

On August 8, 1970, a disastrous fire struck St. Ladislas, destroying the brick church that had been built in 1906. Miraculously, the nearby original wooden church, which was the subject of the 1891 riot, suffered no damage in the fire. The Cleveland Diocese sold the St. Ladislas property in 1971. Today, the original St. Ladislas church (shown in the photo above), is home to an Evangelical ministry.

Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko

Cite this Page

Jim Dubelko, “The Battle at St. Ladislas,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 24, 2014, http:/​/​clevelandhistorical.​org/​items/​show/​596.​
View a random Story
comments powered by Disqus

Share this Page