Culture yields to reality for some Westmoreland County ethnic clubs
The Croatians of Yukon have found that serving Mexican food is one way to keep their own culture alive.
“Taco Tuesdays” still bring people in to the Croatian Fraternal Union, Lodge 432, but officers worry that the club is going the way of the Eastern European communities that once thrived in Western Pennsylvania.
Membership in CFU Lodge 432 continues to drop, as it does in similar clubs across the region, so the leadership has taken to offering a mix of foods and activities to appeal to a wider audience. The club’s Croatian identity is becoming less an expression of its membership and more an ethnic brand offered to an indifferent world.
“You’re just losing the population. The younger generation is just not finding an interest,” said Michaelene Nohavicka, Lodge 432 president.
Lodge 432 is one club that is pushing back by offering things such as dance classes, craft fairs, food nights and monthly indoor picnics. At a recent “Kolo for Kids” dance class, however, only one child showed up.
“The more we do, the more we feel like we’re not connecting with today’s Croatians. It’s a hard task at hand,” said longtime member Lori Waryanka, 53, of Hutchinson.
Waryanka’s grandfather, Marko Yelich, came to Westmoreland County as a 14-year-old from the old country. He was part of a large influx of Croatians who arrived to work in the area’s coal mines and coke ovens, she said.
Immigrants from Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and other Eastern European locales formed communities around their churches — some Catholic, some Orthodox — and their lodges. Over time, the communities pooled their resources and formed fraternal societies that offered life insurance and other financial benefits.
Today, three of the largest societies — the Croatian Fraternal Union , the Serb National Federation and the Slovenian National Benefit Society (SNPJ) — have their national headquarters in the greater Pittsburgh area. But many of their individual lodges are struggling.
Lodges used to be the locus of community life for Central and Eastern Europeans who settled here, said Lance Medich, 51, of Duquesne, Allegheny County.
“The reasoning behind the lodges in the beginning was fundamental: They all started as insurance companies because people needed to be able to bury their loved ones,” Medich said. “These immigrants came over and were terrified of not being able to get a Christian burial. They got together and pooled their money.”
Medich’s father, Alex Medich, was active with Serb National Federation, Lodge 76, for years but eventually sold the Duquesne building to the Boys Clubs of America. The once-prosperous lodge is now located in Medich’s home, where a few members meet once a month.
Medich said lodges, in addition to providing financial benefits, were social gathering places for ethnic communities. Their ballrooms hosted dances where men met their future wives. Men formed baseball and basketball teams and competed against neighboring lodges, he said.
There also was plenty of drinking, and the liquor license often was the local lodge’s key to financial success. Serbs enjoyed their plum brandy, while Croatians had their own version, slivovitz.
At CFU Lodge 432, the old bar in the basement had a trough where men could relieve themselves without having to use the restroom, members said. A secure cell was available if someone got too drunk or unruly.
Lodge 432 struggled after losing its liquor license but got it back in 2004, Nohavicka said. Today, its chief sources of income are the bar clientele and food events that draw outside customers, she said.
On Sunday, Lodge 432 will hold its final indoor picnic of the year. The event, usually held on the third Sunday of the month, will feature roasted lamb and music performed by Orchestra Radost from 2-6 p.m.
Although lodge membership requires the purchase of a life insurance policy or annuity, social members also are permitted. Social membership requires an invitation by a lodge member and annual dues of $15. State law governing fraternal organizations mandates such a membership after three visits.
Current Lodge 432 membership is 135 people, about a quarter of whom live in the area and participate in lodge activities, Nohavicka said. Social membership is about 150.
“We have several social members who are not even Croatian who love to come to the events. They enjoy the atmosphere,” she said.
Lodge 432 has cut back its hours and its staff over the years. It currently is looking for a part-time bartender to replace Rochelle Silvis, 34, of Wyano, whose last day is Sunday.
“When I first started here, you could have 15-20 people here on any given night. Nowadays, it’s more like 3-5 people,” Silvis said.
Lodge officers continue to search for the right mix of offerings that will boost membership, especially as they look to replace the roof and make other much-needed repairs.
“We have a lot of loyal customers who come to the monthly events,” Waryanka said. “We have people who will pay $18 per pound for roasted lamb but who will complain when we raise the drink prices a quarter. That’s the crazy world of ethnic clubs.”
People such as Dave Erhardt, a German-Italian, and David Waryanka, a Serb, may be the future of the Croatian lodge — a more multi-ethnic future. On a recent “Taco Tuesday,” both were at the club despite not sharing in its Croatian identity.
Waryanka, 64, of Hutchinson, married into a Croatian family is now lodge vice president. The historic enmity between Serbs and Croats gets erased over drinks at the Lodge 432 bar.
“We prove we can get along very well,” said his wife, Lori, a full-time florist who volunteers as a cook and waitress at the club.
Erhardt, 65, of Ruffsdale said he appreciates any organization that seeks to preserve the importance of family and community.
“What you see here is the remnant of the Croatian community,” he said. “To watch it die off is almost a sin.”