How It All Started

One day while rummaging through a box of my mother’s old photographs and documents I found her parent’s Certificate of Marriage. My maternal grandparents were Czech immigrants to America in the early 1900’s. Both were from small villages in the region of Bohemia. They met in Chicago and were married there on September 15, 1923. Stamped on the bottom corner of the certificate was the seal of the “CoIMG_2244ngregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.” Curious about who this congregation was and what they believed, I began a search to learn about them and in so doing to learn clues about the stock from which I had sprung.

I never knew either of my grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and is buried in Chicago. My grandmother remarried and moved to California but she died when I was only a year old. My mother told me little about her parents except that they owned and operated a “cigar and candy store” along with my great aunt. It was located on the south side of Chicago, a part of the city with a high concentration of ethnic Czech neighborhoods. They liveIMG_2535 (1)d behind the store as was common in those days.

My mother rarely referred to her family or herself as Czech. Instead, they were “Bohemians” and they spoke “Bohemian.” Like many Europeans who had officially been citizens of large empires through the centuries, my ancestors had always identified themselves by their ethnicity and language.

When she did speak of her father, it was with pride in his active involvement within the Czech community. She remembered him organizing all sorts of musical programs and parade marches in which she participated. He helped to found a Czech school which my mother and her sister attended. Grandfather believed that it was important for Bohemian children to learn Czech history, culture and language. I now know that his efforts were in orchestration with the efforts of a larger community institution, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers.

Founded in 1870 in Chicago, the Congregation of Bohemian Freethinkers was formed by the large number of Czech immigrants in the city who abandoned the organized church when they reached America. As an alternative, they formed a secular institution that functioned in many ways like a church. The Bohemian Freethinkers built an extensive social network of schools, benevolent socieIMG_2245ties, and fraternal groups that provided a sense of community, belonging, and support.

Besides creating educational and cultural programs, they also provided public forums for political debates and avenues for social action. Freethinkers stayed connected through the publishing of Svornost, their own Czech language newspaper. The Congregation performed civil wedding ceremonies, as in the case of my grandparents, and secular baptisms for their children. They even founded the Bohemian National Cemetery in 1877 as no church would allow Freethinkers to be buried on church grounds.

At some point in their history together, my grandmother found her way to a Protestant church but my grandfather did not follow her. And sometime after that they divorced, though my mother never spoke of it. Perhaps this explained, at least in part, why she told me so little about her parents.

Learning the history of the Bohemian Freethinkers has indeed brought me a greater understanding of my grandparents. But it is my grandfather to whom I feel most connected. He was a poet who promoted the aIMG_2532rts. He was proud of his heritage and loved its history and culture. He was open-minded and brave enough to be independent in thought. I am a writer and a musician. I am dedicated to life-long learning and cultural enrichment. The older I get, the more individuated I become and the more willing I am to embrace change. The more of a Freethinker I become.

I regret that I never knew my grandfather. But even the little bit that I do know explains some of who I am, how I think, and what I love. We are much alike he and I and it is comforting to think that a little bit of him lives on in me. So it is to him that I dedicate this blog’s journey.

31 thoughts on “How It All Started

  1. I found a similar certificate among my aunt’s papers; she was baptized by the Bohemian Freethinkers in 1902. It was the first time I had heard of this congregation and I find it very interesting. Many of her family members were buried in the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago.


  2. Growing up I always wondered why half of my relatives were buried in the Bohemian National Cemetary just south of Owatonna mn and the others were in the catholic cemetery. Even my Czech speaking father didn’t understand what it really meant until we went to gelena Il we sat down and started working on the family genealogy 20 years ago.


  3. Pingback: Expectations | The Bohemian Freethinker

  4. Wow! This is amazing. I recently found out my father is writing a book regarding czech-bohemian history and its significance to the earliest settlers of my lineage in the ‘New Prague’ Minnesota area where many immigrants had established themselves. In being a songwriter/artist myself and doing further research on my ancestors and the true histories of Bohemian free thinkers, I feel empowered and encouraged to continue on as i am. Also, you’r blog and other articles I have found on this subject have confirmed a lot of my own philosophies and views on life, art, religion, etc… and it is super inspiring to learn of! Thanks for sharing your story! Very helpful/ inspiring. Free thinkers unite! Peace


    • Hi Michael, thanks so much for your kind and encouraging words. I guess I’m not writing into the void after all! I’d love to learn more about the book your father is writing and your own research. Yes, Freethinkers unite!


  5. Also having grandparents of historic European descent that I have never met, I can understand your deep sense of nostalgia and connection with a fascinating culture you never knew.

    Imagine if you could go back in time and enjoy a glass of iced tea and conversation with your grandparents, in their courtyard, behind their tobacco-candy store, under the elm tree, in southside Chicago. Oh the stories they would tell, and the fresh perspectives you would come away with…

    Those old sepia photos would come to life!


  6. Hi, i am over in Friend NE and noticed the signs for Tabor Hall. started reading about the Hall and find it very interesting. sounds like a very useful and important movement among the immigrants at the time and perhaps even today. thanks!


    • Hi Mike, thanks for reading, and nice to hear from you! I looked up Tabor Hall and found an article about it in the Dorchester Times. It seems that the Hall was a long time meeting place for Bohemian Freethinkers. The history of that movement among Czech immigrants is quite interesting as you point out. And yes, I agree with you, it could be so again today. Are you of Czech descent?


  7. Just came across this article – thanks for the write-up! My parents were both from the old Czech neighborhoods in Chicago, and I’d say my father’s side was definitely of the Freethinkers persuasion – I found “baptism records” through the I.O.O.F. for both my dad and his sister, and an their uncle who was married in the Freethinkers organization. My mother’s grandparents were Catholics when they immigrated and their children were all baptized in the various Czech Catholic Churches in Chicago (they moved around a lot), but they lost religion as time went on. However, both sets of grandparents were married at the Hubbard Memorial Bohemian Presbyterian Church, an offshoot of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Ave. I was actually surprised about these church marriages. From the limited info I could find, the pastor there – Rev. Vanek I think, must have had some influence in the community? I’ve tried to hunt down their church marriage registries but it appears that neither the Presbytery of Chicago or the Presbyterian Historical Society kept them. All of my relatives and their extended families are buried at the Bohemian National Cemetery. It definitely was a unique culture for the times.


    • Thanks for reading my page and for sharing the interesting history of your own family. It was indeed a unique period in American
      history. A time when there was separation of Church and State as was intended at the founding of our government. America has been gravitating away from that for many years now.


  8. Enjoyed reading your article, especially the description of “Freethinkers”. Both sets of my grandparents came from Bohemia in early 1900’s and especially grandfathers switched from Catholic to Free Thinkers after immigrating. They were very involved in meetings, fraternal organizations, music, drama and Sokol community events in Nebraska. One grandfather was a printer and editor, the other a cabinetmaker. I wish you well and look forward to reading your posts.


  9. Wow! I have a similar marriage certificate from my grandparents from Pilsen. My grandmother’s best friend “Aunt Mary” ran a candy shop in the old neighborhood. Any connection? Proud that my mother’s family stuck to our agnosticism in spite of the pressures of suburban Chicago.


  10. Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment and please forgive my very tardy reply. That is cool about your grandparents, and yes, I had an Aunt Mary in Chicago but at the moment I can’t remember her married name…. yes, I agree that it must have been difficult to hold on to agnosticism in a very religious America


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