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 “Congregation 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 lived 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 societies, 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 arts. 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.