Czech bishop celebrates Mass during heritage celebration in New Prague

| October 31, 2018 | 0 Comments

Bishop Peter Esterka greets members of the Miss Czech Slovak MN Pageant royalty after Mass Oct. 28 for the Czech celebration at St. Wenceslaus in New Prague. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Dozens of people greeted Bishop Peter Esterka, who grew up in Czechoslovakia and was a Czech Republic bishop, after he celebrated Mass in Czech at St. Wenceslaus in New Prague Oct. 28. Some of them conversed with the retired bishop in Czech, the language of their ancestors.

“You don’t hear Czech spoken … very often anymore, so it was really cool for us to just experience that as well as [have] our Catholic faith mixed into it,” said Rianna Doyle, a high school senior who attends Most Holy Redeemer in Montgomery.

Doyle, the Montgomery Kolacky Day Queen, was among the Miss Czech Slovak Minnesota Pageant royalty and Catholics who made a point to meet the 82-year-old bishop following the Mass, which was part of a two-day festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s formation. St. Wenceslaus hosted Sunday’s event, which was organized by the New Prague Czech Heritage Club.

“It means an awful lot to me because we have a strong Czech identity,” said Jim Simon, 65, a parishioner of St. Wenceslaus. “I grew up with the Czech language in our house. My folks observed the Czech traditions.”

At the celebration, Simon displayed his collection of artifacts from Czechoslovakia. It was one of multiple exhibits reflecting Czech history and culture. Other festivities at the parish’s activity center included Czech food, Czech bands and folk dancers. The festival also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring Reform — a significant era of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia — and the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Immigrants from Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, first came to the United States, including Minnesota, in the 1850s. According to George Mikiska, a Czech Heritage Club member and chairman of the festival’s Czech Mass, some immigrants who had been traveling along the Mississippi River arrived in the New Prague area by accident. They had intended to go to St. Cloud, but took a left at Pike Island and followed the Minnesota River to Jordan.

Flag bearers, from left, Heather Novak, John Novak, Arnie Ziskovsky and Deb Ziskovsky gather before Mass. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

The new immigrants were initially welcomed by Anton Phillipp, a German settler from Bohemia, who first settled the area at the recommendation of Bishop Joseph Cretin. Phillipp welcomed the Czechs to stay when he saw they shared the same Catholic faith, particularly when he saw them making the sign of the cross at meals. The city of New Prague formed in 1856, the same year its founders established St. Wenceslaus, which they modeled after the Church of St. Wenceslaus in Prague. St. Wenceslaus, the patron saint of the Czech people, was the Duke of Bohemia from 924-929 and known for his devotion to Christ and being a strong ruler.

Drawn by the opportunity to farm, Czech immigrants also populated the nearby communities of Lonsdale, Montgomery and Veseli. Locals call the towns the “Bohemian Triangle.”

“We’re reminded that our religion is central to our identity as a people of Czech heritage,” said Father Michael Skluzacek, the homilist for Mass. “Our ancestors came to this country as a people of faith, and we’re reminded today that we need to renew that heritage of faith.”

Father Skluzacek was born in New Prague and grew up in a family with Bohemian and Czech heritage. He currently serves as pastor at St. John the Baptist in New Brighton.

Many people, including the gift bearers, came dressed in Czech attire, known as “kroj.” A choir made up of area Czech music groups led the music.

Some of the Mass’ 600 attendees knew Bishop Esterka from his time Minnesota. He taught theology at then-College of St. Catherine in St. Paul from 1967-1993, and served at Immaculate Heart of Mary in St. Paul, which has since merged with St. Luke to form St. Thomas More.

“Kids loved him. We all did,” said Myrna Engebretson, a parishioner of St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, who said the bishop baptized her children when she attended Immaculate Heart of Mary in the 1970s.

Bishop Esterka grew up in Czechoslovakia and fled to Austria in 1957 because of persecution by the Communists, who took over Czechoslovakia in 1948. He later wrote a book, “Never Say Comrade,” about his escape. He studied for the priesthood in Rome, was ordained in 1963 and earned a doctorate in theology. He came to Minnesota in 1967 and occasionally visited New Prague because of its Czech heritage.

Father Kevin Clinton, pastor of St. Wenceslaus in New Prague, first met Bishop Esterka when living at Immaculate Heart of Mary for a summer. Father Clinton said he lost touch with Bishop Esterka, but he was impressed to learn of how his ministry moved forward.

Bishop Esterka became a U.S. citizen in 1968 and began ministering to Czech immigrants in the U.S. and Canada in 1978. His dedication to Czech immigrants factored into his appointment as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Brno, Czech Republic, in 1999.

He was assigned to care for Czech Catholics outside of the Czech Republic. Now retired and living in California, he continues to offer Mass in Czech for people in the United States and beyond.

“It really is beautiful to be able to celebrate your heritage,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who concelebrated the Mass, in his closing remarks. He added that when he worked in his native Pittsburgh, he frequently passed by a plaque commemorating the signing of the 1918 agreement to form Czechoslovakia.

The weekend celebration began Oct. 27 with cemetery tours in 12 cemeteries in New Prague, Lonsdale, Montgomery and Veseli. More than 1,700 small Czech flags denoted Czech immigrant graves.

“We kind of found a few relatives I didn’t know I had,” said Donna Eshleman, 60, a parishioner of St. Wenceslaus who took a tour with her husband, Brian Eshleman, 68.

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News