[adapted from Rev. Jan Orr-Harter's
"They Knew Life: Vincent Pisek and Charles Atherton at Jan Hus Church,
New York City]
Gustav Albert Alexy, a Hungarian minister who had been assigned to
preach in South America, began preaching in broken Czech to the new
Czech community of New York City in 1874. He felt that the forty
non-English-speaking immigrants needed him most, and when, after that
first service, he asked how they liked the service and was told (very
politely) that they hadn't understood a word, Alexy began to be tutored
in Czech by a young immigrant, 15-year-old Vincent Pisek.
When Pastor Alexy died in 1880, the newly official Presbyterian Church
asked 21-year-old Pisek to take over as leader. By day he taught Sunday
School downtown and in the second Sunday School in the Morrisania
section of the Bronx, preached, pastored, and studied at New York
University and Union Theological Seminary. At night he taught English as
a second language to other new immigrants. From the beginning, gratitude
and joy were themes in the life of Jan Hus Church - indeed, Pisek closed
his first session meeting with the spontaneous singing of the doxology.
After spending five years raising funds, Jan Hus Church moved uptown to
Yorkville (where the Czech community had been settling). After the move,
Pisek took a leave to visit Bohemia, and when he returned he brought 3
Czech seminary students with him to enroll at Union and to lead Czech
churches out west.
The 1895 Morning Journal reported that in 1894 Pisek had been visiting
Nebraska when a hunter killed a mother wolf and presented the new-born
cub to Pisek who took it back to Jan Hus Church and raised it on a
bottle. The wolf wandered freely around the church and was especially
protective of children, who also appear to have had free reign of the
place. All day in the pastor's study the wolf would sit at Pisek's feet.
One day the wolf was missing and they searched everywhere until they
found it curled up sound asleep inside the pulpit. Neighbors complained
that the church was terrorizing the block with a wolf howling from the
attic. Jan Hus Church comes by its present nature from way back!
At the turn of the century, the church continued to grow, as Czech
families immigrated in large numbers. You have to remember that religion
was not popular among the Czechs. The followers of Jan Hus had been
persecuted or forced out of Bohemia and Catholicism was an imposed
religion. By the time they got to New York, many wanted nothing to do
with any church and were called"Free-thinkers." Others were former
Catholics who did not trust priests. But Pisek was free-thinking in his
own ways, and performed marriages between men and women from different
ethnic groups, which was something like performing interracial marriages
in the 1960's. And his enthusiasm to help make these marriages was a
part of what helped to build his church.
Around 1903, Pastor Pisek was out in the Midwest and came into a hotel
bar where a man was playing the piano. The man was tall, athletic and
friendly, and by the end of the conversation, Pisek h ad invited Mr.
Charles M.H. Atherton to come to Jan Hus Church as Music Director.
Atherton, an American born in 1873, had been a professional baseball
player. He came to Jan Hus and became Pisek's companion and colleague
here at the church for the rest of Pisek's life. (In his will, Pisek
referred to Atherton as his "bosom friend.")
Pisek was always devoted to the Czech communities in the United States
and abroad. In the late 1800's, Pisek organized 30 Czech churches in
Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and other states. By 1893 he published "The
Union," a national Czech newsletter. In 1919, at the age of 60, he and
Atherton (who had learned Czech early-on) took a leave of absence to
travel and encourage the Czecho-slovak troops in Siberia who were
fighting in the first World War (their first hope for independence in
centuries). When they returned to New York, Atherton published a
songbook called "Favorite Songs of the Czech Slovak Army in Russia."
Pisek was a man full of energy, enthusiasm, and a great sense of drama.
In 1914, Pisek, Atherton, and the Jan Hus community raised funds to open
the Neighborhood House, the eastern-most portion of our building. The
Neighborhood House was to be a cultural and social center for the
Bohemian people, a place for art and music, job training, a dental
clinic, clubs, athletics, language classes and more. As the clock struck
twelve on December 31st, Pastor Pisek, with gavel in hand, knocked
loudly on the inner door to the Jan Hus Neighborhood House and, in the
name of God the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, opened it and with a
song of thanksgiving joined in by the congregation, ushered in the "Jan
Hus Year" (the 500th anniversary of the death of Jan Hus).
Since that night, a lot has
changed about Jan Hus Church. We are no longer a primarily Czech
community. Our congregation is smaller, our ministries different, and we
no longer have a church wolf. We still, however, try to remain (as the
Jan Hus community wrote in 1977, in their centennial history of the
church), "practical dreamers, ever seeking the good of all."