Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Search through the smoky steel towns nestled in the hills of central and western Pennsylvania and you will find the scattered descendants of once-numerous communities of Romanian immigrants. While Romanians settled throughout the state wherever mining and ‘industrial work was present, the largest concentrations remaining to­day are in Erie, Mercer. Lawrence, Beaver, Allegheny, Cambria and Philadelphia counties. The first and second generation children of Transylvanian pioneers who came to America from the wooded slopes and peaceful valleys of the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe 75 years ago now live in Ellwood City, in McKeesport, Glassport, Home­stead, Zelienople, Farrell and Sharon, New Castle, Johnstown and Scalp Level, from Erie in the Northwest to Phila­delphia in the opposite corner of the Commonwealth. By 1920 the records showed 11,230 Romanians in the state, a tenth or so of the total number which entered the United States and Canada during the great wave of “new immigra­tion” between 1890 and 1920. Today this can be estimated at perhaps 4,000.

Philadelphia area 1,000
Western Pa.: Farrell, Sharon, Erie, Pittsburgh, Ellwood City, Beaver Falls, etc. 2,500
Eastern Pa.: Harrisburg, Mt. Union, etc. 500
Pennsylvania total 4,000

But immigration statistics are always deceptive, espe­cially in the case of Romanians. The large province of Transylvania, which today forms the western third of the nation of Romania, along with the southwestern corner of the country called the Banat and the north-central forested region of Bukovina – from all three of which came the vast majority of Romanians who migrated to America – did not belong to Romania before 1918, but were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus when they entered the United States, Romanians were counted by the immigration officials at Ellis Island as “Hungarians,” even though their language, culture and ethnic origins were Romanian. Only a very small number of Romanians in America came from the old kingdom of Romania itself, even after the First World War.

The motives for migrating to the New World are well­-known: to find economic opportunity, to escape from political and cultural oppression, to avoid Austro-Hungarian military service – probably in this order of priority. One fact, though, is often overlooked. Many of these Romanians did not come with the idea of settling in America perma­nently. Scan through the histories of Romanian societies in America and the small number of writings on the subject of Romanian immigration. and you find always the phrase Mie si drumul, which meant “A thousand dollars and home again.” The first generation of migrants consisted largely, then, of single men, not families, who came to make money fast, return home and buy land. and perhaps become the biggest man in the village. Not only in letters written by those already here, but by the fabulous tales circulated by the none-too-scrupulous agents of the steamship companies seeking steerage passengers, the peasants were told that one month’s wages in Pittsburgh equalled a man’s entire annual income at home in Sibiu or Fagaras or Tirnava Mica. The reality, as always, was harsher than the dream.

Many could not bear the brawling smoky cities or turn­-of-the-century America compared to their quiet mountain villages. The din of the steam press. the crowded factory tenements. the noise from the nearby Sokol hall was a far cry from the dear call of the shepherd’s pipe, the swiftly rushing streams and starry nights of the “old country.” Fourteen cents per hour for a ten-hour day in the mill was hardly a royal wage. Immigrants’ letters home constantly emphasized how hard the work was, and many wrote of their unhappiness in America.

The first English words learned were horeapul (“hurry up”) and paidai (payday), but even the latter could not compensate for the loneliness of men thousands of miles away from wives and families and familiar surroundings. Those who could, saved their money diligently to bring over their loved ones. Recently in Cluj-Napoca, in Transyl­vania, we discovered some unpublished “popular poems from America” dated 1908 which, even in translation, are revealing. for example, one addressed co a Hamburg­-American steamship Line:

Burn, Missler, in the fire
With your steamship and all;
May your ships not arrive
But be blighted by the water!
May you be penniless, Missler
Like the young men you took from our country …

Others spoke of how it took a month for a letter to arrive from home, thus stressing how unbelievably far away they were. One man cried “three times before lunch today,” due to missing his family, another lamented that Roman­ians in America were becoming “a pagan people” and not observing Sundays, and he himself was even forgetting how to write and speak Romanian. One letter concludes with the admonition to tell everyone “not to come to America, for here days are forever overcast.” Many did indeed go home again. Between 1910 and 1939 some forty-three thousand returned to the old country. Yet the reasons for this were not all negative. Many were attracted by the land reform which Look place in Romania in 1921, others because their home regions now belonged to the Romanian kingdom and they would no longer have to Live under Hungarian or Austrian rule. Some went because they be­lieved what money they had saved would now go farther in a Romanian Transylvania or Banat.

Yet the majority, having overcome their initial problems of adjustment and having accommodated themselves to the new environment either as individuals or through the crea­tion of immigrant institutions, remained in America. By the 1920s those who were slowly “getting ahead” and had passed the “greenhorn” stage had brought over wives and children and the transitory phase of predominantly male immigration was ending. Now more than ever the definite process of “assimilation” began to be apparent: it deter­mined that these rural Romanians would eventually be­come urbanized members of the American working class and that their children, born in the new country, would experience upward mobility so rapidly compared to mem­bers of some other ethnic groups that clearly by the Second World War, Romanians would be firmly established in the entrepreneurial middle and even the professional classes. Between 1920 and 1940 or thereabouts, thus, the “Roman­ian-American” was created. Several key institutions arose which helped Romanian immigrants make the transition. These were the boarding houses, the mutual beneficial societies, the parochial school system and the Orthodox or Uniate (Greek Catholic) churches which formed the core of Romanian community life.

Entering primarily heavy industrial work and thus forced to live in the crowded factory districts. single work­ing men needed immediate accommodations upon arrival, where they would not only be with their own kind until they learned the American language, but could also save money. The boarding house was the answer to this need. These lasted well into the 1930s and produced also the first set of Romanian businessmen, the “Boarding Bosses,” even though the wives did most of the work.

This crowded stag hostelry was usually a two-story frame building with seven or eight rooms, and the average house cared for between twenty-five and thirty men, al­though in some places there were as many as sixty patrons. Beds were never empty; men occupied them in day and night shifts. One had a choice of two types of arrange­ments. Some lived “in company,” paying the boarding boss’ wife $3 monthly for bedding, washing and cooking, with the food costs divided among the “company.” The “foreboard” plan was for those with higher paying jobs: here a tenant paid anywhere from $7 to $12 monthly for lodging, laundry and food, which included his lunch pail packed each morning for the factory. Meals were in the kitchen at a long oilcloth-covered table flanked by two long benches rather than chairs. Breakfast and dinner were family-style, and there was often a four-gallon keg of beer brought in from time to time by the boss as a treat. The pancove (biscuits), noodle soup, pork meat with dumplings, dried bean puree, sauerkraut, sarmale (pigs in the blanket), and chorba (sour soup), along with homemade bread must have seemed like royal fare to many compared to the simple meals back home.

Not only did the boarding house provide a needed camaraderie, but it helped perpetuate traditional ways while at the same time orienting newcomers to the Ameri­can scene. Besides the singing of doine (folk ballads) and the recitation of poems and folk stories for entertainment, there might well be a shepherd’s flute or even an informal musical group organized. When a group of boarders decided to move to another house, either because they heard the cooking was better or because of an argument with the owner, the moving was often accompanied by musicians marching through the streets ahead of the man carrying their valises and possessions to the new location. More­over, since many of the newcomers had only limited village educations, there would often be one member of the company who became the official letter-writer to the people back home. It was necessary to stay on the good side of this individual, for who knew how he might tran­scribe one’s message should he be displeased with a fellow boarder?

Another extremely important function was also supplied by the boarding house. In the absence of financial institutions which the immigrants trusted, the boarding boss often served as custodian of his lodgers’ savings, or acted as agent to send money back to Romania, or to purchase steamship tickets. In this way the boarding house was the forerunner of the later widespread and colorful combination of saloon, pool hall, ticket agency, money-lending-and-keeping estab­lishment known as the immigrant bank, whose counter, office and vault all in one was a scroll desk bulging with innumerable slips of paper, receipts and bills.

Romanian communities for the first generation, and for much of the second, were in the drab houses surrounding the factory districts. Besides the desire to save money by living close to work, often the most potent factor in choos­ing one’s residence was the presence of people from a man’s own village or region in the old country. Migrations often took the form of chains, with some villages eventually being nearly emptied of men. After some years of moving from town to town. the attraction of friends from home, or the presence of relatives – village marriage patterns meant that everyone was a cousin of everyone else – was the final deter­minant of where a man would settle for good. Yet for many immigrants, even those with families, there was a tempor­ary, wandering quality to their first years in America with frequent shifts of domicile in pursuit of work. One was born in Indiana Harbor, Indiana, moved to Alton, Illinois, worked in Akron and Youngstown before removing to Ellwood City. Another began his first job in Canton, moved to Salem, Ohio, and ended up in Zelienople, Pa. Perhaps a third of the Romanians in the state today were born else­where in the United States, most likely coming here from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois or Michigan. In each case when a man settled in a new town he sought out the local Roman­ian community sooner or later and joined the local benefi­cial society. Sometimes membership was also retained in the club in the town from which he had departed. This dual membership promoted a cohesion among Romanian soci­eties throughout the western Pennsylvania-eastern Ohio area which is still in evidence.

As Romanians became numerous and life in America took on a more fixed quality, and they observed the mutual­-aid societies of other longer-established immigrant groups, it was natural to create similar organizations for themselves. In a time when workmen’s compensation laws, social security and unemployment insurance were decades in the future, societies to provide insurance policies, death bene­fits and loans in time of emergency made good sense. An­other motivation was that of preserving their cultural inher­itance and promoting solidarity and fraternity in a foreign land.

As early as January 1, 1903, a group of twenty-nine Romanians from Homestead, Pittsburgh and McKeesport gathered at West Homestead where they established the Romanian Society of Assistance and Culture known as Vulturul (The Eagle) under the presidency of llie Martin Salisteanu, one of the founding fathers of the society idea. This was the second Romanian society in America and the second to join the national group, the Union of Romanian Societies in America, also formed at Homestead on the 4th of July three years later. The statutes of Vulturul called for “the preservation of the ancestral language and customs; the establishment of a library; the promotion and cultiva­tion of friendship; union and brotherly love between mem­bers; the preservation of loyalty for the Romanian father­land and becoming good and faithful citizens of the United States of America.” Monthly dues were $1, with each mem­ber giving $.50 toward burial costs in case of a death in the society. Weekly sick benefits were set at $4. Two years later an impressive hall was erected at 315 W. 7th Street in Homestead.

Once begun, the idea proliferated. By 1908 there were twenty-six societies; by 1911, forty-four were spread throughout Pennsylvania and the Mid-West. In some towns only two or three years were necessary to raise the money to purchase a “hall” and build a church, and perhaps a parish house. The great era of the immigrant “club” had arrived. Every town, large or small, which had at least seven Romanians, founded a club, it seemed, many of which lasted only a brief time before being absorbed or combined with a larger group. So in 1931, at the beginning of the era when the ethnic clubs would reach their maxi­mum memberships and peak of activity, Vulturul absorbed the members of the Negru Voda (Black Prince) and Colum­bus societies from McKees Rocks, and Romania Mare (Greater Romania) from Universal. Such consolidations continued until the major clubs themselves began to decline in the 1960s.

Equally important alongside the clubs was the erection as soon as possible in each Romanian community of either an Orthodox or a Greek or Roman Catholic church and a parish house or church hall to house a Romanian parochial school, if possible. Church and club thus became the center of community and religious life for thousands of Romanian-­Americans well into the late 1950s when the impact of the Romanian ethnic community in Pennsylvania began to fade. The first Romanian school in the nation was at Scalp Level, Pa., to the east of Johnstown and by the 1920s these church and club affiliated classrooms were a familiar site. Children attended classes taught ordinarily by Romanian priests either in the late afternoons or evenings, sometimes three or even five nights a week, or on Saturdays for three. hour periods. The Romanian language was taught, along with elements of Romanian history, literature and culture. Folk dancing was learned by the young people for enter­tainment of their elders on special holidays and national festivals. Choirs were often an important part of the parish scene, such as the well-known Rasunetul Carpatilor (Sound of the Carpathians) group directed for nearly forty years by Mrs. Nicolae Moldovan at Farrell’s Holy Cross Romanian Orthodox Church.

Holy Cross Parish has had one of U1e longest-lived and productive parish schools among Romanian communities in America. Organized in 1921 by the Reverend Traian Demian, by the time Father Nicolae Moldovan came to the church in 1934 it grew to 117 pupils between the ages of three and sixteen. By 1939 an Orthodox Sunday school, the second of its kind in the United States, was added, along with an active chapter of the AROY – American Romanian Orthodox Youth Organization. Such activity, alongside the combined Transilvania-Bistritana-America Beneficial Society, dating from 1905, and the smaller Transilvania Libera (Free Transylvania), begun in 1960 by the journalist Vasile Basarabescu, helps to explain why the Romanians in the Farrell-Sharon-Hickory-Hermitage area have retained a cohesive community even to the present.

Overall, the 1930s and 1940s were good years for the Romanian communities in terms of church and club life. Prohibition put somewhat of a damper on the ability of Romanian workingmen to quench their thirst at the end of a long day, which was obviated when cuccuruz (corn) began to appear on the society account books. The club “door­man” or “guard” as he was more frequently called, was un­like the oft-encountered doorkeeper at your private club today, a bored individual who automatically buzzes to admit one whether he is a member or not. The guard in the old days carried a badge. a club and extreme pride. In Ellwood City he was instructed to “watch out for the Sebeseni (Romanians from U1e Sebes region) because everybody knows they all carry knives.”

There were the traveling Romanian vaudeville companies of Ionescu Ardeal, Titi Nestor and Carolina. choral groups from other clubs which came to entertain. the burlesque hired from Youngstown, the annual Grape Dance where bunches of the fruit hung on wires strung across the hall. the idea being to elude the guards and grab a bunch with­out being caught and given a fine to pay into the treasury. On Palm Sunday there was a beautiful liturgy in the morn­ing at church, and the Banchet de Paste (Easter Banquet) to look forward to. Theatrical performances lasted in some societies until 1945, dances until 1950.

By the 1960s the composition and cohesion of the Romanian communities were rapidly changing, as the founders began to die out and their children and grand­children no longer spoke the Romanian language nor kept the old traditions intact. With exceptions, the clubs and churches became more Americanized, young people moved away from the old community to the suburbs, and many of the societies by the mid-1970s were being sold or dis­solved for lack of members. The post-1945 Romanian im­migration, although it has reinvigorated Romanian com­munities in some cities, does not seem to have had a sub­stantial impact on those in Pennsylvania and if anything the substantially different quality of these newcomers from the older immigrants has bound them to the old ethnic communities only temporarily.

Nevertheless not all of the old customs, the old values or the old quarrels fade, and to search out and visit Roman­ians is to find proof that indeed ethnic traits persist into the third and fourth generation. Such a search, indeed, because we are dealing with Romanians, can be at the same time tiring, interesting, amusing and rewarding, a lesson not only in vestiges of ethnic behavior but in the warm inter­personal relations for which Romanians are so well known. We shall long remember Sam Ursu describing his father’s funeral in 1928, with the open coffin laid out in front of the Romanian hall for a group photograph and both an Italian band and the local high school band hired to ac­company the cortege to the cemetery. And Nick Savu as a child on a visit back to Romania, seeing the men hiding a coffin for his dying grandmother in the hayloft of the barn, which prompted him to run into her room and inform her, “You can die any time now, grandma, the coffin’s arrived.” We can never forget the sight of Charles Streza as we pulled up to his house in Glassport and saw him wear­ing a “Romanian Power” tee-shirt. He took us to see the old Vuturul hall, today up for sale, its musty interior deserted now and in disarray, but its air somehow still echoing faintly with the hearty voices of sturdy Romanian workingmen of half a century ago.

Have Romanians in Pennsylvania been strengthened in their ethnic identity by the current “ethnic revival”? It is difficult to say, for to some extent these people have al­ways borne a strong sense of ethnic consciousness, as those who specialize in the study of Eastern Europeans have always been aware. With the increased interest in such studies in many of our colleges and universities today, the more widespread teaching of the Romanian language, of Romanian art and history, the several folk dance groups recently organized, the declining awareness of Romanian young people in their ancestry may be arrested and the trend of the past twenty years be reversed to some extent. Hopefully much of the heritage of this ancient and hardy Balkan people which transplanted so many of its sons and daughters to the soil of Pennsylvania early in this century may yet be preserved to nourish the pride and inspire the respect of future generations.


Dr. Gerald J. Bobango was born in Erie and attended Gannon College, Edinboro State College and the Pennsylvania State University. He is currently the Director of the Romanian­-American Heritage Center in Jackson, Michigan and has written The Emergence of the Romanian Nation-State, The Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America: the First Half-Century and numerous articles and reviews.