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Archives | South Bethlehem Historical Society

Our Hungarian Heritage

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Hungarians—the largest ethnic group of immigrants to settle in South Bethlehem—outnumbered the Czechs, Slovaks, German, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ukraines, Croatian, Slovenes and Windish by the year 1910.

 

These Magyar immigrants from Hapsburg Austria-Hungary, added to the collective diversity of ethnic groups who labored amidst the clanging metal, searing flames and belching smoke of Bethlehem Steel. Unfortunately, ethnic Hungarians were grossly misunderstood by Bethlehem’s reserved and well-established north side, who lumped all Southside immigrants from Central, Southern and Eastern Europe as “foreigners.” This misunderstanding created ethnic stereotypes perpetuated by newspaper editors who snidely characterized Hungarians as “Huns” and “Hunkies.”

 

Like most immigrants, the Hungarians got over it and went to work at the blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel or had their own businesses. Miraculously, Hungarian Lutherans, Jews and Roman Catholics were able to establish ethnic churches with every cent they earned: Zion Hungarian Lutheran Church at E. Fourth and State Sts.; Brith Sholom Community Center at Brodhead and E. Packer Aves.; and St. John Capistrano Roman Catholic parish—a church, a parochial school and a rectory on E. Fourth and Hayes Sts.

 

Pearl Pondelek Bodor, whose parents Frank and Elizabeth (Ceban) Pondelek, owned Hygrade Meat Market at 418 E. Fourth St. during the 1930s, recalled a favorite Hungarian tradition: “It centered around New Year’s Eve,“ she said. “My brothers, Jimmy and Alfred Pondelek went around to every southside hotel and bar, playing Hungarian songs on their violins.”

 

Hungarians like John F. Stefko attended the South Bethlehem Business School, then established a liquor store on Third St.; D.B. Czentericz was proprietor of East End Pharmacy on E. Third St.; Adolph Friedman owned Friedmans Hotel at 429 E. Third St.; and Frank Biro, an accomplished violinist and sculptor, who opened his photograph studio on E. Fourth St., earned the reputation of imaging thousands of Southside immigrant portraits and weddings.

 

The Municipal Market House opened in 1892: it was home of the mayor’s office, the police department and the jail, aka “the Enjoying more “Hungarian Nights” lockup.” But its most important attraction was the first-floor market itself—a favorite destination of north siders and Southside immigrants who shopped side by side until the market closed in the 1960s. In time, the “Hungarian” presence soon became part of the total cloth of Bethlehem in the form of seasonal, and of course—culinary traditions.

 

Classic Hungarian dishes still enjoyed by Bethlehemites today include: Beef Goulash (Bogracs Gulyas); Pork Goulash (Szekely Gulyas); Potato and Egg Casserole (Rakott Krumpli); Chicken Paprikas (Csirke Paprikas), Filled Cabbage (Sarma) and Dumplings and Rye bread. Meals finished with desserts in flaky crusts—Apple Strudel (Jabocni Retas), Cabbage Strudel (Zelnati Retas), Cheese Strudel (Sir Retas)—and the 19thcentury dessert invented by a Hungarian chef . . . the eight-layer Dobos Torte.

 

Red and white Hungarian wines were served during dinner, followed by a dessert wine—the sweet Tokay “cordial.”

 

Enjoying more “Hungarian Nights”
The collaboration between Starters Riverport and the SBHS on ‘Hungarian Nights’ created a family dinner atmosphere for many who enjoyed authentic Hungarian fare, like the Donchez family (above) on the evening of Nov. 2, 2011. photo: Dana Grubb

 

Cathedral Church of the Nativity

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The 1887 Church of the Nativity incorporated the original 1865 structure, its belfry facing Wyandotte St.

In 1791, the discovery of anthracite coal in Carbon County, attracted predominantly Welsh and Irish coal miners—by 1833, they had built the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Canal to completion.

Barge builder and wealthy politician, Asa Packer believed that a steam-driven railroad could transport coal faster. Packer hired an Irish workforce to build the Lehigh Valley Railroad along the Lehigh River—and by 1855, the first coal cars passed through Bethlehem South at the North Penn Railroad Junction.

After the Civil War in 1865, the village of Bethlehem South had become the Borough of South Bethlehem. Evidence of Asa Packer’s influence on the fledgling town was clearly visible: a diverse population of workers in the iron industry; the growth of an affluent Fountain Hill neighborhood, home to the industrial entrepreneurs; and through Lehigh University on South Mountain—a polytechnic institute founded by Packer.

A resident of Mauch Chunk, Packer financially supported St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Inspired by his faith, South Bethlehem industrial businessmen, relatives and vestrymen saw the need for their own Episcopal Church. These individuals included Robert H. Sayre, William H. Sayre, Tinsley Jeter, Garrett B. Linderman, Ira Cortright, Samuel Wetherill, John Smylie, Jr., Dr. Frederick A. Martin and E.P. Wilbur.

By 1865, the slate-covered stone Church of the Nativity was consecrated by Rev. William Bacon Stevens (1815-1887), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in Philadelphia.

From its beginning, Lehigh University was connected with the Episcopal church, not only through its founder, but also in his choice of Bishop Stevens, first president of the Board of Trustees and designer of the university seal. In 1871, the charter of St. Luke’s hospital required that “a majority of the Board of Trustees be Episcopalians.”

On Easter Sunday, 1887, the Church of the Nativity was enlarged. Architect C. M. Burns designed it parallel to Wyandotte St. and incorporated the earlier 1865 stone church, making efficient use of the site.

Included among the members of Church of the Nativity were a “Colored Congregation,” black individuals employed as servants and coachmen by the same Fountain Hill church founders. In 1901, the black congregation had acquired enough capital to build their own church on Pawnee St. in Fountain Hill, at that time under the pastoral leadership of Rev. C.H. Brown. St. John African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, still exists today.

In 1891, John Fritz founded and endowed the Fritz Memorial Methodist Church at Packer Ave. and Chestnut St. (now Montclair Ave.) and dedicated it to his parents; today the church continues to serve its South Side congregation.

 

Flat Iron Building

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Flatiron Hits the Century Mark

The cover image, recently produced by Community Murals of Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., is a composite of three images: the Flatiron Building during the celebration of the Borough’s Semi- Centennial in 1915; a worker at Bethlehem Steel’s Benzol Plant, c. 1910; and the title from an 1886 Wells Fargo & Co. money transfer. The fabric mural hangs in a window of the banking room at the Broadway and W. Fourth St. branch, Southside Bethlehem.

 

The image of the Flatiron Building is the history of South Bethlehem—a survivor of the Borough’s illustrious immigrant and industrial past. Construction of South Bethlehem’s E.P. Wilbur Trust Co. began in 1910. It opened in 1911, four years before the Borough’s Oct. 1915 Semi-Centennial celebration. Three years later in 1918, the Borough was consolidated to include all of “the Bethlehem’s.”