A Shepherd of Immigrants.
"My people do not live in America. They live underneath America. America goes on over their heads."
These are the picturesque and profoundly suggestive words of a Ruthenian Greek-Catholic priest, Father Paul Tymkevich of Yonkers.
"America does not begin till a man is a workingman; a laborer cannot afford to be an American. He must earn two dollars a day for that." Men earning a dollar and a quarter or a dollar and a half a day are necessarily "underneath America."
"My people do not love America."—Why should they from what they see of it? The more educated they hardly come in contact with, the "aristocracy of labor" is apt to be intolerant and contemptuous of foreigners—or of other foreigners. On the other hand, newcomers do come into contact with everyone who hopes to exploit them.
Economically, thinks the priest, they gain by coming here, "physically and morally, no." "In the city, they need more morality." Then again, with deep wisdom "They have no habits. The first step in civilization is to acquire habits, and where can they acquire them?—on the streets? in the saloon?"
Education, the school, alone can help them, in his opinion. But here success can be neither quick nor easy. They distrust these schools, teaching their children in a language they cannot understand themselves. Their whole history prepares them to suspect ulterior purposes. "Perhaps, too, some have seen political influence at work in public schools." They have most confidence in parochial schools, but as supplementary to the public schools not a substitute. Here, after school hours, the children are taught religion and, incidentally, their own language.
But the schools, he holds, do not Americanize the second generation. The parents too often care nothing for the child's education and home influences make strongly against it. Drinking, swearing and ignorance abound, and after few years the child is out of school and work. The third generation is not yet upon the scene.
"What my people need most is leaders—leaders to form themselves upon, to give them a standard of ambition." Other people have leaders of their own; the German, the Bohemian, the Hebrew and, in a less degree, the Italian bodies of immigrants have strong and influential men among themselves. The workingmen have their leaders in the trade unions, but in this unorganized mass, who is to be looked to for guidance?
Other groups of newcomers find Americans ready to take an interest in them. The educated, at least, have a feeling for Italians based on art, travel and history. They have some regard for the countrymen of Huss and Kossuth. But these Slavs, "they are orphans in this country."
Perhaps the strongest impression received in talking with Father Tymkevich was the sense of the loneliness, the isolation, of this intelligent sensitive man, separated from his own people as a scholar among peasants, from Americans as an alien in a community unused to look for friends and associates among "foreigners."
In spite of this sense of confronting, almost single-handed, an overwhelming situation, he is no passive spectator of the degradation of his simple mountaineer countrymen under the industrial system of this day and land. And his methods of attack are essentially modern.
Appealing to the thrift and Slavonic gift for organization of his people, he formed a co-operative association which with twenty-five-dollar shares accumulated a capital of $19,400, with which it erected a model tenement-house. It also owns and administers a second tenement-house and a butcher store. Dividends are limited to five per cent and this has so far been earned.
The tenement-house put up by the association is markedly superior to those in the neighborhood and to those which its tenants would otherwise probably occupy; the rents seem reasonable judged by the local standards, ranging from seven dollars to eleven dollars. In all there are thirty-nine tenant families. To American eyes the drawback to the model house is a saloon on the ground floor, but this is, of course, in no way repugnant to the ideas of a Slavic community and it may even be that this inevitable resort of the people is under more control here than elsewhere.
Perhaps even more interesting is a second undertaking. Boys from Ruthenian and Slovak families in different parts of the country are gathered together under Father Tymkevich's roof to enjoy the superior public schools of Yonkers, refined and orderly ways of living and the constant personal influence of a highminded man. Many a father, in mining settlements and elsewhere, earning well above the requirements of the family standard of living, is eager to educate a promising son, but finds no good school within reach and is incapable of doing anything for the boy himself. "He teaches him his prayers and beats him. He does not know how to do anything more for him."
In such cases, boys may be sent here at an expense of $120 a year. Part is usually paid by the father, and part from contributions by Ruthenians. There has been no help from American sources.
There are at present eight of these boys, all in the grammar grades. They are sturdy, fresh-faced, bright-eyed lads with a manly and friendly bearing and, like all bright boys, intensely interested in all sorts of things. They may be ready to do some leading later, for they are getting an American education and American standards and at the same time learning to respect and care for their own language and people.