Monday, January 21, 2013

Searching for Father Cyrus

It's been too long - I hope that the New Year has been good to you thus far.

The path we take through the Holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving and continuing through the end of the year, typically brings contacts with family members and friends that one might not otherwise have over the course of the year.

Assuming that it's just miles that are creating the separation - and believe me when I say that I know that's often not the only thing - our society's increasing fascination with using social media to share events and photos between far-flung acquaintances is serving to close this distance gap, if not the drama chasm. Add the increasing influence of the tablet computer, video chat, and...well, you get the idea.

Earlier this past year, my cousin Tracy in Illinois posted on her Facebook page that her son Jack, who was preparing to receive the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation, had chosen his confirmation name. This is described as "a new name, generally the name of a saint, thus securing an additional patron saint as protector and guide." 

Tracy was expressing a lot of pride in her boy for his choice of the name Cyrus. I was impressed that Jack's parents and perhaps other relatives had educated him on the significance of that name to my father's side of the family.

The name represents an iconic, almost legendary figure among many of my relatives, even though he's been gone for over half a century now - Jack's great-great uncle, the brother of his maternal great-grandmother.

Given our society's increasing interest in genealogy, especially in the rise of the Internet to help facilitate information gathering, I decided to take a closer look at this man's life and times.

The Roots

 Fr. Cyrus Chvala, O.F.M. Cap.
                                            - Frances Holappa
Father Cyrus was born Michael Thomas Chvala on November 20, 1917. He grew up in Zelienople, Butler County. He was a Capuchin Franciscan Friar, and served as a missionary in Puerto Rico from 1944 until November 1, 1956, when he died while celebrating Mass, 3 weeks short of his 39th birthday.

Prior to the last few months, that's about all I really knew about him. Jack's choice, and resources available both online and elsewhere, have painted a much clearer picture of how Cyrus lived and died. 

This all started for me with a simple but profound revelation after an online news archive search. Father Cyrus died here - not in Puerto Rico - while preaching at his home church, St. Gregory in Zelienople. The Pastor at the time, Rev. Edwin Heyl, wrote the following account in the Church Bulletin of November 4, 1956 - 

Capuchin, son of this parish, home on leave from his Puerto Rican mission, offered the 6:00 (AM) Mass here, Thursday, the feast of All Saints. From the very beginning he was dying. His exceptional, habitual grit kept him going. After he had consecrated the bread and wine, he could go no further. He just leaned on the altar. 

When I got to him, his face wore the death mask and a cold sweat bathed his face. His mind was clear; he told me where to take up. He was divested in the sacristy and taken to the rectory where he died shortly after. What a beautiful death! On a glorious feast!

In conversations with my parents, I found out that one of the reasons Father Cyrus was back home was to officiate at their wedding on November 24 of that year. 

Driven perhaps more by embarrassment at my own ignorance of these events, I started piecing together details from several different sources. Despite the availability of online information, including paid services such as, I found that the most fruitful results involved meaningful interaction with numerous people, and their willingness to help, often digging through records that had to be accessed manually.

One of these people, a distant cousin in Fort Collins, Colorado, sweat the details several years ago and posted an online family tree. This traces the origins of my father's side of the family to one Frantisek Zilavy of Studienka, in what is now Slovakia

Frantisek and his wife Maria had two children. Their daughter Katerina, born in Studienka in 1860, married what might have been the first Michael Thomas Chvala. They had three children - one son, Stefan, born in 1884, came to the United States in 1902 and married Katherina Stano in Charleroi, Washington County, in 1906. 

Stefan and Kathryn Chvala settled in Zelienople and produced eight children - six girls and two boys. Their third daughter, Josephine, born in 1912, was my paternal grandmother. The fifth daughter, Irene, was born in March 1916. Michael, their first son, was born in November 1917. 

Father Cyrus with his older sister Irene,
also known as Sister M. Agnes Chvala.
                                    - Frances Holappa
In the early 1930's, Irene began the process of becoming a School Sister of St. Francis. She was Sister Agnes to my brother and I, a teacher at the former St. Clement School in Tarentum, then at Mount Assisi Academy, a girls high school in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh that closed in the late 1970's.
Sister Agnes continued as an educator and administrator in San Antonio, Texas until the mid-1990's, eventually retiring to the convent at Mount Assisi. She died in 1998 after over 65 years of service.

Whether or not his older sister's example of pursuing a religious vocation led Michael/Cyrus to do the same is unclear. Perhaps these two of the eight Chvala children, approaching adulthood at the onset of the Great Depression, found themselves facing choices about life and career that a deep and abiding faith may have helped to resolve. 

Branching Out

Cyrus' path to the priesthood began at the St. Gregory Parish School in Zelie, and then the former St. Fidelis Boys High School and College Seminary, located 5 miles east of Butler, Pa. in the village of Herman.

The former St. Fidelis High School and College Seminary,
Herman, Pa. The building now houses Summit Academy.
Like many of these Catholic high schools of the time, St. Fidelis suffered from declining enrollment and increased costs, and was closed in 1977. The College Seminary followed suit the next year. The buildings now house Summit Academy, described on its website as "a private, residential school for delinquent young men ages 14-18 and serving grades 9-12."

The schools, and the adjacent St. Mary of the Assumption parish, were closely associated with the Province of St. Augustine of the Capuchin Friars, which is still headquartered in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. It was to this order that Cyrus entered the novitiate in 1937.  

Much of what is known of Father Cyrus' religious life was summarized after his death in the order's newsletter, Annals. According to this account:

(Father Cyrus) took simple vows July 14, 1938 and solemn vows July 14, 1941. He studied philosophy at Victoria (Kansas, St. Fidelis Friary) and theology in Washington (D.C., Capuchin College), and was ordained June 6, 1943 by Bishop Hugh C. Boyle in St. Vincent Archabbey Church, Latrobe, Pa. 

Jack's grandmother Frances (Linko) Holappa, who also lives in Illinois, provided several photos and other items, including a photo taken after "Uncle Mike's" ordination. Aunt Fran, then 4 years old, is in the photo as one of four young attendants that participated in the ceremony along with Cyrus, Bishop Boyle, and other celebrants.

Fr. Cyrus (second from right) after his ordination, June 6, 1943.
My Aunt Fran (in bridal gown) participated in the ceremony.
                                                                          - Frances Holappa
Fran is dressed as a bride, with the other three girls dressed as bridesmaids. Her participation in the ceremony where Cyrus received the Sacrament of Holy Orders may have been symbolic of how one Catholic website described the meaning behind the sacrament:

These men stand in the person of Christ and serve their bride, the Church, by preaching, teaching, and celebrating the Sacraments.

These young attendants don't appear to be part of the modern day administration of this sacrament. Considering the changes in both our society and the Roman Catholic church in the nearly 70 years since Cyrus was ordained, is it any wonder as to why? 

Tending and Planting

Mass Card from Fr. Cyrus' first celebrated Mass.
He would celebrate his last Mass at the same altar 13 years later.
                                                                         - Frances Holappa

When it came time to choose the type of work he would do as a priest, Cyrus expressed an interest in becoming a U.S. Army chaplain, according to Father Francis Fugini of the Capuchin Friars, who knew Cyrus and now serves as the order's Archivist. The published account states that Cyrus "gave the laconic answer, proper to every good Capuchin and altogether typical of his own generous nature, 'Ready for Anything'".  

With that, Cyrus was assigned to mission work in Puerto Rico - in the mountain town of Adjuntas at San Joachim parish, and then along the coast in Ponce, at Santa Teresita. There isn't a great deal of information available on the specific nature of his work, but according to Annals:

He worked with the same burning zeal in established city parishes as in the campos, amid poverty and filth equal to the worst slums...Duty calling, he commandeered a car, a jeep, a motorcycle, a horse, and when they failed, he would go on foot.

The Capuchins and other Catholic missionaries did not find it easy going in Puerto Rico. An account of their struggles in the mid-20th Century described the following:

The living conditions, the language, and the food were different from what the friars had been accustomed to in the States..Problems presented themselves in the form of false friends, inadequate facilities and the competition from the non-Catholic religions. 

Amid what may have been numerous other logistical challenges, Cyrus became fluent in Spanish and went about his mission work, eventually helping to construct a church. Other relatives have been there, perhaps in an effort to grasp what it must have been like to live simply, work hard, and be both an example and a leader for those seeking some form of salvation. 

Other challenges afoot during Cyrus' time in Puerto Rico were political; the establishment of the island as a Commonwealth Territory in 1952, and the increasingly violent actions taken by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in response, both on the island and in the United States.  

I have a vague childhood recollection of adult conversations over Sunday dinner at my grandparents' house that included talk of how Cyrus' work was impacted, or how he responded, to this political unrest. The Capuchins could provide no information on this aspect of their order's experiences during this time.

In reading further about how intensely Catholic a society Puerto Rico is, combined with the dichotomy of the Capuchins' presence as perhaps perceived imperialist Americans serving holy mother church, the effects of this unrest on both the man and his mission had to have been significant.

The Tree is Shaken

While it's unknown whether Cyrus had a history of respiratory illness through his youth or young adulthood, by 1952 he had started to experience problems. Whether the work he was doing, the climate, or other factors caused his difficulty, "by 1955 the ailment had developed into a severe bronchial asthma that did not yield to medical treatment on the island".

It was then that Cyrus spent several weeks stateside, being cared for in Philadelphia at Misericordia (now Mercy) Hospital. He also spent some time back in Zelienople, which resulted in his being present for a tragic event that impacted both the Chvala family and the local community.

Page One, Butler (Pa.) Eagle, July 15, 1955
On July 14, 1955, Cyrus' nephew, also named Michael Thomas Chvala, darted into the street in front of the family home on McKim Street and was struck by a car. He was transported by ambulance to Ellwood City Hospital where he was pronounced dead, a week shy of his 3rd birthday.

Newspaper accounts state that the driver of the car appeared to be drunk, and was arrested and faced trial later that year on charges of Involuntary Manslaughter and Driving while Intoxicated. The weekly Butler County News-Record additionally reported in its July 21 edition that Father Cyrus "while not a witness to the actual impact was the first to reach the boy's side".

So after 11 years of toil as a missionary in an impoverished, volatile foreign land, Cyrus returns to this country to receive treatment for a chronic illness. While with family members during a period of convalescence, he faces a personal tragedy head-on, as well as the task of ministering to his loved ones in the aftermath. 

I'm reminded of how Tolkien had Bilbo Baggins describe himself in The Fellowship of the Ring - "thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread". 

Memorial photograph in the vestibule of
St. Gregory Parish, Zelienople.

Called Home One Last Time

The Annals states that Cyrus' treatment in the U.S. "was so successful that the doctor sanctioned the return of his patient to Puerto Rico. Back in Ponce, Father Cyrus wrote optimistically to the provincial that he is feeling fine, expects soon to be off all drugs and promising himself many more years of work in Puerto Rico".

Butler Eagle, Nov. 1, 1956
Unfortunately, Cyrus continued to suffer from respiratory attacks. In October 1956 he took the vacation he was entitled to every three years and returned home to Zelienople, to officiate at the wedding of his nephew and perhaps gain some measure of treatment and rest.

Cyrus made his journey home complete in the early morning hours of November 1. Despite the eyewitness account detailed above, many relatives have stated that those around Cyrus laid him down, perhaps thinking it would be better for him, when it really wasn't. 

Regardless of the specific circumstances of his death, the photograph of Cyrus that hangs in the vestibule of St. Gregory Church to this day shows to me a man worn by both toil and illness. There is a steeliness about his expression, with the hint of a smile that seems to say "yes, it's tough, but I know what I'm doing, and I'm happy about doing it".

What is remarkable to me about the response of the community and the church to Cyrus' passing is the speed at which the news was spread, and the arrangements made. According to the Annals account, the Provincial, or head of the order, responded to Zelienople with another staff member to arrange for the funeral.

The local daily newspaper for the area, the Butler Eagle, was then an afternoon daily. The edition of November 1 contained not only the news account of Cyrus' passing, but also a complete obituary with funeral arrangements.

The paper likely went to press in the early to mid-afternoon of November 1, which means that these arrangements were all in place within as little as 8 to 10 hours of Cyrus' death. 

Cyrus' death shared Page One with President Eisenhower's
re-election in the November 8,1956 edition of the weekly
Butler County News-Record.
Cyrus lay in state in St. Gregory Rectory on Thursday, November 1 and Friday, the 2nd. A funeral mass was said that Saturday afternoon at St. Gregory, followed by Cyrus' transference to St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Herman, where a solemn Requiem mass was said on Monday, November 5th. 

A choir composed of Capuchins and seminarians...sang Yon's requiem. Some sixty priests, Capuchins and Seculars, were present. Burial was in the friars' plot at St. Mary's cemetery. 

The last of Cyrus' 7 siblings, my grandmother Josephine, passed away in 2006.

Today, Cyrus' final resting place appears slightly weathered over time, but still well-maintained by the faithful that still populate the church and manage its cemetery - this despite the contraction of the mission and the re-purposing of many of the buildings at Herman to different uses. 

The Capuchins remain a vital and active order, still ministering to many in far-flung locations that still includes Puerto Rico, but now extends to Papua New Guinea. There are fresh-faced young men who are still called to this simple life of poverty and service in the example set by St. Francis of Assisi, a figure whose life, teachings, and spiritual presence extends beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic denomination.

Forward in Growth

Two of my ancestors committed their lives to religious service in the name of Francis of Assisi. My Aunt Fran, who celebrates her birthday on the Feast Day of St. Francis, was named for him.

The poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote of St. Francis, “he is not only the most attractive of all the Christian saints, he is the most attractive of Christians, admired by Buddhists, atheists, completely secular, modern people, Communists to whom the figure of Christ himself is at best unattractive.”

A stone depiction of Francis, in an oft-seen pose surrounded by animals, has a place on the exterior of our house. It was placed there not so much as a tribute to these ancestors or an affirmation of their religious faith, but in appreciation of what Francis stood for, particularly his commitment to a life of charity and compassion for all of God's creatures. Perhaps another facet of Francis' life - his estrangement from his family for pursuing his mission and beliefs - resonates with me as well. 

After all of the research and contacts were completed, I wondered what I'd learned, aside from some vital statistics and a few anecdotal narratives of what by most accounts was an extraordinary life, cut too short. 

I learned more about sacrifice, about tough times and how people dealt with them, about how much ancestry really plays a role in how we define ourselves, for better or for worse. 
In communicating with both friends and family while working on this, I can see how the detective work and organization skills required for things like genealogy research present an attractive challenge for many like me who possess a meticulous nature.

However, as much as I understand the appeal of tracing a single thread of ancestry back through the tapestry of time, history, and memory, taking those lessons and moving forward with them is much more satisfying than the time spent looking back. 

Learn from the past, but don't let it consume you. 

Best wishes for movement forward in 2013.

Acknowledgments and Resources

Butler Eagle - Laurie Lindsay

Capuchin Friars, Province of St. Augustine - Sandy Mihalinac

Find A Grave - A growing, comprehensive web community cataloging both ancestral and burial site information. 

Frances Holappa

Library of Congress - Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers

St. Gregory Parish - Mary Ann Thompson 

Staff of the Commonweath State Library, Harrisburg

Sewickley Public Library 

Daniel Zilavy