YOUNG TOWN — Mike Vasilchek has always been interested in his Carpatho-Rusyn heritage which was traced back to his ancestors in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Slovakia.
In 2005, Vasilchek returned home from Evansville, Ind., to care for his parents. It was at this point when Vasilchek wanted to be closer to his roots and traditions.
At the time, Vasilchek was working in contracting and electrical engineering as well as project management. He traveled a lot on his job and while he was working on a project that was away from home, he would look in the phone books to see if there were any Vasilcheks in the area, as well as meeting other ethnic Russians.
“If it was Sunday and I was away on a project, I would try to go to the Byzantine Catholic Church in that area. Sometimes I would have to stay over on the weekend if I was in charge of an electrical installation project (power and controls) and I would try to go to church every Sunday. It was nice whenever I would come across a Byzantine Catholic Church in another town where I was working,” said Vasilchek.
Vasilchek joined the Carpatho-Rusyn Society Youngstown/Warren/Sharon Chapter in 2007. This chapter of the Carpatho-Rusyn Society was founded in 2005 by Robert Demoko, and the current president is Jim Basista.
The Youngstown/Warren/Sharon Chapter Carpatho-Rusyn Association has coordinated numerous cultural events in the area, including a Vatra (bonfire) Harvest Event at Infant Jesus of Prague Byzantine Catholic Church in Boardman, as well as dinner meetings on various Rusyn topics. hosting a wide range of guest speakers. The Youngstown/Warren/Sharon Chapter Carpatho-Rusyn Society has been a part of local events such as the Simply Slavic Heritage Festival in downtown Youngstown each June and the YSU Summer Arts Festival. Vasilchek said he is very proud of these opportunities to share his knowledge with the general public.
“At the Simply Slavic festival, people always come up to our cultural table asking us ‘what am I?’ and trying to find out where their families came from in Eastern Europe. We give you the feeling that you are going in the Carpathian Mountain region, but the festival acknowledges all Slavic cultures. It was great to be back this year in 2022 after a two-year COVID hiatus,” said Vasilchek.
Vasilchek (original European spelling Vasilcik) attended Byzantine Catholic Primary School (BCC) for grade school and is a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School. He then went to Youngstown State University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering
“My parents were originally from Struthers. My father, Michael Vasilchek, was born in Sheffield, Pa., and his parents came from Eastern Slovakia near the Ukrainian border. My mother, Ann Hudak, was born in Bulger, Pa., and her family also came from Eastern Slovakia,” Vasilchek said. “My father later came to Struthers and my mother settled in the Girard area. My mother’s father worked for Ohio Works Steel Mill. My father was a blast furnace blower foreman at Sheet and Tube Campbell Works,” Vasilchek said.
The Carpatho-Rusyn Society is a non-profit organization based in Munhall, Pa., with many chapters throughout the United States. The association’s focus is to provide a better knowledge and understanding of tradition to those of Rusyn heritage as well as those curious about the culture itself.
Rusyns are an ethnic group under the Eastern Slavic category and live in the Carpathian Mountains region of Eastern Europe such as Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Russia. There is also a population in Canada and the northeastern United States.
“My family went to SS. Peter and Paul’s Church in Struthers. My grandmother spoke Rusyn, Slovak and Hungarian. The Rusyn people never had an official country, so they adapted to whatever country in Eastern Europe they managed to settle down. The society was them and their church. The community they trusted was the church. Some Rusyns lived in Poland, parts of Ukraine, Serbia-Herzegovina and Hungary,” Vasilchek said.
He is the secretary of the Youngstown/Warren Sharon Chapter Carpatho-Rusyn Society. His role consists of organizing activities, creating a lot of history, creating maps and distinguishing where the Rusyn people lived in Eastern Slovakia, Southeastern Poland and Northwestern Ukraine.
With his experience of traveling to Eastern Slovakia, Vasilchek had the opportunity to really connect with his ancestors on a deeper level. He said that when he visited different villages, he could speak parts of the Rusyn language and knew the customs.
For Vasilchek, the Rusyns brought many great assets with them to the United States.
“They could live under any condition with the government, the society and the economy. They were self-sufficient and resourceful people. The Rusyns who immigrated to the United States adapted very quickly. They wanted something better for themselves and their children. “The reason they called their country back home ‘the old country’ is because they felt there was no future,” said Vasilchek.
Vasilchek worked for Alcoa Corporation for 25 years as a corporate electrical engineer. He then worked for AK Steel. He retired three years ago and now spends more time coordinating events for the association.
“I was interested in genealogy because of my father. He wrote down where his parents came from and collected articles on the subject of Rusyns and articles on the history of Youngstown with the steel mills and their operating conditions,” Vasilchek said.