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Interview with Michael Harendza

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Harendza, Michael ; Caganek, Anna ; O'Neil, Dan


Michael Harendza talks about his family's emigration from Storocin, Czechoslovakia and the conditions of the boat they took from Hamburg to Ellis Island and then their experience after arriving in America. They were placed in Binghamton, NY where he and his family learned to make do with little money. He talks about his first piano teacher, Cecil Masten, dropping out of school to take care of his mother, and singing in choirs and playing the organ to make money. He discusses his continued training as an organist and the variety of church jobs he held, as well as, concerts he participated in and the students he taught music to.




This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.

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Broome County Oral History Project


48:03 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Michael L. Harendza

Interviewed by: Anna Caganek and Dan O’Neil

Date of interview: 15 December 1977

Anna: This is Anna Caganek: the interviewer. I am talking to Professor Michael L. Harendza. 69 Colfax Ave, Binghamton, New York. The date is December 15, 1977. Uh, Professor? Tell me about your life and experiences in the community.
Professor Harendza: Well, my mother brought me here from, ehm, Austria. It’s now Czechoslovakia. The name of the town that I was born in was, uh…Storcin [Stojčín]. S-T-O-R-C-I-N. Storcin. It’s in the northwestern part of Czechoslovakia, in the small Carpathian Mountains. My father died—he traveled extensively, he came to America about four times. He traveled to South America. And, uh, he came back home, and my mother got pregnant again. And I popped out. [chuckles] I was born on June 29, 1901.
My father died, so we buried him. And we stayed there. I had an older sister: Rose Harendza. She came to America—I don’t know how, I don’t know what year, around 1904 I think—and she married John Kukol and they had twelve children, they kept on coming. Then we came, and I shall never forget, I was very happy on that boat. Mother said we naturally got bad steerage, they couldn't afford to get us a better class ticket and—but I got acquainted with the Captain and the attendants on the boat. They let me run around, and I always had a feeling then that I had a good voice. I would sing Hungarian folk songs and Slovak folk songs. And I would get a lot of loose change—I brought home that and I gave it to my mother. They also gave me a lot of fruit, which Mother appreciated very much, because being down in that steerage, as a matter of fact she was sick all the while. It took us two weeks to cross from Hamburg, we went on this boat [for] two weeks. We arrived in Ellis Island sometime in the early part of November, and we had to go through all the various requirements—shots and medicine, everything else. And then good physical procedure to see that you were alright, and so they let me pass. Mother was sick all the while. And then they took the address and put a tag on my mother, and a tag on me: Binghamton, New York. [laughs] And they brought us down here, and the train arrived at about 5 o’clock in the morning, and my brother-in-law John Kukol met us there, and we couldn't get a taxi or anything, so we had to trudge all the way from the old station down to the other folks there. We stayed around—our first Christmas and first Thanksgiving was that year here, as far as I know now—not too much, rather hazy, because I was just past five years old—and I did things a boy would do. [chuckles]
Anna: My bad habit—
Michael: As I said, when I got to the school, then they—in January I went to the Jarvis Street School, there is an office building now. I went there and I’ll never forget Miss Perkins, the first grade, I went, and, ah, Miss Stone—a saintly woman, a wonderful woman, she did an awful lot for the Slovak people of this neighborhood and Slovaks in general. I got in a little jam one time, my mother had to come down to prove something. Well it wasn’t so, I just tried to get away from being punished after school, and she brought an interpreter with her—I never thought Mother would be that fussy—and so Miss Perkins and I and my mother and Helen Takac and Miss Stone. I lost a pair of shoes, and she knew—they cost a lot of money, these shoes—and she knew the other children going to school without shoes—I didn’t see why I shouldn’t go, they were clumsy on me anyway. So I used to take them off and then hop to the corner house on Grace and Jarvis—remember, Anna, where Connie lives now? There were some people there, a place where I could put my shoes during school, and you know I got away with it for quite a while, but when I—one time, when I came from school for my shoes, they weren't there, somebody stole them. And so naturally Miss Stone and they wanted to know everything, in the school, and Mother wanted to know too, because two or three dollars was an awful lot of money to her—she had to work in Dunn McCarthy almost a week for it, for it. Of course I tried to earn some a little bit later, sold papers and things to help out every possible way. She went along and somehow—I took—found out they didn't steal my shoes, because my, I put my shoes in there, and—they did steal them, but it was really my fault for leaving my shoes there. And also after I got the whole interview through, she came from Miss Stone.
[Imitating his mother] “Please, give me stick.” You know, like a little pussy willow. Wooo! I got a good royal licking. She said, “Michael”—in Slovak, she said to me, “I'm not punishing you for the shoes—they’re lost, they’re lost—but the shame that you gave me, that I had to come here to this good woman and show my son was a liar.” I shall never forget that, and when she went and left Miss Stone took me upstairs to her office. “Michael,” she says, “you have a very, very wonderful mother.” Imagine it, five years—fingers stay on my head all the while. She said, “I don’t have to worry about you because you will make your way in the world all right.” I shall never forget, they were always so nice to me, everybody. And I went through—when I got to the 5th grade, St. Cyril School was built and they opened up in 19—it was built in 1910, but they couldn't get any Slovak Sisters to teach there, so they rented out to St. Patrick’s, and they used it for high school for girls there for about two years, and then in 1912 got four Sisters from Danville, Sisters of St. Cyril & Method. And from there I went to the 5th grade—6th, 7th, 8th grade I put in there, and everything went very nicely. And in the summer I would get a job somewhere else—remember Deyo Farms? I would go there picking cherries and strawberries, and weeding, you know, earn a little extra money, because naturally, poor Mom couldn't go alone and do everything. She gave me everything, l never had to be ashamed about my dress or anything. Imagine—I was the only one that used to wear shoes, and that’s why the shoe subject was such an important thing. And l went to St. Cyril’s School, and l stayed there until l graduated in 1916, from the 8th grade. Then l went down to St. Patrick’s, the high school there, and did my regular work. l took care of the paper route in the summer, in summer the Press, and in the morning I would get up early enough to go and pick up the Herald—remember the old paper? I’d be around the corner there, so—and we got along pretty good. My brother was a very fine [inaudible], like on the wall, like on the—
Anna: Plastic—
Michael: Plastic. And he was very good to us, especially to mother, and I know l got my first shoes from him, and he was good to me. We stayed up to my sister’s—she was very nice too—I roomed with my brother, and she had her own. And then he had to go to Albany, they had a big hotel or something. ‘Cause he was flying to meet—he took me to hear Paderewski in the old high school.
Anna: What?
Michael: Paderewski—the pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the world’s greatest pianist. And that was my first contact with coaching. They took me over to the State Armory over there, John McCormick sang—an enormous amount of people came, they got across to that old State Armory, where the Forum is now, that old big State Armory. l was just as big a rascal as anybody, let me tell you that l was no angel but l didn’t know better things, and then l went to high school, and l went for two years, after that Mother got very sick. After that l got work in Dunn McCarthy's as office boy, taking the cripples around the room and and later on got 15 dollars a week, then got 20 dollars a week, which could carry us on very nicely, and l worked there and kept on singing. Then we had a little money and l asked mother if I could go and study voice, I had a lot, l had two years of piano with Katherine O’Brian—you remember her—she used to give piano lessons by the Post Office. Bill Danek and a few others took piano lessons, l had two years of piano, and when I was working and had a little money I went to see Cecil Masten. Cecil was an awful good teacher, he was a very fine baritone and he used to do a lot of State work. He was on the corner of Main St. and Crestmont Rd., and it went along pretty good and, but my brother again went out and we didn't have too much of an income, and she got sick so I had to quit school. I was already 17, and I would sing in different choirs every time I got a chance to get in some hotel or something, I would get 4 or 5 dollars Saturday & Friday but we, I didn't know other things, so I continued my piano and after a while—St. Joseph Rangers were still here, and Miss Katherine Vinceyas, she was the organist. She had to have an operation on her appendix and she had to be out quite a while, so Father Scripo called Father Casmir, said, “Michael, you can play while she is out. Take over the job while she is out.” And that would give me 25 dollars a month, but that was pin money for me because I had my regular job. I went on and on, and after a while I was playing there on one second Easter, I was playing. And then they tore down the old church and built another one, and it wasn't painted or anything, and they had a mobile organ there, I was singing there and then Father Martincek—remember him? He left, and the Franciscan Fathers came to Father Cyril and Father Florian Billy, and I sang once in a while, but I sang in a little church which was Lithuanian, made a little money there, so I did this and Easter 8 o’clock mass, I played and sang in Lithuanian. I was very active in Languages, I sang, Father Scripo came from the altar, so Father Cyril was going to have the next mass, each had one mass because a lot of people in St. Cyril, Glenwood Ave., our Parish extended to Stella Ireland Road. He said to Father Cyril, “Who is that boy? He has a good voice, plays nice too but very good.” I went home and he shot right up to my house, which was right up the hill, and wanted to know why I didn't go to St. Cyril’s. I said, “Well, Father, they pay me and every penny counts, cost money, I like to study and it costs money, voice lessons and piano lessons. Father send Father Billy to ask me to take the job, then I said, “I know what, I’ll play for three months during the summer, I'll play and be an organist when school starts, 30 dollars a week.” The organist said he will pay the most, 75 dollars a month, 5 dollars for funerals, 3 dollars for weddings and 1 dollar Requiem mass—getting 75 dollars, that would bring the total to 150 dollars a month. All summer long I played, then when school started, I said to Father, “I got my old job in the factory, I was sample operator in the office, I was my own boss, I had to do them, nobody else could do them but me. That’s when I was making 35 to 40 dollars a week then,” I told them. “$75 a month,” Father Florian said. “How about it, Mike?” he said, “We will give you the job,” and on New Year’s Day $75 a week, 75 dollars. All the while I got active in the chamber of the concert staff, singing of concerts
Dan: You said you studied under Cycil Masten, but you also heard Ignacy Paderewsky?
Michael: Paderewsky, yeah. And also John McCormick, and also Anna Pavlova, and also the New York Philharmonic, Dr. Walter conducting. I took them all in, I took them water as favors, and I saw one thing, I would have to advance my education if I will get anywhere, and also keep on studying with Cecil Masten. I would take a lesson, once in a while, then Dr. Harold M. Neiber, organist in Christ Episcopal Church years ago—well anyway, he was the organist there, so I studied first organ with him, then I studied piano. Then he got a good job in New York, in a cathedral. I went to—Francis— [pause] He lived on, Saint, St. Mary’s Church—after 30 years I can’t think of his name. He lived on—what’s that street, on the corner of Main, where that church, that St. Mary’s church is?
Dan: Fayette.
Michael: Fayette. On the third house down. He had two daughters that were teachers.
Dan: It wouldn’t be O’Brian, would it?
Michael: No, no. I know Mr. O’Brian.
Dan: He had two daughters.
Michael: Yeah. Well he taught piano and his daughters [inaudible]. Well I went and studied with him, piano. I had two years with Dr. Harold Neiber, and then I had four years with—mmmmm—Francis? Frank? He was a very famous man in the ward. Right in your territory. [laughs]
Dan: Right in my territory and I can’t remember it. It was probably before my time.
Michael: No, that was about 1927.
Dan: I was pretty young then.
Michael: Francis, Francis.
Dan: I remember Casey.
Michael: Casey, he was an organist at St. Mary's Church, and he took Francis’s place, then he played in Endicott in St. Andrew’s, and Mr. Johnson paid for it. Well anyway I studied with him. And then—
Mrs. Harendza: Mr. O’Connor.
Michael: Francis O'Connor. [laughs] Thank you, Mama, very much. You best see him, you probably know more about it than I do. Then summer came along, I told Father Cyril, “I am going, Father. I am going to be an organist.” Sacred Heart in Manhattan. I’d spent four years and five summers—all summer courses—I came twice for my examination to get my certification, my license. And we got along very nice, [inaudible], I specialized in that. We got along fine, I was able to do a lot of nice things, we organized a nice choir at St. Cyril’s. We had, ah—I can show you all kinds of pictures, where are they? I continued working. I joined the American Field of Organists, and I was 16 in 1933 to 1936, we put on several concerts. We also, on Civic Music, over for the Board at the Chamber of Commerce. [inaudible]
So we all worked together. There were very nice women there, and so I went. [inaudible] And ever since then I have been very active, even to this day [inaudible] and I tell Helen, I said, “Helen, I'm not working and I’m not doing anything or teaching.” I said, “They gave me my bread and butter, and they made me the man that I am, and I got a good reputation.” I think you know that.
Dan: I do.
Michael: I don’t have to tell them. I always admire the Opera—the Tri-Opera Chorus and Symphony, the Ballet at Roberson I love, and also all the cultural things, I like them, they seem to do things for me. I went there for three summers, I got my supervisor thing down for three years, twice each, time down in St. Cyril’s, then I am going up in June ‘til the end of August. I took my examination and I got my first certificate, which was for teaching from 1st to the 5th grade, and I earned the 2nd year certificate, from 6th to 9th grade. That’s as far as I am going, because I didn't go to high school much.
Dan: Where did you get these Certificates from?
Michael: Pius X school in Manhattanville and Pius X . ‘Course we know these colleges, they know these schools, and this was connected with Manhattanville College in New York. This was Catholic, down all from Rome, and later on could earn [inaudible]. That was, I kept on working right along. Gave concerts, gave numerous concerts. I was active. [inaudible] And now that I am 76 years old I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, but I still, as you can see how my hands are, but I still, every Sunday at 7:30 I play the mass—by the altar I got a little Conn organ—and I sing with the people. The old Slovak hymns. And they sing and I love it.
Dan: Where is this?
Michael: St. Cyril’s, even now. Then Monday and Tuesday we have Novena's, and I play the 12 o’clock mass, and then we have the Novena's for Blessed Virgin Mary. Tuesday I play the 12 o’clock mass and Novena to St. Anthony. That’s the amount of work I do now, but before—
Mrs. Harendza: You play the funerals, too.
Michael: Huh?
Mrs. Harendza: You play the funerals.
Michael: [inaudible] Can you think of anything else?
Anna: What do you think of the changes in the church? That’s what I wanted to ask you.
Michael: The changes…well, I’ve been brought up on the very, very strict rules. If I dared and played the songs that we are singing now, I'd be excommunicated, but now it’s perfectly all right. What they want, the Church wants them to participate, [inaudible]. In some churches the Priest goes up and down, and that way they all do a little bit of it, but I got a good strong voice. [inaudible] I don’t agree to a lot of things on that score, because I am a Gregorian chant man all the way, and to me there's no music more beautiful than Gregorian chant. And these hymns—some of these Hymns are very beautiful, and I enjoy playing them, and these people never heard of—they’re practically all taken from the Methodist Hymnal, and all through the Presbyterian Hymnal and the Lutheran Hymnal. [inaudible]
Dan: At what age did you come over, did you immigrate, Professor? What age?
Michael: 5 years old. June 29th 1901, and 1907 we came.
Dan: And now do you carry the ethnic customs in everyday life that you brought over from the native land?
Michael: Yes, I think so. The younger generation, they don’t—there is no question of that—but where the family is…and they think of their past heritage, what they had in Europe…you can’t take that out of them.
Dan: No.
Michael: Any more than we could take the Irish out of you.
Dan: That’s right, that’s right.
Michael: And we feel the same way. And that is the reason that I’m playing there yet. You can’t get anybody that can sing and play the Slovak languages at the same time.
Dan: Right, right.
Michael: That’s about the only reason. I love my work very, very much.
Dan: Well, I’m glad that you are keeping active.
Anna: You still go to the old customs of Christmas and everything?
Michael: Yes, [inaudible]. And my daughter, she teaches in MacArthur School, and she graduated from Marywood. Her Bachelor’s Degree, and her Masters Degree was from Ithaca College. She teaches 7th and 8th grade in MacArthur School, and Michael, my son, he is studying in Catholic University. Here is his picture when he was in the Navy—pianist for the Navy, and accompanist, and also a concertmaster. So he's got his B.A. in—the, ah, Catholic University. He got his Masters in Composition, and now he is working for his Doctorate. But he’s got—
Mrs. Harendza: Perpetual student
Michael: He’s got maybe one or two visitations left, and maybe one or two concerts. [pause] Well, I told you. Well I got a couple of nice sins I have [laughs], and I won’t admit that to nobody.
Dan: We are not in a position to forgive you those, so you better tell those to a priest. [laughs] Anna, is there anything else that you'd like to add?
Michael: Did I cover the ground pretty good?
Dan: Very, very good. What ethnic customs do you carry on in your everyday life, Professor, you still carry on in your life?
Anna: Yeah.
Mrs. Harendza: Well, like Christmas Eve, and things like that.
Michael: We have the traditions.
Anna: You still go for the old tradition over the, ah—
Michael: We have the old tradition. We say our Grace in Slovak for each meal, and—naturally, being here so long already, they are more Americanized. They haven’t the love of the past that I have, because I was born there, and that’s why I am so loyal to that. But I want you to know that the people of St. Cyril’s treated me wonderful. They gave me a chance. Now I had the chance to go to St. Patrick’s as organist, and several other good prominent churches, but I couldn't—Father said, “You would get three times as much as I give you.”
“Father, when I was as green as green could be, you accepted me, the Franciscan Fathers accepted me, and our Slovak people accepted me also,” because I had a good voice and I was able to sing anything. I said, “Now that I got my credentials, I could go flying wherever I want.”
Anna: Professor, you know what I wanted to tell you. When I told somebody that I am going to interview you, they said, “Please tell the professor that there'll never be another one like him.”
Michael: Well, you see—
Anna: That’s right—I agree.
Michael: [inaudible]
Mrs. Harendza: Yeah, but you don’t really meet that kind of organist these days.
Dan: No you don’t. Not one that is dedicated, that—you got fine memories.
Michael: We used to have five hundred children in the school, they would march in every morning to the school—you’ve seen them, Anna.
Anna: Yeah.
Michael: [inaudible] We had those big masses, you know, and they’d get all the schools together, and I was the district manager and director. [inaudible/crosstalk] This would happen once every month.
Anna: Thank you, Professor Harendza.

Date of Interview



Caganek, Anna ; O'Neil, Dan


Harendza, Michael


48:03 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Harendza, Michael -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Immigrants -- Interviews; Binghamton (N.Y.); Musicians -- Interviews; Organists; Slovak Americans

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.



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