As a nonnative from a cold-weather climate, I have observed that there are four seasons in Arkansas’ Delta: warm, hot, scorching, and malarial.  Another way to understand the weather in this part of the South is through the eyes of a ubiquitous inhabitant: the mosquito.  They bite in February; aerial insecticide spraying commences in May; windshields are covered by July; and they breed the rest of the year.  This latter point is only slight exaggeration.  The weather in the Delta is so hot and humid that rice, a crop generally associated with sweltering Vietnam, is the region’s main agricultural export.

The Knights of Columbus are using Delta rice oil to prepare the oysters, transported from the Gulf of Mexico, at the supper they have organized at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Slovak.  It is late January, and a mild breeze is blowing under a slate-gray sky.  Slovak is so small that there is no traffic light, post office, or general store.  The eternal debate over the relative merits of raw versus fried oysters has been settled.  Both varieties are available to the nearly 2,500 in attendance at the all-male event.  Many are dressed in outdoor gear worn to hunt duck, a popular local sport.  The area is surrounded by vast farmland.  There are several dozen homes and Ss. Cyril and Methodius, which includes a church, community hall, cemetery, and a building that once housed a school.  A Russian Orthodox cemetery is barely visible across the horizon.  Most shopping occurs 12 miles away in Stuttgart, a rice town settled by German Protestants.  Catholics make up only 3.5 percent of Arkansas’ population.  The Delta, like much of the South, is overwhelmingly Protestant, and largely Baptist.  But many non-Catholics attend the oyster supper; good food has its own special way of bringing people together.

Slovak immigrants settled this rural corner of the Delta in 1894.  Recruited from Pennsylvania by a land company, they were not welcomed by all of their neighbors.  One Arkansas Gazette headline read, “Flogging of young girls by Slavs in Pennsylvania reported” (August 7, 1894).  The daily, in an editorial, warned, “Slavs welcome in Arkansas but warned to give up barbarous ways” (August 10, 1894).  When measured by today’s standards, the Slovaks, mostly miners and farmers, were a hardy lot.  Their perseverance turned vast expanses of low-lying swamp and prairie into fertile cropland before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, and air conditioning.  Their small community was called Slovak.  It can be found on maps, 60 miles southeast of Little Rock.

Few outsiders have written about Slovak.  A U.S. government document, “Slavs On Southern Farms” (1914), mentioned the community, as did Felton D. Freeman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, in a 1948 article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.  Freeman termed Slovak “one of the most interesting results” of promotional efforts that occurred in the 1890’s.  Neither article mentions the Christian faith of the Slovak immigrants.  But one can observe the fruits of this faith, a legacy of five generations, by walking the parish grounds.

The grave of Msgr. Michael Judt (born in 1876 in the old country) is at the center of the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic cemetery, less than 100 meters from the church.  The tombstone reads, “A zealous priest and gifted author whose works and writings are devoted to the welfare of the Slovak people in America.”  What manner of man was this Slovak priest who left his homeland to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ?  Few clues can be found in the newspapers that reported his passing on April 23, 1942.  “The Rev. Judt,” the Arkansas Democrat wrote in its obituary, “came to Arkansas in 1926 to become priest of the church in Slovak and remained there until four years ago when ill health forced his retirement.”  None of the writings mentioned on Monsignor Judt’s tombstone are to be found in the public libraries of Little Rock or at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  Apparently, the secular world barely noticed the passing of Monsignor Judt.

Yet the gifts this émigré Slovak priest left future generations are abundant in the parish’s humble surroundings.  Slovak has contributed a significant number of religious for a community its size.  In the same cemetery are the graves of two priests (surnamed Janesko) who grew up in Slovak while Monsignor Judt served the parish.  Their brother, the Rev. John A. Janesko, a priest for more than 50 years, is parish priest for Slovak and Stuttgart’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church and school.  It is remarkable that three members of the same family, all natives of this rural farm town, should join the Catholic priesthood and touch the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who crossed their paths.  Janesko sisters have also devoted their lives to Christ as nuns.

Another clue is the small wood-frame school located behind Slovak’s church.  It is a simple structure, utilized today for Sunday catechism.  The school’s cornerstone reads “1936.”  The Great Depression (1929-33), and a second, severe recession (1937-38) afflicted the United States in the 1930’s.  Unemployment was high, crop prices were generally depressed, and overall economic conditions were unfavorable.  Yet a Slovak émigré priest inspired a deeply religious people to build a Catholic school under adverse economic conditions in a decade when many struggled to feed and clothe their own families.  Hundreds of children attended the private school before it closed in the 1970’s.

A gravel road connects the cemetery, school building, and community center.  The thought of oysters is replaced for a moment by the sight of a pebble.  The pebble appears insignificant to the world, yet the ripples from one tossed into the water move far beyond the initial point of impact, in concentric circles.