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Wednesday, August 5, 2020


Toronto, Ohio Nun Falls Victim to 1918 Pandemic

            Toronto, Ohio is truly the Gem City because it’s streets are jeweled with hundreds of banners depicting photos of its military heroes.  Its annual Independence Day fireworks display is arguably the best in the Upper Ohio Valley.  And the city erected the first ever World War I monument November 11, 1919.

            If you look closely at the bottom of the southwest side of this masterpiece by artist Giuseppe Moretti, you will see the name of Sister Mary Jean Conner.

Mary Jean Conner front row first on left.
 Perhaps Sister Mary Jean’s sacrifice has special meaning today, 102 years later—2020—a year of a 

pandemic, because this Toronto, Ohio native succumbed to a pandemic, the Spanish influenza.

Full Military Funeral

            The first peak of this deadly 

disease occurred during October of 

1918 and infected 20-percent of 

the US military, overburdening the 

country’s medical system.  Volunteers 

were needed and many orders 

of nuns filled this void, including the 

Sisters of Loretta, to whom Sister 

Mary Jean, a St. Francis Church 

parishioner, was a novice.  Although 

training to become a teacher, she and 11 other Loretta nuns arrived 

at Fort Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, the largest training facility in the country with as many 

as 64-thousand soldiers at one time within its combines.


  The sisters, wearing their white long-sleeved robes, tended to the soldiers stricken with the Spanish 

influenza, performing such duties as taking vitals, cleaning wounds, administering medicine, providing 

general comfort and writing letters to the patients’ families—all under the direction of the American 

Red Cross.

            Four Loretto nuns became stricken with the Spanish flu, including Sister Mary Jean.  She succumbed to the pandemic 29 years of age, a casualty of war, October 28, a mere 16 days after arriving as a volunteer at Camp Taylor, less than two weeks before the war ended.  She was given a full military funeral at Camp Taylor and later buried at the Loretto Community at Nerinx, Kentucky.

            The Loretto Order was the original order of nuns at St. Francis Assisi Church in Toronto, later 
Sister Mary Jean's Funeral Procession.

replaced by the Ursuline Nuns in 1948.

            The Spanish influenza was estimated to have killed 675,000 Americans.
Loretto Compound Grave.

(related articles: See "The Nation's First World War I Monument)

Sunday, August 25, 2019




            More than the most common street name in the United States, Main Street of Toronto, Ohio has a most uncommon distinction, and might as well at one time have been the Mason-Dixon Line, or the Center of the Universe, as some Torontonians thought and still think; such was the rivalry between the North End and the South End of the Gem City.
            Although some Toronto residents have always disputed the true demarcation separating the town’s north from the south, Main Street marks the boundary between Knox Township on the north and Island Creek on the other side of the street.  No one, to this writer’s knowledge, from the City of Vision has ever publicly called himself a Knoxer or an Island Creeker; always a South-ender or a North-ender, or even a North-end Hunky, even those not of Slavic heritage.
            The term “Hunky,” in fact, was an ethnic slur, whose origin predated the turn of the 20th Century and referred to Slovak and other Slavs who had emigrated to the U.S. to escape the oppressive rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a reign that forbid Slovaks to teach their own language.  Although their native land was Slovakia, their official entry papers listed them as immigrants from Hungary, and hence the ethnic slur, “Hunky.”  The Toronto Slovaks congregated in the north end of Toronto where an abundance of job opportunities attracted them, jobs with low pay and long hours, this tenure often requiring them to work 32 consecutive hours.
            My Slovak grandparents told me stories about prejudice toward Slavs back then, told me why they did not pass on their Eastern Slovak dialect onto their children and grandchildren, that they did not want them to grow up with accents and become targets of prejudice and derision.  My grandfather John Petras Sr. told me a story about the Ku Klux Klan marching up and down Loretta Avenue in 1935, and while standing upon his front porch, he shook his fist at one Klansman, recognizing him by his peculiar gait, and saying, “I know who you are, Charlie.  You look ridiculous!”  As the robes continued down street, he shouted again, “And by the way, Notre Dame will beat Ohio State again this season!”   And the Fighting Irish did—7 to 2.
            Back then Slavs were distinguished as a separate race.   Hitler wanted to eradicate them, and back home, if they held a position in City Hall, it was on their knees, scrubbing it.  In “Out of This Furnace,” a novel about an immigrant Slovak family—the Dobrejcaks—author Thomas Bell wrote that most Americans did not consider Eastern Europeans, such as Slovaks and Poles, as well as Southern Europeans, like Italians, white.
            In 1935, the same year as the Klan March, the racial tensions came to an ugly climax April 17, four days before Easter, when pickets at the perimeter of Kaul Clay, the majority of which were of Slavic descent and other minorities, met a storm of gunfire from Pinkerton Detectives, resulting in one death and another four wounded.  The fatality was Andy Lastivka, a Slovak whose residence stood two blocks from where he had fallen.  Another Toronto Slovak, Andy Straka, carried a Pinkerton slug in his leg for life.  No one was ever arrested or convicted for the shootings.
            Even to this day, one can see the stigma of prejudice by touring Union Cemetery and the headstones in the oldest section to discover not a soul of Slavic or Southeastern European descent buried amongst the obelisks and monuments dedicated to the Masons and other prominent residents of a municipality nicknamed the Gem City.  Union Cemetery was a site frequently marched by the Klan, often numbering more than 50 hoods.
            If Time is a great healer, it is because it is a great inducer of forgetfulness.  Gradually, the wounds of this culture clash became subsumed into oblivion.  North-enders moved southward, the direction by which the expanding city grew.  South-enders moved north.  Slavic names blended into a hodgepodge with those of Irish, Scottish, German, Anglo, Italian and others.  They intermarried.  And World War II united everyone.
            Second and third generation Slavs married sons and daughters of Toronto’s founding fathers, one of whom was Revolutionary War scout and Indian fighter Michael Myers, who had 11 children with his wife Katherine Strickler, and the Auver rumored to have fathered more.  It has been said by more than a few T-town old-timers that half the town is descended from a dude who lived to a ripe old age of 107 years while the other half is of Slovak descent.  Said more bluntly: half the town is related; the other half doesn’t know it.   Perhaps that is the reason the north end-south end rivalry eventually became reduced to brotherly banter and that, too, has faded.
            There are some striking geographical and demographic features distinguishing the two half-cities.  For the most part, the North End is flat, the streets straight while the South End is hilly, the streets often curvy.  The North End is overlooked by Meyers Knob, part of the Pennsylvanian Escarpment, the South End overlooked by a geological anomaly, Mount Nebo, where the Ohio River once flowed on the west of the mountain, the floodplain that is Walton Acres today. In geological terms, it is classified as Wisconsinian.  There were the clay works and the power plant in the Mosti side of town and the paper mill, block factory and Titanium in the Coulters side ; Rudy’s in the north and Melhorn’s and Happy’s south; the Power Plant houses in the north, the Mill Row south; and the North End Tavern in the draft root beer side of town, the South End Tavern in the Goonie Burger side, or simply called Skunk’s if you didn’t give a flying river rat’s ass about zonal distinctions.
            Even the currents of the Ohio are claimed by some to flow funny below Main Street.
            An old Kaul Clay veteran, a Hunky at heart, once exclaimed that City Hall had a conspiracy to move everything important in T-town south of Main Street.  Maybe there was a conspiracy, looking back, now that every grade school, K through 12, sits on one site.  (Rumor says this conspiracy began when the color blue initially appeared in Red Knight uniforms.).  The north-end and Slovak-language teaching parochial school St. Jopeph’s merged south with St. Francis until that, too, merged with oblivion, like Slovak Days, which incinerated into nothingness when Kaul Hall along Croxton’s Run Road burned to the ground in the 1970s.
  And the south end holds a wide margin in this pizza-consuming town of a four to one margin, a town further divided by loyalties to a square pie, and like an Ivy League rivalry in which you are a staunch Harvard man or a Yale man, in T-town you can distinguish oneself as an Iggy’s man or a Dicarlo’s or Domino’s dude, a Gem City Pizza gal or one of the diminishing few, the most loyal of the loyal, still holding out for the return of Johnny’s.
An interesting fact about the pizza logistics of the Gem City is that the town never has had a pizza shop operated its ovens north of Clark Street, not even the fabled monopolistic Johnny’s, which moved from site to site as often Bill Jaco, always in the South End.
            Some dispute, until this day, occurs about the true line separating the two halves of the city.  Some claim as far north as Myers while some say the south end begins at the Overhead Bridge.  And then there is the mythical midtown, a so-called neutral zone from Main to Clarke.  In truth, to the best of this Iggy’s man and anti-blue bring-back-the-Goonie advocate, and based on personal bar- and- tavern on-the-site research, no such establishment has been named anything close to “Midtown Bar”  while there has been fierce patronage for decades at the aforementioned North End and South End Taverns, the mythical midtown home to such neutrally named watering holes as the City Restaurant, Frogs and Gem City Restaurant, unless, of course, “Candyland” was some secret blue conspiracy code name for the “Center of the City Fish Bowl.”
            Perhaps, the north-south T-town rivalry became extinct at the advent of open enrollment.  Maybe too many Cernanskys and Scalleys moved south.  Who knows?  Ask the millennial and younger T-towners about the north end-south end rivalry and they’ll probably respond by asking if that’s a new video game.

            This town’s north end-south end rivalry is gone, faded like the advertising on the Daniels Building, memory-aided, barely discernible but to some.  Toronto, Ohio is one town, as it should be, a small city, as it has become, a hometown, always.