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Maxo Vanka film to be made | American Sistine Chapel
By Nenad N. Bach and Darko ®ubrinić | Published  12/7/2020 | People , In Memoriam , Education , Culture And Arts , Religion | Unrated
My Friend Maxo Vanka, part 3

Maxo Vanka (indicated with blue arrow) in front of his huge mural.

p. 175

"I assumed Father Zagar had gone out; and after a time, still feeling strangely cold and uneasy, I decided to quit, though I sensed it was still early—perhaps only twelve-thirty. I used up what paint I had made, cleaned my brushes; then climbed down, extinguished the lights, and went out, and into the parish house.

"Entering, what do I see but Father Zagar asleep on the couch in the livingroom. Waking with a start, he jumped up and said, 'Hello, gospodine profesor!' Then, looking up at a clock he cried, 'Oh my, it's past one o'clock! Why didn't that woman wake me?' He meant his cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Dolinar, an elderly widow, also known as Dolinarka. He was angry, explaining he had lain down at about nine, having instructed Dolinarka to wake him at eleven; but she had apparently gone upstairs and also fallen asleep. "Now, this was strange! I said to Father Zagar, 'Do you mean to say that you have lain asleep here since nine o'clock?'—'Why do you ask?' said Father Zagar. I smiled and asked him to answer me, and he said, 'I believe I fell asleep soon after I lay down; by nine-thirty, anyhow.'—'And,' I asked, 'you've been asleep ever since?'—'Yes.'—'Are you sure?'—'Sure!'

" 'Well,' I thought, smiling to myself, 'all this is easily explained now: he is a sleepwalker.' Father Zagar asked, 'Why do you smile?' I told him; then he laughed and lighted a cigarette, pacing about the room. I sat down. 'You saw something?' he asked then. —'I saw you in front of the altar, making gestures like this' (illustrating). 'Sure you saw me?' asked Father Zagar, very serious. I said I had not looked very carefully, but had assumed it was he; now, if he insisted that he had been asleep ever since nine-thirty, I was impelled to think he was a somnambulist. We laughed.

"Smoking nervously, Zagar said, 'Believe me, gospodine profesor, I am not a sleepwalker. I was really on that couch from about nine till you awakened me.' He hesitated, then asked, 'Tell me: have you, since coming here, heard there is a tradition that this church is occasionally visited by a ghost or some strange phenomenon?' I answered, 'No.'—'Are you sure?'—'Yes.'—'Well,' Zagar went on, 'there is a fifteen-year-old tradition to that effect, dating nine or ten years back before I came here. I have never seen, or had any experience with him, or it, but not a few people say they have. Before I came, there were quarrels and arguments among the Croatians hereabouts pertaining to this ghost, or whatever it is. I am a sceptic as to ghosts and apparitions, and never believed the tradition, not really, but sometimes, listening to people speak of it, I admitted there might be something to it—some phenomenon which we do not understand .... Do you know why I asked Dolinarka to wake me at eleven?'— I said, 'No'—'Do you know why you always found me here so late, when you came out of the church ?'—'No.'—'Because,' said Zagar, 'ever since you decided to work late, I was half afraid that, alone in the church, you would have some "experience" and get frightened and possibly fall off the scaffold; and every night since you began to work, except today, I have stood watch outside the door between eleven and one. You never saw me, for I was outside, behind

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the door, looking in, keeping still, listening. My purpose was to rush in, in case you cried out, or started hastily to climb down.'

"I said, 'Father Zagar, you aren't crazy, are you?' He answered, 'I don't know, but I don't think I am!' We laughed again, then had some coffee and cake and canned peaches; and, discussing the thing, decided that hereafter Father Zagar would come into the church at about eleven or before every night I worked, and stay with me till quitting-time.

"So the following night he came in, announcing it was quarter to eleven, standard time; then, by way of horseplay, he called out, 'Come on, ghost, show yourself and see if the gospodine profesor and I are afraid of you.' I laughed, and went on working. Father Zagar climbed up, bringing me a pot of coffee; helped me with paint-mixing-something he did regularly thereafter; then went down again, lest he distract me, for I had started on the new mural, Religion in the Old Country, on the left side of the main altar ... and suddenly there was a strange click or knock in back of the church, beneath the choir. It sent a chill through me. 'Hear that, Father ?'—'What ?'—'That strange knock back there ?'—'Yes; but wasn't it a creak in the scaffolding? '—'I don't know,' I said; 'I don't think so.' It sounded terribly strange. I kept working as we talked.

"Then—another click or knock, the same as the first, but in another part of the church. I turned around and looked down at Father Zagar, who stood on the other side of the communion table. He turned, to face the rear of the church, and in a tense, sharp voice challenged, 'Come on, show yourself, if you are a ghost, or whatever you are; or speak, if you can. We're busy here, the gospodine profesor and I, decorating the church, making it beautiful, and we should like to be let alone. If you are a ghost; if you are a dead man, go with God,—peace to you: I shall pray for you. Only please don't bother us.—'

"I interrupted him with a yell, for just then I saw him—the ghost—or at least let me call him that—sitting in the fourth pew. I saw him very clearly: a man in black, an old man with a strange angular face, wrinkled and dark, with a bluish tinge. He leaned on the front part of the pew, looking up—not so much at me as at everything in general: a sad, miserable gaze. I saw him for just a moment, then-nothing. He vanished. But I felt cold all over, at the same time that sweat broke out of every pore of my body. I got off the scaffold, which was not high for that mural, and barely managed not to fall off the ladder, I was so frightened—only the sensation I had was more than fear: something indescribable, but related to the milder, more remote sensations I had experienced on the two previous evenings when I saw him gesticulate in front of the altar.

"Rushing to me, Father Zagar put his arms about me and asked what was the matter, but I had no time to talk with him. I pushed him aside and rushed out of the church as fast as I could. Outside, the dogs were barking. They rushed to me, yelping and whining.

"Father Zagar, who followed me out, had not seen the ghost; and, taking

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the attitude of the sceptic again, he said I had probably only imagined I saw him. 'But,' I insisted, 'I really saw him, Father—with these eyes, as I see you now.'—'You imagined it!' Zagar repeated, and I became angry and went to my room and made a sketch in my notebook of the man—the ghost, whatever he was—as I clearly recalled him sitting in the pew.

"I calmed down, went into the bathroom, and changed my sweat-soaked underclothes. Father Zagar came up and I went down with him. We begged one another's pardon, I had coffee and cake; we talked, speculating, Father Zagar telling me what the tradition had to say; and shortly after one, when I felt perfectly quiet again, we returned to the church, where also everything was entirely normal, and I resumed work. Zagar stayed with me till I quit, then I had more coffee and he went to his room, and I to mine. Exhausted, I fell asleep at once.

"In the morning Father Zagar told me of the following occurrence: A few minutes after he had turned out the light over his bed, there were three clear and distinct clicks or knocks in the closest proximity of his bed. The knocks were not as if some one struck a piece of wood or metal or a wall, but something different and strange, as though one snapped one's fingers, yet not quite that, either ... as though they came out of infinity—the same that we had heard in the church. 'They touched my heart, and everything in me with a long chill feeling,' he said, 'and, though I could not see him, I knew there was a dead man in my room. I blessed myself and began to say an Ave Maria, and switched on the light and saw nothing. The chill feeling in me persisted. I was frightened and angry, and said: "Who are you? Why don't you show yourself to me, when you do show yourself to Mr. Vanka? I am the boss here. I am the pastor. Talk to me if you can. Let's settle this once for all. Have some consideration for us. I work hard all day and I am tired, and I want to sleep. Poor Mr. Vanka has a task on his hands; you should let him alone. But now talk to me and tell me what the trouble is. I shall pray for you." I waited, but there was no reply, so I turned out the light, said a paternoster and an Ave Maria for the peace of his soul, and the cold feeling left me and, I think, I soon fell asleep.'

"The next night, and for two or three nights after, we were left in peace, and I worked right through, finishing Religion in the Old Country and beginning Immigrants' Religion in America, in which I included a portrait of Father Zagar. He posed for me in the daytime, then came in late in the evening. He was beginning to credit himself with sending the ghost away. It took a fellow like him, by golly, to deal with ghosts and spirits and such strange phenomena. He had given the ghost a piece of his mind the other night; now he stayed away. Ghosts, apparitions, and things of that sort, he said, were like people. If you talk to them as though you mean it, they listen to you. ...

"Father Zagar came in shortly before eleven, unlocking and locking the door, and cracking his usual jokes, boasting he had sent the ghost packing ... when the whole komedia started all over again. There was again that strange,

p. 178

awful knock or click in one corner under the choir, then another in the other corner. 'O-ho!' cried Zagar, scratching his head. I used up what paint I had in the pail, then laid everything aside and got off, intent on fleeing: for I was abruptly all cold inside and beginning to drip with perspiration. But the Father detained me, seizing my arm, suggesting we face the situation. 'Not I,' said I, and made for the door, Zagar after me, seizing me again.

"There was another knock, I could not tell just where, but it cut into me like a knife. Then I saw him—the old man in black—moving down the aisle altarward. Terrified, horror-stricken, panicky are faint words to describe my sensation. 'Look, Father,' I yelled, 'there he goes—to the altar—he's at the altar—he's blown out the light!' The last few words I shrieked out with more lung power than I ever thought I possessed, and simultaneously lost sight of the figure, and began to feel a trifle better.

"This—his putting out the light—is, perhaps, the most important point in the story. The light was the sanctuary lamp. It usually hangs in a special fixture depending from the ceiling above the altar. It burns all the time; the nuns next door see to it; the tallow and wick inside the bulb need to be changed only about once a year; and the sisters assured us afterwards that as long as any of them had been there—for eight years, at any rate—it had never been out. The glass bulbs around the flame are so arranged that it is almost impossible to blow it out. No wind or draught can touch it; besides, all the doors and windows were closed .... The light usually hangs, as I say; but now, because of the scaffolding, the fixture had been pulled up and the lamp stood like a huge red cup on the altar, where the ghost, or whatever it was, now blew it out with a puff of breath.

"When I yelled that he had put out the light, Father Zagar demanded, 'What light?' I said, 'The sanctuary lamp! There! Can't you see it's out?' Bome, by golly!' he exclaimed and rushed to the altar, where he saw that the wick in the lamp was still smoking. He touched the lamp; it was hot. The flame had, obviously, just been extinguished.

"Meantime, I had left the church. The dogs were yelping and squealing outside. Father Zagar followed me out. 'Till now,' he said, 'I still had a glimmer of doubt. I thought, possibly, it was your fantasy. I thought, possibly, I had imagined the knocks in the church and by my bed the other night. But now I believe. Bome, now I believe. There is something here. That light was blown out just when you said it was."

"At one o'clock we returned to work again, and everything was normal. Whereupon we had two .or three 'good' nights, as we began to call those when nothing happened. Then 'he'—we called him 'he'—came two or three nights in succession. I had no watch, but when 'he' came I knew it was somewhere between eleven and twelve, standard time. 'He' paid no attention to the fact that meanwhile Pittsburgh had gone to daylight-saving. One night Father Zagar tried to fool me when he came in, apologizing he had fallen asleep—it was nearly one-thirty; wasn't I quitting yet? I might readily have believed

p. 179

this under ordinary circumstances for I was weary enough for it to be one-thirty; but not this time. He no sooner spoke than the chill feeling pierced me, which was always the signal, and I said, 'Father, you'rl! a fibber; it's somewhere between eleven and twelve, standard time. I must go.'

"Almost always I left the church immediately I got 'the signal,' as I called the chill feeling. I tried to ignore it a few times, and worked furiously. I put blinders, made out of newspapers, on either side of my face, like a horse, so I would see nothing but the SPot on the wall where I worked. I stuffed cotton in my ears. No use! At the end I had to go; the sensation and the situation were intolerable. I saw 'him' on each of these occasions when I stayed after getting 'the signal.' He looked perfectly mild, pensive—like, sitting in the pew or moving up and down the aisle; yet he filled me with indescribable horror, with something higher and stronger than fear; what, I cannot tell you. Father Zagar, who also got 'the signal,' though usually later than I, and not as terribly, wanted me to stay and 'face the ghost and the whole business' with him, but I could not. Twice, when he tried physically to detain me, I pushed him violently away, bashing him once against a wall, the second time against a door, and he suffered bruises. He had locked the door and I was so crazy with that fear which was more than fear that I told him I would kill him unless he forthwith let me out.

"This went on throughout the job—for two months. When 'he' came, 'he' came always between eleven and twelve, standard, except once, early in June. On that occasion, he came earlier in the evening, perhaps at nine or nine-thirty, but gave me no 'signal.' The feeling I had was unpleasant, but not intolerable; I put on my newspaper blinders, stopped up my ears, and worked. 'He' burned candles on the chandelier in front of the little altar on the right from the time 'he' came till Father Zagar entered the church at eleven. 'What's this smell?' demanded Father Zagar, entering. I said, 'He's been burning candles all evening.' Then Mrs. Dolinar, the, housekeeper, came in, too, in the wake of the priest, who told her what I had said. The two of them inspected the chandelier; it was full of molten tallow, while one wick, burned almost to the bottom, stillĂ‚· flamed. Mrs. Dolinar put it out.

" ... This is my story,' concluded Maxo, "absolutely true, as I know it. I think I am not crazy. Nothing so intense, so terrific has ever happened to me. A ghost! I think so—something, some one, that is not substantial with flesh and bones and blood. An astral body, if you like—something: call it what you like. I know that I had a most terrific experience. . . .'

Listening to him,, I was thinking, "This is too weird even for Maxo.' Not that I questioned his statement about having had an intense and terrific experience. Nor did I doubt that Father Zagar would substantially corroborate his story, and I knew both of them well enough to feel they were genuine, beyond any charlatanry or trickery. But the "ghost,' to me, was a ghost in quotation marks. I had long since become settled in my belief that once we

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died we were dead; that our personalities disintegrated into atoms, molecules and other such basic life-units, which then became available as material in the construction of other life forms.

The matter of the sanctuary light going out, I realized, was hard to explain, save as a coincidence; but I inclined to believe that Maxo's experience was largely, if not entirely, of his own creation. I did not doubt his saying that no one had told him oj the fifteen-year-old "ghost" tradition, which was the creation of a few superstitious persons, the like of whom might be found in any group; or the result or manifestation of a collective psychosis or illusion; but I thought that, since the tradition existed, it was not beyond Maxo to get wind of it, somehow, via his acute, penetrating intuition, which was a matter of his whole strange background. After being a few days in the church, he could have sensed it. He was somewhat like D. H. Lawrence, who had the ability to sit down immediately on arriving in a city he had never visited before and write an article about it. I, myself, who was not nearly as acute and intuitive as Maxo, had lately lived in a three-hundred-year-old house in the city of Antigua, in Guatemala, and dimly sensed some of the things that I later learned had happened there long ago. Before that, in Yugoslavia, while interviewing King Alexander, I had had a feeling, which had amounted almost to knowledge, that he would be killed before long, and then had predicted his assassination in print in America a year before it occurred. ...

Of course, Maxo's conscious mind, with which he told me the story, had had, I figured, no part in creating the "ghost" and the whole terrific drama he had narrated to me. The "ghost," I theorized, was a creature of his subconscious. But why did his subconscious create him? Perhaps to keep himself constantly stirred up so he could carry out the great task before him. Perhaps, way down in him he doubted that he could complete the job on time, and his subconscious, getting wind in one way or another of the ghost tradition, had created the "ghost" to have him there as an excuse in case of failure. Other such thoughts occurred to me. I expressed them to Maxo. He smiled, complimenting me on my resources as a psychologist, but shook his head; I was all wrong.

We let Margaret and Stella in on the story, but, both sceptics, they joined my party against Maxo.

He Was asked, "Why didn't you quit when these dreadful things began to happen?" He answered, "I thought of quitting, but how could I return to New York and face all of you? How could I have explained it to you? You would all think I had gone crazy. Besides, how could I leave Father Zagar with a partly painted church? I thought of painting only in the daytime, but then I could not possibly have finished in two months as I had agreed. I took that agreement very seriously, for I had entered into it, not only with Father Zagar, but the whole church committee. The parishioners generally were very much interested in what I was doing. There was much talk. Everybody was expecting me to finish by about June tenth. Also, when I started the job, the

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big Pittsburgh newspapers printed stories about me and my project; and now, if I quit, the thing might get into the papers in some way that might make me look ridiculous and be ruinous to my future in America. ... " Maxo showed us the sketch of the ghost in his notebook. This was no proof to us. We did not dispute that he had "seen" "him" after his subconscious had created him. We asked him: did anyone have any theory who the ghost was? "The popular belief is," said Maxo, "that 'he' is a dead priest who, while alive, took money from parishioners for masses which he never read, and who had not read his breviary daily and had neglected his other priestly duties; and is

now coming to the church to make up for his sinful negligence during his life. Father Zagar inclines to this theory; so does the other priest there, the Rev. Nezich, who has never had any 'experience' and, not wanting any, never enters the church after dark. Mrs. Dolinar accepts the ghost as a permanent institution, and has no fear of 'him.' The same is true of the parishioners, who believe that 'he' comes. They say the thing to do is to stay out of the church late at night, and let 'him' have the place to 'himself.'

"The nuns, who live over the parochial schoolhouse, next door, do not disbelieve in 'his' existence; none enter the church at night. The dogs seem to feel 'him,' for they barked violently nearly every time I saw 'him' or heard the knocks or felt the 'signal.' On the night that 'he' burned candles in the church, Mrs. Dolinar felt a chill pass by, or over, her in the church. "There are persons in Pittsburgh, all Croatians, who have had 'experiences' with 'hirn'—have heard the knocks or clicks; have heard the organ play, which is electrically operated and, therefore, not subject to vibrations from the traffic either on the road below-hill or in the railroad yard. There seem to be

p. 182

people who claim to have seen 'him.' Before Father Zagar's time, there have been arguments in the parish between those who believed in the ghost and those who considered the whole thing a supe~stition, a collective illusion, or simple nonsense. One of the priests before Zagar, a certain Rev. Sorich, quit the parish on account of it. He claimed 'he' frequently knocked in his room, and that he had had other experiences with 'him.' Many people did not believe Sorich. He almost came to blows over the matter. He is still alive, living somewhere in Chicago. ...'

Maxo paused, then said, "I don't know what it is, .but I saw a figure who looked as I have drawn him in my sketchbook. I am certain there is something."

Whether "something" or a psychological quirk on Maxo's part which involved the priest and the housekeeper in his "experiences," the thing was interesting ... so in mid-August, asking Maxo to join me, I drove to Pittsburgh and we spent two days with Father Zagar at Millvale. We had long talks, back and forth, from all angles we could think of. The priest and Mrs. Dolinar, both of whom impressed me as utterly incapable of any charlatanry, corroborated. Maxo's story to me in every respect, adding a few insignificant details. Father Zagar repeated to me Maxo's account of the incident with the sanctuary lamp. He could not think of it as a coincidence. Both he and the housekeeper insisted that on the occasion when "he" had burned candles all evening, no living persons could passibly have got in to burn them, for all the doors had been locked and the keys—except Maxo's—were in the parish house. Joking, I accused Maxo of burning the candles himself. He laughed; he had too much to do to bother lighting candles. ...

I looked up a number of other persons who had had "experiences." Much of what they told me was confused and confusing. Some believed, with Father Zagar, that "he" was a dead priest trying to make good what he had neglected in his duties while living. Some thought "he" might be a parish priest who had served at St. Nicholas about twenty years ago. There appeared to be a number of people who had heard the strange knocks, both in the church and in the parish house, and had felt the chill that Maxo, Father Zagar, and Mrs. Dolinar had experienced. None with whom I talked had seeh "him," but some had heard of persons who claimed they qad seen "him," and that "he" looked like a priest. Certain it is that a number of people accepted the tradition. None of these were afraid to enter the church in the daytime, but they shunned it at night, especially between eleven and twelve, standard time.

The majority of parishioners, however, seemed to be sceptics in this regard; a few were emphatic there was no such thing as a ghost. They held that those who believed in "this nonsense" were superstitiously inclined, not very bright, apt to be influenced by "this crazy talk which was started God knows how or by whom, long ago." None of these knew of Maxo's and Father Zagar's recent "experiences," and thought the less said of the so-called "ghost" the better.

p. 183

They were afraid that, now that Mr. Vanka had made the church famous, the thing might get into American newspapers and thus act as a reflection on the Croatian people in the United States. They all thought Mr. Vanka's paintings were wonderful, and that he must be a great man to have done all that work in such a short time.

Father Zagar and I went into the church at eleven, standard time, on Tuesday, August 17th—and stayed there about an hour. I was, I think, perfectly prepared to have an "experience"; but there were no knocks or clicks, we felt no chills and saw nothing unusual. Maxo did not want to come into the church with us. I was told that sometimes, apparently, "he" did not come for weeks or possibly months at a time. The dogs had been very quiet at night now for many weeks.

I left Pittsburgh, not as definite a sceptic or scoffer as I had come there, but certainly an agnostic. There seems to be "something' in that church, but what it is, I don't know. The thing intrigues me both by itself and in connection with Maxo, whom—frankly—I do not understand any more than, apparently, he understands himself, but whom I like and whom I instinctively trust a good deal further than I can see him. I can say this: if there was "something" to see and experience, Maxo Vanka, if anyone, would see and experience it.


Many thanks to Mrs. Marta Pirnat-Greenberg, lecturer at the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures, University of Kansas (Kansas City), for having sent me a copy of the article by Louis Adamic. D.®.

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