KUNDEK, JOSEPH Priest
Another early Croatian missionary in North America was a secular priest, Father Joseph Kundek. He was born of a middle class family in Ivanic, a small town in the vicinity of the Croatian capital, Zagreb on January 21, 1809. After completing the gymnasium in Zagreb, he was admitted by Bishop Alagovic to the diocesan school of theology.
In 1829 Bishop Reze, later Bishop of Detroit, founded in Vienna the Leopoldine Mission Society for the support of the missions in America. The society published Berichte der Leopoldinen Stiftung, in which Kundek read about the activities of a Slovenian missionary, Father Friedrich Baraga who went to America in 1830, became a great missionary, among the Chippewas and was later named a bishop. After his ordination in August 1833, as a young priest in the parishes of Gore and Petrinja, Kundek, moved by the example of Baraga and the news in the Berichte about a crying need for German speaking priests among the German colonies in the Middle West, decided to go to America as a missionary. Before his departure for America, he spent a year in the mission center in Vienna improving his German and studying English and French. From Le Havre he sailed to Southampton where he left aboard the "Alliance" on June 8, 1838, for America. After a "stormy voyage of 43 days with good luck and without any seasickness" he arrived at the port of New York. Overland he traveled via Philadelphia to Washington, "where the President resides" and proceeded by way of Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville. Having crossed "the beautiful river Ohio he arrived safely at Vincennes on the 28th of August at 7 o'clock in the evening" as he reported in his letter to Zagreb written in "Vincennes in North America on the 24th of September, 1838."
The Leopoldine Society sent him to the diocese of Vincennes which had been established only in 1836 and embraced the whole of Indiana and a part of Illinois, including Chicago. Father Kundek's activities as a pastor were limited to the southern section of the diocese where there were only few German Catholics. Bishop Brute of this diocese sent him to Jasper, the seat of Dubois County, Indiana. There on September 28, 1838, Kundek founded the mission of Jasper. He took care of all Catholics between Jasper and the river town of Troy, and reported his missionary activities in subsequent letters to the Leopoldine Society in Vienna.
By the end of 1839 Kundek founded a new town, Ferdinand, twelve miles south of Jasper, named in honor of the Emperor of Austria, who was a benefactor and protector of the missions. Here he built a church and a school. Besides his pastoral work in Jasper he was constantly on the move, sometimes spending many weeks on horseback covering routes as long as 700 miles. In the fall of 1843, he established another settlement with a new parish, named Celestine. His colonizing efforts were very successful, and through the following years thousands of Germans settled in this area around Jasper. The success of his colonization schemes is proved by the number of permanent and prosperous Catholic parishes he established. To this day traces of his work are to be seen in the sections of Indiana where Germans settled. Anyone traveling through Dubois County and nearby regions will find "large numbers of German Catholic farmers, who still retain customs brought by their ancestors from the Fatherland and carefully fostered by Father Kundek.
Kundek was the first recorded Croatian immigrant to have visited Pittsburgh during his journey in 1838, offering holy Mass, administering sacraments, and preaching to scattered groups of German and other Catholics.
Incessant, difficult labor under the most primitive conditions of a frontier country undermined Kundek's health, and by the end of 1843 he was in New Orleans trying to recover his strength. There he found the large group of German Catholics in such a miserable plight that he could not refrain from setting to work to help them. He built a church, administered whatever spiritual comfort he was able to provide, and then returned in May, 1844, to his own flock in Jasper. In the fall of 1846, the untiring priest founded a third colony for German Catholics, Fulda, so named because most of the immigrants who were coming there were from Fulda, Germany. Such colonizing efforts, which were part of his larger plan, he called "the most effective means of stabilizing and spreading our holy religion in America.His Parishioners trusted him so deeply that they followed even his political orientation. As he became a Democrat, in due course of time, all his parishioners joined the same party. His most notable civic achievement was the building of the first brick courthouse in Jasper, which he and his parishioners erected for $6,000.
On November 19, 1851, Father Kundek sailed from New York for Europe to visit his native Croatia and some other countries. To obtain badly needed immigrant priests was, however, the main purpose of his journey. He visited London and Paris, traveled through Belgium, Germany, and Austria trying to impress upon the clergy the urgent need for priests in the diocese of Vincennes. In the latter half of March, 1852, he spent a few days in Zagreb and then left for Prague where he met the former Emperor who lived there after his resignation in 1848. There Father Kundek presented him a map of Ferdinand, the town he named in Emperor's honor. Some Croatian newspapers and journals published glowing reports about Kundek's activities in America, welcoming him back to the old country as a man "who built five towns" in the wilderness of America. Kundek was also hailed for the material aid he had rendered to the poor people of Croatia. Unfortunately, however, the only Croatian priest who responded to the call of Father Kundek was Rev. Eduard Martinovic, who left Croatia to become pastor of the German parish in Madison, Indiana.
By the middle of June, 1853, Father Kundek was back at Jasper. Despite his failure to attract Croatian priests, his European journey was crowned with considerable success, for he brought over from Europe sixteen secular and two Benedictine priests, the latter from the abbey at Einsiedeln, Switzerland, who soon established a priory in the vicinity of Jasper. From humble beginnings, it developed into the present magnificent Benedictine St. Meinrad Archabbey.
From 1853 until his death Kundek suffered from illness, the result of overwork and hardship connected with missionary life. He consolidated his earlier work. The Benedictines began to lighten his missionary burdens, and before the end of his-life he had the consolation of seeing the fruits of his unremitting labors in four parishes and four missions he had founded. After nine months of serious illness, he died peacefully at Jasper on December 4, 1857, mourned by thousands of German immigrants and the many priests who were his collaborators. He was not quite 48 years of age. The well known German newspaper, the Wahrheitsfreund in Cincinnati, published two articles commemorating his death and praising him as a great missionary.
As long as it endures, the town of Jasper will be associated with the memory of Father Kundek. His labor has left a lasting impression upon all of southern Indiana. A local historian praised him thus: "A scholar and a gentleman was he, in the wilderness of Dubois County, as well as in the crowded cities of Europe. At the time of his death, there were more than 7,000 German Catholics in Dubois and Spencer counties, a vivid result of his colonizing efforts. His letters published through twenty years in the reports of the Leopoldine Society were the best examples of those "America letters" which historians of immigration have considered an important stimulus for the growth of the European emigration. A true leader of his flock, he aided his people not only in spiritual matters but also in their difficult adjustment to their new environment.
But Croatia did not send America only missionaries. During the nineteenth century it also sent considerable sums of money to America through the Leopoldine Society. Documentary evidence in the archives of the Archdiocese of Zagreb shows that between 1832 and 1858 thousands of florins were sent from Croatia "for maintenance of churches and schools in America." During Kundek's life alone as much as 57,000 florins (over fifty thousand dollars) was sent from Zagreb for the Catholic missions in America according to several writers.
In the middle of October, 1954, the Archabbey at St. Meinrad, which had been consecrated by Kundek, celebrated its centenary. A special delegation of Croatian priests and intellectuals, invited by the Archabbey, attended the centennial festivities. In honor of the occasion, Father Dunstan McAndrew's doctoral dissertation on Kundek, which he wrote at De Paul University, was published for the St. Meinrad Archabbey Centennial 1954 as a tribute to Father Joseph Kundek. A statue of Father Kundek has been erected in Jasper between the great church of St. Joseph and the parochial school. The inscription on the missionary's tombstone indicates his Croatian origin. In addition, one of the streets in Jasper is named in Kundek's honor. On December 8, 1957, a centennial celebration of Father Kundek's death provided a fitting commemoration of his life and works. The Governor of Indiana proclaimed December 8, 1957, "Father Kundek Day" in order "to pay tribute to a great missionary, pioneer and citizen who left Croatia, the land he loved to come and colonize the wilderness of this great state, for which we owe him a huge debt of gratitude. A large delegation of representatives from American-Croatian organizations participated in Kundek centennial celebrations in Jasper, and American newspapers commented extensively on Father Kundek's life and works.