‘Understanding who you are and where you’re from’: Cedar Rapids’ Czech School has been keeping traditions alive for 150 years

Czech School student Audrey Vaughn at the Czech School final program and ice cream social in 2016. She is with her great-grandparents Chuck and Irene Vavra. — courtesy of Mandy Vaughn

When Mandy Vaughn’s two children became old enough to attend the Cedar Rapids Czech School, she was excited. They would be learning the culture, songs and traditions that have been in her family for generations. Mandy went to Czech School as a child, as did her mother, Mary Haster.

“It’s kind of come full circle in a sense,” Mandy said about her daughter Audrey, 12, and son Grant, 8, attending Czech School.

It’s been a way for the family to connect over long-held traditions.

“My grandpa was tickled when Audrey started, and he’d ask her: ‘Have you learned this yet?’ or ‘have you learned that yet or that song?’” Vaughn said. “It was nice to see the kids connect with him because that was something that made him so happy and was so important to him.”

This year, the Czech School in Cedar Rapids — one of the longest continuously operating ethnic schools in the country — celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Journalist and Czech School graduate Cindy Hadish spoke with more than 50 people involved with the school for her book, Cultural Connections: 150 years of Czech School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“The goal is to share slices of life based on memories of some of those who attended, taught and led the Czech School, to offer perspective on circumstances of the past that shaped what the Czech School is today and preserve those memories for future generations,” Hadish wrote in the book’s preface.

Journalist Cindy Hadish wrote a book commemorating the Cedar Rapids Czech School’s 150th anniversary. She dedicated the book to her mom, as well as every mother, father, grandmother and grandfather who decided to send their children and grandchildren to Czech School. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Children in Cedar Rapids and the surrounding areas have been learning the Czech language, songs, history and other important aspects of Czech culture through the program for 15 decades.

For five weeks in the summer, children ages 6 to 14 attend daily classes from 8 to 11 a.m., Monday through Friday. Most recently, classes have been held at Wilson Middle School.

There are about 35 children who enroll in the Czech School each year, with 10 to 12 in each of the three levels, Czech School Board member Elaine Samek said. In the early 1900s, class enrollment was as high as 200-some students, according to Hadish.

There’s also an opportunity for adults to learn or brush up on their Czech. Throughout the last decade, adult classes have been held at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids. Samek said the adult classes focus more on conversational Czech, and are taught by the same teachers who work with the younger students.

Children and adults don’t have to be of Czech descent to enroll in the respective programs.

Grant and Audrey Vaughn with Czech School board member Julie Weidner during the Houby Days Parade in May 2019. — courtesy of Mandy Vaughn

One of the challenges has been finding individuals who know the language well enough to teach it, Samek said. For the last few years, a married couple from the Czech Republic has been flying over for the summer to teach.

“We used to have people that lived here in the Cedar Rapids area teaching, but we find that there aren’t enough people anymore who know the language well enough to teach,” Samek said. “They’ve been assimilated so much into the American culture that it’s been harder for us to get that.”

Samek went to Czech School for the full eight years. She became involved with the school board when her children started attending.

“When I went to Czech School, my one grandfather was an immigrant, so I was second generation in Cedar Rapids, where my kids [are] third [generation] and now my grandkids are fourth generation,” Samek said. “As you get farther in, you lose that heritage more, and that was something I didn’t want to do.”

The Czech School’s mission statement emphasizes preserving and promoting Czech heritage, culture, language and history, Samek said.

“The Czech [immigrants] have been well-known in Cedar Rapids for decades, so we’d like to keep that going,” Samek added.

The Cedar Rapids Czech School was started in 1870 in an effort to make sure future generations would know Czech and not lose part of their history. An increased number of Bohemian immigrants were coming to Cedar Rapids in the 1870s because of the available jobs in the area, mainly from the T.M. Sinclair meatpacking company.

By establishing this school, it showed the Bohemian immigrants (later referred to as Czech immigrants after the Kingdom of Bohemia, which had been part of the Habsburg Empire, became the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, following the empire’s collapse during the First World War) were in Cedar Rapids to stay and were committed to the community, historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said.

“But as much as they were committed to having all the children coming to live in Cedar Rapids to be part of the public school system, they wanted to have a program that would continue to preserve the Czech language, and that was really kind of the thinking behind the Czech School,” Stoffer Hunter said.

The Czech School was never meant to be a substitute for public education, Stoffer Hunter said. It was just a way for children to learn Czech in addition to English and preserve that culture.

Not only that, but the Czech School was also playing an important role in educating the Cedar Rapids community about the large population of Bohemian immigrants who now called the city their home.

The Bohemian immigrants left their impact on Cedar Rapids in ways other than the lasting legacy of the Czech School. Their rich history is carried on through the local restaurants, shops and entertainment in the Czech Village and New Bohemia neighborhoods. The two areas are recognized by the state as an Iowa Cultural District, and NewBo is one of Cedar Rapids’ seven National Historic Districts.

Stoffer Hunter, who isn’t Czech, attended the Czech School for eight summers in the 1970s, along with Hadish.

He recalled how his time attending Czech School was unique because he got to see the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library open, the creation of the Czech Heritage Foundation and the naming of Czech Village.

“Czech School made me appreciate more about what Cedar Rapids was about and what the Czech culture and heritage was for Cedar Rapids,” he said.

For Audrey and Grant Vaughn, their favorite part about Czech School has been learning about the culture and making friends in Czech School that they might not have met otherwise.

“That connection and the depth of those relationships and understanding who you are and where you’re from, it’s so nice,” their mother Mandy said.

“We’re Americans, and that’s important, but then knowing a deeper level of where we come from is so nice, and it just makes us who we are.”

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