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Fraternal Benefit Societies and Slovene Immigrants in the USA
By Matjaž Klemencic

Excerpted from Slovenia Magazine 2004

On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Slovene National Benefit Society (SNPJ)

The fraternal benefit societies can be compared with similar organizations in Central Eastern Europe. Their emergence was also influenced by the fact that 19th century America had not yet practiced any form of social security or health insurance. This conditioned the emergence of individual local benefit societies, the goal of which was to offer some form of social security and a place where immigrants could socialize and satisfy some of the cultural needs in their everyday lives. Naturally, the task of these societies was also the maintenance of the identity of their particular ethnic community. This was done not only through the direct support of the cultural organizations, but also through the sponsorship of the ethnic press.

The Slovene fraternal benefit societies in the USA (in part together with ethnic churches) were also very efficient in organizing supplementary lessons for the children of Slovene immigrants. The “liberal-socialist” side of these organizations organized the education of these children through afternoon and Saturday schools in Slovene nationals' homes.
Here we should mention the importance of sports activities; for it was through these that the interest of younger members of the individual societies was maintained. In addition, sports also created a certain feeling of belonging with the whole ethnic community and maintained a sense of belonging to an ethnic group. Even though programs basically originated from Europe, we might establish that the members of the sports organizations primarily promoted American sports—among them, baseball, bowling, and basketball. Naturally, these organizations also created circumstances that promoted individuals, who later became American sports stars. Ethnic newspapers meticulously recorded the successes of these individuals, and these successes served as incentives for ethnic national pride. The fraternal benefit associations helped some of these successful sportsmen at the beginning of their careers.

Today, fraternal benefit societies represent the strongest form of ethnic immigrant organization. Initially these were strictly ethnic organizations, so that their members were from specific ethnic communities. After World War II and to a certain degree also before the war, in some of these organizations we can trace the membership of outside ethnic group members who were related to the central ethnic group of organization.

Fraternal benefit societies represent the basic form of Slovene organization in the USA. Thus, Slovene immigrants in America founded their first fraternal benefit organizations before World War I, and by the end of the war, eight had already become active. These fraternal benefit societies played the role of insurance companies, for at that time America had not yet become familiar with social security. They also acted as the cultural and political unifier of Slovene immigrants. The variety of political organizations of Slovene immigrants was a mirror image of the political differentiation in the Old Homeland and also partly the differentiation in the new homeland. This and the scattered nature of Slovene settlements all over the USA led to the organization of a large number of fraternal benefit associations.

The first Slovene benefit society was founded as early as 1882 in Calumet, MI. Called the Society of St. Joseph, it became the parent of the Slovenic Croatian Union, which 40 years later merged with the Croatian Fraternal Union in Pittsburgh. Already before World War I other societies were also established:

Carniolian-Slovenian Catholic Union (KSKJ), Joilet, IL 1894
South Slavonic Catholic Union (JSKJ), Ely, MN 1898
Slovene National Benefit Society (SNPJ), Chicago, IL 1904
Western Slavonic Association (ZSZ), Denver, CO 1908
Slovene Free-thinking Benefit Association (SSPZ), Chicago, IL 1908
Slovene Mutual Life Association (SDZ), Cleveland, OH 1910
South Slavic Benevolent Union “Sloga” (JPZ Sloga), Milwaukee, WI 1915
Slavonic Workingmen’s Benefit Union (SDPZ), Conemaugh, PA 1908

The year 1921 saw the movement for the merger of individual societies. The Slovene National Benefit Society joined this movement by proposing a merger with the left-wing oriented Slovene fraternal benefit organizations. They were the South Slavonic Catholic Union, the Western Slavonic Association, the Slovene Free-thinking Benefit Association, and the Slovene Workingmen's Benefit Union. Despite the publicity given to the merger contact of all four organizations in Prosveta, only two of them, the Slovene National Benefit Society and the Slovene Workingmen's Benefit Union, actually merged in the end. The latter had been previously joined by the Slovene Workingmen's and Pensioners' Society, founded in 1910 in Madison, PA, and by St. Barbara's Society from Forest City, PA. After World War I, on the pressure of Yugoslav diplomatic representatives, the existing organizations of Yugoslav immigrants in the USA attempted to unite into the Yugoslav Fraternal Union. This organization, however, existed only on a formal level and was never really active.

The SNPJ and the Free-thinking Benefit Society merged in 1941, but retained the name of the former. In 1946 the SNPJ and the Alliance Lily Society of Wisconsin merged. Although the South Slavic Benevolent Union “Sloga” was invited to merge with the SNPJ and the American Slovene Catholic Union, it merged in the end with the Croatian Fraternal Union in 1993. Three of the existing organizations changed their names. The South Slavonic Catholic Union was renamed the American Fraternal Union in 1940, and the Carniolian-Slovenian Catholic Union was renamed the American-Slovenian Catholic Union in 1962. The Slovene Mutual Life Association was later renamed the American Mutual Life Association.
Each of these organizations stood for its own political orientation and world view. Smaller benefit societies had members only in some areas of the USA. The Western Slavonic Association, for example, had members only in Colorado, and the Slovene Mutual Life Association only in Ohio, while the First Lutheran Wendish Fraternal Benefit Society comprised only the Prekmurje Slovenes in Bethlehem and its environs in Pennsylvania.

The main differences among them were their views of the world. Thus the Carniolian-Slovenian Catholic Union demanded of its members that they be pious Catholics. Its spiritual leader was a Catholic priest. Each individual lodge also had its priests, who heard the confession of each unit's members every month. This strict arrangement led to the founding of new Slovene fraternal organizations with more liberal attitudes. Thus in 1904, the SNPJ was established. This society excluded religious questions from its programs, for it claimed that religious belief or atheism was the personal affair of each individual.

Each of these organizations had its own newspaper, which was either issued or financially supported by the organization. These fraternal benefit associations were in one way or another also interesting to the government. This fact can be supported by the suggestion Louis Adamic made to Colonel Westbrook (the leader of the Works Progress Administration) in 1934. The main issue at that time was the possibility of settling about 100,000 unemployed families in agricultural areas. This would be realized with the financial support of the American government. Adamic suggested that fraternal benefit societies should play the leading role in the organization of such resettlement projects. Also the leaders of the Slovene and Croatian fraternal organizations were invited to participate in the official U.S. delegation led by Vice President Walter Mondale at the funeral of the President of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito in 1980.

According to the statistical data published by the National Fraternal Congress of America, in 1992 there were approximately 9,248,000 members of fraternal benefit organizations throughout the USA. Of course, not all fraternal benefit societies were included in this Congress, just the largest ones: 43,000 local lodges united into approximately 2,400 fraternal benefit societies. Among them, Slovene societies, or those organized by Slovene immigrants, included the following:

Ameriška bratska zveza (American Fraternal Union): no. of branches: 66, no. of members: 16,170, account value: $21.0 million, insurance premium value: $48.5 million;
Ameriška dobrodelna zveza (American Mutual Life Assoc.): no. of branches: 41, no. of members: 15,388, account value: $17.9 million, insurance premium value: $21.2 million;
Ameriška slovenska katoliška jednota (American Slovenian Catholic Union): no. of branches: 88, no. of members: 32,621, account value: $29.2 million, insurance premium value: $88.0 million;
Slovenska narodna podporna jednota (Slovene National Benefit Society): no. of branches: 237, no. of members: 54,190, account value: $77.3 million, insurance premium value: $147.9 million;
Zapadna slovanska zveza (Western Slavonic Association): no. of branches: 37, no. of members: 6,561, account value: $23.0 million, insurance premium value: $19.0 million.

Besides the above mentioned organizations, two women's fraternal organizations were active: the Slovenska ženska zveza (The Slovene Women's Union), which was comprised of Catholic-oriented women, and the Progresivne slovenske žene Amerike (Progressive Slovene Women of America).

The beginnings of the largest Slovene fraternal benefit society, the Slovene National Benefit Society, can be traced to 1894 when the first freethinking Slovene fraternal lodge “Slovenija” was established in Chicago, IL. Since no other centralized liberal Slovene organization existed at that time it merged with the Czech fraternal, founded upon free-thought principles. Lodge “Slovenija” still remains a branch of this organization.

Because there was no centralized free-thinking Slovene organization, a new organization was needed and organized upon the initiative of Lodge “Slavija” which was organized in 1903 in Chicago. In 1903 similar organizations sprang up across the United States: Triglav (LaSalle, IL), Adrija (Johnstown, PA), Bratstvo (Steel, OH), Naprej (Cleveland, OH), Bratstvo (Morgan, PA), Prosveta (Allegheny, PA), Delavec (South Chicago, IL), and Bratstvo Naprej (Yale, KS). The delegates of the above mentioned independent fraternal organizations organized the Slovene National Benefit Society (Slovenska narodna podporna jednota—SNPJ) at a convention, which took place on the corner of 18th Street and Center Avenue in Chicago, IL, from April 6 till April 9, 1904. Twelve delegates attended: ten from the Chicago lodges and two from other cities. These two delegates were given the right by various outside branches to pass on decisions and vote by proxy. Delegates agreed that the organization would be based on a fraternal, class-conscious, workingman's foundation, and that all members would have equal rights, including sick and death benefits.

From its inception, the SNPJ wanted to grow beyond a small independent club and to lay the foundation for a national fraternal organization. In this it succeeded very well, as SNPJ went on to become the largest Slovene fraternal organization in America.

In the beginning, the SNPJ admitted only men into its ranks, but by 1909 provisions were already made for women to become members with equal rights. Three years later, measures were also taken to grant membership to children. The first youth circle was organized in Walsenburg, Colorado, in 1937. It was followed by circles in many other cities and towns.
From the very beginning the SNPJ issued an official organ called Glasilo SNPJ, a weekly publication for its members. This became a daily publication in July, 1916, and was renamed Prosveta. In July, 1922, the publication Mladinski List (now called The Voice of Youth) was established for the SNPJ's juvenile members. These publications have served as an educational medium for both adults and youths. In the fall of 1925, the first English-speaking lodge was organized, and many others followed soon after. To accommodate English speakers, an English page was added to Prosveta in January, 1926. This section has been gradually expanded, so that at present the English section dominates the weekly Prosveta.

In 1966 the SNPJ opened a new recreational facility in western Pennsylvania on 500 acres of rolling countryside. The facility was appropriately named the SNPJ Recreation Center because of the role it plays in facilitating the Young Adult Conference, the Youth Conventions, the Youth Roundup, Pensioner's Week, Family Week, SNPJ Days, Slovenefest, and the SNPJ Slovene Heritage Center (founded in 1978). Today the recreational facility includes a picnic shelter, a main building with gymnasium and restaurant facilities, family cabins and motel units, an Olympic-size pool, outdoor sports fields, a campground, trailer facilities, and many other features for the society's socially-minded and family-oriented members. The SNPJ is very proud of its Recreation Center in Pennsylvania which later became incorporated as the Borough of SNPJ, PA.

The first SNPJ headquarters building was located on Lawndale Avenue in Chicago, IL, where it served the society from 1917 until 1974. In 1974 a new headquarters building was built in Burr Ridge, IL, and twenty years later, in 1994, the SNPJ moved its home office to Imperial, PA, near Pittsburgh.

The SNPJ, along with other Slovene fraternal organizations in the USA, was instrumental in responding to the crisis in the homeland. The members of organizations were among the first to react to the events in World War I, World War II and the Slovene movement for democracy and independence at the crossroads of the 1990s. The SNPJ's members also helped to organize the Slovene and Yugoslav Republican Alliance in 1917 which proclaimed the demands of Slovenes to live in the Yugoslav federal republic. During World War II they provided their headquarters to organize the Yugoslav Relief Committee–Slovene Section and were also instrumental along with other benefit societies in organizing the Slovene-American National Congress in Cleveland, OH in December 1942. This Congress organized a Slovene-American National Council (SANS) in which officers of SNPJ played leading roles (Vincent Cainkar, President of SNPJ helped establish SANS, while Mirko Kuhelj, SNPJ treasurer, was recording secretary at a Slovene-American National Congress and assistant secretary of SANS). The members of SNPJ also played an important role in organizing United Americans for Slovenia, an organization which fought for recognition of Slovenia as an independent state by the USA in the early 1990s.

As a fraternal organization, the SNPJ has shown concern for the less fortunate through contributions to national, local, and community charities. The society and its members have donated much over the years, including medical equipment and humanitarian assistance to Slovenia. The society also provides disaster relief to members in need. A big part of the foundation of the SNPJ has been the promotion and preservation of the Slovene cultural heritage. While its many fraternal benefits attract members of all ethnic backgrounds, and while American Slovene culture today is somewhat diversified, the society still has an important heritage to pass on to future generations.

Today, the SNPJ's life insurance portfolio and fraternal benefits are much more sophisticated and diversified than early in its history, and it appeals to people of all ethnic backgrounds. The society, however, is still guided by its original principles of fellowship, brotherhood, assistance, and caring. Through the years, the SNPJ has maintained its belief in merging the philosophy of fraternalism with the security of life insurance protection at the lowest possible cost. It strives to continually meet the challenges of the changing times and life-styles by providing benefits that better serve its members' needs.

They SNPJ, however, like most (if not all) ethnic fraternals, is concerned with the slow decline in membership. What is its future? While the organization is financially strong and stable and continues to grow financially, it must reverse the membership decline in order to survive. In the early years of its existence, immigrants were responsible for SNPJ's growth. It is different today. Today's society must grow through marketing and packaging our life insurance policies along with our fraternal benefits.

The Slovene American market niche is not large enough to depend on for membership growth. The children and grandchildren of immigrant members who did not retain their membership may have left the organization because of the SNPJ's lack of expertise in appealing to younger generations. This group could be pursued by the society in the future with a more attractive benefit package. SNPJ's strategy for the future includes developing a more skilled staff through continuing education for its life insurance, office management, and marketing staff. Any fraternals that do not do this might find it difficult to survive in today's environment of increasingly stringent insurance regulations and requirements.

The SNPJ organization and its publications have been targets of scholarly interest in Slovenia and in the USA; in Slovenia recently an M.A. thesis was written on the history of SNPJ's first ten years and also a Ph.D. on Mladinski list.