Fraternal Benefit Societies and
Slovene Immigrants in the USA
By Matja 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
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
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,
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
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
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 enska zveza (The
Slovene Women's Union), which was comprised of Catholic-oriented
women, and the Progresivne slovenske ene 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
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
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
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.