Celebrates Mass at ancestors’ church
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — “I can now say I’ve had my 10 minutes of fame in the Czech Republic,” Msgr. Thomas Zinkula said recently with a laugh.
The priest, currently the rector for the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s St. Pius X College Seminary in Dubuque, unexpectedly found himself on a news broadcast on Czech TV when he was visiting the country over the holiday season.
Msgr. Zinkula was in the Czech Republic with his brother Jerry and sister Donna and their families to explore their ancestral homeland.
“My dad’s family came from Bohemia in 1854,” said the priest, who has an interest in genealogy.
Msgr. Zinkula’s great-great grandparents – Jacob and Barbara Zinkula – had left Bohemia, then part of the Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic, before coming to Iowa to farm.
“We had the name of a town where they were from but could never figure out where it was because of a misspelling; we couldn’t find it on a map,” Msgr. Zinkula recalled.
But that changed recently when he and his siblings located the hometown of their ancestors on Google Maps, and after some further research, which included scouring online documents written in Czech and Latin, they were able to find their ancestors’ baptismal and marriage records and learn more about them.
“We decided to take a trip over there to see everything,” he said.
On the day after Christmas, Msgr. Zinkula and his family flew to Prague, the Czech capital. The following day, they rented a car and drove the approximately 100 kilometers to the small village of Prisov, with a population of about 250 people.
Once there, they were able to see where Jacob and Barbara Zinkula had lived – Prisov’s House #16. Though a new house now sits on the property, the foundation from the original home is still visible.
Prior to having left for the Czech Republic, Msgr. Zinkula’s family hired a local woman, Olga, to do further genealogical research for them. She also coordinated an itinerary for the family and led their tour once they arrived.
Thanks to Olga, the people of Prisov also knew the Zinkulas were coming and provided a warm welcome.
“We were greeted by the mayor,” Msgr. Zinkula said. “They had sandwiches for us, too.”
The mayor also had her father with her, an elderly man who shared how his ancestors had been the ones who bought the Zinkulas’ home when they left for America in the 1800s.
The little village of Prisov is, and was, too small for a church of its own, so Msgr. Zinkula’s ancestors worshipped and celebrated the sacraments at St. Jacob Catholic Church in nearby Ledce.
Msgr. Zinkula inquired whether he might be able to celebrate Mass at that church, which is normally attended to by a visiting Polish priest. A man named Martin, who lives in the church’s parsonage, and with his wife operates a charity there for those with mental illness, helped Msgr. Zinkula with the logistics to make his request possible.
“I figured it would be a small, rather intimate gathering of my family for the Mass,” reflected Msgr. Zinkula.
But that is not exactly how it turned out.
“By coincidence, there was a deacon leading a pilgrimage that day,” Msgr. Zinkula said.
The pilgrimage was being made by a group of university students and young families who were traveling from town to town on their way to a cathedral in nearby Pilsen, praying for the people of Aleppo, Syria, along the way.
“Ledce happened to be where they began their pilgrimage,” Monsignor said.
The deacon and the group of about 20 pilgrims, who had a police escort for security reasons, joined Msgr. Zinkula and his family for the Mass at St. Jacob’s, as did the Polish priest; Martin, the man from the parsonage, and his family; and a youth from the neighboring village who was recruited to be an altar server.
And then the TV station showed up. A reporter and camera crew were following the pilgrims to do a news story about their journey. The reporter interviewed Msgr. Zinkula, who explained what brought him and his family to the Czech Republic and to that particular church that day. The blurb with Msgr. Zinkula ended up on the Czech station’s evening news broadcast.
“The whole thing was just very much a fly by the seat of your pants kind of thing,” Msgr. Zinkula said of the events of that day.
Despite the randomness that brought them together, and despite a little shivering on the part of some, since there was no heat in the old church, Msgr. Zinkula said it was a beautiful Mass, and he felt that the people gathered that day shared something special with one another. In particular, he thought it was a memorable moment when the group joined in singing “Silent Night,” in both Czech and English.
Msgr. Zinkula said he was happy to see so many young people on that day’s pilgrimage.
Though the Czechs were historically a Christian people, today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world with low rates of church affiliation and belief in God.
“There is not a lot of faith left in the Czech Republic, but it is on the rise among some young people, and it gave one hope to see the young people there that day,” he said.
The Mass also struck an emotional chord for Msgr. Zinkula on a personal level.
“I thought to myself, my ancestors worshipped here, they lived here, and that brought it alive for me,” he said. “As a priest, it was very meaningful to celebrate Mass where they had celebrated the sacraments, including the marriage of my great-great-great grandparents (Norbert and Margaretha) in 1821.”
“Another thing that made this trip and the Mass so special was that my dad died the Saturday after Thanksgiving,” he reflected, “and of course it was his ancestors who came to the U.S. from Bohemia.”
After their time in the Czech Republic ended, Msgr. Zinkula and his family traveled for a few more days in neighboring Poland – seeing the city of Krakow and visiting the site of Auschwitz, the World War II-era concentration camp, now a memorial – before arriving back in Iowa on Jan. 4.
“It’s a trip we’ll always remember,” Msgr. Zinkula said.
Msgr. Tom Zinkula (center) is filmed by a TV journalist while distributing the Eucharist in a Czech church. (Contributed photo)