“It belongs in a museum!”
So said Indiana Jones before fighting a heroic one-man battle for an early Christian artifact and escaping from an exploding boat.
And so says Father Ivan Dornic of St. Mary’s Assumption Church in Joppa, one of a large network of Slavic churches in greater Baltimore.
Back in “1970-something,” Dornic says, he was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh when he got a call from a colleague in Monessen, Penn. A Byzantine Catholic church in the town was being rehabbed and re-purposed by a developer.
“You should see what happened to our icons,” the caller said. “They are all out in the parking lot.”
Dornic hastily drove out to the town and rescued the icons—which were later appraised at a very high value.
As churches have closed, Dornic has found himself frequently embarking on similar missions over the years.
“It’s almost like a national problem,” Dornic says. “For some reason, they are closing down churches and destroying church artifacts.”
If he can’t save everything, at least there is a place to put things now.
The National Polish Slavic Museum, 1735 Fleet St. in Fell’s Point, is in the Sokolnia Hall, which was once used as a banquet hall by its owners, Ze Mean Bean Cafe, located next door. Dornic says that Ze Mean Bean has allowed the museum group—a coalition of individuals with ties to the Slavic churches in the Baltimore area—to lease the property.
The museum has a large collection of texts, works of art, artifacts and other items, still in the process of being organized. A colorful icon of St. George slaying the dragon sits on a shelf. A book entitled “Forbidden Photographs” is a pictorial account of life behind the Iron Curtain. A hammer-shaped symbolic object, similar to a gavel, points to a time of peasants’ uprisings and crude weaponry, Dornic says.
It is the only national museum of its kind, says Dornic.
“It’s location is almost perfect, because we are located near Washington, D.C., and on I-95,” he says. “We believe that, eventually, we will be successful enough to build a much larger building for the museum.”
Establishing the museum has been a hard-fought battle. In early 2005, Dornic and the rest of a group led by retired firefighter Michael Sarnecki were unable to secure the historic St. Stanislaus Church building at Ann and Aliceanna streets. Today, that building houses a school for young children and a personal training studio.
Dornic said that Slavic immigration—which includes Polish immigration—is a huge part of the history of Southeast Baltimore.
“We even believe that Slavic people were here in America before Columbus,” laughs Dornic, referring to the migration of peoples across the land bridge that once connected what is now Russia with today’s Alaska.
“Just imagine that the Slavic Americans don’t have a museum anywhere,” he says. “So many items are being destroyed because people don’t care.”
The museum, staffed by unpaid volunteers, is open 12-6 p.m. Wed., Thur., Fri. and Sun. On Saturdays, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
by Erik Zygmont