Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Reading

Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 2: Creating Community

black and white photo of butcher shop storefront, three men and one woman standing on front steps, men in aprons, meat hanging in windows

This butcher shop was located in Cambria City, a place where many immigrants first arrived.  Shops like this one allowed immigrants to find familiar foods that reminded them of home. 

2.1 Making a place a home

When immigrants arrive in their new place, it doesn't feel like home at first. They may speak a different language, dress differently, eat different foods, and celebrate different holidays.

Imagine going to the grocery store, but the foods don't look anything like you like to eat! The signs are all in a language you don't understand. The money looks different and you don't know how much anything costs. When you are done shopping, you have to figure out which bus to get on. Then you have to find your street and your house!

What must the first day of school be like for a new immigrant? If someone at your school came from another country, ask them! Moving to a new school is hard enough when you know the language!

To help them adjust new migrants usually try to link up with other migrants from their old homes. Someone who had been in Pennsylvania for a little while can tell a newcomer what to expect. They can coach them before doing something new.

They tried to live near each other in the same neighborhoods. Living nearby let them speak their own language while they learned English. They could open grocery stores that sold the kind of foods they liked. One of the first things they would do together is to build a church, synagogue, or temple that would hold services in their language. Often the church had a school, so children could learn in their old languages. Finally, this new place felt like home.

black and white photo of ornate altar at front of church, pillars on both sides, arch above the altar

The altar at St. Mary's.


In other words, to make a home, the migrants had to create a community. A community shares the same language, customs, foods, interests, and important beliefs and values. It is possible to have more than one community in a neighborhood. Your class is a community within your school. There are many other classes in your school, too. Even though you share busses, the cafeteria, playground, and possibly sports teams, most of your friends are probably in your own class.

In Pennsylvania it is not unusual to see a neighborhood with six different Catholic churches! Why? Because the neighborhood is home to six different immigrant groups that all speak different languages! Each group built a church where their language would be spoken.

It is also possible to be a member of more than one community! For example, you may belong to the scouts, a 4-H Club, and a church. All of these groups are a community of people who share interests, believe the same things, speak the same language (for example, your 4H group probably talks about things that someone living in the city wouldn't even understand -- even if they speak English!). You might even wear the same uniforms or similar clothes.

Immigrants, too, could be members of more than one community. Some members of the German community were also members of the Protestant community. Other members of the German community were members of the Roman Catholic community.

Churches and synagogues were just one kind of organization that migrant groups started. Often they had their own schools where students could learn their language. They might also start their own hospitals and banks where no one would discriminate against them (some American organizations were prejudiced and would not serve migrants).

Newspapers in their languages reported news from the "Old Country." They set up special organizations to help families when someone died or got sick. People who liked music organized bands to play on holidays. People who liked sports organized teams. These organizations allowed new immigrants to survive while they learned their new jobs, language, and customs.

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black and white photo of ballet dance group, four rows of people, men in back row, young children in front row, ethnically dressed, approx. 30 people total

Groups like the one pictured here allowed parents to pass on traditions from their home countries to their American-born children.

Continue to next article:

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Excerpted with permission from the textbook Pennsylvania, Our Home by Susan K. Donley (Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2005)

See also: "Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 1, Push and Pull"


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