Marit Lee Kučera
I remember when I was about ten years old, my grandfather stood up extra tall and proudly declared that we were Bohemians. At that time, I thought that being a Bohemian must be something special.
My name is Marit Lee Kučera, and I am an Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic in St. Paul, Minnesota. My ancestors were immigrants from Bohemia, and our family’s immigration story starts with my great-grandparents. They arrived in the US during the late 1860s. They left Bohemia because my great-grandfather, not being the oldest son, had little chance of obtaining land. The opportunity to acquire land in the US was highly significant for them. They came from the area southeast of Tabor, and I was lucky enough to discover the addresses of my great-grandparents through genealogical research. We even found relatives still owning the farm of the great-grandmother’s family, and I was able to connect with some of them. It’s exciting to have real relatives in the Czech Republic.
many of them settled near New Prague, a city built by Bohemian immigrants
After leaving the Tabor area, my great-grandparents first settled in Chicago. After the devastating fire that occurred there in the Fall of 1871, they moved to southern Minnesota, which had a large population of Bohemian immigrants. Many of them settled near New Prague, a city built by Bohemian immigrants who identified as Czechs. That is also where my grandfather J.J. Kučera was born in 1880. Unfortunately, he became deaf due to a farm accident and therefore, he attended the state deaf school nearby in Faribault, Minnesota. After finishing high school, he and a classmate decided in 1902 to homestead in Northern Minnesota, where land was still available. (Homestead Act, 1862-1904, granted adult heads of families 160 acres of surveyed public land for a minimal filing fee and five years of continuous residence on that land). J.J. Kučera acquired a homestead in the International Falls area, near the Canadian border, where my dad and his three brothers were born. That is also where I grew up and I still call it my home.
I am also particularly proud of my grandfather’s oldest brother, who achieved great success as an immigrant. He came to the U.S. with his parents when he was around ten years old. Among his children were two priests, one of whom became a bishop, three nuns, an attorney, a doctor, and a farmer. It’s tremendous to see such achievements by an immigrant, and I believe the Czechs can take pride in their emphasis on education. Even as immigrants, they pushed their children to pursue education. My dad, being the third of four boys, also prioritized education. He not only finished high school, which was a significant accomplishment in the 1930s, but he also went on to obtain a university education and degree.
I doubt my father and grandfather had access to Sokol, an all-age gymnastics organization founded in Prague in 1862 and later spread worldwide. There might have been a Sokol in the New Prague area at one point, but as the local Czech population decreased, the next generation moved elsewhere for work, and the Sokol in New Prague ceased to exist. Currently, we only have one Sokol unit left in Minnesota; it is here in St. Paul (Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota). It is much more than a „gymnastic union.“ It also offers educational and cultural programming.
I didn’t join Sokol until 2000, so I’m a total newcomer. At that point in my life, I had some extra time to volunteer. I looked at many organizations that support my heritages and I noticed that the Swedes and Norwegians had plenty of volunteers. I thought also the Czechs could use a bit more volunteer help, and that is why I decided to get involved. In December 2015 I was installed as an Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic, and I was re-appointed in 2020. When my predecessor, Mr. Josef Mestenhauser, asked me in 2013 to assume the position, I was flabbergasted because I was a „newcomer“, and it usually takes many years to become recognized as a vital member of the Czech community. I like to think that I was in the right place at the right time. As an Honorary Consul, I serve as an official representative of the Czech government in the US, with the responsibility of assisting and protecting Czech citizens. I am affiliated with the Consulate General in Chicago, which covers the upper Midwest states. Specifically, my jurisdiction includes Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
I served as the publicity director on the board of Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota and took on the role of editor
I obtained a degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota in 1968. Initially, I worked in various journalistic positions. However, when my husband accepted a job at a small university in upstate New York where there were limited job opportunities, I began exploring other avenues. This led me to pursue my passion for arts, particularly dyeing fabric. To this day, I remain actively involved in the arts. Additionally, I have always maintained an interest in publicity, recognizing its importance. I served as the publicity director on the board of Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota and took on the role of editor for the newsletter. I thoroughly enjoyed my ten-year tenure as the editor, as it allowed me to express my journalistic skills and experience. The newsletter, Slovo, continues to be published, with the Honorary Consul’s column occupying the inside back cover. This placement is valuable in the advertising world, it also provides consistent visibility for readers interested in learning more about what I do as Honorary Consul in connecting with local Czech (and Slovak) events, as well as current Czech immigrants and heritage Czechs. Some of them are even 6th and 7th generation but still close to the Czech traditions and culture.
This story was prepared by Viktorie Hadová from Bishop Grammar School in Žďár nad Sázavou, as one of the outputs of the student expedition to Minnesota in October 2023, sponsored by the Dotek Endowment Fund.