Historical Treasure: From Romania to Vigo County: Immigrants and Their Legacy

Submitted photoA work of beauty: Traditional Romanian costume worn by young Olivia Ann Sonca. 

The growth and progress of Terre Haute as a thriving agriculture and manufacturing city was due in part to the influx of people who settled here. A wave of immigrants in the early 1900s from several other countries, brought needed skills, diversity and unique cultural influences. The global movement nearly doubled the Vigo county population from 1900 to 1920; bringing it to 100,000. The immigrant groups took care of their own while adapting to new lives, retaining their cultural customs, religious rituals, and way of living, passing their rich heritage on to their children.

The “Origins” exhibit on the second floor of the Vigo County History Museum pays homage to Terre Haute’s immigrant groups, including those from Romania. Escaping their country’s political and economic turmoil, Romanian immigrants arrived during the period 1900-1910. They accepted jobs as iron workers, coal miners, mill workers and grocers. Romanian Hall on Beech Street was their center for social gatherings along with churches, lodges, restaurants and taverns. Romanians formed the first benevolent insurance society in 1907, and St. Andrew’s Romanian Orthodox Church on North 25th Street was established in 1918.

This week’s Historical Treasure is a beautifully embroidered jacket and skirt accompanied by a photo of a young girl, Olivia Ann Sonca, wearing the outfit. Olivia was born November 3, 1926, in Vigo County to Romanian immigrants, George and Melania Sonca. The couple opened the original George Sonka Café at 14th Street and Wabash Avenue in 1934.

Olivia graduated from Garfield High School and in 1946 married Harry H. James, a Lieutenant in the Army Reserves and employee of the Vigo County School Corporation. In addition to raising two daughters and one son, Olivia was active in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Sycamore Club, Women’s Department Club, Badura Temple #23, Daughters of the Nile and Elks Lodge. Olivia Ann Sonca James died in 2016 in Terre Haute at age 89 and was described in her obituary as a “loving and caring person who always put her family first.” Olivia and her beautiful clothing along with photographs, dolls and other artifacts of Romania live on at the Vigo County History Museum!

The Vigo County Historical Society Museum is currently and temporarily closed in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We appreciate your understanding during these unusual circumstances, and look forward to seeing you soon. Membership prices are available online at www.vchsmuseum.org.

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