Romanian Christmas Traditions, American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis, December 2017.

Heritage of Romanian Americans

/ June 19, 2018

Just as Nicolae Iorga said, “A nation that does not know its history is like a child who does not know its parents”. The Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans in Minnesota, HORA, has been at work filling a gap of documenting Romanian immigration to the United States from the early 1900s to the present day.

Barely ten years old, HORA has created a number of diverse and high-profile events, as well as a series of videos, movies and CDs, that bring together all generations to nurture the Romanian spirit, cultures and values.

One of the local newspapers recently wrote, “We are experiencing a revival of the Romanian-American community in Minnesota, a Renaissance with wide-reaching impact.”

Traditional Christmas gatherings continue to attract a growing number of families. Last year was a very special one for us and for the community, as it was marked by two premieres.

Following our cooperation with the American Swedish Institute (ASI) on their “Migration, Identity and Belonging” program — HORA had the honor of being invited to represent Romania, as a guest nation, in ASI’s highly praised Christmas Exhibit and Festival. HORA worked with collectors of popular art from our community to create a remarkable display of Romanian Christmas traditions.

Using handmade popular costumes, pottery, rugs, bedspreads and icons — HORA illustrated three winter traditions.

  1. The Christmas Feast — Masa de Craciun — with the traditional sarmale (cabbage rolls), racituri (aspic), muraturi (pickles), mezeluri (cold cuts), mamaliga (polenta), cozonac (sweet bread) and of course, tuica (hard liquor);
  2. The Spinning Bee — Sezatoarea,
  3. The Christmas Carolers — Colindatorii.
Ciprian Porumbescu choir of Minnesota.

Each scene focused on a different region of our country, giving us the opportunity to highlight the beautiful diversity of color and style. Costumes from the Fagaras-Sibiu, Bucovina and Muntenia were on display. Some of the items were over 200 years old.

With soothing Christmas music and video clips of our beautiful country running at our display, as well as volunteer guides sharing pieces of history, over 30,000 visitors learned about Romania. The feedback was fabulous. It was the highest impact event we ever held for the broader Minnesota community.

The second premiere was the Romanian Colinde Project, made possible by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Colleen studies the art and life of the musicians from Pălatca, Transylvania: Laurențiu Codoba (and wife Veronica), Ion Boldi, Mihai Radac, and Florin Codoba.

The Romanian Colinde Project was led by Colleen Bertsch. Colleen, a professional violinist, first traveled to Romania in 2008 where she met “string players whose skill far surpassed my own and I fell in love with the traditions and sincerity of the people I met.” The trip to Romania inspired Colleen to earn a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation is titled “Transylvanian Folk Violinists and their Correspondence of Embodied Musical Techniques and Identity Performance.” Over the years, Colleen has received many grants to travel to Transylvania to record with local musicians. In 2015-16, she received a Fulbright grant to live in Cluj and study at Babes Boylai University.

Colleen calls the Romanian Colinde Project “the project I am most proud of”. Her Balkan music band Orkestar Bez Ime partnered with the Ciprian Porumbescu Choir of Minnesota, made up of Romanian business and industry professionals in Minneapolis-St. Paul, to record an album titled Ca Noi Nu Colindă Nime’: Romanian Christmas Carols. She says “Romanians in the homeland will recognize the lyrics and melodies set in distinctly new imaginative settings.” The CD was a big hit with the Romanian community.

A long and vital tradition in Romania and Romanian diasporas, singing colinde is a centuries-old caroling tradition that is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The previous year HORA enjoyed the collaboration with Katrina Mundinger, a clarinet instructor at the MacPhail Center for Music and performer of many styles of music. Through an art grant, Katrina was able to acquire and learn to play taragot. Her performance, called Sambra Oilor, a Romanian party brought an authentic performance and a truly unforgettable night to the Twin Cities.

No Romanian party in Minnesota is complete without the dancing of John Omorean and Don LaCourse. They have led ethnic dance assembles for over 40 years with the mission to foster understanding and awareness of world cultures through the re-creation of dance and music.

The collaboration between HORA and our local artists is not only re-creating a piece of the Romanian cultural fabric in Minnesota, but is building new bridges with the Minnesotan culture and people.

HORA Gala Community Service Award, 2016. John Omorean, Don LaCourse, Gina Popa (left to right).

Romanian-American Awards

Six years ago, HORA initiated the Romanian-American Dream Awards Gala to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of Americans to the Romanian communities in both Minnesota and Romania. The event raises funds for youth scholarships in the community.

In 2012, Monica O’Kane’s posthumous nomination demonstrated the quintessential nature of the award: high impact, direct personal involvement, long commitment, dedication and an incredible spirit to unify people and organizations in support of the cause.

In 2000, Monica O’Kane first learned of the tragic lives of the Romanian street children. She immediately began soliciting donations of clothing and money to assist the children living in the underground sewers of Bucharest. Over the years, Monica made dozens of trips to Romania, where she climbed down the ladders into the sewers to care for the children. With support from St. Matthew’s Parish, Monica raised over $20,000 and the work she started is continued by her family and her friends at St. Matthew’s church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Romanian Community Service Award was named after her. 

Don Shelby is another dear member of the Romanian-American community in Minnesota. For over 30 years, Don anchored the evening news on WCCO. He has won two Peabody awards and an Emmy Award. Don likes to tell people, “I know that I’m a better human being as a result of having spent lots of time with Romanian people.”

Of all the stories he has followed over his career, Don points to one that stands out above the rest. In 1990, Don traveled to Romania and documented the stories of the innocent orphans abandoned by the communist regime. The Iron Crib, the documentary he helped create on CBS, had massive impact on the Romanian orphans. Between 1990 and 2004, Americans adopted more than 8,000 children from Romania, thanks to Don, 1,000 of the Romanian orphans were adopted in Minnesota. Don still works closely with Lucia Anderson, someone who he admires for her tireless efforts in helping adoptees still in need of support and unconditional love, almost three decades later.

Romanian language class, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Don Shelby speaking at the first HORA gala.


Romanian culture is deeply rooted in language. Words such as dor can closely be translated, but never fully comprehended without understanding its profound meaning of longing for the past. Early on, when looking at the needs of the Romanian community, it became very clear to HORA that bringing Romanian language classes to the community was a real need.

In 2013, HORA received a grant to start the Romanian Language program in the Twin Cities. This allowed foundation to launch six Romanian language classes, attracting students ranging from Romanian adoptees to missionaries to grandchildren of Minnesota’s original immigrants who settled in the St. Paul area. The response was extraordinary, with 140 students immediately registering, above and beyond the original estimate of 50.

The program continues to fill many diverse needs with classes structured based on age, level of proficiency and interests. If you stop by the one of the Romanian churches in St. Paul on Friday evening, you can easily strike up a conversation with the adult language class students. Some of the students, 3rd or 4th generation Romanians, might impress you with their language skills and drive to learn more. Less anticipated, yet very emotionally moving, are their life-long dreams of travelling to Romania, in search of their roots and identity.

Building a Proud Legacy Together, 2016 HORA Gala Benefit.

Finding our roots

The Romanian Genealogy Society is HORA’s sister organization founded in 2011 to help with family history research and to foster a better understanding of Romanian history.

Over the years, the collaboration between HORA and the RGS has proven instrumental in building multi-generational bridges in our community. The most important project from the collaboration is the creation of the first Romanian Immigration documentary, A Thousand Dollars and Back — Recollections of Early Romanian Immigration to Minnesota. (

Premiering in September 2014, the Emmy award nominated documentary is based on ten oral history interviews conducted in 2013. Through excerpts of interviews with children and grandchildren of the early immigrants, the film tells personal stories of Romanian immigration to Minnesota from the early 1900s until the advent of World War II. 

Documentary Opening Night, 2017. Daniela Petrescu, Gina Popa — Hora board (left to right).

In those years, most Romanian immigrants to Minnesota came from Banat and Transylvania, regions which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many settled in industrial areas of the Midwest and followed connections with friends and family, before making permanent homes in the St. Paul area. Extended families lived close to each other around the Rice Street area and in South St. Paul, while a large Romanian Jewish community settled on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Many Romanians worked in the meat packing factories (Armour or Swift) and railroads.

Even though the Romanians came with the goal of saving $1,000 and returning home to buy land, most never made the trip back to Romania. They established a tight, vibrant community in St. Paul and built two Romanian Orthodox Churches. St. Mary’s was built in 1913 and St. Stefan’s in 1924. They remain quintessential in the preservation of our culture and heritage over the last century.

In October 2017, HORA released the second immigration documentary, Through the Iron Curtain — From Romania ( It provides a look inside Communist Romania accompanied by the first-hand descriptions from immigrants of that era. Produced in partnership with Twin Cities Public Broadcasting Service ( PBS) and with funding from both HORA and the State of Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, this film represents the most arduous collaboration within our community. The movie benefited from the collaboration with Romanian architect Andrei Pandele, who’s images captured in communist Romania are worth thousands of words.

As a historian, Nick Hayes, observes in the documentary that: “The government would say that mistakes were made, but these weren’t mistakes — they were crimes, crimes against humanity.” The few who were able to escape, came at a great personal risk.

The opening night event was hosted by the American Swedish Institute, as part of their programming theme of “Migration, Identity and Belonging.” The debut brought together over 250 attendees along with a series of distinguished guests, representing the Romanian Embassy in Washington D.C. Romanian Consulate in Chicago and Alianta’s Board of Directors.

In recognition of the extraordinary support received from the State of Minnesota in helping the Romanian-American community document and preserve its history, HORA awarded U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar the Friends of Romania Award at the event. Minnesota Historical Society Director & CEO D. Stephen Elliott and Bruce Karstadt, President and CEO of the American Swedish Institute were also recognized at the event.

Arria Giulan, HORA Board.

HORA is about building Community

While the early Romanian immigrants used brick-and-mortar to build two churches to preserve the culture and heritage, our community today has come together in creating digital records to preserve our history for generations to come.

Ultimately, as Stephen Elliot remarked, “This work has meaning and value that transcends our community boundaries. In today’s divided world, understanding history can build bridges — bridges to better conversations, to deeper insights and to stronger communities. Minnesota Legacy funding has helped to create partnerships that have a wide-reaching impact. Together, we are building stronger communities”.


HORA — The Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans in Minnesota is a non-profit organization registered in the state of Minnesota. (

Panel discussion, moderated by Don Shelby, following viewing of Through the Iron Curtain, from Romania documentary.