Carol Wolosz and Sally DiRico had a friendly rivalry going some 70 years ago. The two competed against each other in the musical portion of the Welsh “Cynonfardd” Eisteddfod in Edwardsville as children and teenagers.
“I remember always wanting to beat Sally,” Wolosz, of Edwardsville, recalled. “One year, she would win, and the other year I would.”
“It was an exciting time,” DiRico, of Nuangola, said, remembering the old days of one of the most beloved community performance festivals. “We always hoped to make the preliminaries so we could make it to the stage, and we both always did.”
Today, the event is the same, but the women work together to preserve the rich history of the Eisteddfod.
The committee, chaired by Bette Devers, boasts more than 100 combined years of participating in and planning the event, which will celebrate its 125th year on April 26. The event will take place at 1 p.m. at Dr. Edwards Memorial Church in Edwardsville.
The church has the distinction of holding the longest-running continuous Eisteddfod in the United States. It was begun in in 1889 by Dr. Thomas (T.C.) Edwards, pastor of what was then the Edwardsville Welsh Congregational Church. The only year the church missed an Eisteddfod was in 1943 due to World War II.
Both Wolosz and DiRico will take to the stage once again as teammates during a group musical effort.
The Eisteddfod is truly a family and church community affair that sprung from the Welsh immigration to Northeastern Pennsylvania. At one time as many as 25 Eisteddfods organized by various churches and Welsh societies took place annually.
Wolosz works alongside her brother J. David Jones on the planning committee. Jones’ wife, Betty, is also on the committee, as are mother and daughter Betty Bolen and chairman Devers. Wolosz’s children also competed.
During Wolosz’s and DiRico’s childhoods, the Eisteddfod usually took place on St. Patrick’s Day. The coal mines were closed that day, and so were the schools.
“I got a new dress for the day, and that dress then became my Easter dress,” Wolosz said. “And, of course, we got a new hat, too.”
“It was probably more important to get a new dress for the Eisteddfod then Easter,” DiRico said.
Devers said the discipline she learned as a child and teen competitor helped her throughout her life in public speaking.
The group has tried to keep many of the old traditions alive. The most well-known is the awarding of handmade money bags to all participating children. The fabric bags, sewn by Wolosz and Betty Jones, are hung at the church altar the day of the event. Wolosz fingered a small velvet bag and said fondly, “This used to be one of my dresses.”
There have been many changes over the years, such as pushing the date of the Eisteddfod back to April.
The competition today is limited to recitations and vocal and instrumental selections, but Bolen, 90, remembers when artwork and items such as baby sweaters and quilts were allowed. When the event started, the literary portion was more popular than the musical competition.
Prizes are modest, ranging from $2 for a child under 5 who sings the best “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to $50 for the winning senior citizen who sings a Welsh hymn. Literary recitations include selections from the Bible and well-known American authors. Performers in the poetry and music competitions must memorize their selections.
In the early years, a bardic chair, a seat of honor for a winning bard, was one of the prizes offered for poetry and music. A bardic chair Edwards won in 1875 in Hyde Park, N.Y., was donated to the church by his family.
About 180 to 200 competitors, from ages 4 to 95, are expected, with another 100 to 150 in the audience. Many competitors travel from out of state, as there are no other competitions in the country. Two community adjudicators, experts in music and recitation, select the winners.
Over the years, the group has seen participation decline. “People are pulled in so many directions today,” DiRico said. “They just don’t have time anymore.”
“It’s like everything else,” Wolosz said. “It’s been left to many of the old-timers to recognize the importance of this and to carry it on. We were raised in this tradition.”