The SNF: Champion of Serbdom in America PT. 2

Part Two – The Serbian Orthodox Federation Srbobran

By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation takes place in 2021. As we plan the future of the SNF through financial and membership growth, we take a moment to reflect on our origin, our commitments and our accomplishments. In her highly researched account written for the centennial book “Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001,” Dr, Krinka Vidakovic Petrov produced a work as interesting and valuable today as the day it was written. It is being presented it in installments over the next several issues and eventually will be included on the American Srbobran research site. – str.

Some of the Serb immigrants that settled in Pennsylvania were from Montenegro, but most of them were from Lika, Banija and Kordun, three Serb populated regions in the Krajina, the Military Border established by the Austrian emperor in the 16th century to protect this vast European empire from Ottoman invasion. The first Serb immigrant in the Pittsburgh area, Nikola Vujnovic, came in 1886 from the village of Vujnovic, near Gomirje. At the turn of the century, in addition to the Krajina colony in the Pittsburgh area, immigrants from Montenegro established a community of their own in Hazelton. Both groups began emigrating massively in the years following the Congress of Berlin held in 1878. The two groups had several things in common. First, the reasons for their emigration were economic and political. Second, most were illiterate peasants. And last, they were a work force quickly absorbed by the mining and steel industry of the region.

As the number of immigrants grew, they sought to organize, in one way or another. By the 1920s many grass roots organizations were established: drustva were cultural societies, bratstva fraternal organizations, and crkveno-skolske opstine religious congregations.  They were usually named after saints, rulers and writers, native towns and provinces, or Serbian cultural symbols (Sv. Sava, Sv. Petar Cetinjski, Nemanja, Czar Dusan, Njegos, Lovcen, Durmitor, Cetinje, Srpska kruna, Srpske gusle).

At the turn of the century, many Serbs from the Krajina joined an already existing organization of Croat immigrants who came from the same area. However, very soon the Serbs felt that this organization refused to recognize their specific ethnic and religious identity. Thus, the first Serbian benevolent society in Pennsylvania was established in McKeesport: the Serbian Orthodox Fraternal Society No. 1 named after St. Sava (Pres. Adam Maravic). By 1900 there were ten such organizations and all joined the Russian Orthodox Fraternal Society.

In 1901 Sava Hajdin explored the idea of setting up an independent federation of Serbian fraternal societies. He traveled to New York to consult Nikola Tesla, one of the few 19th century Serb immigrants in America who had already achieved professional recognition and fame. Tesla encouraged him, but did not offer any specific assistance. Thus, the Serbian Orthodox Federation Srbobran was founded in June of 1901.

In order to be able to communicate with and inform Serbian communities dispersed throughout the country, the Federation sought to publish a newspaper. However, since nobody had any publishing or journalistic experience, Dmitar Saban from Pueblo (Colorado) was invited to do this job. Saban, who had recently begun editing a newspaper called Srbin, The Serbian, moved his printing press to Pittsburgh, where he continued publishing Srbin now as the official organ of the SOF Srbobran.

An article published in the third issue of Srbin (1901) stresses that the Serb immigrants were willing to sacrifice a lot, but not “what they consider their holy values, their ideals, customs, faith, language and national identity.” Sava Hajdin further clarified the vision behind the organization:

We have never wanted our Savez to be only an alliance of fraternal societies. We wanted it to be the center of Serbdom in America and a fortress of the Serbian Svetosavlje tradition. We felt that this should be the foundation of our Federation. We were confident this was the right course to take and that our success was secured. [Hajdin: 26]

At the same time a church-school congregation was formed in McKeesport. The parish of McKeesport-Duquesne was one of the oldest in America. Its “very attractive small church and congregation hall,” dedicated to St. Sava, was previously a Protestant church. An early photograph shows the members of “St. Sava,” Lodge No. 1 of the Serbian Orthodox Federation Srbobran holding two flags: one of the United States and the other one a Serbian flag with the coat of arms of King Dusan with the insignia (in Cyrillic) of the SOF Srbobran. Several cultural societies were established as well. One of them was the Serbian Singing Society Gorski vijenac directed by Gavrilo-Gajo Munjas and founded at Sava Hajdin’s home in 1902. Another photograph shows nine members of the choir. Their first public performance was held for St. Sava Day in Pittsburgh in 1903. An informal theater group was formed by a couple of professional actors (Mirko and Zora Suvajdzic). They performed Serbian plays in Pittsburgh, McKeesport, and the surrounding communities. All these associations show how the cultural life of early Serb immigrants in the Pittsburgh area began evolving around these grassroots organizations, which gradually grew, attracting a growing number of members.

However, the growth of the SOF Srbobran would not be as smooth as it seemed, mainly because of the dispersion of Serbian American communities in North America and the rivalry among several federations established approximately at the same period. In 1909 a convention of these federations was held in Cleveland, where Mihailo Pupin attempted to unite them. The SOF Srbobran merged with two organizations based in Chicago – the First Serbian Benevolent Federation and the First Montenegrin Federation – into the Federation of United Serbs Sloga based in New York and presided by Mihailo Pupin However, the decision to unite was practically never carried out, so the SOF Srbobran continued as an independent organization, while Sloga later split into two organizations, the new one called Svesna Srbadija. In 1917 another federation called Sloboda was founded in Pittsburgh. These four federations – Srbobran, Sloboda, Sloga and Svesna Srbadija – were finally united in 1929 into the Serb National Federation. However, other Serbian fraternal organizations in San Francisco, Chicago, Butte, and other cities continued their independent activities.

Despite the divisions, all these organizations had a very important role to play as an economic support for Serbian interest in America, including the Serbian Orthodox Church. Archpriest Dusan Trbuhovic stresses this in a letter addressed to Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic in 1921:

The Serbian people in America are divided into several Mutual-Aid Federations. Maybe for you in Europe, in your eyes, our Federations are insignificant. But this is not so. They have carried out national tasks while lending strong economic support to Serbian immigrants…Do not forget, Holy Bishop, that a strong economic foundation for a future organized Serbian Church lies in these Serbian federations…[Vukovic:83]

The economic and organizational strength offered the means of promoting Serbdom and maintaining vital ties between the old and new homeland. In his memoirs, Sava Hajdin makes an important point: that the American democratic ideal of working with the people and for the people was built into the very foundation of the Serb National Federation. What is extremely important in my own view is that the Serb National Federation is a unique institution, one only the Serbs in North America have established, developed and maintained. Serbian Americans living in a new millennium today owe a great deal to the vision of people such as Sava Hajdin, who were prepared to dedicate their time, money and even their lives to what they called Srpstvo or Serbdom. On the 50th anniversary of the Serb National Federation he wrote something we should keep in mind today, on the 100th anniversary:

I felt that the love for Serbdom did not consist in talking about it and boasting about it, but rather in working with the people and for the people I had no sons, but I sent my beloved sixteen-year-old daughter, Ruzica, to the Salonika Front [First World War] to fight for the freedom and better future of our nation. I have never regretted the effort or financial sacrifices that I dedicated to Serbdom. On the contrary, in the past as well as today, I did it with pleasure and I am both happy and proud to realize how much has evolved from those modest beginnings. The young seed my friends and I planted fifty years ago has grown into a robust tree branching out throughout America and Canada wherever there are Serbs. [Hajdin: 29]

Next Installment: The American Srbobran

About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade, has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, is a renowned scholar and diplomat, and has authored several books and numerous articles in literature and history. She is a Belgrade native and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Zagreb. In addition to her books Serbian Americans: History. Culture. Press, From the Balkans to the Pacific: Serbian American Culture and Literature, The Great War 1914-1918: The Kingdom of Serbia, the United States of America and the Serbian American Diaspora, and Essays in Comparative Folklore, she has co-authored several language textbooks, and published in professional journals in at least six countries including the United States and the former Yugoslavia. She is a past editor of the English section of the American Srbobran. Dr. Petrov researched, compiled and served as managing editor of the Serb National Federation centennial book Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001, in which this article “The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America” was originally published in its entirety.

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