The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America Part Four – The Issues at Stake

By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation took 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.

The American Srbobran provides a good insight into what it meant to be a good Serb and a good American. The first few issues highlight the topics of interest for both the editors of the newspaper and its readers. These topics deal with four basic themes: religious life, social and economic issues, cultural activities, and political involvement.

The parishes and church-school congregations were among the earliest forms of organization among Serbian immigrants in America. However, in the period preceding the founding of the American-Canadian Diocese, Serbian churches were administered by the Russian Orthodox Church in America, which already had a long tradition on this continent. The latter had established a Serbian Mission in 1905, headed by Fr. Sebastian Dabovic (the first American born Serbian clergyman). Although the members of the growing number of Serbian Orthodox churches in America wished to be under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church, this was not possible for a variety of reasons, one of them being the lack of funds to establish and maintain a diocese covering the huge territory of the U.S.A. and Canada. Serbian communities and churches were dispersed throughout the continent and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Serbia, which had to cope with a number of problems at home, did not have the resources to organize, maintain, and operate a diocese in the New World regardless of its wish to do so.

The Bust of Milan Pribicevic

In 1910, Stevan Karamata, a high official of the Serbian Bank in Budapest, sent by the Serbian Patriarch to America in order to assess the situation of Serbian immigrants there, met with Mihailo I. Pupin. Together they devised a plan for the organization of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. The proposal was received and forwarded by a Serbian diplomat in Budapest, who stressed the important of Serbian immigrants in America:

…After careful study of Karamata’s report on easily comes to the conclusion that our broader national interests demand that this matter receive serious attention. In America there are quite a few Bosnians, Herzegovinians, and Serbs from Croatia, Vojvodina, etc., and their number increasing from year to year. These people should be gathered into various Serbian societies, inspired with a pure Serbian spirit, provisions made for the education of their children, who should be brought up from childhood with devotion to our national ideas, so that when they return to their Homeland, they may become pioneers in promoting Serbian interests. [Vukovic: 46]

In 1912, Pupin supported the activities of a missionary priest, Hieromonk Danilo Bukorovic, through his Serbian Cultural and Charity Fund. Pupin wrote the following to Patriarch Lukijan:

Your Holiness, in the United States of North America there are about 150,000 Orthodox  Serbs; the largest number are from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. They live in colonies, only about ten of which have church congregations with priests. The other colonies, scattered across America, have been neglected in every respect. The situation in these colonies is terrible. I have decided with the aid of my American friends to make an initial attempt towards the religious, moral and educational improvement of our neglected people…[Vukovic: 47]

Pupin also proposed the establishment of a Serbian Orthodox monastery in New York, which would be the home of a group of young priests who could travel across America, visit Serbian colonies, hold services, preach and “keep alive among the people their ties with the Homeland, so that they would not become alienated.” However, the time was not yet ripe to carry out these plans, so Serbian churches in America continued being under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, which sought to provide assistance as much as possible. In this situation, one of the most important roles of the SOF Srbobran was to provide support, including financial aid for Serbian churches and schools in America. According to a 1916 report, written by the president of the SOF Srbobran, Dr. Paja Radosavljevic, the fraternal organization was well aware of the importance of Serbian churches and schools as centers of Serbdom in America:

Father Sebastian Dabovic

Each newly built church dedicated by the Serbian or Russian bishop receives from the federation a donation of 100 dollars. Each newly established Serbian school, which has a properly qualified teacher, also receives from the SOF Srbobran a donation of 100 dollars.

The SOF Srbobran also attempted to improve the organization and coordination of Serbian churches by sending a Petition in 1912 to Karlovacka Metropolitanate, regarding the request of the immigrants for Serbian priests from the Homeland. The First National Church Assembly was held in Chicago in 1913 and chaired by Fr. Sava Vojvodic (head of the Serbian Mission within the Russian Orthodox Church in America). He brought together a number of clergymen representing Serbian church-school congregations – as well as representatives of the SOF Srbobran and the Sloga Federation. The American Srbobran reported on these events, on activities of the parishes and their priests, and fundraising for the purchase of land and property and cemeteries. One of the issues discussed in the newspaper was the question of future jurisdiction – whether the Serbian Orthodox churches in America should be administered by the Russian Church, the Serbian Metropolitanate in Austria-Hungary (from where most immigrants had come), or the Serbian Orthodox church in the historic Homeland – Serbia.

The social and economic issues discussed in the early years of the American Srbobran were closely associated with the activities of fraternal and benevolent organizations. The immigrants found low paying and difficult jobs involving high risk. Many workers would be laid off without notice or could find only temporary jobs. Many were crippled or killed in work related accidents. None had any kind of insurance, which is why organizations such as the SOF Srbobran were founded. The American Srbobran reported on these accidents, especially those taking place in mines and steel mills. One such article stated that 7,000 miners had already lost their lives in mining accidents, “while the current year” was far worse in this respect. Only this month there were four terrible accidents involving the death of 1,500 miners.

One of them happened on St. Nicholas Day in a mine in Pennsylvania, when 400 miners were killed. However, among the victims there were no Serbs because most of them had stayed at home to celebrate the Slava of one of the most common patron saints – St. Nicholas.

The cultural activities reported in the American Srbobran were numerous and varied. One of them was the establishment of “reading rooms,” citanonice, in which all sorts of Serbian publication, books, journals and newspapers were made available to the public. One such example with the Serbian Reading Room opened on Pittsburgh’s South Side (2613 Sarah Street) by Jovo Miljus (editor of Vijenac and president of the St. George Church-School congregation). It carried popular Serbian publications from Novi Sad Vrac pogadjac and Zagreb, Kalendar Srbobran, as well as Serbian newspapers published in the U.S., Srbin, Srpski Rodoljub, and Amerikanski Srbobran. These reading rooms were the forerunners of Serbian bookstores, which were soon established to cater to the growing cultural needs of the immigrants. The most popular books advertised in the American Srbobran were collections of songs from the oral tradition, history books, historic novels and plays by contemporary authors, dictionaries, and “immigrant manuals.”

The American Srbobran published exclusively in the Serbian language and Cyrillic, dedicated a great deal of attention to literary contributions – poems and short stories – which were published in every single issue In addition to informing its readers on events of interest to the Serbian American community, the newspaper sought to fulfill a significant cultural mission. Literary works were highly appreciated as an expression of the inner life – the soul. Art was something like the “daily bread” that gave meaning to life, especially the lives of miners and steel mill workers who spent most of their time in underground pits and smoke-filled foundries.  The newspaper announced and reported on a number of cultural events organized in the Serbian American communities. One such event was the first grand celebration of St. Sava Day in Pittsburgh – it included performances by the Gorski vijenac choir, Sloga, and a Croatian choir called Javor, as well as the performance of the play Prince of Semberia by the well-known Serbian contemporary playwright Branislav Nusic. Other favorite plays performed by amateur Serbian theater groups were The Battle of Kosovo by J. Subotic and Prince Marko and the Arab by V. Miljkovic.

The political issues highlighted in the early years of the American Srbobran were exclusively those of the ‘old world.’ Because most immigrants were convinced they would return home after a few years of work abroad, they very closely monitored events taking place in Austria-Hungary. Since most immigrants came from Serbian lands controlled by Austria-Hungary and were still nationals of that state, they sought to monitor events affecting their status “at home.” A step forward in the political ties between Serbs and Croats in Austria-Hungary was the establishment of the Croat-Serb coalition in 1905, which advocated the Yugoslavia idea. However, in 1907 the government shut down the Croatian parliament where representatives of the Coalition were numerous, launching at the same time a strong anti-Serb campaign in preparation of the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which would take place the following year). A big anti-Serbian trial was organized for 53 prominent Serbs – businessmen, teachers, doctors, priests, and students – who were falsely accused of conspiracy. The most prominent among them were Adam and Valerijan Pribicevic, brothers of Svetozar and Milan Pribicevic. The trial was a major political scandal, which turned European public opinion against Austria-Hungary. In March of 1909, Russia accepted the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and soon after that 31 of the indicted were given long sentences. This provoked an outrage among Serbs in Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and America.

The American Srbobran published several articles on the anti-Serbian trial in Austria-Hungary – in March, April, and June 1909 – saluting the Pribicevic brothers as their national heroes. A report on the Serbian Orthodox Federation Srbobran (SOF Srbobran) from 1916 mentions that this organization was also mentioned at the trial – i.e. accused of turning Serbian immigrants in American “against Austria and Franz Joseph and supporting Serbia and King Peter I of Serbia.” Austria brought its agents from American and their “accusations against the Srbobran Federation were horrible.”

Subsequent political events reflected in the American Srbobran were the two Balkan Wars, whereby Serbia liberated more of its territories previously under Ottoman domination. Especially important was the final liberation of Kosovo in 1912, which received extraordinary publicity in all Serbian newspapers. Many Serbian immigrants had left America in order to join the Serbian army in the Balkan Wars, which was an extraordinary expression of courage and patriotism. Furthermore, Serbia’s achievements in the Balkan Wars raised hopes of liberating Serbian regions under Austrian-Hungarian rule as well. This was the main Serbian goal when another war broke out, triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (June of 1914). The involvement of the American Serbs in the Great War of 1914-1918 is probably the most fascinating chapter in the history of Serbian immigration in America.

Next Installment: Winning Hearts and Minds  

About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade and has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh. She 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 Ph.D. 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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