An essay on the role of immigrant post-WWII clergy in the life of the Serbian Church in the USA and Canada
By Very Rev. Nedeljko Lunich
In this essay, we write about the clergy who came to the USA and Canada after World War II, and later in the 1960s and 1970s, continuing through the reconciliation and establishment of canonical unity in the Serbian Orthodox Church in America.
It is true there was organized church life in some larger Serbian settlements in the larger cities before arrival of the new clergy-immigrants, which had been recorded in the Serbian national and church publications. A larger Serbian oasis had been established in the bigger cities, in the cities with steel industries and in some smaller ones with coal mines. Here, it is predominantly the case in the USA, while there was a lot less arrival to Canada at the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. We have in mind the settlements in the cities, starting with New York, through Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, Aliquippa, Steelton, etc.), Ohio (Steubenville, Cleveland, Akron, Cincinnati), Michigan (Detroit), Indiana (Gary, Indiana Harbor, South Bend, Indianapolis), Illinois (Chicago, South Chicago, Joliet), Wisconsin (Milwaukee); then, Nebraska (Omaha), Kansas (Kansas City), Texas (Galveston), Arizona (Bisbee), Montana (Butte), California (Jackson), Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. From these places, where the Serbs had already organized church life, it is evident that the old timers had sacrificed a lot to preserve their religious and national identity.
After World War II, from the concentration and refugee camps in Italy and Germany, a large Serbian population arrived. Among the refugees were a good number of well-educated Serbian priests. While they were still in refugee camps the Bishop of the Serbian American Diocese, His Grace Dionisije, established connections with the international refugee organizations. He sent his emissaries to Europe to visit Serbian war refugees, especially the priests badly needed in the American Canadian Diocese.
In the Souvenir Book “Thirtieth Anniversary of the Serbian Orthodox Monastery St. Sava,” Bishop Dionisije wrote: “World War II has left hundreds of thousands in the camps of Italy and Germany. Some returned to Yugoslavia, and others dispersed throughout the world. With those dispersed the Serbs in America…have kept in touch; helped them to organize church life, intervened with many countries’ governments to allow them to immigrate, to permit them to establish their church, national and cultural organizations.” Our emissary to Germany was in charge for those immigrating to the USA. Starting in 1945, the Diocese oversaw this noble cause. The Serb National Defense came to help in 1948, more with the technical issues. In Canada the Canadian Serbian National Defense oversaw the refugees. The new Serbian immigration with a large number of educated men and women came to the new world determined to endure and persevere…In all countries where they had settled they accepted all the heaviness of the life as it was; accepted any kind of work, from university professors…to the common folks to earn a living in an honest way. It didn’t take long for the newly arrived immigrants to organize their cultural, benevolent, and national organizations. They displayed dignity and determination to persevere and not be a burden to anyone else.
The Episcopal deputy V. Rev. Milan Brkic, was dispatched by the Diocese to visit refugee camps in Europe, contact the priests and review their status. On his return Father Milan submitted a report to Bishop Dionisije with a petition to take all possible appropriate measures to bring the priests to this country immediately. The Diocesan authorities, the Bishop and Diocesan Council embraced the appeal of Father Milan and immediately initiated procedure. Not only the Diocese, but the Serbian National Defense also provided and sent affidavits to all who wished to immigrate to the USA and Canada.
Some refugees, for health or other reasons, did not qualify for immigrant status to the USA. They remained in Germany or immigrated to other European countries such as England, France or even Australia. The number of these was very small. The majority of Serbian clergy including those who completed their seminary education in refugee centers, came in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They made themselves available to Diocesan authorities, more precisely to the Diocesan Bishop, Rt. Rev. Dionisije. With their arrival a new epoch in the church life on this continent began.
They were relatively young priests, in their late 30s and early 40s, the majority with pastoral experience. While they were in the refugee camps many learned the English language, which helped enormously in their new pastoral work. The Serbian old timers, some of the first immigrants to this country in the beginning of the 20th century and pre-World War II, enthusiastically embraced the new priests and immigrants and together made efforts to improve the church, cultural and national life in Serbian colonies. Church life, which had been stagnating, at once became vibrant and immensely improved. Attendance at church services improved greatly, the church traditions and customs were implemented in all aspects of church life.
The spirit was reawakened among many of the old generations…and enthusiasm headed toward a peak in church communities. The Diocesan Bishop held regular meetings with the clergy. They concentrated on religious education and publications of religious material and service manuals so that the faithful and youth would be acquainted with Christ’s teachings and the structure of the Orthodox Church. The old timers, their American born children and the new immigrants work hand in hand in the church school communities. Together with the priests, the Serbian immigrants were mostly the families of the Serbian Chetniks who settled mostly in the industrial cities.
Before World War II there were about 30 priests in the Serbian American-Canadian Diocese who made extraordinary efforts to keep church life vibrant. There were some difficulties which slowed the prosperity of the parishes, but many obstacles had been overcome and the work continued. It is not the intention of this writing to dwell on the difficulties surrounded the first Serbian Bishop Mardarije (Uskokovic, later canonized St. Mardarije) which continued even after his falling asleep in the Lord. The new Serbian Bishop Rt. Rev. Dionisije (Milivojevic) consolidated church life in most parishes; appointed new parish priests, gave necessary instructions to them and the parishioners, and through the Diocesan organs controlled the work of the priests and the church boards. Nevertheless, there was still lack of educated priests, though there were a few highly educated, to fulfill the needs of the pastoral and administrative work. That gap was filled with the new arrivals of the priest-immigrants, from 1946 through the mid-1950s. We will first review this period, then from 1960 through the establishment of the St. Sava Theological faculty in Libertyville 1986, and more exactly until the reconciliation and establishment of the canonical unity in the Serbian Orthodox Church in USA and Canada 1992.
ST. SAVA SEMINARY GRADUATES
On behalf of the Diocese, Bishop Dionisije signed more than 30 affidavits for clergy who came. Further in this report we will mention priests who had been appointed by the Bishop to the various parishes. However, at the same time there was a generation of seminarian graduates from St. Sava Seminary in Libertyville, which was functioning from 1946-1949. This generation consisted of: Velimir Kovacevich, Milan Markovina, Vladimir Suka, Branko Skaljac, Danilo Susnjar (monk) and Timotej Tepsich (monk). All were ordained and had served in various parishes.
Priest Velimir Kovacevich, after parish services in the East (Johnstown, Pittsburgh), became parish priest in one of the largest parishes in the Midwest, St. Archangel Michael in South Chicago, Illinois, from 1962 -1978. After he became a widower, he was elected bishop of the Eastern American and Canadian Diocese. As a parish priest he excelled in his dedication and devotion to the service to the church. He was Director of the Diocesan Education. His stand on church issue in the 1960s had a great effect on the Serbian faithful on this continent. As Bishop of the Eastern American and Canadian Diocese he organized the diocese administratively and secured it financially. He ordained a good number of priests to fill vacant parishes. On his recommendation the Canadian Diocese was established in 1983. Later in 1991, Bishop Christopher was elevated to the rank of Metropolitan and elected as a ruling hierarch of the Midwestern Diocese, where he remained till his falling asleep in 2010. He was a catalyst for preserving the St. Sava Theological School, obtaining academic accreditations, and served as its dean until his passing away. He was interred at St. Sava Monastery, along with Bishop Nikolaj, Bishop Firmilijan and Bishop Dionisije, and other clergy from this generation who made their contributions to church life on this continent.
Priest Milan Markovina served in Wilmerding-Monroeville, PA, for a longer period, among the other shorter parish appointments. He was appointed parish priest in the St. Sava Cathedral in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the largest parishes in the Midwest. He excelled in many areas of church life. He left a rich legacy in the parishes he served and the Diocese. He was an ardent supporter of the St. Sava School of Theology, and indeed a good and faithful servant of the Holy Serbian Orthodox Church. He fell asleep in the Lord in 2005 and was interred at the local Good Hope Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Priest Branko Skaljac served in Masontown, PA, Cleveland and Lorain, Ohio. He was the parish priest in Cleveland in the mid-1960s in the most turbulent time in the parish. He stood firmly on the principles of the Serbian Orthodox Church. As an American born Serb he he was very influential with the younger generation. Here we should mention that all six graduated seminarians, all American-born Serbs, remained faithful to their priestly oath and defended the unity of the Church. Fr. Branko passed away in Cleveland and was interred in the local cemetery.
Priest Vladimir Suka served in Farrell, PA, Steubenville, OH, South Bend, IN, Saint Louis, MO and Duluth, MN. His contributions were the greatest in Farrell and Steubenville. Later due to poor health he slowed his previous intensive pastoral work. He passed away relatively young, in his late 50s and was interred in the local cemetery in South Bend.
Hieromonks Danilo Susnjar and Timothy Tepsich served in various parishes in Texas and Arizona, and other places. Both have passed away, Father Danilo in Texas and Fr. Timothy in Arizona. We don’t have much information of them to include here.
In continuing installments of this essay, we will review the appointments and the work of immigrant priests who came from the refugee camps in Italy and Germany immediately after World War II, priests who came at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s.