The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America – Part Ten – AMERICANIZATION BEGINS

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. Earlier installments are available on the American Srbobran research site, www.snfpaper.org.

If a man symbolically consists of body and soul, first generation immigrants initially felt they had given their bodies to America, but that they had kept their Serbian souls.  They were actually Serbs living in America, but very different from Americans.

The next phase involves the forging of a dual identity – speaking two languages, belonging to two cultural traditions. The third phase is represented by their second and third generation descendants, all born in America, most of whom did not know the language, but continued their ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church end to non-linguistic elements of Serbian culture. These Serbian Americans were aware and proud of their Serbian roots – as a part of the unique cultural diversity of America and as a specific, additional heritage enriching their identity.

This changing and evolving Serbian American identity was strongly affected by events taking place in Europe as well as in America.

Once the Great War gave way to peace, many immigrants decided to return home – their hometowns and villages had finally been liberated and Austria-Hungary was no more. Some of the war volunteers also decided to stay. Although the country was economically poor in parts of it devastated by war, the political motives for immigration had disappeared. Furthermore, the establishment of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes gave even more incentives for the return of those who had emigrated from regions formerly controlled by Austria-Hungary. According to some accounts, the royal consulate in New York was overwhelmed with immigrants applying for new passports, visas, and tickets – to return home. At the same time, in 1919 there were 900 demobilized volunteers who were waiting in Dubrovnik for ships that would take them back to America. The government of the newly formed state, which would in 1929 be renamed Yugoslavia, did not have the resources to pay for their travel expenses, so Pupin again helped by setting up a Relief Fund for Serbian WWI volunteers.

Pupin's idea of developing economic ties between the U.S. and Yugoslavia prompted him to establish the Slavonic Immigrant Bank in 1920, which was to support the growth of trade and investments. Soon after that, Pupin and Bozidar Rankovic established the Serbian American Bank with the same goal in mind. The isolationist foreign policy pursued by the new American administration affected Pupin’s plans in an adverse way – they failed to show interest in economic programs such as Pupin’s ideas.

Another new development was the opening of new Yugoslav diplomatic offices in the U.S. In addition to the “old” consulate in New York, two more were opened in Chicago and another in San Francisco. This seemed to signal a growing interest of the new state in promoting ties with its immigrants – Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – in America. It was paralleled by a strong push for the idea of “brotherhood” among the three main ethnic groups comprising Yugoslavia. Serbian American publications of the period embraced this idea and promoted it, recognizing in it hope for a better future of all South Slavs in their new homeland – Yugoslavia.

Despite these positive developments, the situation of fraternal organizations such as Srbobran, Sloga, Sloboda and Svesna Srbadija became more difficult. In 1921 there was a change in American immigration policy. The introduction of immigration quotas limited the inflow of newcomers. Subsequent laws set additional limitations. For example, immigrants who spent over six months abroad risked losing their residency status. This meant that fewer and fewer immigrants would risk visiting their families at home for an extended period of time. The same law prompted more and more immigrants to seek American citizenship as a guarantee of their status. Having founded families and small businesses after years of toilsome work, the immigrants needed security of status. Many of them had realized that they could not continue going back and forth, that their children were American born, and that this was their real homeland. The new generation of American Serbs was different from the old one - they had never seen or lived in the Old Country, Serbian was not their native language (although they learn to speak it at home), and they felt “at home” in America, where they tended to integrate and be like “other Americans,” although they cherished the Serbian cultural tradition inherited from their parents. Unlike previous historical situations in the Old World, they were not forced to assimilate. It was a process that developed gradually and naturally in the promised land of economic opportunity and freedom. Each new generation would move further away from the model established by the “first” immigrants who had remained part of the Old World even after having spent most of their adult lives in America.

This process of Americanization was the single most important factor affecting the future of the fraternal organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. Since the inflow of new immigrants was reduced to a trickle, fraternal organizations had no choice but to turn to second and third generation Serbian Americans for new membership and growth. This led them to rethink their policies and goals.

However, the most important accomplishment of the Serbs in the U.S. and Canada in the ‘20s was the establishment of the American-Canadian Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This was the fruit of a long gradual process initiated when the Serbs established their first churches on the continent and completed in 1921. After spending some time in America, Dr. Nikolaj Velimirovic, Bishop of Ohrid, submitted a “Report on the Situation, Needs and Wishes of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States” – to the Holy Synod. This report is the best and most detailed assessment of the status of Serbian churches in colonies in North America at that time. The document concludes with a proposal to incorporate the Serbian Orthodox Church in America into the Serbian patriarchate, elect a Bishop for the new diocese and request support of the Diocese from the Royal Government. The new diocese was founded in September of 1921. Its seat was in Chicago, but the first America-Canadian Bishop, Archimandrite Mardarije Uskokovic, was officially elected only in 1925.

Archimandrite Mardarije Uskokovic

Archimandrite Uskokovic’s position as administrate was contested by some clergymen of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who sought to prevent the consolidation of the Diocese under the jurisdiction of the Church in Belgrade. In this respect, the consistent support given to Archimandrite Mardarije by the Yugoslav consuls – Bozidar Puric and especially Radoje Jankovic was very much appreciated.  Archimandrite Mardarije had begun efforts to purchase land for the first Serbian monastery in North America – the founding of the Monastery of St. Sava was his lifelong dream. The land for the monastery in Libertyville (Illinois) was consecrated in 1923, but the building of the monastery would take a lot more effort and persistence.

Bishop Mardarije’s effort to organize the Diocese and build the monastery faced resistance from many in the Serbian community: if it were not for the support of the people and friends who shared his far-reaching vision – especially individuals such as Mihailo Pupin, Radoje Jankovic, and others – the mission of Bishop Uskokovic would never have become a reality. In a sermon delivered in September of 1927, Bishop Mardarije said:

We are facing great responsibilities and efforts. We must build a common home and defend an idea that stands for humanity, our nation and our state in the best sense of the word. I invite you to take action and overcome all the obstacles you will encounter on your path. I urge you to stand firm against those who seek to denigrate the Holy Orthodox Faith, our Faith, and our national identity, which we have cherished so dearly. Declare war to those who seek to destroy what is holiest to the people. Keep your spirit alert, rise and take action because faith in our efforts will protect us from ruin. [Dragutinovic: 67]

Dr. Bozidar Puric, who had been a diplomatic representative of Yugoslavia in the U.S. during those years of trials and hardships, described Bishop Mardarije as a man dedicated to his mission:

In the new era that was being born in cement and steel, surrounding us like the walls of a prison, his only mission was to live the exemplary life, to renounce everything, first of all to renounce his own self…It seemed as if Christianity for him [Bishop Mardarije] was a question of persona. Conscience, the virtue of being pure, of submitting oneself to the rule of sublime monastic morals and ethics…He was a monk without hypocrisy, without a hint of envy or hate, devoid of vanity. He had no problem with understanding people Ann forgiving them, he was goodness unaffected by passion. It seemed that his practical philosophy of life was sincere and simple. Physically attractive, moving in a lively manner, unreal like a dream…[Puric: 176]

Many years after Bishop Uskokovic’s death, on the 30th anniversary of the St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, the cemetery, and the Children’s Camp, Dr. Nikolaj Velimirovic expressed the gratitude of the Serbian people to this extraordinary man for fulfilling the dream of a common Serbian Orthodox home in Libertyville:

Archimandrite Mardarije Uskokovic

Like three strings on a musical instrument, whichever you strike touches the heart of a Serb. Such is the – now famous – Monastery of Saint Sava in Libertyville, in the midpoint of the American continent. The first string is the St. Sava Church itself, the second, the Monastery cemetery, the third, the Children’s Summer Camp. A string of prayer, a string of grief, and a string of joy. [Velimirovic: 5]

The Serb National Federation would support the Monastery of St. Sava and the Children’s Camp for many years to come, recognizing the extreme importance of St. Sava in Libertyville for Serbdom in America. This is only one example of the far-reaching visions of Serbian American pioneers, the extraordinary men who were capable of breaking the resistance of those immersed in the power wrangling of the day in order to set the foundations for the future. Such were the men whose achievements in the past serve as an inspiration for men of mission today

Next Installment:  Pupin’s Dream Comes True

Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

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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