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Sharing Space in an Adopted Home

Balkan emigrants live side by side in multiethnic Chicago

Though their homelands have been synonymous in the 20th century with ethnic strife, Orthodox and Catholic emigrants from the Balkans have been living in harmony in Chicago for over 100 years.

The violence and tension of an area often called Europe’s tinderbox have occasionally surfaced between these immigrant communities, but relations, in general, have been amicable in Chicago. In fact, part of the strength of the communities has been interaction with other ethnic groups – something many of them would never have had in their native land.

The Croats lay claim to the earliest presence in Chicago. Missionary Father Josip Kundek arrived in the area in the late 1830’s. “At that time it was a wild and trackless land with only a small settlement around Fort Dearborn,” says Father Ljubo Krasic, O.F.M., director of Chicago’s Croatian Ethnic Institute. After the city was formally established, more of Father Kundek’s countrymen came in a great wave in the 1880’s.

The steel mills and slaughterhouses of the city’s South Side provided work for many unskilled laborers – Croats and others. Five Croatian parishes – four Latin and one Byzantine Catholic – were established there in the early 1900’s.

St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church was founded in the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood in 1912. The next year the parishioners began what is still their trademark: a major celebration for the feast of the Assumption, Velika Gospa in Croatian. The whole neighborhood – Croats, Italians and others – participate in the ceremonies every year: an elaborate procession with the image of Our Lady of Sinj, a festive Mass and a big block party the rest of the day.

Croatian immigration was eventually restricted by President Warren G. Harding’s Quota Act of 1921, “but by then the community was already growing due to Croats born in America,” says Father Krasic.

As the steel mills and slaughterhouses closed in the middle of the century, many Croats started moving to different parts of the city and into the suburbs.

Some 20,000 Croats came to greater Chicago from 1945 to 1990. Many of these new immigrants, unlike their predecessors, had university degrees or some higher education. Since 1990, there have been few Croatian newcomers to Chicago. Recent U.S. immigration policy has sought to settle them in areas without Croats.

Three of the five parishes formed in the 1900’s still have an active Croatian presence, and the Dominican Fathers opened a new mission parish on the North Side. All but the mission parish have liturgies in English as well as Croatian. In an example of intercultural cooperation, diocesan priest Father Esequiel Sanchez has learned enough Croatian to say Sunday Mass at Holy Trinity Church, founded by Croatians but now in a diverse neighborhood.

The number of Croats in Chicago is a controversial question, as is the number of other Balkan groups. Father Krasic’s institute estimated in a 1996 study that 130,000 Croats lived in the city proper, with 190,000 in the metro area. The 2000 U.S. Census, however, counted just 7,819.

To further complicate the issue, Father Krasic maintains that Croatia is not part of the Balkans, but is a Central European and Mediterranean country. “In 1918, against the will of the Croatian people, it was forced into Yugoslavia, a Balkan state,” he says. “In 1991, 94 percent of its citizens voted not to be part of Yugoslavia.”

The Serbs came to Chicago at about the same time as their neighbor Croats. The first community formed in 1872. The Serbs also came to the South Side and worked in the steel mills. The first Serbian Orthodox Church in Chicago was built in 1905 and was at that time under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The area’s Serbian community suffered a split in 1953. “One group accepted the patriarch in Yugoslavia, who was living under communism. The other didn’t,” says Father Sava Bosanac, parish priest of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church. In February 1992, the split ended, but separate administrative structures still exist.

At about the same time, the violence gripping the Balkans began to cause tension between Serbs and Croats in Chicago, Father Krasic admits, though the situation has since cooled off.

Father Bosanac says there are now about 300,000 Serbs in Chicago, with 10 churches in the city and two monasteries in northern Illinois. As at other Serbian parishes, Father Bosanac’s church uses English, as well as Serbian, to serve those born in the United States.

The steel mills of southern Chicago and northern Indiana also affected the settlement of early Romanian Orthodox communities. The first parishes were founded there in the early 1900’s. As settlement patterns changed, new parishes were founded on the city’s north and northwest sides, and the old parishes declined.

Holy Nativity Romanian Orthodox Church “has moved two times, because the parish is growing,” says John Pop, parish council president. “In 1997, we moved to a new building but we will probably need to build a new church.”

With about 700 families, Mr. Pop says it is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the area. New immigration over the last decade, often of highly educated young people, keeps the community vibrant. The church is under the jurisdiction of the multiethnic Orthodox Church in America.

Shortly after World War I, the first Albanians came to the United States. Most ended up in Massachusetts, but from there some went to Chicago and Milwaukee. Chicago’s only Albanian Orthodox Church was built in 1948. “Before the Albanians had their own church, they went to Greek parishes,” explains Nick Nicholas, president of the parish council of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church. “The customs, food, music and religion are close to the Greek. The only difference is language.”

Their present church was built in 1961, just after a split in the community. “About half went with the Greek diocese and half with the Albanian diocese,” explains Mr. Nicholas. The church is now part of the Greek diocese. In fact, there are now ethnic Greeks among the parishioners. Some of those who went with the Albanian diocese started attending Romanian or Greek parishes, though most “stopped going to church,” Mr. Nicholas says.

The church received a spiritual “lift” and outside attention in 1986. On 6 December, the feast of St. Nicholas, the icon of the Mother of God on the church’s iconostasis reportedly started “weeping.” The oil was eventually collected on cotton and rubbed on other icons in Pennsylvania, which began weeping also. The icon in Chicago continued weeping until July 1987. It started up again the next year, but stopped soon after.

It is estimated that over 2 million people – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants – have come to venerate “Our Lady of Chicago,” as some have dubbed the icon. The church still has special hours for veneration on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

St. Nicholas now numbers 250 families. Recent immigration has renewed the ranks as there are now 10,000 Albanians in Chicago. Mr. Nicholas says, however, he is having trouble organizing a Sunday school. The new immigrants are “unchurched,” he says. “I am soliciting people to bring their children to church more often.”

Chicago’s Bulgarian community was small until quite recently, says Father Valentin Nozkov, parish priest of St. John of Rila Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

“Before the 1990’s, there were only 2,000 or 3,000 Bulgarians,” he says. The first church community was formed in 1938. In 1972, the community bought a house. The first floor was converted into a church, the second a priest’s residence.

With the collapse of communism, many young Bulgarian immigrants with children have come to the city. Today they number almost 60,000. Father Nozkov’s community was founded in 1996, at first celebrating the Divine Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox church. In 1998, a number of Lutheran church buildings in Chicago were being sold and the Bulgarian community bought one on the northwest side.

St. John of Rila has about 150 regular parishioners and attracts 400 for popular holy days. “The Sunday school is very successful, with 100 students,” Father Nozkov says proudly.

Perhaps the most divided of the communities of Balkan Christians in Chicago is the Romanian. In addition to three Orthodox churches, there are 10 churches of various Protestant denominations. And in 1995, the Romanian Greek Catholic Church started Sts. Peter and Paul Romanian Greek Catholic Mission in the city.

The mission’s first priest, the late Father Theodore Cornea, “was worried about new immigrants in Chicago,” explains his son, Sergiu, who is also a priest.

His father was originally the priest at St. Michael Romanian Greek Catholic Church in Aurora, 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Romanians have been in Aurora since 1900. “They built Aurora,” says Father Cornea.

At first the mission in Chicago shared a building with the city’s Belarusian Byzantine Catholic parish. Father Theodore died in 1996, and his son took over as priest-administrator. When the Belarusian parish dissolved in 2003, the Romanians bought the small edifice. The community now has about 140 members.

According to Father Cornea, there are about 75,000 Romanians in Chicago, about 5,000 of whom are Greek Catholic. Most go to Baptist or Orthodox churches.

“After 50 years of living in a communist country,” explains Father Cornea, “these Romanians don’t know what Greek Catholic means. Their great-grandparents were Greek Catholic, but the younger people were baptized and raised Orthodox.”

A hopeful sign of Christian cooperation in Chicago is Socrates-St. Sava Academy, where Serbian and Greek-American children study together in an Orthodox environment. Socrates Greek American School was founded in 1908, making it “the oldest such school still in existence,” says Voula Sellountos, principal of the academy.

In 2001, it started admitting children of Serbian descent, changed its name and moved to the complex of Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.

There are now 110 students: 27 are of Serbian descent and 83 Greek. The students have English classes together before separately studying in Serbian or Greek.

The school has two chaplains: one Serbian, one Greek. In addition to tuition paid by parents, the respective churches provide financial support according to the number of enrolled students.

“The values the parents try to instill in the home are the same ones instilled at school,” says Ms. Sellountos. “At public schools parents have almost no control over violence, bad language and bad attitudes. We have created a family environment, with love and care for the children.”

The challenges of modern times have forced Chicago’s Christians from the Balkans to adapt and work together with other ethnic groups. None have been able to survive on their own.

With a spirit of cooperation, each group is making its way in the new country they all share.

Matthew Matuszak, a third-generation Chicagoan and the director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, divides his year evenly between the Windy City and Lviv, Ukraine.

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