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The history of the Croatian Catholic people in the United States has not been formally documented. The primary sources of this information are the individual histories of the several Croatian Catholic parishes in the Eastern, Midwestern and Western states, along with the historical accounts provided by various Croatian organizations, principally the local lodges of the Croatian Catholic Union, a fraternal benevolent insurance society, founded in 1921. The following documentation provides a brief summary or overview of the Croatian Catholic communities in America.


It is very difficult to establish when the first Croatian Catholic came to the American continent. Some written documents indicate that individuals or small groups of Croatian Catholics (notably seafarers from the Dalmatian coastal regions) landed on this continent two or three hundred years ago. But in the late 1890s and early 1900s, many Croatians, the majority of them Roman Catholics, began emigrating to the United States. Many were economic immigrants, while others considered themselves political refugees. Like other immigrants of that period, they looked for employment wherever jobs could be found. Many of them, mostly single young men but, often, married men with or without their families, settled in small towns as coal miners or in larger cities as steelworkers. Within a comparatively short period of time, Croatians could be found all over the United States from New York to California, from New Orleans to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

A new wave of Croatian Catholic immigrants began to arrive after World War II. These were mostly political refugees, including orphans whose parents had been killed during the war, individuals and families fleeing Yugoslavia's Communist regime. Most of these Croatians settled in established Croatian colonies, often among relatives and friends.

Croatian priests and other professionals working among the Croatian immigrants assumed that this would be the end of Croatian immigration. But, beginning in 1965, America saw a new influx of Croatians, some of them political refugees, most of them younger families seeking economic security and a prosperity impossible to find in Yugoslavia. Those arriving in the 1960s and the decades that followed settled mostly in larger cities. These immigrants were better educated and more liberal than their forebears in America, but they were also influenced by the new European standard of life and opposed to the Communist ideology forcefully imposed upon them in the totalitarian state of Yugoslavia. They sought "the good life"-a decent job, a balanced education for their children, good housing and utilities, the ability to be vocal in their political views in democratic America, and the freedom to live out their deeply rooted religious convictions. Gradually this new wave of immigrants joined Croatian Catholic parishes and organizations, and soon became the contemporary bearers of Croatian Catholic culture and tradition in the United States. Currently, only a small number of Croatian Catholics continue to emigrate, mostly those who have relatives already well established in America.


Croatian priests, mostly diocesan clergy, came in precious few numbers with the earliest immigrants towards the end of the nineteenth century. They were true missionaries. They traveled from place to place wherever their people settled, preaching parish missions and organizing religious, cultural, and benevolent societies. Often the priest was the only educated member of the Croatian colony, and thus they had to assume leadership roles; moreover, they were among the first to learn English well and often served as translators and interpreters. Their primary responsibility, however, was the organization of Croatian Catholic parishes in the urban centers with substantial Croatian populations. Thus, at the beginning of this century there were Croatian churches in Pittsburgh and Steelton Pennsylvania, New York, Chicago, and other cities. The oldest parish is St. Nicholas Church in Pittsburgh, founded in 1894; several others were erected in the early 1900s.

During the period 1910-40, more Croatian priests came to the United States to work among their people, mostly younger men and mostly religious older priests, beginning in 1912 through 1940. Many of these were Franciscans from various Croatian provinces, mostly friars from the Herzegovina province of Mostar.

A good number of Croatian priests, religious and diocesan, came to the United States following World War II. As the Croatian immigrant community grew and spread, new parishes needed to be organized. Thus the life of the immigrant priest, like the lives of his people, became more parish centered, more stable.

After the 1960s, a new wave of younger Croatian priests, influenced by Vatican Council II and the continental pastoral theology that followed in its wake, arrived in the United States. They organized new and visionary programs, including Croatian-language radio programs, and often bridged the gap between Croatians and other Catholics in their dioceses through various religious and ethnic activities.

Much has been accomplished for the Croatian immigrants in the United States during the past hundred years, as evidenced by the number of Croatian Catholic parishes and social, cultural, athletic and religious organizations that have been established coast to coast. One of the largest organizations founded, the Croatian Catholic Union of U.S.A. and Canada, with headquarters in Hobart (Gary), Indiana (a fraternal benefit society), was spearheaded by immigrant Croatian priests; today CCU has lodges in many states and throughout Canada as well. Based on the religious principles and fraternal system, the Croatian Catholic Union through its benevolent, charitable, educational, religious, sports and patriotic programs and activities, serves multiple needs of its members and the Croatian people in the United States and Canada.


While precise figures are unavailable, Croatian Catholics in the United States, both those born in Croatia and those born in the United States of Croatian-born parents and/or grandparents, who have direct contact with the Church, number approximately 250,000 to 300,000. According to the United States Census Bureau of Statistics (1990) there were over 544,270 Croatian Americans who identify themselves as being of Croatian decent or being born in Croatia. In addition to that, many Croatian Americans identify themselves as Yugoslavs, Slavs, Dalmatians, Bosnians, Austrians, or Austro-Hungarians. Based on other historical sources there are approximately three million Croatian Americans in the United States.

It is equally difficult to present in the context an in depth study of the pastoral work that has been and continues to be accomplished among the Croatian Catholics in America. The following is a brief summation with a few general remarks.

Currently in the United States, the following religious communities work among Croatian Catholics, with the majority of these religious themselves being Croatian-born. The Croatian Franciscan Custody of the Holy Family, with headquarters in Chicago, was established by the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.) in 1926, and currently numbers thirty-seven friars. In the early 1940s the friars established a printery at their Chicago friary, Croatian Franciscan Press, and began publishing and editing the Croatian Danica [The morning Star], a weekly newspaper, and the monthly Glasnik or Croatian Catholic Messenger. The annual Kalendar or Almanac edited by the friars provided American Croatians with well-written articles by Croatian priests and lay intellectuals in the United States and elsewhere, as well as other useful information.

Even before being officially established in 1926, the Croatian Franciscan friars traveled throughout the United States, establishing and assisting in Croatian parishes and keeping alive the religious and national sentiments of their people. Today the Croatian Custody is ministering at parishes in Milwaukee and West Allis, Wisconsin, St. Louis, New York City, Detroit, Chicago (two congregations), and in Bethlehem and Sharon, Pennsylvania, as well as in seven Canadian parishes serving the thousands of Croatian immigrants in Canada. This community has done much for the spiritual and material welfare of many Croatian immigrants during the past seventy-five years.

Other Croatian religious communities of men ministering among the Croatian immigrants in America include the Dominicans, who staff two Chicago parishes; the Conventional Franciscans serving congregations in Gary, Indiana, and Lackawanna, New York; the TOR Franciscan friars service parishes in the Pittsburgh area as well as Washington, D.C. In addition, Franciscans (O.F.M.) from the Dalmatia province of Split, Croatia, serve parishes in California and Canada.

Many secular priests from various dioceses in Croatia are serving the spiritual and cultural needs of American Croatians and have founded several parishes. Currently, they serve in New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, and elsewhere in Ohio, Florida, and Los Angeles, and San Pedro in California. Several men of Croatian decent have been ordained for dioceses throughout the United States.

Along with the male religious, various Croatian religious sisters from the early years of this century to the present day have ministered among Croatian immigrants, most visibly in several parish schools (many now closed) established by the Croatians. These religious orders include the Adorers of the Precious Blood of Jesus, based for the most of this century in Columbia, Pennsylvania; the Daughters of Divine Charity in Akron, Ohio; the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King based in Lemont, Illinois; the Dominican Sisters in Chicago and the Franciscan sisters in San Jose, California. Many Croatian-born sisters, as well as those born in the United States of Croatian ancestry, have served as principals and teachers at parochial schools, and in more recent years, they have worked with young parishioners, instructing them in religious education classes and Croatian language and culture classes. As with other ethnic groups in the United States, the role of the teaching sister among the Croatians cannot be overestimated.


Croatian Roman Catholics in America form a vital part of the American Catholic Church. This is due in large measure to the pioneering and ongoing efforts of their priests and sisters, whose witness has enabled the Croatian immigrant community and their children and grandchildren born in the United States to remain faithful to their Catholicism and their Croatian roots. With the liberation of Croatia in 1990 and its establishment once again as a sovereign and democratic nation, it is expected that Croatian emigration to the United States will continue to decline.

Fr. Paul Maslac (O.F.M.)

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