Croatian Franciscan


Even if the Croatian immigrant colony in Chicago is not among the oldest, still Croatians started coming here very early, already in the second half of the 19th century. For our immigrants, who in large part were illiterate and unable to work in the professional fields, Chicago was an excellent destination because of its steel industry and its large slaughterhouses, where they were able to easily find work.

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George Prpic in his extraordinary book (which actually is his doctoral dissertation) The Croatian Immigrants In America above all describes the interesting experiences of our people, who individually or in smaller groups have been coming to America already from the days of her discovery. It is likely that some of these immigrants were on Columbus's ship when he discovered America in 1492. It is well preserved information that the brothers Mato and Dominko Konkendjevic sailed to America in 1520, where after having lived there for 30 years, amassed a vast fortune of 12,000 gold ducats! During the 16th century, people from Dubrovnik came to the American continent, and some even died here. In addition, there is a very interesting story about a northern American Indian tribe, which was called "Croatoan". Many believe that this name has a connection with the Croatians who came to American in the early centuries after Columbus (probably in the 16th century), who stayed and lived with the tribe, and thus gave the tribe its name. Some researchers claim that members of this tribe can even be physically differentiated from others American Indians. One Croat, Ferdo Basic, wrote a novel about the communal life of the Croatians with the American Indians and about their chief who was named Hrastov Cvor, the same name as the novel.

The greatest number of Croatian immigrants came to America from Dalmatia, which is quite understandable, since they were primarily sailors, and of all Croatians, they had the greatest amount of contact with the distant world, and thus with the new continent. The great majority of them, at least in the first centuries of immigration, came to the western coast of America, primarily to California, where many of them, in a very short time became very wealthy and respected members of the American community. The 19th century saw the beginning of a greater immigration of Croatians from all Croatian provinces (which at that time were divided among many countries: Austria, Hungary, Italy, Turkey). These new immigrants sought employment wherever they could find it. At that time, most of them worked in mines, for the railroad and on the building of new roads, especially the railways. From that time Croatian settlements have existed throughout the entire United States. Due to the political and economic situation of that time, Croatia was left without its young people, and this trend followed the Croatian people even to this present day. Croatian history is full of many difficult separations and departures to far away lands, especially to America. A torrent of tears flowed from the eyes of many mothers, wives and children who either felt or knew that they would never see their loved ones again in their Croatian homeland.

Croatian priests soon followed the immigrants to the new land in order to make it somewhat easier for their fellow countrymen. Little by little, and with great difficulty, these priests found the Croatian communities and began to establish Croatian parishes, so that, in this way the Croatian immigrants could feel a connection to their homeland in the far away land of America. These priests tended not just to the spiritual needs of the Croatian immigrants, but also worked with the practical needs of the people in order to help them make a life for themselves and to adapt to American society.

Some priests came to America as missionaries (to convert the American Indians from paganism) long before the start of Croatian settlement in America. The earliest well-known Croatian missionary was a Jesuit named Ivan Ratkaj, who arrived in Mexico already in 1680, and worked among the Indians of Northern Mexico. Due to his early death, he never made it to California. There was another Croatian Jesuit priest named Fr. Ferdinand Konscak, however, who at the beginning of the 18th century spent the greater part of his missionary life in California. By the middle of the century he established many new missions among the American Indians and among them he was extraordinarily beloved. He was perhaps the most famous missionary of his time, and he established some missions that even today are well known on the West Coast. A third well known Croatian missionary was Fr. Josip Kundek, who arrived in America at the beginning of the 19th century. He established new missions and worked primarily with the German Catholics in a diocese that included Indiana and a part of Illinois, including Chicago. In 1839 he established a new city and called it Ferdinand (South of Jasper), and in 1843 he established Celestine, both of course with parishes. He was everywhere where there were Germans and in this way he became the first Croatian in Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Croatian immigration was especially large due to wide spread poverty and difficult political circumstances (during the time of the cruel reign of Khuen-Hedervari). Great waves of immigration have always happened during difficult times in Croatian history: the time after the Second World War was especially tragic, when thousands and thousands of Croatians had to flee from the Serbian-communist regime into foreign lands the world over. It is impossible to correctly guess the number of Croatian immigrants in America because at that time they were listed in grouping with the Slovenians. Croatians from Bosnia-Herzegovina were listed as Bosnians or Herzegovinians. Or if you were a Croat from another country, you were listed as a citizen of that country or locality. Later people were listed as simply being Yugoslavian. It is estimated that in the United States today there are over 2 million Croatians and their descendents.

A significant event occurred at the end of the 19th century with the establishment of the Hrvatska Bratska Zajednica (Croatian Fraternal Union) and other Croatian social associations. Particularly because of frequent injuries on the job, and because there was no one to care for the immigrant Croatians and their families after their work-related injuries or deaths, there was a great need to establish such associations, in which naturally Croatian culture was also fostered. Many of these associations published their own newspapers.. The high quality newspapers and magazines, however, would have to wait until after the Second World War, when a great number of newsmen and intellectuals would come to America.


At the end of the 19th century, the Croatian community in Chicago became the second largest, right after Pittsburgh. Hundreds of Croatians built their homes on the South side of Chicago. Among the oldest of the immigrants were those from Dalmatia. In many circumstances, however, a great many of these people were categorized as Austrians by the American government because at that time, Dalmatia was a part of the Austrian dvojnoj monarchy. The main reason for their settlement in Chicago was that there were many possibilities for employment in the steel industry or in the Chicago slaughterhouses. Already at the beginning of the 20th century they began to establish their own associations. One of the first was the Hrvatska Zajednica Illinois (Croatian Union of Illionois). It began in 1905 because of strife with the Croatian Fraternal Union, and it published its own magazine "The Croatian Flag". In addition, one of the oldest Croatian singing groups began in Chicago, and it was called Zora (which means "the dawn"). The beginning of the 20th century saw the establishment of Croatian parishes in Chicago. During this century five Croatian parishes functioned in the Chicagoland area, of which three are still active today: two Franciscan parishes (St. Jerome's on Princeton and Sacred Heart on the South side) and one Dominican parish (on the North side, on Devon avenue). A fourth parish, on Throop street operates only occasionally.

Many priests, persistent missionaries and idealists, many well-known names in the past 100 years have worked in these Croatian parishes. Even during the Great Depression, when money was difficult to come by, they were able to build churches, schools, rectories, halls and convents,. A great many of these priests had problems and misunderstandings with their parishioners, as is made clear in a situation that happened in the parish of St. Jerome's when a group of parishioners wanted the parish to be called "Dalmatian" rather than "Croatian". The first Croatian parish in Chicago, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was founded in 1903. St.'s Peter and Paul, the Eastern Rite Catholic parish was established in 1905. The parish of St. Jerome's was founded on December 15, 1912 and it had the largest school in a Croatian parish in America. In 1926, there were 350 children attending this school. Fr. Leon Medic, the founder of the parish, bought an old Protestant church on 25th street, and transformed it for Catholic worship. After the First World War, Fr. Vjenceslav Vukonic, a former Croatian army chaplain, bought a new church on Princeton Avenue for $37,000, which up until then belonged to a Swedish Protestant group. The parishioners of St. Jerome's moved to the new church on May 30, 1922 (address: 2838 S. Princeton Ave, Chicago, IL 60616, telephone: 312/842-1871). Sacred Heart parish was founded in 1913. The church building had four schoolrooms with a total capacity for 200 children (address: 2864 E. 96th St., Chicago, IL 60617, telephone: 773/768-3750). Holy Trinity parish was founded by Rev. Josip Soric, a young priest who came from Croatia, but was ordained to the priesthood in America. His first Mass was celebrated on Christmas day, 1914, with his parishioners. A tireless priest, he worked among Croatians in five neighboring states. Croatian Dominicans served the parishioners of Holy Trinity, and even today, they occasionally celebrate Mass there (address: 4754 Carey Street, East Chicago, IN 46312, telephone: 219/398-3061). The pastoral work of the Dominicans among the Croatian community in Chicago began in 1967. The Croatian Catholic Mission on the North side of Chicago officially began in 1973, when the first Holy Mass was celebrated in the church of St. Jerome, on the corner of Lunt and Paulina. It was clear that the need existed to establish a church for the Croatians living on the North side of Chicago, especially in light of the fact that so many Croatians were moving from the South side to the North side. The organizers of this new parish were Fr. Hyacinth Eterovic, Fr. Nikola Dugandzic, and Fr. Ivo Plenkovic. To them also fell the credit of founding the Croatian Cultural Center in 1974, located on Devon Avenue. Since 1977 Holy Mass has been celebrated in a beautiful church on the corner of Devon and Ridge, and in 1982, the Dominicans moved into the parish home on the church grounds (address: 6346 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago, IL 60660, telephone: 773/262-4603).

Along with these parishes, one must also make mention of the Franciscan monastery and Croatian Franciscan Custody which is located between Drexel and Ellis streets. The residents of the monastery are primarily the former pastors of the last 50 years, the worthy laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. In a separate building built in the last century, one finds there the the headquaters of the Croatian Franciscan Custody of the Holy Family, the members of which primarily come from the Franciscan community in the province of Herzegovina (Mostar). In the same building one will find the offices of the Croatian Ethnic Institute (CEI), and in a third building, there is the very active Fransiscan printing house. (The monastery address: 4848 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60615, telephone: 773/373-3463, Kustos and CEI address: 4851 Drexel Blvd, Chicago, IL 60615, telephone: 773/536-0552, 373-4670).

It is interesting to note that the Croatian Moslem community in Chicago, with the help even of Catholics, built its first mosque and cultural center, which opened on February 10th, 1957.

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