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(E) 100th anniversary of St. Joseph Croatian Church, St. Louis
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  09/12/2004 | History | Unrated
(E) 100th anniversary of St. Joseph Croatian Church, St. Louis


100th anniversary of St. Joseph Croatian Church in the Soulard

neighborhood of St. Louis

40,000 Croatian-Americans in the region will celebrate centennial


Croatian parish will celebrate centennial
Of the Post-Dispatch
Anna Deranja Lusicic, 92, hopes to see many old friends on Sunday at the
kickoff for a year of events marking the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph
Croatian Church in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.

"St. Joseph's is the hub for all of us Croatians; if it weren't for the
parish, we wouldn't have any contact with our Croatian friends," said
Lusicic, who was baptized at the church in 1911 and now lives in the Holly
Hills neighborhood.

About 40,000 Croatian-Americans live in the region, says the Rev. Josip
Abramovic, the parish's 16th pastor. About 1,500 of them are members of the
parish. Many more come for special occasions.

On Sunday, the parish's centennial Mass at 11 a.m. will be followed by a
banquet at 1:30 p.m. at the Cedars, 939 Lebanon Drive, nearby in the LaSalle
neighborhood. Over the next year, there will be many special Croatian
concerts and other celebrations. A chess tournament and a soccer tournament
began the festivities Labor Day weekend.

"Today, a few of the older people have moved back to Soulard - not our young
people," said Abramovic, a Franciscan priest who was born in Croatia. "Most
of our parishioners live in South County now, just a 20-minute drive on
Sundays, so they come for Mass. They love the music."

Croatians have lived in the region since 1860, but it was not until 1902
that a core group began praying together and exploring ways to obtain a
Croatian-speaking priest for a parish and cultural center.

Today, the parish continues to be energized by immigrants. One hundred
Croatian families who immigrated to St. Louis from the former Yugoslavia as
that nation was breaking up now are parishioners. Last weekend, three of the
recent immigrants were repainting the church's interior in time for the

Other Croatian-Americans have moved here from other cities and are pleased
with the parish.

"My wife, Theresa Brekalo, is from here, and I am from Chicago, and we love
St. Joseph's," said parishioner Marko Puljic, 32, of High Ridge.

For about 150 years, Croatians have come to America for the same reasons
other immigrants did - because of economic problems, inexpensive farm land
here, and to avoid serving in their homeland overlords' armies.

"Croatians avoided conscription, avoided giving their lives for the
Austro-Hungarian Empire," Abramovic said.

Many of those first Croatians had European anti-clerical ideas and no
interest in the church, he said. Then, in 1902, Croatian immigrant Peter
Hartman called a meeting at the old Chouteau Hall to start a
Croatian-language church.

With the approval of St. Louis Archbishop John J. Glennon, Hartman's group
got the Archbishop of Zagreb in Croatia's capital to dispatch a priest, the
Rev. Oscar Suster, to lead a new St. Louis parish.

About 100 families began gathering every Sunday morning to celebrate Mass
with Suster at the Czech Catholic community's church, St. Wenceslaus, near
the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The new parish raised money and bought a
vacant Jewish synagogue at 11th Street and Chouteau Avenue. It opened in

"My father was one of the men who dug out a basement under the synagogue so
we could have a parish hall," Lusicic said.

Suster left after five years because of language differences. The church
continued with prayer services. Sometimes, a priest from nearby St. Vincent
Parish, a traditionally French-speaking church, said the Latin Mass at St.

When Lusicic's immigrant father and immigrant mother married, the parish
they had helped found had no priest, so they were married at the old Holy
Trinity, the Slovak-language Catholic Church nearby.

"We all stuck together, those of us who didn't speak German or English," she

Croatians, Bohemians, Poles, Russians, Slovaks talked to one another, even
though sometimes they understood only a handful of one another's words, she
said. "Well, if you understand Latin, you can figure it out, and we all got
along," she said.

The parish's second pastor, the Rev. Josip Kompare, had been installed in
time for Lusicic's baptism. In the 1920s, toward the end of his 16-year
tenure, the parishioners' numbers grew with the arrival of Croatians who had
fled their homeland in the aftermath of World War I.

Other Croatian-American soldiers from St. Louis visited their families after
that war and returned home with Croatian brides. With passenger ships
sailing again, St. Louis Croatian men mailed their photos to strangers in
their motherland for what they called "picture brides" - mail-order brides.

"One man sent another man's photo, but when the bride got to St. Louis, she
was surprised that it looked nothing like him," Lusicic recalled. The man
was not as handsome as the one in his faked photo.

When her family moved farther west, they attended a different church but
still went to St. Joseph for special occasions such as Mary's Crowning in
May, Holy Week, Pentecost, Christmas plays, the feast day of St. Nicholas
Tavelic, the touring tamburitza orchestra concerts, Croatian Vila Singing
Society concerts, church picnics and American-Croatian Relief benefits.

Church archives have photos of Masses of thanksgiving and celebration at the
end of World Wars I and II and celebrations for the end of communism in
Yugoslavia and Croatia's independence.

In the mid-1920s, the parish outgrew the old converted synagogue and moved
south to its current site. Today, St. Joseph Croatian Parish has a complex
of five buildings built between 1848 and 1985, a garden and a large parking
lot that fills an entire city block between 11th and 12th streets at Ann
Avenue and Russell Boulevard.

"Some of our older parishioners can remember when there were cows kept back
here," said Abramovic, as he walked through a garden abloom with crepe
myrtle, mums and roses.

A pre-Civil War white stone wall surrounds part of the property and dates to
when the red brick school and rectory were Ursuline Academy, a girls'
boarding elementary and high school, founded in 1848 by four Ursuline nuns
from Bavaria and Hungary. Ursuline Academy moved to its current campus in
1926 and sold its property to St. Joseph Parish.

In 1928, parishioner Ivan Loncaric directed Croatian-American craftsmen in
the building of the church, which seats 400, with handsome stained-glass
windows and Italian stations of the cross. Its baroque-style altarpiece was
removed, and a spare altarpiece and sanctuary artwork representing the Holy
Spirit were installed in the 1970s.

Many Croatian-Americans eventually moved farther west and south on both
sides of the River Des Peres. Many married at St. George Parish and found
homes nearby.

"If you had to take a streetcar, it could take an hour just to get to
church," Lusicic recalled.

When parishioners owned cars, many returned to their roots each Sunday. The
number of Croatian activities at the parish increased. Members bought
Croatian Field, a soccer field near the River Des Peres and Lemay Ferry

Since having a heart attack, Lusicic no longer drives and must rely on her
children and grandchildren to chauffeur her. She will definitely be there on

"Five generations of my family have gone to St. Joseph," she said. "It's
going to be a wonderful celebration."

Reporter Patricia Rice
Phone: 636-500-4111

A Short History of St. Joseph Croatian Parish in St. Louis
Pictures courtesy of the Croatian Ethnic Institute and St. Joseph Croatian Parish.

It is not known when Croatians first arrived in St. Louis, but there is evidence that some were present prior to 1861. These earliest Croatians were for the most part mariners and guest workers who were intent on returning to Croatia after earning funds to support their families. It was shortly after 1900 that entire Croatian ffamilies began to settle permanently in St. Louis.

These people worked hard, saved, built homes and businesses and formed various benevolent societies where they socialized, kept their culture and values alive, and banded together to help one another succeed. On September 14, 1902 at a community-wide meeting held at Chouteau Hall, Peter Hartman suggested that a Croatian parish be established to meet the spiritual needs of the people. This parish could also function as the focal point for society and social functions as well.

A committee was formed to work towards this end and organizational meetings were held, but little real progress was made until the following year. At the urging of Msgr. Davorin Krmpotic, pastor of the Croatian church in Kansas City, Kansas, the committee met with Archbishop John J. Glennon. Archbishop Glennon gave them permission to establish a parish and search for a Croatian priest. The Archbishop of Zagreb, Dr. Juraj Posilovic sent Rev. Oscar Suster to St. Louis to conduct a census and to begin organizing the parish. Fr. Suster took up guest residency at the Czech church of St. Wenceslaus. The first Croatian Mass was held there and the Czech pastor, Fr. John Nekula accompanied Fr. Suster on his visit with Archbishop Glennon. The Archbishop counselled the priest to canvass the Croatian community for the faithful. Fr. Suster found over 100 families who were not only willing to join a Croatian parish, but who donated enough funds for a substantial down payment on a synagogue at 11th and Chouteau. The balance of the funds were a loan from Marcus Epstein at 5% interest. The church was blessed on September 25, 1904.

The school was opened in 1906 and two years later, the Sisters from the Congregation of the Most Precious Blood came to teach the children. The Sacrament of Holy Confirmation was administered for the first time on September 23, 1906 and the Altar Society was organized at about the same time.

While there was great cooperation in the Croatian community about equipping and embellishing the new church building, Fr. Suster encountered some difficulties in thoe first formative years of the parish. There were conflicts about the liturgy. Was the Latin language to be used or "Old Slavonic"? What was the role of the various social, cultural and benevolent organizations? These difficulties led to the resignation of Fr. Suster early in 1909. The church was without a pastor for a year and during that time Masses were said by priests from St. Vincent Church. Funerals, weddings and baptisms were performed at St. Vincent, and this along with the conflicts led to a decline in membership.

In Januray of 1910, Rev. Josip Kompare became the second pastor. Under his leadership, membership increased and the parish debt was eliminated by 1919. The parish buildings which consisted of the church, and the parish school next door were old and costly to maintain. The parish community began a search for a new site and in 1925 purchased the school and monastery of the Ursuline Sisters on 12, and Russell.

During this this time, Rev. Kompare became ill and died in February, 1925. During Rev. Kompare's illness, his duties were taken over by Fr. Nicholas Pasini. Following his departure, two Croatian Jesuits served the parish: Rev. I.M. Fabris and Rev. Miroslav Vanino.

In April of 1926, Archbishop Glennon turned the operation of the Croatian parish in St. Louis to the Croatian Franciscans from Chicago. The new pastor Fr. Ambrose Misetic oversaw the remodeling of the buildings for parish needs and the construction of a large, new church. The blessing of the new church took place on April 26, 1927 amid great rejoicing. During this period, John Loncaric, a noted St. Louis building contractor, led a three year campaign to pay off the new debt.

In 1928, Fr. Misetic resigned in favor of his assistant, Rev. Philip Separovic, O.F.M. Fr. Separovic served during the difficult years following the great depression. His was a constant fight to keep the parish from financial disaster. He was able to save the parish and reduce the debt.

Fr. Philip was succeeded by Fr. Ladislav Luburic, and Fr. Bono Andacic from July of 1938 to March of 1939. Upon the illness of Fr. Bono, the pastorate was assumed by his assistant Fr. Theophil Pehar. He served the parish from 1939 to March of 1947. He organized a successful campaign to liquidate the $40,000 debt, but the parish buildings suffered some deterioration. The school was temporarily closed during 1946, but was repaired and reopened in 1947.

Rev. Spiro Andrijanic, O.F.M. took over the parish on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, 1947. In the years following the Second World War, the economic conditions in this country improved, and it was now possible for Fr. Spiro and the faithful to make repairs and modernize the school, the church, the hall, the rectory, and the Sisters' home. With the addition of new water systems, central heating and a new playground, the Croatian dream of an adequate and ample parish structure was in place.

The period of 1950-67 saw general deterioration of the area surrounding the parish site. Young families relocated in new housing further south in the city, or in the newly expanding county neighborhoods. New highway construction took many homes, and many parishoners were forced to find new housing. The faithful continued to attend Mass at St. Joseph, but enrolled their children in schools near their homes.

On Sptember 7, 1954 the St. Jospeh Croatian church jubilantly celebrated its 50th anniversary. Large crowds attended the various functions. There was a parade at 10:00 a.m. followed by a Mass of Thanksgiving, offered by Archbishop Ritter and assisted by a large number of clergy. A banquet was held in the parish hall and programs were presented by the school children and the Croatian benevolent, cultural and patriotic societies.

Fr. Spiro went into a well-earned retirement in September of 1968. From that time until 1970, St. Joseph Church was served by Rev. Serafin Vistica, who led the parish in the Renewal Directives of Vatical II. In order to assure sufficient space behind the church sanctuary, he oversaw the addition of a modern sacristy.

Reverend Paul Maslach's pastorate ran from July, 1970 until Augist 1976. Fr. Paul directed the renovation of the church to conform to the new litergy and continued the spiritual and material progress of the parish. He was also active in efforts to improve social conditions in the deteriorating surrounding neighborhoods. When Fr. Paul was reassigned as pastor of the Croatian church of St. Jerome in Chicago, he was succeeded by Fr. Vitomir Naletilic.

<img src="stjoesphstl1.jpg" align="left> Fr. Vitomir gave personal attention to the care and repair of the 100 year old parish buildings with knowledge and experience he gained from serving in Rome. During the pastorate of Fr. Vitomir, the parish celebrated its Diamond Jubilee on November 4, 1979. Fr. Vitomir served the parish from August, 1976 until his death in 1979.

Rev. Vjekoslav Bambir moved from the position of assistant to pastor following Fr. Vitomir's death. During his pastorate, he was forced to close the school due to declining enrollment, the age of the school buildings, and the ever increasing costs maintenance and operation. Fr. Bambir had the more pleasant task of overseeing the construction of the new parish hall, which was formally dedicated on May 11, 1986. Fr. Bambir will always be remembered as a kind and loving shepard to the parishoners of St. Joseph. He, and his assistant Rev. Ivo Sivric, both celebrated their Golden Jubilees in the priesthood during their time together in St. Louis.

Fr. Bambir retired in 1991 and was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Abramovic, O.F.M., who is currently our pastor. Fr. Sivric continues as his assistant.

Over the decades, the parish has served various waves of Croatian immigrants and succeeding generations of American-born Croatians and their families. Both Croatian and English Masses are said, and the church still serves as the center of various cultural, benevolent, and patriotic activities. For the past three years, the Church has also served as the base for humanitarian releif efforts for Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina which were ravaged by war.

For 90 years, St. Joseph Croatian Church has been the vital anchor for all aspects of our Croatian community life. May God continue to bless our parish on this milestone anniversary and in the future. St. Joseph Parish celebrated its 90th anniversary in 1994, and is still going strong. This article was taken from the St. Joseph 90th Anniversary program book.



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