The Croatian Franciscan Commissariat of the Holy Family (1926-1969)

Even though a sizable number of Croatian priests worked in America in the first decades, an organized community of priests did not exist. In the first decades of the twentieth century, a large number of Franciscans from Croatia, as well as Franciscans from Slovenia and Slovakia, decided to establish a community which would have its headquarters in America and in that way make their work more organized and fruitful. The Croatian, Slovenian and Slovak Franciscan community was established in 1912 and named Holy Cross Commissariat with headquarters in Lemont, Illinois. The Slovenian Franciscans had the lead role in the Commissariat which also was dependent upon the Slovenian Franciscan province. However, this joint community of Slovenians, Croatians, and Slovak had a short life span. In time, the Croatian Franciscans crystallized their own identity, and a separate Croatian Franciscan community was formed. The remnants of the beginnings with the Slovenian and Slovak Franciscans in part remain in some parishes today. For instance, Croatian Franciscans are still in a parish in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where there is an almost 100% Slovenian ancestry. 

The Croatian Franciscans became independent in 1926. Their community was canonically confirmed on February 9, 1926 and was named the Commissariat of the Holy Family. The Vatican Congregation for religious made this decision. The Croatian Commissariat was separated from the Slovenian one and was placed under the minister general of the Franciscan Order which is why it was called "general". The General of the Order, Fr. Bernardin Klumper, implemented this decision of the Congregation and issued a decree on February 18, 1927. The Croatian Franciscans who worked to establish this Commissariat were: Fr. Bono Andačić, Fr. Vjenceslav Vukonić and Fr. Irenej Petričak. They pleaded with the Croatian provincials to support them in this decision. Fr. Francis Hase, who was the general visitor of the Slovenian-Croatian-Slovak Commissariat, also deserves credit for establishing the Croatian Commissariat. All the Croatian Franciscan provinces in the homeland were responsible for the care of the Commissariat. 

The establishment of the Croatian Commissariat was an important step in the history of Croatian Catholics in America. The survival of any one parish no longer was contingent upon one priest's leaving or death; there was no longer an uncertainty if anyone was available to take his place. This new Franciscan community would in years to come help out other non-Franciscan parishes where no Croatian priests were available. The first members of the Commissariat were: Fr. Clement Veren (first Commissary), Fr. Bono Andačić, Fr. Vjenceslav Vukonić, Fr. Irenej Petričak, Fr. Ambroz Širca, Fr. Leon Medić, Fr. Ambro Mišetić, and Fr. Franjo Čuturić. They worked in five Croatian parishes: two in Chicago, one in New York, Steelton and St. Louis. The sixth parish was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania even though the majority of parishioners were Windish Slovenians. During that time Fr. Clement Veren was their pastor, and he spoke their Slovenian dialect. Even today the parish remains under the administration of the Croatian Franciscans. 

In the beginning, the Croatian Commissariat did not have permanent headquarters. The headquarters were located wherever the commissary happened to be, and in the first years of the Commissariat he was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1929 Father Blaž Jerković was chosen as commissary and the headquarters moved to Chicago because he was also the pastor of St. Jerome's. After the purchase of the friary in Chicago in 1943, the Commissariat finally had a permanent residence as is still the case day. The Commissariat was directly subject to the Franciscan General Minister in Rome. Franciscans from many Croatian Franciscan provinces worked in it. 

The Franciscan Provincials from the then Yugoslavia met in 1930 in Karlovac, and it was decided at that meeting to entrust the Commissariat to the Herzegovinian province. So in 1931 the Commissariat fell under the jurisdiction of that province. Up to that point there were already numerous Hercegovinian Franciscans working in America. After 1931, the number of Herzegovinian Franciscans increased in the next several decades. The decision to entrust the Commissariat to the Hercegovinian Franciscan province, was officially made by the Minister General, Fr. Bonaventure Marrani on November 30, 1931. That is how the Commissariat ceased to be known as "general" and became known as "provincial", which means under the administration of one Franciscan Province. In the meantime, during World War II (1939-1945), it was impossible to have communication between the Province and the Commissariat, so it once again became known as "general", under the administration of the Minister General. It remained in that state until 1969, when a decision came from the General Council on September 23, 1969 and the Commissariat was once again entrusted to the Hercegovinian province. At the same time, it was renamed to "custody", since it became a provincial commissariat, and the provincial commissariats in America were renamed "custodies" already in 1950 through the General Constitutions of the Franciscan Order. 

The Custody, in the meantime, was "provincial" for only a short time. Because of well-known occurrences in which the Hercegovinian province found herself for the last several decades (the so-called "Hercegovinian Question"), the Custody in agreement with the Province in 1976/1977 ceased to be legally dependent on the Province and again became dependent on the Minister General. This is the situation today. However, the Croatian Franciscans who work in the Custody remained linked with numerous and unbroken ties with the Province, because in most cases, their roots originated from that Province. 

The aforementioned Fr. Gaudencije Gorše was in America for only two years,1900 - 1902. After him followed others. Some Franciscans came to America before the First World War. They were: Fr. Ambrozije Širca, Fr. Luka Terzić, Fr. Leon Medić, Fr. Placid Belavić, and Fr. Irenej Petričak. Upon their arrival, they immediately began identifying as many Croatians as possible and started to establish parishes. The first Herzegovinian Franciscans came to America after World War I. They were: Fr. Bono Andačić, Fr. Ambro Mišetić, and Fr. Franjo Čuturić. All of them, no matter what Franciscan province they came from, ended up being full fledged members of the Croatian Franciscan Commissariat. Many of them were there until ripe old ages and were able to tell the younger priests about their beginnings and all the work involved with the American Croatians. 

Fr. Clement Veren was the first commissary of the Croatian Commissariat from 1926 to 1929. A member of the Zagreb Franciscan province of SS. Cyril and Methodius, his ancestry was Windish Slovenian. He came to America in 1923 and worked in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania among the Windish people, who came from Prekomurje, Slovenia. After he was chosen as the commissary in 1926, he also continued with his parish duties in Bethlehem. His successor was Fr. Blaž Jerković (1929 - 1935), a Hercegovinian Franciscan, who at the same time was pastor at St. Jerome's in Chicago. Fr. David Zrno had the role of commissary for the longest period of time, 15 years (1935 - 1949). During his administration the first friary was purchased, St. Anthony's in Chicago in 1943. It became the formal headquarters of this community up to the present day. Fr. Vendelin Vasilj, Fr. David's successor, led the Commissariat for nine years; first from 1949 - 1952, then from 1961 - 1967. The administration of the Commissariat was assumed by the well-known Hercegovinian Franciscan and renowned Croatian Historian, Fr. Dominic Mandić (1952 - 1955). After him Fr. Ferdinand Skoko was chosen as Commissary (1955 - 1961), then Fr. Vendelin Vasilj, and following him came Fr. Vjekoslav Bambir (1967 - 1973). During his administration the Commissariat was renamed "Custody" and the Commissary, Custos.



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