Croatian Priests in America

Stories of early Catholic priests and missionaries in America often appear like real fairy tales. They went forth, especially along the western coast, discovering new regions and new native tribes. They tried to convert them to the teachings of Jesus Christ and in that way build new missions. Among those first Catholic priests there were Croatians as well. In the sixteenth century there was a Dominican priest named Vicko Paletin, born on the island of Kor…ula, who worked as a missionary in Mexico. He advocated a humane way to christianize the natives and he also wrote several interesting dissertations about the new continent in Latin. In 1570, after many years of work among the natives, he returned back to his native Kor…ula and built a large Dominican friary where he lived and later passed away. The second missionary was a Jesuit named Ivan Ratkay. He was born in 1647 in Croatia’s Zagorje region to a very noble family. He arrived in Mexico in 1680 where he functioned among the native tribes converting them to Christianity. He had high hopes of going up north to California, but an early death prevented his dream from coming to fruition. He died in December 1683, at the age of 36, most probably poisoned by the indigenous people. Many hold him to be a martyr and a saint.

Although Father Ratkay did not realize his dream of making it up north, another Croatian priest, Fr. Ferdinand Konšćak (Konsag) did. Father Konšćak was undoubtedly the most recognized Croatian missionary among the natives. He was born in 1703 in Varañdin. In 1730 he sailed to Mexico.

He was the first to prove that California was not an island. They used his map of California up until the middle of the nineteenth century. He traveled hundreds of miles on horseback through unknown lands converting the Indians and setting up new missions along the way. His starting point was the Jesuit mission in San Ignacio, then the most northern of the fifteen or so Jesuit missions. From there he founded the Santa Gertrudis Mission in 1751, and soon after that he planned a mission in San Francisco de Borja, the place which he discovered in 1758. He never realized this project as death claimed him in 1759 at the age of 56. His friend, Father Retz, realized his dream in the year 1762. Father Konšćak also founded a mining community called San Antonio Reala. He built mines, roads, and floodgates which were quite simple to him as he was a renowned mathematician and engineer. In California’s bay there lies a small island called Consag Rocks which was named after him. Many historians praised him by extolling his diligence, sacrifice and especially his commendable approach toward the natives who converted after hearing his words. Once the natives heard of his death, many of them came as far as San Ignacio wailing and openly crying because he was a dear spiritual father to them.

The most famous Croatian missionary of the nineteenth century, was Rev. Joseph Kundek (1809 – 1857), a diocesan priest, born in Ivanić near Zagreb. He came to America through Leopoldinen Stiftung in 1838. It took him forty-three days to travel from Europe to New York. He worked with German immigrants in Jasper, Indiana and he founded three new cities: Ferdinand, Celestine and Fulda. He also established a new German parish in New Orleans. He traveled back to Europe to outline the need for more priests to work with the German immigrants. He was able to bring back with him sixteen diocesan priests and two Benedictines. He was the main organizer and helper of the Benedictines in the establishment of the St. Meinrad Abbey. One of the priests that came back with Rev. Kundek was Rev. Eduard Martinović, a Croat, who also worked among the Germans. Few priests contributed to the spread of Catholicism in America’s Midwest as did Rev. Kundek. German settlers spoke of him and carried his memory for a long time to come. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his death, a statue was erected honoring him and a street was renamed after him. The Benedictine Dunstan McAndrews wrote his doctorate dissertation on Rev. Kundek.

However, at the end of the nineteenth century, Bishop Strossmayer sent a priest to America who worked among the Croatians. Rev. Dobroslav Božić (1861 – 1900) came to Allegheny, Pa (now Pittsburgh) in 1894, and the first Croatian church was established in the same city. The local bishop, many guests and thousands of hardworking Croatians were gathered for this big celebration. Because of the growing number of Croatians in and around Pittsburgh, the successor of Božić, Rev. Franjo Glojnarić, decided to build a larger and more beautiful church. It was built on a hill called Bennett (now Millvale) near Pittsburgh and it was consecrated in 1900. The next year the members of the original Allegheny parish, with Fr. Bosiljko Bekovac as pastor, also constructed a larger and very beautiful church. Both churches were named St. Nicholas. Later both parishes established parish schools. Rev. Božić then went to Steelton, Pa. where he established another Croatian parish. He died at the early age of 40. However, throughout that whole time, there were not many Croatian priests available, nor are there even today. Frequently arguments arose between priests and some members of the congregation because of political views, envy, illiteracy, or because the individuals had a hard time adjusting to the new environment. However, and in spite of all these problems, we have to give credit to all of these priests who were pioneers of the religious work among Croatian immigrants in America. They were not only religious and spiritual leaders who built churches and church facilities, but they also built schools and meeting halls where Croatians could socialize. They had to act as social workers, console the grief stricken, as well as publish many Croatian newspapers and bulletins in America.

The first Croatian Franciscan in America was Fr. Gaudencije Gorše, who became pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Steelton after the death of Rev. Božić in 1900. Strangely, in these early years, Croatian parishes were not established in states where the richest Croatian immigrants lived.

For example, in California there existed only one Croatian parish for many years and the founder of this Croatian parish was Rev. Anton Žuvić in Los Angeles in 1909. The church was completed by 1910. Prior to Rev. Žuvić another priest named Rev. Anton Glumac was there for a short time among the Croatians but he did not have a chance to establish a parish. A Slovenian-Croatian parish was established in San Francisco by a Slovenian priest named Franjo Turk, but most Croatians were not satisfied with that combination.

Many Croatian parishes were being established at that time in the eastern states, especially in Pennsylvania. Rev. Bosiljko Bekavac worked with the Croatian people in Sharon, but was not able to build a church because of arguments that arose between the parishioners. In 1902 Rev. Mate Matina established a parish in Rankin, while in 1901 Rev. M. Kajić established a parish in Johnstown called St. Rok and had a church built in 1905. In Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. Milan Sutlić established a parish and had a church built in 1904. Rev. I. Dolinac in 1904 tried to establish a parish in New York without success, but Fr. Irenej Petričak was successful in 1913. A Croatian Eastern Rite Catholic parish was established in Cleveland in 1901. Eastern Rite Catholics, whose ancestors were from ðumberak, attended this parish, and the first pastors were Rev. Hranilović and Rev. Severović. In 1903, the first Slovenian-Croatian parish was established in Chicago. The first priest was a Slovene named Rev. Janez Kranjec. In 1912, a separate Croatian parish, Sacred Heart, was established and Rev. Ivan Stipanović came in 1913. A Croatian Eastern Rite Catholic parish was established in Chicago in 1905. Fr. Leon Mediƒ established St. Jerome’s parish in Chicago in 1912. Also in Illinois there is a Croatian parish in Joliet, which was established by Rev. George Violić, in 1906. Msgr. Martin D. Krmpotić in 1902 established a Croatian parish in Kansas City, Kansas, and he was pastor there up until his death in 1931. He is credited for bringing over Croatian and Slovenian sisters who basically ran the Croatian parish schools. The first sisters, Adorers of the Blood of Christ, came from Banja Luka in 1906 to Kansas City. Franciscan sisters from Maribor came to Kansas City in 1909. Later in 1926 the Daughters of Divine Charity came to Rankin due to an invitation from Rev. B. Bekavac.

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