A Prayer for St. Procopius

Harry Backlund & Maggie Sivit

Father Jim knows almost 1500 names. A priest with a boyish face and a folksy way of talking, Father Jim sees this as one of the most important parts of his job. He studies them at night, staring at the pages of thumbnail photographs, alphabetized by last name. Vinko Bebek peers out of his portrait, which is next to those of María and Francisco Bocerra. On the next page Mrko and Dina Covic neighbor the Cortez family. The pages are posted next to the holy water font by the entrances of the two Pilsen churches where Father Jim works, St. Procopius and Holy Trinity Croatian.

Sitting in his office on an overcast Monday, he asks if I’ve seen the photos on the wall. “I call it facebook,” he says with a half-smile. It’s not easy, but learning names is much more than a simple mental exercise for Father Jim. “It’s hard for a priest, or for anybody I guess. 1500 people come to mass on Sunday, and there are only two priests.” He shrugs. “I found that there was a lot of people [who you could call] fulano de tal.” He repeats the phrase, “fulano de tal,” and explains its meaning: “it’s a Spanish phrase that means, like, Joe Schmoe in English. There were too many people whose faces everyone knew, but no one knew their name. I don’t want that kind of community. I want us to know each other’s name.”

Father Jim’s dream of a community of congregants who know each other’s names will probably never come to life. St. Procopius parish is comprised of a large, vibrant Mexican-American congregation, and a small but hardy minority of Croatian believers, who continue coming back to Pilsen to pray, even though they no longer live there. The posters on the wall are one of the few things that link the congregants to one another–many of them will never speak, or even run into one another on the street. The story of the two discrete communities within St. Procopius tells a lot about the changes that Pilsen has seen, and about some changes it hasn’t seen–that faith can be an enduring, even stubborn, part of life for these immigrant communities in Chicago.

Founded by Czech immigrants in 1875, St. Procopius parish, like the rest of the neighborhood, was mostly Czech until the 1960s. But as early as the 1890s, people from other Eastern European countries began streaming into Pilsen. By the turn of the century, the over 20,000 Croats living in Chicago made it the largest Croatian community in the country. Chicago’s Croatians lived in five discrete “colonies”–each with their own parish.

Holy Trinity Croatian Church was one of them. The western colony of Croats saved up funds from their meager factory wages and founded their church in 1914 on Throop Street. Today, a framed poster with photo portraits of the members of the “Hrvatski Dobri Drus ‘Hrvatski Sinovi’” (the Good Croatian Society of ‘Croatian Brothers’) from the year 1916 hangs in Holy Trinity’s basement. There are many more faces on the antique Croatian fraternity poster than there are in the chapel during a Croatian service.

With the first ripples of demographic shift in the ’60s and ’70s, new Mexican residents of Pilsen began to occupy the pews that their Slavic neighbors had abandoned as they moved to the suburbs. Today, over 80 percent of St. Procopius’s parishioners are of Mexican descent.

On February 19, I made my way to Holy Trinity Croatian for the first time. A woman played a tune on the organ, while a handful of older couples clustered together in the front and side pews. Most of the congregants were in their sixties or seventies, and there was only one child under 18 in attendance. Beneath limp American and Mexican flags, Father Galić readied the sacraments. The service–conducted entirely in Croatian–was quiet, a little boring even. Father Galić gave his sermon beside the Croatian flag, softly recounting the lesson from the Gospel of St. Matthew: although we are taught that “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is just, the truly just thing is to forgive thy aggressor and love thy neighbor. He repeated,”oko za oko, zub za zub,” (eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth), and told a couple of jokes that elicited chuckles from the otherwise silent crowd.

After the Eucharist, two Mexican congregants entered the church. Realizing that it was not yet time for their Spanish service, they quickly hurried to the front of the church, crossed themselves, and sat down to wait for the Croatian Mass to end. They sat down before a small statue of Lady Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and their vision of the Holy Mother.

More Mexican Holy Trinity members began streaming in, and, like clockwork, the Croatian congregation moved into the basement for their after-service luncheon. I followed, and with me came a longtime member of Holy Trinity’s Mexican community. He spoke little English, and though he had prayed at the church for over two decades he told me he had never been in the basement before.

Rachel Wiseman

Meanwhile, upstairs, the pews were overflowing with believers for the Spanish service and latecomers took their places by the wall and back stairwell. A band strummed on guitars and sang into microphones, their voices rising in three-part harmonies as they invoked the Holy Spirit. Mothers and fathers carried squirming baby bundles to the front altar, where the deacon blessed them and welcomed them to the congregation.

“The meaning of lower-c catholic,” Father Jim tells me at the conclusion of Holy Trinity’s Spanish mass, “is universal.” But the way that both groups understand capital-c Catholic is fundamentally connected to their particular traditions and roots.

Rachel Wiseman

Downstairs, the Croatian congregants sat around circular tables, the older men at one table, the women and younger folks at the other. As they passed out Styrofoam cups of weak coffee and sweet kolochkis (a bready pastry filled with poppy seeds), the room filled with bilingual chatter. Using the opportunity to promote other Croatian events, Marie McGuckin, the organist, passed around fliers about upcoming tamburitza concerts and kolo dances.

A few women gathered around me and invited me to sit at their table. Excited that a new young face was at their service, they peppered me with questions and started giving me pointers about ways to learn more about Croatian culture.

“You want to hear Croatian music?” one woman asked. “Listen to AM 1080 on Saturdays at 1 o’clock. They have all Croatian music and language on the radio.”

“But!” interrupted another, “turn it off at 2 o’clock–that’s when the Serbs come on.” They advised me to switch to AM 750 for more Croatian programming, and then back to AM 1080 at 3:30 for the Romani hour.

The radio routine they recommended is not unlike the movement of people in and out of St. Procopius: the Croatians come at 10:15, and when the Spanish mass begins, the Croatians move into the basement. And so it goes, every Sunday.

Rachel Wiseman

Holy Trinity Croatian hosts three masses in three languages. At 8 o’clock, either Father Jim or Friar Sean O’Sullivan conducts services in English. At 10:15, the Croatian mass is given. Three times a month, Father Joe Galic drives up from the Franciscan monastery and Croatian Franciscan Custody, located in Kenwood. Once a month, when Father Joe can’t make the trip, the St. Procopius priests lead the service in English. The Holy Trinity Croatians respond in Croatian. At noon, Father Jim and Friar Sean return to lead Mass in Spanish. According to an Archdiocese report, St. Procopius/Holy Trinity Croatian is one of only 9 other churches in Chicago serving both a European and Hispanic population.

The Croatian Mass is the smallest, with an average of 35-40 attendees every Sunday. The English 8am Mass at Holy Trinity attracts an average of 73 people, while the Mexican Mass brings in around 200 men, women, and children every week.

Most of the Croatian attendees moved out of Pilsen long ago–or, in the case of the younger generation, never even lived there. But despite its small size, the Croatian congregation at Holy Trinity remains tight-knit.

“We don’t feel like going [to pray] anywhere near our house,” says Mary Zekan, the liturgist and Eucharistic minister for the Croatian service, and one of the most energetic leaders of the community. “We don’t want to give up.”

For many, Sunday mornings are one of the few times these Croatian immigrants and children of Croatian immigrants can get together.

Many attribute the steadfastness of the congregation here to the leadership of its last full-time pastor, Father Stephen Budrovich.

Born on the Dalmatian island of Hvar, Budrovich left Croatia during World War II to enter the seminary in Italy, studied in France, then at Oxford, and eventually moved to the United States and worked at Holy Trinity. “He was a magnet,” recalls Victoria Cruz, the liturgist of Holy Trinity’s English mass. “There was something about his personality that just drew people to him…The tables would fill up [after services] and he would go around talking to everybody. His personality was so buoyant.”

Father Budrovich served Holy Trinity for 28 years, until September 25, 1994 when he went into surgery at Mercy Hospital. He died of complications from the surgery two days later.

Father Budrovich’s death was devastating for his parishioners, and Holy Trinity never replaced him. The church was orphaned without its spiritual leader, and the Archdiocese stepped in to prevent Holy Trinity from closing, paying for the upkeep of the building. Control of the church changed hands several times before the Jesuit leadership at St. Procopius down the street took over.

The St. Procopius priests have not managed to achieve the same closeness with the Croatian community, whose loyalty to their late priest’s memory is unshakeable. It’s a testament to his strength as a leader that his flock has stayed together even in his absence. At the back of the chapel two portraits hang: one of Pope John Paul II, the other, Father Budrovich. But in the end, with or without their pastor, it’s their ties to a common tradition that bind.

Integration of the two churches has proven difficult. Even within Holy Trinity, attendees of the English, Spanish, and Croatian services rarely interact with one another. Back in his office, Father Jim, sitting next to a coffee table covered with a blue sarape, says matter-of-factly, “I think it’s about as unified as it’s going to be.”

“The Croatian community–it’s like they’re in their own little world there. There are a few occasions where we’ve had trilingual, tricultural masses and celebrations. It’s really nice, but–try as you may–it’s really hard to pull off. There’s not really the dedication that pulls us together [in our own churches].” He fidgets and shifts weight in his chair. “They say in the United States, the most segregated hour of the week is 10am Sunday morning. That’s when we segregate–the black churches and the Hispanic churches and the Croatian churches. People just like to celebrate in their own cultural mileu.” Father Jim pauses for a moment, and then continues, “there’s only so much you can do to break out of that.”

2 comments for “A Prayer for St. Procopius

  1. Deborah
    April 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Very nice piece–a great Chicago story. I’ve attended the Croation festival that honors Our Lady of Bistirica, including a procession in the street.
    I’m writing history that involves these parishes in the 1950s and 1960s. dkanter@albion.edu

  2. Chicago
    May 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I think it’s wonderful to celebrate mass in your own language. But at the same time I also think its wonderful for two communities to get together. I see the same separation at the Sacred Heart Church in South Chicago.

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