Sharing Space in an Adopted Home

Emigrants from the troubled Balkans work together in Chicago

text by Matthew Matuszak
photographs by Hryhoriy Prystay

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Though their homelands have been synonymous in the 20th century with ethnic strife, Orthodox and Catholic emigrants from the Balkans have been living in harmony in Chicago for over 100 years.

The violence and tension of an area often called Europe’s tinderbox have occasionally surfaced between these immigrant communities, but relations, in general, have been amicable in Chicago. In fact, part of the strength of the communities has been interaction with other ethnic groups – something many of them would never have had in their native land.

The Croats lay claim to the earliest presence in Chicago. Missionary Father Josip Kundek arrived in the area in the late 1830’s. “At that time it was a wild and trackless land with only a small settlement around Fort Dearborn,” says Father Ljubo Krasic, O.F.M., director of Chicago’s Croatian Ethnic Institute. After the city was formally established, more of Father Kundek’s countrymen came in a great wave in the 1880’s.

The steel mills and slaughterhouses of the city’s South Side provided work for many unskilled laborers – Croats and others. Five Croatian parishes – four Latin and one Byzantine Catholic – were established there in the early 1900’s.

St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church was founded in the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood in 1912. The next year the parishioners began what is still their trademark: a major celebration for the feast of the Assumption, Velika Gospa in Croatian. The whole neighborhood – Croats, Italians and others – participate in the ceremonies every year: an elaborate procession with the image of Our Lady of Sinj, a festive Mass and a big block party the rest of the day.

Croatian immigration was eventually restricted by President Warren G. Harding’s Quota Act of 1921, “but by then the community was already growing due to Croats born in America,” says Father Krasic.

As the steel mills and slaughterhouses closed in the middle of the century, many Croats started moving to different parts of the city and into the suburbs.

Some 20,000 Croats came to greater Chicago from 1945 to 1990. Many of these new immigrants, unlike their predecessors, had university degrees or some higher education. Since 1990, there have been few Croatian newcomers to Chicago. Recent U.S. immigration policy has sought to settle them in areas without Croats.

Three of the five parishes formed in the 1900’s still have an active Croatian presence, and the Dominican Fathers opened a new mission parish on the North Side. All but the mission parish have liturgies in English as well as Croatian. In an example of intercultural cooperation, diocesan priest Father Esequiel Sanchez has learned enough Croatian to say Sunday Mass at Holy Trinity Church, founded by Croatians but now in a diverse neighborhood.

The number of Croats in Chicago is a controversial question, as is the number of other Balkan groups. Father Krasic’s institute estimated in a 1996 study that 130,000 Croats lived in the city proper, with 190,000 in the metro area. The 2000 U.S. Census, however, counted just 7,819.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Orthodox Church Emigration Balkans