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Svjetlana Bojic, another teacher at St. Sava’s school, shares a similar enthusiasm about the program. Since 1992, the 37-year-old woman has been living in Hanover, where she teaches mathematics and sports at a public school. But on Saturdays, Ms. Bojic teaches a different subject — the Serbian language. In class, her students practice writing Cyrillic and develop their oral communication skills.

Every year, St. Sava’s students participate in a competition with students from other Serbian Orthodox churches all over Germany. The competition’s various contests test the students’ knowledge about their faith and its traditions and history.

Parents appreciate the competition and volunteer to help out at the events.

“This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” exclaims an enthusiastic mother. “Here I can once again, together with my son, learn about the foundations of our religion.”

But the woman’s 8-year-old son finds himself surrounded by mostly girl students. Gender imbalance favoring girls is a constant challenge at St. Sava’s, particularly in the higher grade levels. “The boys just prefer playing soccer,” explains Ms. Bojic.

For 35 years, St. Sava’s parish had made its home in a renovated chapel in downtown Hanover. Then in 1991, the parish moved to its current, larger facility in Mengendamm, on property it shares with a Greek Orthodox congregation.

The Serbian community raised the funds to build the new church and community center. Volunteers helped with the construction, and many of the materials were donated. Now and then, members of the larger community even pitched in.

“A Croatian building contractor learned about the project from his colleague,” Father Pejic says.

“He donated the plaster on the first floor and even paid his employees to do the plastering.”

Similarly, a Bosnian-owned joinery produced the interior woodwork, which it sold to the parish at almost cost.

But the project’s crowning masterpieces are indisputably the Serbo-Byzantine murals that cover every inch of the church’s interior. Originally, the plans only called for iconographers to decorate the sanctuary. But thanks to private donations, the parish community employed and accommodated the iconographers for two and a half years, during which time they painted the entire interior.

As the Divine Liturgy winds down, parishioners make their way to the adjoining community center where they sit together for coffee and cake. Today, someone recently passed an exam and to celebrate, parishioners are also passing around rakia — a traditional fruit brandy.

Some parishioners find the congregation’s sense of community to be as important as the liturgical service. For many, especially the elderly, the parish community helps keep fresh the memories of the lives they once had in their native country and of the close friends and relatives they left behind.

“By building this community center here, people have tried to create a piece of home abroad for themselves,” Father Pejic says. “And I believe that it has worked.”

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Based in Hamburg, writer Joachim Dethlefs contributes to a number of German publications. Photographer Andy Spyra, also from Hamburg, recently received a grant from Getty for a project in Kashmir, India.



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Tags: Immigration Germany Assimilation Yugoslavia Orthodox Church of Serbia