The Blessed Anton Martin Slomšek Slovenian Catholic Mission together with the Slovenian Cultural Center is placed in the most recent times of the history of Slovenians in Chicago and vicinity. This era is marked with life energies of postwar immigrants, both political and economic. The leaders of this era express a firm determination to include all fellow countrymen in their endeavors, as gradually this number is decreasing. Both, the religious and the cultural centers are guests of the Slovenian Franciscan Fathers in Lemont, who as hosts open a new chapter in their more than eighty years of service to the Slovenians in America. The Fathers are members of the Foundation of the Holy Cross, which is a dependency of the Province of the Holy Cross in Slovenia.
SLOVENIANS IN THE USA
In the latter decades of the 19th century and until 1914, thousands of Slovenians emigrated to the United States. They settled wherever they could find work, especially in the mines, factories, steel mills and forests. The American census of 1910 lists 183,431 inhabitants who named Slovenian as their mother tongue (Matjaz Klemencic, Slovenija and Slovenes of Cleveland, Ohio – Novo Mesto, Dolenjska Publishers, 1995). A recent wave of immigrants arrived after World War II, first as political refuges and later as economic emigrants. Their arrival revived some of the Slovenian centers, especially in Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Milwaukee.
At the end of the 1970's immigration of Slovenians practically ended. Among the many Slovenian priests who came to America the most famous is Friderik Baraga, now a candidate for beatification, who was a missionary to the Indians and later the first bishop of Marquette, Michigan. He arrived in the U. S. in December 1830 and stayed until his death in 1868. He is buried in the cathedral church in Marquette. Others followed his example and came to work as missionaries, first among the Indians and then with Catholic immigrants of various nationalities, including the Slovenians. In the Archdiocese of Chicago the following Slovenian parishes were established: St. Joseph, Joliet, 1891; St. Stephen, Chicago, 1898; Mother of God, Waukegan, 1903; St. George, South Chicago, 1903.
The Slovenian Franciscans came upon the scene as an organized group with the arrival of Father Casimir Zakrajsek to New York 1906. In January, 1919, at the invitation of Cardinal Mundelein, they accepted St. Stephen parish.
During the week after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec 8) in 1923, the Franciscan Fathers of The Holy Cross Commissariat bought a farm named Oakdale from Mrs. Barnes for $225 an acre. The farm lay east of the village of Lemont. She herself and her children remained living in the farmhouse as renters until the following April.
The Commissariat of the Holy Cross, whose members were Croatian, Slovak and Slovenian Fathers and Brothers, was founded in 1912 by Fr. Casmir Zakrajšek as an American part of the Province of the Holy Cross in Slovenia. He was named the superior, the Commissary Provincial. In 1923 Father Casmir was pastor of St. Stephen's in Chicago, and the Commissary Provincial was Fr. Hugo Bren. These two men, with lay helpers, had been scouting for some time for a location for a projected seminary and monastery. They found Oakdale, and were pleased by the location.
In April, after Mrs. Barnes and her children moved out. Bro. Stephen Mihelič came to live in the farmhouse. Soon Fr. Blanko Kavčič joined him. They made some repairs around the place, including the making and placing of a temporary altar in one of the rooms, thus establishing a temporary chapel. Fr. Hugo Bren moved to the farm on May 24, 1924; till then he had been living in St. Stephen's rectory. (May 24 is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, in Slovenian: Marija Pomagaj)
Plans were made for a contractor to build a wooden church or chapel, with adjoining wooden buildings as living and working quarters. On Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1924, Msgr. Bobal, a Czech priest of the Chicago Archdiocese, blessed the cornerstone. A large number of Slovenian and Slovak people from Chicago and Joliet were present, as were people and officials from the village of Lemont. Two of the Lemont Catholic pastors of St. Patrick's and St. Cyril & Methodius also spoke at the ceremonies. The eight student Franciscans of the Commissariat, who were studying theology at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, N.Y were also present, since Fr. Hugo wanted the people to see the future priests of the Commissariat.
Both Fr. Casmir and Fr. Hugo had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so it was not surprising that plans were made to rename Oakdale as St. Mary's Hill in English, Ameriške Brezje in Slovenian. During the course of the years, Hill was dropped from the name and the place remains as St. Mary's. The Slovenians still call it Ameriške Brezje.
WOODEN CHURCH AND MONASTERY
The Franciscan community was growing. Some priests and lay brothers were transferred from parishes were they were serving, the eight students arrived as permanent residents, and lay candidates also came. Under the leadership of Fr. John and Fr. Hugo, this group of men helped to finish the work of furnishing and preparing the premises, after the contractor's men had erected the wooden church and adjoining buildings. On May 24, 1925 the painting of Marija Pomagaj was installed in the new church, on a side altar to the left of the main altar, as one stood facing the altar from the body of the church.
George Cardinal Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, was scheduled to come for the Solemn Blessing of the (temporary) church and monastery. Since he was detained, he delegated Rt. Rev. Msgr Rempe from Chicago to bless the buildings and celebrate the Solemn High Mass. As previously at the cornerstone blessing, a large crowd attended, Slovenians and Slovaks and other ethnics, as well as clergy, officials and people from the village of Lemont. This took place on June 14, 1925.
An English program and ad booklet was published for the occasion. Among other facts, mention was made that the Franciscan Fathers and Brothers of the Commissariat were serving in eleven parishes on the East Coast and in Chicago (four in the latter). The Fathers had preached about 500 parish missions to date, Fr. Casimir alone had given 238 Slovak and Slovenian Missions. The following September 8, classes officially began at St. Mary's Seminary in Lemont.
To further serve and unite the Slovenians scattered throughout the country, Fr. Casimir established the religious publication Ave Maria. It has been in continuous existence since its establishment in 1909.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE SLOVENIAN CATHOLIC MISSION
The idea of establishing a religious and cultural center in Lemont predates the actual founding by many years. For some decades Americans of European origin and descent had been moving from the city to the more spacious suburbs. Industry and mercantile outlets followed them. The Slovenians are included in this wave of moving, first settling in the suburbs and then planning and talking about a Slovenian center in Lemont. These plans came to a head over 20 years ago, with the building of the Cultural Center and the establishment of a Slovenian Catholic Mission. The Archdiocese of Chicago at the request of the Slovenian Franciscans established the Slovenian Catholic Mission in Lemont. Father Christian Gostecnik led the efforts by his explanations and written reasoning submitted to the Archdiocesan authorities, showing the need for a Slovenian Mission in the southwestern part of the archdiocese.
He emphasized the projected building of the Slovenian Cultural Center in Lemont, which would unite Slovenians and be an aid to the Slovenian Franciscans in their apostolic work, and underscored the meaning of the Lemont shrine in the hearts of the Slovenians.
After a yearlong discussion with various archdiocesan entities, especially the parishes in Lemont, on September 12, 1994 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin issued a decree establishing the Slovenian Catholic Mission. An agreement was signed by the Cardinal and Rev. Blase Chemazar, superior of the Franciscans, setting up the terms of the care of the mission. The decree and agreement became effective on Oct. 1, 1994. Father Vendelin Spendov, guardian (local superior) in Lemont, was named the first chaplain and director of the Slovenian Catholic Mission. Since the Mission has all the privileges and duties of a parish, baptisms and marriages could now take place at St. Mary's.
Kelly Victoria, daughter of Natasha (nee Velkavrh) and Mark Buh, was the first child baptized here. Father Christian did the honors on May 7, 1995. The first wedding took place on April 29, 1995 when Jeffrey Szarek and Paula Rous exchanged their vows with Father Blasé as the Officiant.
During the early years of the Cultural Center and the Catholic Mission, leaders from both organizations worked to firm up support from the greater Slovenian community as members and financial contributors. The Ave Maria (Jan. 1995, p.2) refers to them as “the twins”. The Cultural Center has had its own page in the publication from December 1994. Father David Srumpf submitted articles detailing and explaining the working relationships between the two entities. Even before he officially became the pastor (or director) Father David organized the new parish and prepared for the solemn proclamation of the Slovenian Catholic Mission.
In the column regularly written by Fr. Vendelin Spendov for the Ave Maria, in May 1995 he described the official proclamation. “On Sunday, March 12, 1995, at 3:00pm, a solemn Mass was celebrated with Father Stane Zore, provincial vicar, as the main celebrant. Concelebrants were Fathers Blase Chemazar, Miha Volk, Athanasius Lovrencic, Christian Gostecnik, David Srumpf and David Stalzer. John Vidmar was the Deacon. Lectors were Bernarda Simrayh and Tony Tkalec. Choirs from Lemont, Joliet and Chicago gathered to sing with Father Vendelin Spendov as the director and Helen Rozman-Williams as organist. About 200 countrymen attended the Mass which officially proclaimed the Slovenian Catholic Mission.
After Mass, Martin Hozjan, president of the board of the Slovenian Cultural Center, presented a cross which would hang in the new building. Father Stane blessed the cross and led a procession to the center singing Hladnik’s Marija Skoz’ Zivljenje. A meeting of about 250 people followed led by Father David. This was effectively the first general meeting of the Mission. Father David became the official pastor of the Mission on April 1, 1995, leaving his former assignment as associate at St. Joseph, Joliet