The commemoration of the 150th year of the birth of Nikola Tesla prompted me to record this narrative. The pith of my narrative is to be found in the fantastic memory of a Croatian-born Franciscan, Fra Ljubo Čuvalo, with whom I had the pleasure of close association for many years. Fra Ljubo served the Croatian Diaspora in various positions throughout his life in America. One of his missions was as pastor of the Croatian Catholic Church of SS. Cyril and Methodius in New York City. This is germane to my narrative. (More on this later.)
I first encountered Fra Ljubo in 1949 while working for the Croatian Franciscans in Chicago. Even though I was a layman, I took the afternoon meal with the Friars. At that time, Fra Ljubo was re-assigned and given the post as pastor of the Croatian Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in South Chicago. As was custom, he would come to the monastery of his confreres on the average of once a week for lunch and fraternal socialization. He first encountered me on just such a visit to Drexel (the friar’s headquarters and monastery was commonly known by its street location, namely, Drexel Boulevard). We were gathered around the table, said grace, and proceeded to engage in conversation and jest. Fra Ljubo addressed me by asking who I was. I responded by saying: I’m Duško Čondić.” To my surprise, Fra Ljubo proceeded to ask had we ever lived at 36th and Wentworth on the second floor. I acknowledged that we did. He then proceeded to ask if there were eight or nine of us. Again, in wonderment, I acknowledged that there were eight of us—five brothers and three sisters. He then proceeded to ask if my father had died on the 8th of December 1935. By then, I could no longer hold back my utter amazement. I said to him: “I know that we never met prior to today. How is it possible for you to know all these facts about my family—and with such accuracy?” He proceeded to tell me that when he first arrived in Chicago he stopped to visit his superior, Fra Blaž Jerković, who also served as pastor of my home parish, St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church. Fra Blaž told him that a young man had died and left a widow and eight small children behind. He asked Fra Ljubo to accompany him to pray the rosary that night as was customary.
One might ask why am I relating all these details about Fra Ljubo since the point of my narrative is Nikola Tesla. The answer is simple: to establish the fact that Fra Ljubo was blessed with a more than fantastic memory—the appellation “photographic memory” would not be an exaggeration considering that almost fifteen years had elapsed from his first encounter with my family.
By nature, Fra Ljubo was extremely social and gregarious. At least three or four times a week, he would invite me to join him in his “kavana”— that is, coffee house. His “coffee house” was situated in a splendid library room paneled in blond mahogany. The shelves were filled to capacity—easily 1,500 volumes—all of which belonged to Fra Ljubo, and none of which were meant to be simply decorative inasmuch as all of them were read by him. Fra Ljubo would proceed to grind the coffee beans, prepare the water in the appropriate sized “djezva,” that is, Turkish coffee pot. When the coffee was brewed, he would present me with a “fildjan” brimming with steaming-hot coffee topped with a layer of golden foam—proof that the coffee was fresh and well made. The entire time, Fra Ljubo would proceed to regale me with stories of various luminaries that he had met, or places that he had visited, or conversations he had through the years with leading Croatian and non-Croatian intellectuals and statesmen primarily having to do with Croatia and her future. It would not be an overstatement to say that Fra Ljubo was a raconteur par excellence. His range of subject matter was incredibly vast. It was just such an occasion that led to his telling of his numerous encounters with the genius Nikola Tesla.
One day, as we sipped our Turkish coffee, (“meračiti” is the Turkish term for enjoying one’s coffee in a leisurely, care-free manner.) I referred to the genius of Nikola Tesla. Fra Ljubo—no longer to my amazement—proceeded to tell me of his countless encounters with Tesla in New York City. As I stated above, Fra Ljubo served as pastor to our Croatian community in Manhattan. As he was wont to do, Fra Ljubo would go for a stroll almost daily in Central Park. He would encounter Tesla feeding the pigeons. In great detail, he painted a picture of his encounters with Tesla such that I, too, felt I was present. He told me that Tesla was almost reduced to destitute poverty and lived a solitary life in a hotel room until he died. Anyone who knew Fra Ljubo knows that it was impossible not to be engaged by him in conversation. He had an easy manner that simply invited you to converse with him even if you were averse to social conversation. Fra Ljubo told me that on more than one occasion, Nikola Tesla stressed that he considered himself to be a Croatian and that Croatia was his homeland. I questioned Fra Ljubo as to whether that was the manner in which Tesla expressed himself. He proceeded to say that Tesla explained that he was Orthodox by religion—in fact, the son of an Orthodox priest—but that he was born in Croatia, therefore he was a Croatian, and that Croatia was his homeland. On at least three or four other occasions, when the subject of our “coffee-house” conversations would turn to science, Tesla’s name would re-emerge. Fra Ljubo would re-tell his Central Park encounters with Tesla and would re-affirm Tesla’s statement that he was Croatian and that Croatia was his homeland. (It is important that I stress that each of those accounts was always consistent.) Because Fra Ljubo was blessed with a high literary talent, he was able to narrate a story with beautiful detail; however, he was not one to embellish his narrations with non-factual details. Because Fra Ljubo never chose to keep a journal, historical and cultural facts about Croatia—especially those after World War II—a treasure trove of information will have been denied to researchers.
Someone reading this narration might complain that I spoke at great length of Fra Ljubo and really had but one thing to say about Nikola Tesla. They might add that the point of my narration was supposed to be about Tesla and not about Fra Ljubo. That is precisely my point: I did not intend to give a biographical sketch of Tesla since I am not qualified to do so. Rather, I wished to make but a single point: Nikola Tesla saw himself as a Croatian and Croatia as his homeland. (If there is any doubt on this matter, one can see a large bronze plaque attached to the outer wall of the Greek-Catholic Seminary in Zagreb’s upper town wherein he is cited for his gift to his homeland.) In order to make that point, I had to first establish the credibility and veracity of the man who related that fact to me, namely Fra Ljubo Čuvalo. He heard it first hand from Nikola Tesla, and I heard it more than once from Fra Ljubo. Both are now dead. I suppose those who would steal Tesla’s national identity as their own will question my narrative. We all may have to enter Eternity to determine who is right.