The Croatian Catholic Union, 1921-2001

A Catholic lay person is not a dead stone of which the living Catholic Church is being built. He is not, nor must he be, a stone that is supposed neither to think nor act. A Catholic man and a Catholic woman has an honorable duty to collaborate in a sacred calling to spread and strengthen the Kingdom of God on earth.1
History is not written for the sake of those who were once its active constituents and are already gone (and/or perhaps forgotten), but because of those who are partaking in history today and shaping the future of the generations to come. Thus, this short survey of the history of the Croatian Catholic Union (CCU) of the United States and Canada is written not to commemorate the past by simply enumerating the most important names and dates in the life of the organization, but primarily to elicit and recapture the times and sense of mission that was present among the founders of the CCU. Furthermore, the results of CCU’s eighty-year history are known and today’s members are living witnesses to its praiseworthy accomplishments. Nonetheless it is the roots, the beginnings and underlying purpose that are too often forgotten. This anniversary celebration is, therefore, a fitting occasion to go back to the founders and see why the Croatian Catholic Union was established and how the present life and work of CCU’s leadership and its members reflect the vision of those who turned their Croatian and Catholic ideals into the reality that we celebrate today.
The Croatian Catholic Union was not founded by a quirk of history or by the whims of a few self-promoting individuals. Its creation resulted from a confluence of social, economic, political, ideological, and other factors on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, the United States and Croatia, that surfaced by the end of the first World War. CCU was born as a response to those factors and out of religious and national needs deeply felt by the Croatian immigrants in America at the time.
The “Steel City”
CCU’s beginnings are closely connected to the history of the newly founded city on the southern shores of Lake Michigan that was named after the Chairman of the Board of the United States Steel Corporation, Judge Elbert Gary. The man and “his city” became symbols of American industrialization, progress, and economic growth.
U.S. Steel, the first billion dollar corporation, decided to build a great factory on the site of swamps and barren sand dunes of northern Indiana. The company also built roads, houses, stores, hotels, parks, schools, and cultural institutions. It helped build churches, lent money, sold lots, and made numerous other efforts to secure a stable work force. Thousands of job-seekers throughout the United States and Europe, especially from then Austria-Hungary and Southern Europe, rushed to the “Magic City” looking for work.
Gary’s population grew rapidly; from 334 in 1906 to 16,802 in 1910, 55,378 in 1920, and 100,426 in 1930.2 Among the newly arriving laborers were many Croatians. According to a 1908 “rough” census, of 10,246 people living in Gary at the time, 950 identified themselves as Croatians. 3 Just two years later, according to one report, “the largest group of foreign born [in Gary, Indiana]…was the Croatians, which numbered about four thousand.”4
The growth of the city, however, was also accompanied with a multiplication of vices and various social problems, especially among the unskilled and often illiterate immigrant workers living in slums, sleeping in shifts at boarding houses, working twelve hours a day and a seven-day week for seventeen cents an hour.
Ethnic communities in America were unstable. Immigrants were mostly single men, or men whose wives and children were left behind in the old country until the husbands earned enough money to bring them over or themselves to return home. Such men moved from job to job and from place to place, and endured hard work and long hours because most hoped to eventually return to the “old country” with their meager savings.
One “cure” to the drastic shift from a poor but idyllic village life to harsh and long-hours of factory work was too often found in the saloons that were frequently owned by cunning immigrant entrepreneurs. Saloons were often the “communal life” of those who found themselves in a foreign land at the mercy of a fast growing and unrestricted capitalism.5 Furthermore, the newly found independence and freedom from family and communal village life led many to question the old beliefs and traditional morality.
The lives of various immigrant groups in the industrial cities began to stabilize only with the strengthening of family life and founding of self-help societies, cultural organizations, and ethnic churches. Croatian immigrants first formed fraternal benevolent societies. The largest and best known such organization in the country was the Croatian Union, founded in 1894, which changed its name to the National Croatian Union in 1897, and finally, after merging with some other similar organization, it became the Croatian Fraternal Union in 1925.6 Such organizations were very helpful not only in times of need but, perhaps even more importantly, in providing a sense of belonging and community to the newly arrived immigrants.
After establishing their fraternal lodges, parishes, and cultural associations, it seemed that life began to stabilize in the newly founded city of Gary and in other industrial towns of the Chicago area.7 But World War I, although fought far away in Europe, brought changes and new challenges not only to America at large, but even more intensely to the immigrant communities as well.
The Great War
American involvement in the Great War intensified government intervention in the economy and in labor policies. A resurgence of patriotism, conformity, and Americanism occurred; workers, especially steel workers, became industrial heroes; immigration from Europe was practically halted. Even the foreign-born in America were now more eager to accommodate to the American way of life and to reach the “American dream,” than to return to the old and troubled continent. The war became a common cause that brought about a sense of social purpose and national unity. But that was an illusive picture. Social tensions and national divisions were lingering beneath a peaceful surface and erupted soon after the guns were stilled.
Once the war was over, the industrialists, on the one hand, wanted to take back some of the benefits they had been forced to concede to the workers during the war. On the other hand, the labor movement saw a golden opportunity to strengthen its position on the bases of war-time precedents when the government sanctioned unionism and pressured the industrialists to yield to some of the workers’ demands. Issues like wages, work hours, job security, working conditions, and the return of hundreds of thousands of veterans to the labor market were crucial to working class America. Growing tensions erupted in numerous strikes throughout the country.
Attempts by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize the steelworkers led to the great steel strike of 1919. Although this and other strikes at the time were rank-and-file undertakings, for the American radical Left these events became an opportunity to spread their revolutionary socialist ideology and to attract new following. That year of the strike also marks the founding of the Communist Party of the United States. The steel workers strike climaxed in Gary, Indiana, when martial law was declared in the city and the government forces killed several strikers. By January of 1920 the strike collapsed but the effects of the events of 1919 had a lasting effect on decade to come.
The Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 in Russia not only disturbed America but it led to direct American involvement on the side of the anti-Bolsheviks. Furthermore, the formation of the Third Communist International/Comintern (1919), which main purpose was to export revolution around the world, was perceived by many as a direct threat to the American way of life. On the other hand, American Left radicals, inspired by the Communist revolution in Russia and encouraged by social tensions and labor activism in this country, acted as if the socialist revolution in America was imminent. Thus, the post-war years were charged with social, racial, political, and economic tensions. One of the effects of such strains led to the so-called Red Scare that embarked on a crusade against the radicals, real or imaginary, striking workers, immigrants, and anyone else that was perceived us un-American.
Croatians in the US at the End of the War
The Croatian immigrant communities throughout the United States were in a very uncomfortable, confused, and divisive situation during and especially after the first World War. This was precipitated by a mixture of social, political, and ideological conflicts both in the US and Croatia, that surfaced at the beginning of the 20th century. This uneasy situation was particularly true in Gary and other new Croatian communities in the developing industrial cities of the time.
As former citizens of the Austria-Hungarian empire, the loyalty of the Habsburg Slavs to America was often under scrutiny after the U.S. entered the war. A number of such immigrants, including the Croatians, were interned to special camps for enemy aliens.8 After the war, there was heightened activity on the part of “true” Americans to “100 percent Americanize” the foreign-born, including the “Americanization” of their religion. The Catholic Church in America, instead of cherishing various Catholic traditions, was also an active promoter of the melting pot principle, and (in general) not much concerned about Catholic immigrants. Furthermore, the Red Scare became an opportunity for “true” Americans and numerous “patriotic” organizations in this country, especially in immigrant industrial cities like Gary, Indiana, to assault their foreign- born neighbors (the hunkies), their ethnicity, and their religion, by accusing them of being red sympathizers, disloyal, and a threat to the American way of life. Moreover, being of Catholic heritage, Croatians endured their share of anti-Catholic bias, coming from the “true” Americans, the liberals, and the radical Left. Besides open and vocal attacks by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Loyal American League, the Croatians (and other immigrants) in Gary were also under more subtle pressures from the Presbyterian sponsored Gary Neighborhood House, the Methodist organized Campbell Friendship House, and even the public school system to abandon their ethnic and religious traditions as soon as possible and become “real” Americans.9
The internal confusion and divisiveness among the Croatian immigrants in America, however, were caused mainly by the happenings in Croatia. Although living far away, immigrants are affected by the lives of those left behind. Not only that, quite often, immigrants take the homeland events more seriously and passionately than those in the “old country.” Suffice to mention just a few such factors that had a profound effect on the lives of Croatian immigrants in America, including the founding of the Croatian Catholic Union.
First, although living in a single empire, Austria-Hungary, Croatian lands at the time were divided by imperial designs into several provinces that were isolated from each other administratively and by the lack of roads and railroads. Although the desire for national and territorial unification had been alive for a number of decades, such processes were prevented by the imperial power. Additionally, a large Orthodox minority in the land became increasingly Serbianized and instrumentalized by the foreign rulers in the effort to prevent Croatian unification and the revival of their national state. Such divisions at home were one of the main reasons why regionalism flourished among the Croatian immigrants. For many, their true national awakening took place in the diaspora and not in the homeland.
Second, major ideological shifts and conflicts were taking place in Croatia at the end of the 19th and especially at the beginning of the 20th century. The traditional Church and village social structures and beliefs were being challenged by new and “progressive” forces, especially among the younger generations. Western liberalism, an ideology founded on beliefs in human freedom, dignity, pursuit of happiness, equality under the law, supremacy of science, rationalism, and unlimited progress, was present among the Croatian intellectual elites during the 19th century. Even a number of the Catholic clergymen in Croatia had liberal leanings regarding the people’s sovereignty, equality, and basic human freedoms. Many Croatian intellectuals of the early 20th century, especially the younger ones, however, went much further in their interpretation of liberalism than more moderate older followers of that European philosophy. For them this was a struggle, an intellectual war, against traditional values, authorities, structures, morals, and especially against the strong presence of the Catholic Church in Croatian social, cultural, and even political life at the time. They demanded for the Church to get out of public life and, if it were to exist, it had to become a Croatian national church.
Thirdly, the avantguard forces of liberalism , on the other hand, energized the more traditional Catholic circles in Croatia. This led to the organizing of the Croatian Catholic movement at the beginning of the 20th century, similar to other Catholic movements in Europe at the time.10 Growing religious indifference among the educated, negation of the traditional Catholic teachings, and, most of all, open attacks on the Church, was a call to action. The prime mover of the movement and its guiding spirit was the bishop of Krk, Antun Mahnic. For him, “there can be no peace with the liberals, we can only fight them.”11 This was a movement for Catholic lay people but under the watchful eye of bishop Mahnic and the younger clergy who responded to his call. By its various religious and cultural activities, and through its publications, the movement, was able to attract a large following among Croatian youth and to animate a Catholic revival that, in turn, had a substantial impact on Croatian social, cultural, and even political life.
Fourthly, the political situation in Croatia was also in a state of transition and confusion. The Croatian political elite of various persuasions agreed that Croatian lands should be unified and become a self-ruling nation, but how to achieve that lofty goal was a puzzling and, often, divisive issue. The main questions were who might be a suitable political ally on the road to unification and self-rule and, not less important, what was the role of the Serbianized Orthodox population in Croatian politics.
Generally, some political leaders leaned toward Vienna as the hopeful partner, others toward Hungary, and at the beginning of the last century more and more of them began to look toward Belgrade as a potential ally. The last alternative was the only one acceptable to the Serbs in Croatia, because that meant not only they were to become co-equals to Croatians in Croatia but that it was the first step toward their unification with Serbia. Furthermore, a number of Croatian students studying in Prague came under the influence of Thomas Masaryk, a former Catholic liberal intellectual, and accepted not only his vehement anti-Catholicism but also his position that Slavic solidarity was the only means for their defense against the German onslaught to the East.
Because of political shifts and intellectual fashions which disregarded the traditional Croatian national and religious values, and because of Serbian victories in the two Balkan wars (1912-1913), Yugoslavism became more and more appealing to the Croatian political and intellectual elite. The voices of those who foresaw the dangers of such political adventures were drowned by the noise of pro-Yugoslav enthusiasts by the end of the First Word War. Soon after the unification, however, many of those who rushed to Belgrade realized their mistake, but it was too late. Moreover, the end of World War I brought to the Croatians not only a new and tyrannic Serbian regime, but also major economic hardships, social discontent, political mobilization of the peasants, and a wave of new socialist and communist influences.
These and other happenings in Croatia had a strong echo among the Croatian immigrants in the United States and around the world. As a result, among them there were regional, ideological, and political divisions, as well as some social and economic differences. The most vocal was a relatively small group of Croatian “progressives,” a mixture ranging from a few educated liberals and socialists, self-taught or more often self- proclaimed workers’ “intelligentsia” to self-promoting radical adventurers who exploited their hard working compatriots in the name of the working class.
It was the Left revolutionary activities among the Croatian immigrants, the liberal anti-Catholic propaganda in general, the emergence of the Croatian Catholic movement as a response to those attacks, the Red Scare, Americanization pressures, and various social and political upheavals in America at the end of World War I that led a few Croatian and Catholic enthusiasts in Gary, Indiana, to make a bold step and establish the Croatian Catholic Union of the United States as a means of safeguarding the national and religious treasure that they brought with them to the New World.
Foundations Laid
The Croatian Catholic Union was founded on October 12th, 1921 in Gary, Indiana, at a meeting of several priests serving at Croatian parishes in the US at the time. They were: Rev. Stjepan Hofman, Rev. Milan Hranilovic, Rev. Dragutin Jesih, Rev. Ivan Judnic, Rev. Mirko Kajic, Rev. Davorin Krmpotic, Rev. Leon Medic, Rev. Irinej Petricek, Rev. Josip Soric, Rev. Ivan Stipanovic, Rev. Josip Stukelj, Rev. Juraj Violic, and Rev. Venceslav Vukonic. The prime mover and the ideologue of the Union, however, was Fr. Jesih, pastor of the Holy Trinity Croatian parish in Gary, Indiana, at the time.
Fr. Jesih, was born on May 8, 1895 in Stenjavac, near Zagreb. In 1913, as a young cleric, he was sent by the Archbishop of Zagreb to study theology in the US. He was ordained to the priesthood in St. Francis, Wisconsin in 1918, and, about a year later, he came to serve the Croatian parish in Gary. In the hindsight, one could say that the right man came to the right place, at the right time.
All available historical sources indicate strongly that Fr. Jesih was a very energetic, intelligent, and hard- working priest. He was loved by the people. His house was always open to the parishioners who felt his enthusiasm and love for God and for them. After attracting and energizing the more stable and active members in the parish, he often met with them in the rectory to discuss problems in the community and among the Croatian immigrants in general, and also the ideas of how to remedy such issues, especially how to combat the wave of bolshevik and anti-religious propaganda among the hard working Croatian newcomers.12
It was clear that the existing lodges of the Croatian National Union and similar organizations of the day were getting more and more under the sway of socialist propaganda. The leading Croatian left-wing newspaper, Radnicka straza/Workers’ Sentinel of Chicago was relentless in attacks against capitalism, religion, all traditional moral values, and especially the Catholic Church. Small but active groups of radicals were also pushing the idea of procuring community halls instead of helping or establishing parishes churches or schools. Such halls were secular “temples” for the “progressives,” where they gathered for various occasions; from celebrating the births of their children to having funeral services for their dead comrades. But more importantly, social activities in a lodge hall provided an alterative to going to church or attending church events, and also gave an opportunity to the anti-religious activists to spread their liberal and/or Marxist ideology. Moreover, the Left radicals were often helped financially in their propaganda activities and even some were trained as professional agitators by the Communist Party of the United States and the Comintern.13
An organized resistance against the aggressive radical activities and ideas did not exist among the Croatian immigrants. The majority of the members in the existing fraternal organizations did not want to “get involved;” they did not want to “offend anyone.” Many among these were merely nominal Catholics. Furthermore, some of the younger immigrants were exposed to liberalism and/or socialism before they came to the US, especially craftsmen who thought of themselves as the “intelligentsia” of the working class. Various tailors, barbers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and bartenders thought it was their mission to lead the ignorant and primitive laborers from religious darkness to enlightenment or even to the promised land of socialism. On the other hand, those who wished to defend the old and stable lodges from the intrusions of the Left ideology, had no organizing skills, no intellectual background, no guidance or support from anyone who was capable to take on the combative and often trained radicals.
By 1921 it became clear to patriotic and religiously oriented members in the National Croatian Union and other similar organizations that their feelings, interests, and spiritual needs were not only ignored by their leaders but, even worse, they were being insulted by the “progressive” and radical elements. True, as members of fraternal organizations they did have insurance and other benefits, but their voices were silenced by the shouts of the Left fanatics. The young pastor in Gary, Indiana, ambitiously and boldly decided to fill the needs of the disillusioned. However, he desired not only to give courage and spiritual guidance to those who wanted to remain faithful to the Church and Croatian national traditions, but also to organize them into a force that would fight back the atheistic and radical ideologies and to fight for the very souls of the Croatian immigrants that were lulled into indifference and apathy or even beguiled into following ideas that were contrary to the teaching of the Church and Croatian heritage
These concerns led Fr. Jesih, assisted with a group of enthusiasts in his parish, to organize the “Croatian Catholic Benevolent and Educational society, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’.” It was founded on Sunday, February 20, 1921. The purpose of the organization was to “help its members in sickness and distress, to bury them in accordance with the Catholic rites, after their death, and to help their dear and near ones with the payment of a certain amount in death benefits.” The educational side of the society “consisted mostly of instructing our [Croatian] people how to fight …atheistic menace and of admonishing them to remain steadfast and firm in their religion, which they inherited from their forefathers; to adhere to the national ideas and ideals and not to be swayed by this new Godless philosophy….”14 Although, at the time of its founding, this was to be a local organization, it became the cornerstone for the Croatian Catholic Union that was established only a few months later.
Soon after the Sacred Heart of Jesus Society was set up, it became apparent to its architects that the problems and issues they were facing could not be challenged only on the local level. The “progressive” ideology was penetrating into the Croatian immigrant communities throughout the country, and, therefore, a wider effort was necessary if they wanted to make a difference. Thus, the decision was made to test the waters and see if a national organization, that would adhere to the principles as defined by the newly founded society in Gary, could be formed. In May 1921, Fr. Jesih sent a letter in the name of the Gary activists to all Croatian Catholic priests in America suggesting the formation of a nationwide Croatian fraternal and Catholic organization. The response from the priests was overwhelmingly positive. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Society contacted the already existing Slovak Catholic Union to see what they could learn from the Slovaks in organizing and running a similar union among the Croatians.
An extraordinary meeting of the “Croatian Catholic Benevolent and Educational society, Sacred Heart of Jesus”was called for the evening of October 12, 1921, Columbus Day. A number of priests from Croatian parishes throughout the US were meeting during the same day at Fr. Jesih’s rectory in Gary. The sole purpose of both meetings was the founding of the Croatian Catholic Union. The questions whether the CCU should be organized and, if so, can it succeed were debated by the gathered priest throughout the day.15 On one hand, they knew that the founding of a new fraternal organization would be perceived by many as divisive, but, on the other, they felt that an action must be taken in order to combat the anti-religious propaganda that was causing a major spiritual crisis among the faithful. By the end of the day, it was agreed that the CCU will be established.
The reports of that day’s activities state that the priests founded the CCU at their meeting and then conveyed the results to the waiting leaders and members of the local Sacred Heart of Jesus Society. But probably it is more accurate to say that the priestly role, although crucial, was secondary to the event. It was young Fr. Jesih and his circle of lay activists who were the actual architects of the CCU. The priests, those gathered in Gary and those who could not come to the meeting, were there to analyze the situation, give their approval, and pledge their support to the idea, but the Gary activists were the initiators of the project and it fell upon their shoulders to put the CCU on its feet.
The following laymen were present at the founding meeting at the Holy Trinity Croatian Church Hall in Gary on October 12, 1921: Barbara Bacic, Mijo Brasic, Nikola Fadjevic, Juraj Gacina, Ivan Galic, Blaz Gjuras, Stjepan Kovacic, Franjo Kovacic, Ivan Kupres, Fanika Matlek, Juraj Matlek, Lovro Mikan, Tomo Milatovic, Mate Mocinic, Juraj Nastav, Nikola Prahovic, Grga Rakic, Jerko Rakic, Barbara Ramuscak, Juraj Ramuscak, Manda Ruzic, Mihael Stojakovic, Marion Susilovic, and Ivan Zapcic.
That October evening, therefore, the Croatian Catholic Union was born. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Society became its founding and first lodge. The first supreme board was also elected at the same meeting. The following were the first CCU elected officers: Rev. Charles Jesih, Spiritual Director, or Chaplain; Mr. George Ramuscak, Supreme President; Mr. Gaspar Puralich, Supreme Vice President; Mr. Marion Susilovic, Recording Secretary; Mr. John Galich, Financial Secretary; Mr. George Rakich, Supreme Treasurer; Mr. John Kupres, Mr. Blaz Gjuras, Mr. Lovro Mikan, Mr. Nikola Prahovich, and Mr. George Garcina were elected as Members of the Board of Trustees.
The CCU was not to be under the Church authority, but an independent Catholic lay organization. The only position reserved for a clergyman was the office of Spiritual Director, who was to watch over the organization so that it does not stray away from orthodox Catholic teaching, and to be a spiritual advisor to the membership. Priests were, however, among the first organizers of the early lodges and, in turn, the CCU officers urged their members to be the religious pillars in their parishes. “[The CCU] members should be the first, when steps are taken in their respective parishes for improvement of the church or for the good of the faith; for the parish advancement in both material or spiritual aspects. It is their DUTY to promote and advance religious life in their midst.”16 It was expected that they become true Christian witnesses to others and the most active members of their parish community.
The Croatian Catholic Union followed the same model of organization as so many other fraternal societies in America at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. It was to be a mutual help society, where the members pay monthly dues, and, in time of sickness or death, the society pays back the prescribed amount of money. For Fr. Jesih and other founders, however, the CCU was to be much more than that. From the few available writings, it is clear that Fr. Jesih envisioned the CCU as dual in nature: body and soul. The administrative, financial, and benevolent side of the CCU was its “body.” Its “soul,” its true mission, however, was to unite Croatian immigrants in America around their Catholic and national heritage and, once revitalized in their own faith, become a movement of religious revival and a force that would stand up to the anti-religious, anti-Catholic, and anti-patriotic forces among them. Its members were to be the shining examples of what it means to be a good Catholic, American, and Croatian. Even twenty-five years after its inception, the CCU first president stressed that “…there is still a too large number of our good Croatian people who do not understand the dual purpose of [the CCU], but they look upon it as if it were just one more among many fraternal benevolent societies. There are some of those even among our ranks who don’t understand this…”17
There are strong indications that Fr. Jesih, as a young cleric in Croatia, was either directly involved in the aforementioned Croatian Catholic movement or under its strong influence. His words and deeds reflect clearly the philosophy and activism of Bishop Antun Mahnic, the prime mover of the movement, for whom he had great admiration.18 For Fr. Jesih, as for bishop Mahnic, evil forces had declared war on the people of God and his Church. Thus, he repeatedly called upon the CCU members to be at the forefront in the ongoing battle for God. As the editor of Nasa Nada, he wrote: “Today, a huge Christian army has been amassed, a Christian movement was formed in defense of faith and morality. The trumpets of war have sounded, the battle cry has roared: To battle! To battle, brothers! To battle against atheist propaganda, atheist schools, atheist culture. The enemy must be defeated and his towers of lies and terror destroyed; people must be delivered from the power of darkness and led to the light of truth, to the brightness of Christian liberty!”19 In their struggle against evil, according to him, Christian idealists must unite under the banner of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and under that symbol the victory is guaranteed.
Making the Sacred Heart of Jesus patron of the CCU is also a reflection of the influences of the Catholic movement in Croatia on Fr. Jesih and his followers, because the veneration of the Sacred Heart, under the influence of the Jesuits, was actively nurtured by the movement.
Fr. Jesih was a man of principle, a man of God, a patriot, full of energy and action, and he was constantly challenging all Croatians, especially the members of the CCU, to live up to high Christian expectations. “[The CCU members] must be the most truthful, the most sober, the most friendly and pleasant in contact with others; spotless and the most efficient on their jobs; steadfast in their words and deeds; enduring and consistent; strict in justice but the most sensitive [to the rights of others]. In a word, in order to share the true [Christian] spirit with the others, one has to possess it, one needs to renew himself, because we can not share with others what we ourselves do not have.”20 As individuals, therefore, they must be impeccable and united they would become an invincible movement of Christian idealism.
To the CCU founders, to be a good Croatian Catholic implied being a patriot, and vice versa. Croatia was a Catholic nation, deeply entrenched in the Catholic tradition, which struggled for centuries to preserve its national and religious character. Therefore, Croatianism and Catholicism were very close, even identical to them. This closeness is clearly articulated by Fr. Jesih in one of his editorials. “‘Croat is my name, and Catholic is my last name.’ How nicely this sentence illustrates the harmony of the two…. We are Catholics, and therefore, we are members of a huge family, the largest family in the world, which includes all the nations. Don’t we here in America see precisely that better than anywhere else?! Catholicism unites us with all the world, with all the nations. But we are also Croatians, something unique in that large family, we are our own. Yes, something particular! We are a people with our own language, with our proud and over a thousand-years-long history, with our own national nobility and heroes, with our writers, and with our beautiful homeland…. We are Croatians and we will remain so! Our children are Croatians and they too should raise Croatians [in their families]. We will honor our homeland here in the foreign country and work on her behalf as her true children. Blood is not water!”21 The CCU official motto “Sve za Boga i narod”/ All for God and the people/ clearly expressed both its religious and patriotic side. It summarizes the entire ideology of the CCU and expresses the enthusiasm of its founders in their work for God and the people, both Croatian and American.
CCU was born at the time when many native Americans doubted if the immigrants, especially Catholics from Central and Southern Europe, could become loyal Americans. The CCU, however, never wavered in its dedication to American ideals and values as defined by the founding fathers of this country. Not only that her members were patriotic Americans, but many of them served and even died for American ideals during World War II, the Korean war, and in Vietnam. Furthermore, being patriotic Americans did not exclude the CCU leaders and members from being at the forefront in raising their voice in defense of freedom of the Croatian nation, especially during the existence of communist Yugoslavia. Their Americanism, Croatianism, and Catholicism were expressed through a unified love and dedication to all three equally.
It was relatively easy to declare that the CCU had been established but to lay down its foundations and make it operational was another matter. This was, as we are witnesses, successfully accomplished by a few dedicated individuals who, together with Fr. Jesih, worked selflessly and tirelessly on this truly challenging project. In their endeavors, however, numerous growing pains had to be endured.
Drafting the Articles of Incorporation, obtaining charter and license from the state of Indiana, writing the bylaws, organizing new lodges, answering letters, publicity, and many other challenges had to be faced by a small group of pioneers. Furthermore, no one among the elected officials had any administrative experience in running an organization of this nature and, moreover, all of them held full time jobs. Only after a hard and long day of factory work could they take care of CCU affairs. Only through the genuine love, dedication, and long hours of uncompensated hard work of a few were the solid foundation of the Union laid.
One of the biggest and, one might say, unnecessary challenges the founders had to face was the merciless attacks on the newly founded organization coming from the Left radicals and the existing Croatian fraternal organizations. The “Young Croatian Union” even sent a complaint to the state of Indiana trying to prevent the CCU from getting state charter, claiming that too many Croatian unions already existed. Only one American- Croatian paper (Narodni List) published the CCU’s founding proclamation. Instead, all others condemned the Union and prophesied its early death. “[B]ut the louder their screams and clamor, the better progress the Union was making. Perhaps these very screams and condemnations helped the Union’s growth, from the beginning, since, in the very first few months after her organization, some twelve new lodges were established, in different parts of the country.”22 The CCU founders and pioneers bore the onslaughts of their opponents with great courage and the more they were attacked the more determined they were to succeed.
One of the hindrances to CCU’s growth was the requirement that every member of age must obtain a written testimony from the local pastor that he or she had fulfilled the annual Easter obligation; had gone to confession and received Holy Communion. The Spiritual Director’s duty was to see that this law was fulfilled. Furthermore, one needed a recommendation from the pastor in order to join the Union. The Union was, therefore, a society of “practical Catholics” and not open just to anyone. These self-limiting practice were often problematic, till they were slowly phased out in recent decades.
Internal problems and disagreements also erupted once in a while. The end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s seemed especially turbulent. Within a few years, three men served as Supreme Presidents and four as editors of Nasa Nada.23 Occasional disagreements among the Croatian priests in America also reflected themselves on the work of the CCU. Interestingly, lay delegates to the 1929 Convention held in Youngstown appealed to the priests in their midst to make peace among themselves so that the Convention and work of the CCU could move on.24 Also, attempts were made to move the CCU headquarters from Gary; but all the problems were resolved, people and groups reconciled, and the CCU was able to increase its membership and activities
Regardless of the difficulties, the CCU grew unexpectedly fast. By June 1922, fifteen lodges were already organized, and in June 1931, the CCU consisted of 51 lodges with a total of 5,346 members. Financially, the union was always on solid grounds, event through the hard times of the depression. After a relative slowdown in the 1930s, the Union reached its membership peak in the 1970s (16,500) due to the enrollment of the American Croatian baby boomers, the CCU’s expansion into Canada, and a new inflow of Croatian immigrants to America. At the present time, the Union has 7,934 members and its assets are worth over seven million dollars.25 Clearly, the CCU has been declining in numbers, as have all other fraternal organization in the USA, but it is still one of the most viable and active Croatian institutions in America.
Although the purpose of this survey is not to enumerate CCU’s achievements but to recall its founding spirit, a few of its main activities will be mentioned in order to remind the present members that they can be proud of the history of the organization they belong to.
The CCU founders believed that the Union should pay special attention to the education of its members, and the Croatian immigrants in general, because “a knowledgeable person will not be easily misled, as the one who is half-educated or not educated at all.”26 Consequently, they focused on publishing activities as much as their financial circumstances allowed.
The first issue of the Union’s official organ, Vjesnik Hrvatske Katolicke Zajednice/Messenger of the CCU, was published only a couple of weeks after the Union was founded. Its first editor was Rev. Charles Jesih and, after Fr. Jesih went to serve the Croatian community in Milwaukee, the paper was edited by the first President, George Ramuscak. The name of the paper was changed in 1922 to Nasa Nada/Our Hope Since then, its editors were: Msgr. Mijo Domladovac, Rev. Dragutin Jesih, Rev. Ilija Severovic, Franjo Kolander, Helen M. Boric, Stanko Boric, Rev. Ivo Sivric, and, at the present, Melchior Masina.
The CCU also published a number of Almanacs. The first such publication came out in 1923 (for the year 1924) and CCU Almanacs were published through the consequent years till 1932. Because of the great depression, its publishing ceased. It was published again in 1939, but it ceased again. From 1946 until 1958 it was published on a regular basis. The Almanacs contain a valuable history not only of the Union but of Croatian Americans in general.
In the last several years, thanks to the generosity of its late members, Paul and Helen Rukavina, the Union is able to help its young members to achieve higher education by granting them annual scholarships.
Other CCU activities have a wide range: bowling and golf tournaments, sponsoring folklore festivals and soccer tournaments, sending letters and memoranda to the US political leaders on behalf of Croatia, rasing funds for various charitable causes, building the chapels of Our Lady of Bistrica and Our Lady of Peace at the National Catholic Shrine in Washington D.C., and sponsoring various cultural activities among American Croatians. These and many other accomplishments, listed elsewhere in this souvenir book are a lasting memorial to CCU’s pioneers and to their love for God and the Croatian people.
The Present and the Future
These few pages of CCU’s history are written, as stated at the beginning, to evoke the circumstances in which the CCU was founded and the vision of its pioneers so that its present membership may reflect on the current state of the Union.
Eighty years have passed. The pioneers have been gone for a long time. We are in a different century and even in a different millennium. The city of Gary and other industrial cities in America have changed. We live in the post-industrial age. Bolshevism with its radical followers, its empty promises, the Red Scare, and even the Red Empire are merely the trash of history. Open attacks on religion and the Catholic Church have lost their appeal. No significant issues, political or ideological, divide the Croatian diaspora. Croatia is finally free and independent. The world has changed, hopefully for the better. Does our generation today, therefore, need the Croatian Catholic Union, and will future generations need it?
Both the Croatian Catholic Union and the Croatian Fraternal Union (and other fraternal organizations in America) are declining in numbers. The older members are dying and newer generations are not inclined to join one or both of the Croatian unions. No one today (or in the recent past) joined such organizations because of the insurance, but rather because they offer something that money cannot buy, they are custodians of our Croatian national and, in case of the CCU, also religious traditions. They are conduits to our ethnic roots and history. Also, through them we can help Croatia and the Croatian people in their search for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, one could ask whether Fr. Jesih’s vision for the Catholic and Croatian lay people is relevant for us today. We, as Catholics, and our beliefs are not confronted with radical attacks such as those of eighty years ago. The Catholic Church itself has undergone major changes since the CCU was founded. Catholic movements like those of a century ago are outdated. But this does not mean that the Church, the people of God, should be complacent and idle. “A Catholic lay person is not a dead stone,” Fr. Jesih wrote long time ago. The needs and challenges of our times are different than those of the CCU pioneers and our responses must measure up to them if we are to be true to our Christian calling.
We live in a world which does not appreciate or believe in lasting values. Individualism, relativism, secularism, materialism, globalism, post-modernism, and similar isms are catch words of the modern world. Everything is relative, there are no lasting truths or moral values. Every opinion and every life style is equally valid and tolerated in the name of personal or group rights. Furthermore, for too many people in Croatia, as well as among the Croatians in diaspora, Catholicism is only a cultural identity and not a matter of faith. God, religion, patriotism are only occasional necessities and they are too often (ab)used for selfish gains. If the CCU is to remain faithful to its original vision of being a Croatian American and a Catholic organization, it should respond to these and other problems that are besetting Croatia, America, and the world. The love of God and people of the CCU founders can never become irrelevant.
The choice is clear, either the CCU will linger on for a few more years or it will rededicate itself and rekindle the spirit of its founders and by burning brightly attract new generations in order to remain a viable Croatian institution in America for many decades to come. Hopefully, the second option will be chosen. The CCU pioneers at their most difficult moments were guided by love for God and people, and by the well-known saying: “If there is a will, there is a way.” What we need today is the will! God and the shining examples of CCU’s pioneers will provide the way to a better future.
Dr. Ante Cuvalo
1 “Zadaca katolickog svjetovnjaka,” Nasa Nada, 24 November, 1927.
2 Raymond A. Mohl and Neil Betten, Steel City – Urban and Ethnic Patterns in Gary, Indiana, 1906- 1950. New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 1986, p. 29.
3 Isaac James Quilen, “Industrial City – A History of Gary, Indiana to 1929” (Ph. D. dissertation, Yale University, 1942), p.162.
4 Phyllis Bate, “The Development of the Iron And Steel Industry of the Chicago Area, 1900-1920” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1948), p.130.
5 In 1909, there were 217 saloons in Gary, Indiana; approximately one for every 60 people living in the city. Richard Julius Meister, “A History of Gary, Indiana: 1930-1940” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1967), p.14.
6 See George J. Prpic, The Croatian Immigrants in America (New York: Philosophical Library, 1971), pp. 133 & 264.
7 Croatian Catholic parishes in Northwest Indiana and the Chicago land were founded in the following chronological order: Assumption of Mary (Chicago)1900; Sts. Peter and Paul (Chicago) 1905; St. Mary Nativity in Joliet 1906; Sts. Peter and Paul (Whiting, IN) 1910; Holy Trinity (Gary, IN) 1912; St. Jerome (Chicago)1912; Sacred Heart (So. Chicago)1913; Holy Trinity (Chicago)1914; Holy Trinity (East Chicago, IN) 1916.
8 See Dr. H. Hinkovic, Iz velikog doba. (Zagreb: Cirilo-Metodska nakladna knjiznica, 1927), pp. 112-113.
9 See Mohl and Betten, Steel City, pp. 108-128.
10 For more on liberalism and the Catholic movement in Croatia, see Jure Kristo, Presucena povijest. Katolicka crkva u hrvatskoj politici 1850.-1918. (Zagreb: Hrvatska sveucilisna naklada, 1994).
11 Nasa Nada – Kalendar za Americke Katolicke Hrvate 1928, p. 84.
12 George Ramuscak, Souvenir Book of the 30th Anniversary of the Croatian Catholic Union 1921-1951, p. 5.
13 Two of the best known Croatian professional Communist agitators in the US were Stjepan Lojen and Stjepan Mesaros, better known as Steve Nelson.
14 Ramuscak, Souvenir Book of the 30th Anniversary, p. 8.
15 Rev. M.S. Hranilovic, “Dvadest i pet godina”. Nasa Nada – Hrvatski Katolicki Pucki Kalendar 1946, pp. 25- 29.
16 “Pre dsjednikova psolanica,” Nasa Nada, April 28, 1927.
17 George Ramuscak, Nasa Nada – Hrvatski Katolicki Pucki Kalendar 1946, p. 33.
18 In the article “Biskup Mahnic,” Nasa Nada, February 20, 1927, it is stated that “There is no doubt that bishop Dr. Antun Mahnic is the most meritorious man for the Croatian people in our century.” The article is not signed, but it can be presumed that it was written by the editor, Fr. Jesih.
19 Editorial “Sloga i ustrajnost u katol. pokretu,” Nasa Nada, August 4, 1927.
20 Editorial “Nasi ljudi,” Nasa Nada, September 15, 1927.
21 Editorial “Rodna gruda,” Nasa Nada, September 1, 1927.
22 For more on the early challenges see Nasa Nada-Kalendar za g. 1932 za Americke Katolicke Hrvate, pp. 34-51. Quotation is taken from, Ramuscak, Souvenir Book of the 30th Anniversary, p. 16.
23 Presidents from 1929 to 1931: Juraj Ramuscak, Mato Fabin, and Grgur Rakic. “Nasa Nada” editors from 1927 to 1932: Rev. Dragutin Jesih, Rev. Ilija Severovic, Rev. Mijo Domladovac, and Franjo X. Kolendar.
24 See the Convention Minutes as published in Nasa Nada January and February issues 1930.
25 Nasa Nada, 15-31 March, 2001.
26 George Ramuscak, “Povijesni osvrt HKZajednice i prosvjetne smjernice u nasim redovima,” Nasa