The Croatian Catholic community in Springvale marked its 40th anniversary last weekend, with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli joining local chaplain Fr Vedran Lesic for a special Mass and dinner at the Croatian Centre of the Holy Spirit in Braeside.

More than 450 members of the community gathered for the event, which also included a special performance by the Zvonimir Folklore Ensemble and an evening of Croatian music, food and dance.

In a heartfelt speech following the Mass, Fr Vedran thanked the many people who have been involved in the building of the community over the years.

‘Without the priests and believers who worked in this church, we might not even be here today,’ he said. ‘These days I once again witnessed how great your love is for our church. The church shines today not because of external beauty, but because of the sacrifice of all of us. We can all be proud.’

‘Certainly the greatest thanks to dear God. He guided us through different challenges and times. Dear God is still with us today and we thank him for the great love and gifts he showers us with.’

The church shines today not because of external beauty, but because of the sacrifice of all of us.

Although this particular church marks its 40th anniversary, having been consecrated on 6 November 1983, the Croatian community in Victoria has been present for much longer. Some Croats came to Victoria in the early 1850s with the gold rush, but the major waves of migration followed the World War II, when communism took over what are today known as the Republic of Croatia and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively.

Many of them fled to Australia. ‘This homeland and especially the Archdiocese received us as its children,’ Fr Vedran said. ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Fr Vedran himself came to Australia in 2017, knowing no English. He became chaplain to the Croatian community that year.

‘Our church is not just a meeting place for spiritual needs,’ he says. ‘The entire centre was conceived to preserve our identity in our new homeland of Australia.’

This homeland and especially the Archdiocese received us as its children.

Currently, the Croatian community in the south-east region of Melbourne is comprised of more than 800 families, Fr Vedran says. His ministry to the elderly of their community is a large part of his work as chaplain, maintaining regular contact with them and promoting a vibrant social life through the Croatian Senior Citizens Group of Keysborough. This group, currently with over 130 active members, helps to alleviate the social isolation people feel as they grow older. The ‘active participation’ of the elderly in the Croatian community, especially through the Centre of the Holy Spirit, is critical to their overall health and wellbeing, Fr Vedran says.

Another important role Fr Vedran plays is as principal and president of the executive committee for the Croatian Ethnic School Bartol Kasic, established in 1996 to preserve Croatian identity and heritage.

‘Since opening its doors in the late 90s, it has had over a thousand children walk through,’ Fr Vedran says. ‘Children come to learn the Croatian language as well as the history and culture of Croatia. Learning about their heritage and keeping the Croatian culture alive has proven to be a very important aspect in the lives of our community members.’

Looking into the future, Fr Vedran sees tremendous potential and growth.

‘I hope for the Croatian community to keep thriving for many more years to come and that the younger generations realise the importance of keeping their Catholic faith in harmony with their Croatian culture and heritage,’ he says.

In his homily for the Mass, Archbishop Comensoli encouraged those gathered to nurture gratitude in the Christian life. ‘Be humbly grateful and joyfully glad for the gifts of Christ’s presence among you, in the domestic priesthood your fellow parishioners have witnessed to, and in the ordained priesthood from whom you have received God’s word and his sacraments.’

In April 2022, the Croatian Catholic Centre of the Holy Spirit celebrated the dedication of a new altar, in which were stored relics of St Leopold Bogdan Mandić, the Croatian Capuchin who was declared a ‘saint-confessor’ in 2016 because of the many hours he would spend in the confessional, despite disabilities that affected his speech.