Members of the local Croatian Community recently gathered for the dedication of a new altar at the Croatian Catholic Centre of the Holy Spirit in Springvale. The Mass, celebrated by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, was one of the community's largest gatherings since before the pandemic. But while the altar may be relatively new, the Croatian Centre has been in existence for almost 40 years now, as a sign of the Croats’ deep cultural and religious traditions which they continue to share proudly with fellow Melburnians.

After the Second World War, many Croats had to flee their homelands (what is today known as the Republic of Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively), for political and economic reasons. As Communism took over and political tensions rose across Europe in the 1950s and 60s, Australia saw an influx of migrants from places like Croatia, Slovenia and other parts of central and south-east Europe.

Since we did not have a free state at that time, being a Croat in those areas was a danger,’ said Fr Vedran Lesic, Chaplain to the Croatian Catholic Community. ‘Thus, Croats migrated to places around the world and a large number came to Australia at that time.’

The community would initially gather in Clifton Hill, at the St Nikola Tavelic Croatian Catholic Centre which was built in 1962. Monsignor Pavo Jurišić, one of the former chaplains of the Croatian community, would visit families regularly, especially during the Christmas holidays. He would go on to write a memoir entitled, And the hand of the Lord was with them: Celebrating 50 Years of Pastoral Care among Croats of Melbourne, which he dedicated to Croatian immigrants and to Australians who accepted and sheltered the Croats upon their arrival in the country.

For many years, the community also gathered at the parish of St John Vianney along Police Road in Springvale, until it was eventually decided that a bigger place was needed.

‘As the community grew, so did their spiritual need,’ shared Fr Vedran. ‘After they bought the land [in Springvale], the construction of the parish house began, and then a big hall was built. Holy Mass was said in that large hall next to the church until the church was finally built and consecrated in November 1983. From then until today, the Croatian community – “on this side of the city”, as we like to say – has been gathering for meetings and worship.’

A source of pride for the community

When he took over the mission in 2017, Fr Vedran had only planned to replace the altar, which he'd been told was temporary. During the demolition, he and the community decided to renovate the whole church as it had not undergone any changes since it was opened in 1983. The newly renovated church was designed by local parishioner and architect Josip Ledić, with the art and frescoes on the altar and tabernacle specially made by the artist Zdenko Jurišić from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Construction was carried out by the company I&D, which is owned by one of the members of the mission, Ivana Filipović, whose family also contributed to funding the project.

Everything concerning the restoration of the church went by its own efforts and work,’ Fr Vedran explained. ‘I am very proud of that.’

Fr Vedran said that last weekend's Mass and dedication of the new altar was an emotional moment for many in the community. ‘The dedication of the altar means everything to me but also to the community,’ he said. ‘The emotions have not subsided yet. For most parishioners, this is the first time in their lives that they have participated in such a wonderful celebration. Many of them called me and thanked me with tears in their eyes, sharing how proud they are of that day.’

We are very proud of our Archdiocese and Archbishop Comensoli for taking the time to be with us, despite his many commitments. One of the most touching moments was when the Archbishop stored the relics of St Leopold Bogdan Mandić at the altar,’ Fr Vedran shared.

St Leopold was a Croatian Capuchin friar and a native of Herceg Novi, a coastal town in today’s Montenegro. He suffered from disabilities that eventually affected his speech and stature, but in his determination to serve he eventually became a confessor in the friary, spending up to 15 hours of his day in the confessional. In 2016, the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, St Leopold's remains were brought to Rome for veneration and along with fellow Capuchin friar St Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), he was designated by Pope Francis as a “saint-confessor”.

What happens during the dedication of an altar?

The altar is the table for a sacrifice and a banquet. The priest, representing Christ, accomplishes at this table what the Lord himself did and what he handed on to his disciples to do in his memory.’ During the rite, the local bishop performs a series of actions to express ‘in visible signs several aspects of the invisible work that the Lord accomplishes through the Church in its celebration of the divine mysteries, especially the eucharist’. These include:

  1. The anointing of the altar with chrism makes the altar a symbol of Christ, who, before all others, is and is called ‘The Anointed One’; for the Father anointed him with the Holy Spirit and constituted him the High Priest so that on the altar of his body he might offer the sacrifice of his life for the salvation of all.
  2. Incense is burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice, there perpetuated in mystery, ascends to God as an odour of sweetness, and also to signify that the people’s prayers rise up pleasing and acceptable, reaching the throne of God.
  3. The covering of the altar indicates that the Christian altar is the altar of the eucharistic sacrifice and the table of the Lord ... the dressing of the altar clearly signifies that it is the Lord’s table at which all God’s people joyously meet to be refreshed with divine food, namely, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed.
  4. The lighting of the altar teaches us that Christ is ‘a light to enlighten the nations’; his brightness shines out in the Church and through it in the whole human family. (Chapter IV, §22)

Source: Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar ©1978, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. (ICEL)

A ‘mosaic’ of the mission

Fr Vedran describes the ministries of the Croatian Catholic Centre as a ‘mosaic’ that gives life and expression to the Gospel mission. It is also a place where the community can feel connected to their original homeland. ‘Our church is not just a meeting place for spiritual needs,’ said Fr Vedran. ‘The entire centre was conceived to preserve our identity in our new homeland of Australia.’

The centre hosts a retirement society that meets every Thursday for Mass and social activities, as well as a pensioners' association and the Bartol Kašić School, where children attend classes on Saturdays mornings. ‘In addition to learning the language and the sacraments, we prepare the children and try to include them in the life of the centre,’ Fr Vedran shared. ‘We also have the Croatian Catholic Welfare Association, with Kristina Butorac and Danijela Nowicki providing the social program.’

The centre is also home to the folklore group Zvonimir, which was established in 1993 as a way to immerse the youth of the local Croatian community in their Croatian history and heritage. There is also the charismatic prayer group, Marantha, which Fr Vedran describes as ‘the true pearl of the community, who pray tirelessly and care for the spiritual life of the community’.

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the centre was reduced mainly to livestreaming,’ explained Fr Vedran, but he says this was an important offering as it helped provide ‘the faithful with a great strength and support in those difficult times’.

Fr Vedran's livestreaming schedule included morning prayers, greetings to Our Lady, Masses, the Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration and evening prayers.

‘Life is slowly returning to normal but not yet at full capacity as before the pandemic, as a good portion of the community is elderly and many are still wary and fear for their own health,’ he said.

A vocation worth living

It has now been five years since Fr Vedran arrived in Australia and took up the role of chaplain to the Croatian community from the now-retired Fr Ivica Zlatunić. Fr Vedran also recently took over the Croatian chaplaincy in Geelong, after the passing of the much-loved Fr Josip Vranjes. And while migration can sometimes be a difficult experience, Fr Vedran happily describes Melbourne and the local Croatian community as his “second home”.

I came to the Archdiocese of Melbourne with only a few months of pastoral experience, and I have tried to do my best. There were both difficult and beautiful moments. I am proud and grateful that the Archdiocese and the Archbishop have given me the opportunity to work here.’

‘Being a member of such an Archdiocese and the community I lead, reminded me of the words of St John Paul II: “The vocation is an adventure worth living”.’