EAST CHICAGO | One hundred years is a milestone for any religious or secular organization. A century of serving the faithful in the same church building is a cause celebre.
A three-day spiritual and festive celebration began Friday and continues through Sunday to honor the 100th anniversary of St. George Serbian Church, 4201 Elm St. The church was the 20th Serbian Orthodox Church built in the United States and is the nation's fourth oldest, continuously used church, said Sventko Balach, president of the parish executive board and chairman of the centennial celebration.
Waves of Serbian immigrants -- from the turn of the 20th century through the 1990s -- have kept the Orthodox traditions and Serbian culture alive in the Indiana Harbor section of East Chicago, he said.
Four fraternal groups formed in the Serbian community in the early years of the 20th century. The Serbian Beneficent Society of St. George, the St. Elijah group, the Putnik organization and the King Peter I group established the parish on Oct. 30, 1911. The church began with 64 families as members.
Balach said the land was purchased for $435 and donations of $10 to $150 were gathered to build the church at a cost of $5,500.
"That's when wages were 17 cents an hour," he said. The church took just six months to build and was consecrated on May 15, 1912.
One of those early Serbian settlers of East Chicago who helped found the parish was Tony Stepanovich. The 16-year-old emigrated from a part of what today is Croatia to avoid being conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army, said his grandson, Donald Stepanovich, of Munster.
"He arrived on Aug. 8, 1888, to work in the mills," Donald Stepanovich said. "He helped build the church and was on the first church board."
Today the fourth generation of the Stepanovich family worships at the church its ancestor helped to establish.
Worship is the focus of families who follow the Orthodox Christian faith, said the Rev. Aleksandar Savic, St. George parish priest.
"Our spiritual celebration starts right now," he said at the end of Friday's Akathist service, which was conducted in both English and Serbian. Akathist is a Greek word meaning "standing prayer" and the service was dedicated to St. George, a Christian martyr and the parish's patron saint, Savic said.
The meal that followed vespers featured traditional Serbian dishes, including Chevapchich, a sausage link made from beef, pork and lamb that Donald Stepanovich cooked.
Saturday's liturgy will begin at 9:30 a.m. and will include a memorial service honoring all deceased members. Other clergy from the area's Orthodox churches are expected to participate, Savic said.
Saturday evening the parish hall will be a place of music and dancing in the Serbian and eastern traditions, the priest said. Choirs from Old Holy Resurrection Church and St. Simeon Mirtocivi Church, both of Chicago, will perform. St. George's own choir, Kornelije Stankovic, which has been in existence 56 years, also will be featured.
Sunday represents the spiritual culmination of the celebration, Savic said. Celebrants of the Holy Liturgy will include the Right Rev. Bishop Longin of the Midwestern diocese and the Right Rev. Bishop Mitrophan of the Eastern U.S. Diocese.
During Sunday's service the brightly colored frescoes painted during December and January will be consecrated, Savic said.
The congregation commissioned Chicago artist Filip Subotic to complete the frescoes, which include the iconic face of Jesus Christ in the Byzantine style on the church's ceiling.
A banquet Sunday evening at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster concludes the centennial celebration.
"This church is very important to our congregation," Savic said. "Our parishioners went out and established other churches in Gary and South Chicago. We're very proud that this church is still here. This is just our first 100 years."