For the last century, the Serbian Orthodox community has kept its culture and faith strong in a place they call Srpska Gera — Serbian Gary.
St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church is celebrating its divine 100-year history that includes seeing an altar boy become a saint, building one of its facilities with the help of a famous inventor and watching Karl Malden perform in the church choir and plays before he started his outstanding acting career.
It all began when the original St. Sava location was constructed in 1914 near 20th Avenue and Connecticut Street in Gary.
Among the church’s founders were Serbians who “worked their tails off at the mills” to provide better lives for their families, said Dorothy Paunovich, president of the church's Serbian Historical Society.
“Our people are very hard workers,” Paunovich said, “Loyal, respectful.”
The first person baptized at the original church and its first altar boy was Vojislav Nastic, but he is now known as St. Varnava, the first American-born Serbian to be proclaimed an Orthodox saint.
Varnava was heavily involved at St. Sava before he and his family moved to Yugoslavia in 1923. While there he was ordained a priest and later became a bishop.
Varnava was arrested by Yugoslavia's Communist government after he began to preach against the Communist way of life and was sentenced to prison in 1948. Even in prison, Varnava’s faith remained strong, and he was a source of moral strength for other prisoners.
Varnava died in 1964 under suspicious circumstances, and many believed he was poisoned. He was canonized in 2005.
The Rev. Marko Matic, a priest at St. Sava, has referred to St. Varnava as “one of the strongest protectors of his faith.”
About 20 years after the establishing the original St. Sava church, a new facility was needed to accommodate the growth of the parish.
The second church was completed in 1938 at 13th Avenue and Connecticut Street in Gary, Paunovich said.
Inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla was a kum (sponsor) of that facility.
Paunovich said Tesla couldn’t attend when the church was consecrated, but he sent a letter and was represented there by a local businessman.
A wall was constructed outside of that church in 1947 to honor its members who served in the military during WWII. Paunovich said Malden is among those recognized on the wall.
A fire destroyed the church building in 1978, but the wall survived the blaze. Paunovich said the wall was later taken apart “brick by brick” and rebuilt at the current St. Sava location at 9191 Mississippi Street in Merrillville.
During its existence, St. Sava has established various groups that have helped parishioners keep their Serbian traditions alive.
During her youth, Paunovich and other church members attended dance practice, choir practice and Serbian school during the week. On Saturdays there were dances at the church. Sunday included Divine Liturgy and Sunday school for children, she said.
“We literally grew up at church,” Paunovich said.
Paunovich said children continue to have a desire to learn about their Serbian customs, and the church has a “wonderful Folklore Group” in place.
The strong presence of the Serbian culture is what makes St. Sava’s annual Serb Fest a success, Paunovich said.
She said many “non-Serbs” attend the event each summer to experience the traditional Serbian food, music and dancing.