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Monday, Jan. 10, 2011

It Takes a Village

From Serb Hall to St. Sava

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Milwaukee’s Serbian community, numbering about 2,500 prior to World War I, gained in population after World War II. Serbian villagers and political refugees found shelter here through fraternal benev­olent lodges formed to aid fellow countrymen. As early as 1912 a call went out in Milwaukee for an assembly of Serbs to take place in Rade Ostojic’s store for the discussion of building a Serbian Orthodox church. Within a week, the city and county were petitioned for permission. The church was established with the purchase of a residence at 724 S. Third St. for $3,500. The residence was converted into a house of worship and the first liturgy was held there on Orthodox Christmas, Jan. 7, 1913.

A succession of executive boards and parish priests directed the community during the years between the world wars. In the 1940s Father Milan Brkic convinced the congregation to buy a large parcel of land on 51st and Oklahoma. The first building erected on the site, completed in 1950, was American Serb Memorial Hall, dedicated to the Serbian Americans who helped defend their new homeland. The hall served the role of the village gathering place in the Old Country, where weddings, baptisms, saints’ days and funerals were traditionally open to all inhabitants. Serb Hall also served as the fund-raising venue for the community’s future endeavors. The hall, with its expansion in 1987 and multiple bowling alleys, bars, meeting rooms, kitchens and abundant parking, is still one of the most rented buildings for private, community and union events in the state and home to the best-known local fish fry since 1967. Serb Hall is a mandatory stop for presidential hopefuls and local politicians on the campaign trail.

When it became apparent that the hall’s mortgage soon would be paid off, a decision was made to construct a new church on the property behind the hall in 1956, with each parishioner contributing an initial $100 to the building fund. The new St. Sava Cathedral, designed in Serbo-Byzantine style, along with a school and parish home were completed in 1958. A gym and cultural center were added in 1973. In the early ’70s Sirio Tonelli Arts Studio of Italy was hired to renovate the icon screen and add mosaic tiles in the cathedral. The Tonelli mosaic project took 10 years, cost around $1 million and transformed the church’s interior into an internationally known piece of architecture. By the time of the burning of the complex’s last mortgage, for the cultural center, in 1983, Serb Hall, St. Sava and adjacent facilities had become the pride of an immigrant community.

For the Serbs, their Eastern Orthodox Church stood as a central tie to ethnic traditions as they struggled to survive in a precarious corner of the Balkans where Roman Catholic Western Europe and the Islamic Turkish empire collided. Feeling like pawns during centuries of conflict, Serbs turned to their church for encouragement, leadership and sanctuary. When forced to leave an old village for a new life in America, Serbs often recreated the village life they left behind in the setting of American cities. At St. Sava in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the New World, the local church remained a constant through political oppression and religious animosity, and served the same purpose as in the Old World as the largest structure in the family unit. Sometimes you can’t do it alone. It does take a village.
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