Part III: The Serbian Community of Cleveland

Serbian Organizations of Cleveland

Nikolaj Maric

St. Sava Serbian Benevolent Society

The first Serbian organization to be established in Cleveland was St. Sava Serbian Benevolent Society. Founded February 2, 1904 in the home of Stevo Arambasic on Hamilton Avenue, it numbered among its first 32 charter members, Lazo Krivokapic, Nikola Banjanin and Jovan Srdic, President. Through this society many spiritual, benevolent and cultural activities were begun.

The most urgent problem confronting the Society was that of finding a suitable place to worship and a priest to hold services. Through their efforts, in 1909, a Serbian school-church congregation was founded and given the name, St. Sava. A Russian priest, Father Jason Kappanadze, celebrated the liturgy in the small house they had adapted for services. This was the beginning of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Cleveland. When the parish outgrew these facilities, the Society, along with other Serbian organizations, contributed toward the purchase of the former German church on 36th Street and Payne Avenue which then became the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. A sizeable Serbian community began to center around this site.

One of the cultural activities in which the Society was deeply involved was the creating of the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park. They cooperated with other Cleveland Serbs and Slovenes on this project. The Serbs erected a statue of the noted Petar Petrovic-Njegos, bishop, statesman and poet. Each Labor Day weekend a commemorative ceremony is held there in his honor, known as Serbian Day.

Petar Petrovich-Njegosh: Statue of Serbian Bishop, statesman, poet, philosopher, Petar Petrovich-Njegosh erected in 1936 in the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens at Rockefeller Park.
Petar Petrovich-Njegosh: Statue of Serbian Bishop, statesman, poet, philosopher, Petar Petrovich-Njegosh erected in 1936 in the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens at Rockefeller Park.

The charitable works of Ilija Zegarac, longtime president of the Society are noteworthy. He gave generously of his time and money to bring hundreds of Serbs to America following World War II. He found them jobs and housing and introduced them to the Serbian community and to the American way of life as well.

As the number of Serbian immigrants increased, new benevolent societies emerged including Krsna Da1macija (Serbs from the near West Side), Sveti Jovan, Sveti Lazar and groups in other parts of Ohio. St. Sava Benevolent Society initiated the move to unite all of these groups into a federation under the name Jedinstvo (Unity) with headquarters in Cleveland. In 1963, Jedinstvo joined the Serb National Federation.

Serbian Benevolent Society Brothers Unity

This group was organized in 1905 to assist other Serbian organizations such as St. Sava Church, Serbian Sunday School, Serbian Singing Society and Serbian National Defense. This society also offers members life insurance at a modest fee and assists needy families.

The Circle of Serbian Sisters St. Petka, Inc.

A pillar of the Serbian community, this women’s group was founded in 1913 to serve St. Sava’s Church. The Sisters, as they are known among Serbs, have also planned and run successful children’s camps in Shadeland, Pennsylvania; Jackson, California; and Libertyville, Illinois. Former presidents of the organization include Femka Stojakov, Zorka Sekulic, Anka Uzelac, Melanija Zegarac, Milka Simic, Helen Milisavljevic and Mimi Naperta.

Serbian National Defense Council of America, Cleveland Chapter

The Serbian National Defense Council was organized in 1908 in the Kingdom of Serbia and was influential in determining the future of Serbia. Serbs living in other areas of the Balkans, in Europe, and in the United States were interested in the welfare of Serbia. Consequently this group was founded on the eve of World War I to aid Serbia in her struggle against Austria-Hungary.

The Council’s Cleveland Chapter, formed in 1917, worked closely with the Serbian Mission from Serbia to provide Serbs in Europe with money, clothes and medicine during the War either directly or through the Serbian Red Cross in Switzerland. Most Cleveland Serbs were originally from the part of Yugoslavia ruled by Austria-Hungary, so they were pleased to be able to help Serbia defeat Austria and release the Serbs from the Dual Monarchy. 

In support of the Serbian cause, Cleveland Serbs did not limit themselves to moral or financial support but actually enlisted with Serbian armed forces. Among Cleveland’s Serbs who, in 1917, went to fight on the side of Serbia were: Petar Kosanovic, Rista Peric, Petar Radakovic, Mane Panjkovic, Ilija Brankovic, Stevo Bozickovic, Spasoja Vukotic, Janko Hrkalovic, Stevan Radakov, Iso Brekic, Stevo Popovic and Niko”Radic. These names are from membership records of the Serbian National Defense Council only. Other Serbian organizations may have kept similar records.

During World War I and II, throughout the United States, the Serbian women were organized in the Serbian Chapter of the Red Cross, main"y operating in the various Serbian church halls. They also sold millions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Department war bonds, and worked for the Serbian Relief Council of America helping Serbian war victims in Europe. During peace time, they are an integral part of Serbian Orthodox Churches, working through Kolo or Serbian Sisters.
During World War I and II, throughout the United States, the Serbian women were organized in the Serbian Chapter of the Red Cross, main”y operating in the various Serbian church halls. They also sold millions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Department war bonds, and worked for the Serbian Relief Council of America helping Serbian war victims in Europe. During peace time, they are an integral part of Serbian Orthodox Churches, working through Kolo or Serbian Sisters.

After World War I a few Serbs decided that they had made enough money and wished to return to their homeland and reestablish themselves there. The majority, however, remained here and again helped the Serbs in Europe in World War II, though this was a vastly different war. The Defense Council was revived and is still active. Its headquarters is in Chicago, Illinois and they publish a weekly newspaper “Sloboda” (Liberty). At the end of World War II, this organization brought thousands of Serbs to America from the DP camps of Europe, when Serbs decided they could not accept the Community rule of Yugoslavia. Its chapter’s president in Cleveland is Starioje Stojovic.

Njegosh Serbian Choir and Njegosh Serbian Choir, Inc.

These Serbian men and women sing together every Sunday and holiday in St. Sava’s Church making the liturgy a moving experience. No instruments are allowed in the Eastern Orthodox Church because only human voices are believed worthy of praising the Lord. Besides singing at church services, the Choir makes Christmas home visitations and participates in music festivals throughout the United States and Canada.

The Choir grew out of the St. Sava Serbian Benevolent Society. It was organized through the efforts of the tireless and inspiring Father Boro Petrovic. The group was called Orao (Eagle) when it was begun in 1930, but the name was later changed to Njegos to honor Bishop Petar Petrovich-Njegos when a statue was erected of him in the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens. Carol Schigel presides over the first group and Petra Cojic over the latter.

Serbian Athletic Club of Cleveland

Milos (Mike) Janjatovich organized this club for young men in 1927 when he was but 16 years old. For 20 years they played in basketball, bowling, baseball and golf tournaments with Serbs from all over America. Membership was extended to women and activities were sponsored to support St. Sava’s Church financially. Members of this club later formed the American-Serbian Men’s and Women’s Club. For a time this group worked to unite all Orthodox believers into an American Orthodox Church, but these efforts were not successful. Members continued, however, to give their support to Serbian Orthodox Church.

Serbian Church Schools

The Serbian Religious School and Serbian Language School were begun in 1951 under the guidance of Father Branko Kusonjic and teacher Pavle Jovanovic. Ann Hrkalovic, Helen Milisavljevic and Ann Julylia were the original instructors of the religious school. Later, under the direction of Bogoljub Mirkovic, instruction was given not only in spiritual values but also in the history, geography and culture of the Serbs. Since 1963 both Serbian churches have had such schools. Hundreds of children are enrolled.

St. Sava Serbian Cultural Club

The name of this group is somewhat misleading, since its orientation and purposes are more political than cultural. It was begun in 1936 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia arising out of a land dispute between the Serbian and Croatian factions of the government. The American organization is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois where it publishes a weekly newspaper, Srpska Borba (Serbian Struggle), which is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Former university professor and author Dr. Slobodan Draskovic is editor.

Primary goals of the Club are promotion of Serbian interests and justice for Serbs within their own country. The Club motto is “United Serbiandom in free Serbia.” Members feel that Serbia was dealt with unjustly after World War I and World War II. The Club was always strongly anti-Nazi and anti-Communist. Local president is Ratko Simic.

American-Serbian Square Club

Peter Uzelac is president of this organization which was formed in 1940 by Charles Herke and George Vujaklija. A membership of about 60 meets several times a year for socials. 

Draza Mihailovich Association of the Royal Yugoslav Army Combatants

The first meeting of this organization was held in a refugee camp in Germany in 1948. Its founder was General Miodrag Damjanovic. Membership is comprised of Serbians only, and originally included those who had fought with Draza Mihailovich’s forces when they retreated into the mountains of Yugoslavia and continued to resist the Nazis and Communists. The Cleveland branch was formed in 1952. Marko Stoisavljevic is president and Milorad Petrovic, secretary. The Association headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois where a periodical newspaper, Ravnogorski Borac is published.

Serbian Brothers Help

Founded in 1950, members assist Serbs who fled Communist Yugoslavia for the Free World; disabled veterans, those in need, the sick and the old throughout the world. The group provides help with financial assistance and moral support. President of the Cleveland branch is Dragan Obrenich.

Serbian Chetniks

Many veterans of Draza Mihailovich’s forces from refugee camps in Italy, in 1951, founded another organization known as the Organization of Serbian Chetniks, “Ravna Gora.” The leaders of this group were former priest, Momcilo Djujic and Dobrosov Jevdjevic. The two men, along with their followers, went their separate ways in 1957. Djujic founded the movement of Serbian Chetniks of Ravna Gora while Jevdjevic kept the original name. Both groups have their local chapters in Cleveland.

Serbian Radio Club Ravna Gora

The Radio Club was founded in Cleveland in 1953, broadcasting first on station WJMO, then WDOK, WZAK and WBOE, where it is now heard on Saturday. The Club promotes Serbian music and informs listeners of major events in the Serbian communities, both locally and nationally. President of the organization is Marko Stoisavljevic; secretary is Milorad Petrovic.

St. Sava Serbian Youth Club

Organized in 1957, St. Sava Youth Club existed only three years. In that short time, however, it served a good purpose and gave rise to other groups which have continued. It was formed to help the younger immigrants who arrived after World War II in their adjustment to American life and to Serbian relatives and friends who had preceded them to this country. The younger persons had lived under Communist rule; the older immigrants had not and often failed to understand the social and political orientation of the newcomers. The club sought to bridge the gap between these groups as well as provide a social outlet for the young people.

Soccer Clubs

The first Serbian soccer team in Cleveland was named Obilic and was started within the St. Sava Youth Club in 1957. They competed against other nationality teams such as the West Side Hungarians, Italian Soccer Club and the Olympicos (Greek Soccer Club).

Obilic existed for some three years and then became part of a new group, Serbian Sport Club Karageorge, which is now a member 149 of the Major Division of the Lake Erie Soccer League of Ohio, White Eagles. Karageorge plays its game$ at St. Sava’s field off Wallings Road in Broadview Heights. Games are usually played on Sunday after-noons and are often followed by picnicking and dancing until late at night. President of Karageprge is Rade Stojisavljevich.

Serbian Kolo Groups

Another offspring of the St. Sava Youth Club was the Serbian Kolo Group. This dance group existed continuously but under these different names: Kosovski Bozuri, Ruzmarin, Ravna Gora, Church Group and Ravanica.

The American Association of War Veterans of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia

The Cleveland branch of this association was begun in 1957 to unite former members of the Royal Yugoslav Armed Forces. Membership is almost exclusively Serbian. Sanko Jovanovic leads the organization in Cleveland.

Serbian Historical and Cultural Association Njegos

Begun in 1956, the Association collects and publishes new and unknown documents pertaining to World War II or any other period relevant to Serbian hist ory. Their semi-annual publication Herald is widely read. Milutin Stojovic is president of the Cleveland chapter; headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois.

Serbian Republican League of Ohio

The League met for the first time in 1972 in Parma for the purpose of bringing Serbian-Americans into the Republican Party and providing them with an opportunity for political expression and recognition. About 50 members meet monthly at the County Republican Headquarters. Present president is Dr. Ratko Yuboja.

Serbian Chess Club of Ohio

Organized in 1974, they are registered with the United States Chess Federation. Team captain is Senior Master Vukevich; United States Open Co-Champion on 1969, a Cleveland city champion for several years and third place winner in Zone Tournament United States Champion-ship of 1975. In a year’s time, competing in the First Division of Cleveland Chess Association, the team did not lose a single match. Other players are A. Pavlovich, S. Stevanovich, M. Mijatov, J. Bozen, and K. Malesevich. President is V. Nikolic.

Serbian Orchestras

Musical expression is a vital part of Serbian life style. They relish social gatherings with other Serbs such as picnics, shows, dances and weddings where they can sing and dance and listen to Serbian music. Serbian orchestras often play at these events. The best known orchestra, Sloboda, has performed at Blossom Music Center and the Ohio State Fair. Ivan Mirkovic is director.

Exclusively tamburitzan orchestras are Sister Trivanovich Orchestra and Continental Strings Orchestra. Most popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s was the P1avi Jadran Tamburashi. Also well known is the Rade Simovic Orchestra.

The Council of Serbian Organizations of Greater Cleveland

These 12 diverse Serbian organizations became a part of the Council: St. Sava Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church; Serbain National Defense Council of America; St. Petka Serbian Sisters Circle, Inc.; Serbian Brother’s Help; The American Association of War Veterans of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia; St. Sava Serbian Cultural Club; Njegosh Serbian Choir, Inc.; Ravna Gora Serbian Chetniks Organization; Serbian Historical and Cultural Association Njegosh; Karageorge Serbian Sport Club; Ravanica Serbian Folklore Group and Serbian Republican League of Ohio. President of the Council is Milutin Ristic.

The objective of this umbrella organization is to cultivate the Serbian heritage, promote the Serbian cause and represent the Serbian community. The first project was to establish annual public commemoration of the Serbian Liberation and Unification of November 26, 1918. The event would include a prominent Serbian-American speaker, participation of well know local citizens and government officials, official acknowledgement of the event from the mayor of Cleveland, and the raising of the Serbian flag on public square for that day. Proceeds from this event would help establish a scholarship fund, and provide for other needs in the cultural life of Cleveland Serbs.

It was the Council’s responsibility to establish a celebration, beginning in 1973, of St. Sava’s Day (January 27), at the Cleveland Public Library with the participation of school children. At this celebration, in 1974, the Council donated to the Library (Foreign Language Department) an exhibit case with various artifacts.

Independent Radio Programs

There are three weekly broadcasted Serbian language radio programs:

GLAS SLOBODE – Announcer: Milorad Mitic The program can be heard Sunday mornings on WXEN.

AVALA – Announcer: Stanoje Stojovic The program can be heard Friday evenings on WXAK -FM.

GLAS ISTINA – of the Chetnik movement. The program can be heard on Saturday evenings on WZAK.


Serbian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Nikolaj Maric. All Rights Reserved.

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