"...Where two or three are
gathered in My name..." (Matt. 18:20)
A Brief History of the Serbian Orthodox Church of
Saints Peter and Paul,
When one thinks of the Serbian population in America, cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh instantly come to mind. However, over the course of a few generations, Serbs have moved away from these hometowns into bigger and newer cities where, for the most part, they have been led by their jobs. Today, we can proudly say that in almost every part of this country a Serbian church can be found not too far off.
We know that when our grandfathers and great-grandfathers came to this country they brought with them their faith, customs, culture and language. And from the very beginning, the carrier of these elements, the carrier of the soul of the Serbian people, has always been the Orthodox Church. But what we might not realize is that today our young Serbian people are continuing the task left by their ancestors to build churches throughout all of the United States, wherever they might find themselves.
Such is the story of a few Serbs in Atlanta, Georgia. It was in mid-1993 that a few Serbs: Pam and Keith Collins, Chris and Mitzie Gousetis, Scott and Dana Hawkins, Dawn Momich Zelich, Veda Burns, Walter Ivkovich and Branka Popovic thought that there were enough Serbian families living within the Atlanta area to start a Serbian Church. Branka Popovic, who moved to Georgia from Milwaukee, had dreadfully missed the life of the Serbian community there. She was quick to call her good friend and parish priest from Milwaukee, Fr. Dragan Veleusic. Fr. Dragan informed her that her first step should be to call the Bishop of Eastern America, Mitrophan.
His Grace Bishop Mitrophan was very excited upon hearing the news and was quick to make a trip to Atlanta and meet the people. He came in the summer of 1993 to help plan our first social - which was held on October 2, 1993 at the home of Pam and Keith Collins. It was advertised in the Srbobran, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and letters were sent out to every Serbian parish in the United States. The Bishop served Vespers that evening and the Ss. Peter and Paul Mission Parish had officially begun. Each of the above-listed founders contributed $200 to pay for the food, drink and the orchestra for the evening. A beautiful dinner, featuring traditional Serbian cevaps and lamb, was held next to the pool, The 100-plus people in attendance were serenaded by a local Russian orchestra: a good time was had by all.
During those first years, the small enthusiastic group worked very hard under the leadership of Pamela Collins. Social events were organized not only to raise money but also to build camaraderie among the Atlanta Serbs. It must be recognized that many of the Serbs who eventually became very active in the life of the small mission parish had been living in Atlanta for numbers of years without even knowing that there were other Serbs in the city. Needless to say, it was a very exciting time for this group. Pam Collins, Milana Saulnier, Jovanka Turner, Vladimir Vujic, and Julie Zivkovic were some of the parishioners who took a special effort in organizing many of these events.
Another monthly activity which brought the Serbian people together was the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Nikodim Pribojan, of Orlando, began visiting once a month in December of 1993, serving at a local Salvation Army hall. Later, Pam Collins solidified a relationship with the Pastor at Northside Presbyterian Church and the Serbs began using a small hall of their's for Saturday morning liturgies. During their struggles of trying to organize the Serbian community in Atlanta, Bishop Mitrophan paid several visits, serving with Fr. Nikodim at times, other times, by himself. He was very determined to do anything to help the mission parish succeed.
But it was the Divine Liturgy, the life of the Church, that brought the people together in an unexplainable way. During the services, a small group of parishioners sang the responses. This first church choir was led by Veda Burns. Nicholas Collins, the son of Pamela and Keith Collins, helped the priest in the altar while his sister, Alexandra, helped with the collection plate. The children's grandparents, +Chris and Mitzie Gousetis, were also very instrumental in the beginning and continue to be so. Chris, being a very skilled woodworker, built a candle stand as well as two stands for icons that would serve as a portable iconostasis. Chris and Mitzie also opened their home to both Fr. Nikodim and Bishop Mitrophan whenever they were in town.
Although Fr. Nikodim was very busy with his own fairly-new parish, he continued to visit the Serbs in Atlanta each month. He, too, was very enthusiastic with the new mission. When the Serbs celebrated their one year anniversary, he served the Divine Liturgy in Orlando in the m orning, jumped in his car and drove almost nine hours to be at the celebration in Atlanta! That day, October 2, 1994, a hugely successful one- year anniversary picnic was celebrated by about 155 Serbs. These Serbs raised enough money that day to make their first purchase - a communion set for Divine Liturgy: a step of faith in the reality of the new parish. In addition to the monthly divine services and social events, a monthly newsletter was started to inform the parishioners of upcoming events. Marjorie Mancini, perhaps the only native Atlantan in the group, volunteered to start putting this newsletter together in late 1993 and thus, the Glasnik was born. Later, in August of 1994, another parishioner, Catherine Tesla, a freelance graphic designer, took over the duties of the Glasnik. Fr. Nikodim would often call both Marjorie and Catherine giving them religious information to include in the Glasnik, jumping at the opportunity to communicate with the many Serbian people in Atlanta, as he simply did not have enough time to visit with them during his short monthly trips.
The Glasnik served not only to inform people of when and where the next Divine Liturgy would be served, but also when and where Bible studies would be held. As Fr. Nikodim would usually serve Saturday mornings, he held Bible studies on Friday evenings at various homes. Again, it was a chance for him to create a relationship with the faithful in Atlanta, within his brief visits. Shortly after the one year anniversary picnic in 1994, five hundred dollars was taken from the general church fund to establish a building fund. The congregation started taking an interest in the purchase of land. Mitch Milovich, a key parishioner who dedicated much of his money and free time to the church, became the director of this building fund.
The members of the church board observed the important role Fr. Nikodim played in the lives of the Serbian people in Atlanta. They could only imagine what he would be capable of doing if he was their full time priest. They began to inquire about receiving a priest of their own. On December 8, 1994, a church board meeting was held, with both His Grace Bishop Mitrophan and Fr. Nikodim. Bishop Mitrophan explained to the faithful that in order for them to receive a full-time priest, there needed to be evidence that the parish would be able support a priest financially. In addition to this, there needed to be a minimum of forty families signed up as members of the church, committed to supporting the priest in the parish.
The following year, 1995, appeared to be the time to take the next step. A membership drive was organized with parishioner Jovan Marjanovich as the chairperson. From the mailing list of 120 families only 30 families signed up as members. The church board refused to give up. Fr. Nikodim continued to come on a monthly basis for both Bible classes and Divine Liturgy. The Building Fund was slowly growing and had a little over four thousand dollars in it. Milana Saulnier, another dedicated parishioner who had hopes of raising money for the building fund, hosted a garage sale, selling items donated by the parishioners.
In November of that year, the people were very surprised to read in their Glasniks: "Atlanta Gets a Priest! A Dream Come True!". As it appeared, Bishop Mitrophan was planning to send them a priest from Yugoslavia in about 3 months. The priest was married and had two children. In addition to the basic housing and salary requirements, the church would have to provide him a car for transportation. The Diocese offered to temporarily contribute $500 per month towards his salary. A meeting was held on December 9th to discuss his arrival, a possible welcome dinner, as well as the existing problem of not having a place to serve Liturgy regularly on Sundays.
At this December meeting, a new Board was selected with Mitch Milovich taking on the position of president. The new vice-president, David Simic, agreed to head a committee to locate property for the building of the future church. Jovan Marjanovich had generously offered the new priest and his family a temporary place to stay, but no definite arrangements had been made for their living quarters.
Even though there was no certainty as to the arrival of the priest, the faithful continued working for the future of the parish. In January 1996 the second annual Serbian New Year's Eve party was held. Vladimir Vujic chaired this highly successful event. For their next gathering, Jovanka Loncaric and Mirka Shundich prepared a St. Sava program which took place on Feb. 10 after the church service. The next service was on Lazarus Saturday, served by Fr. Nikodim. Following the Divine Liturgy, he blessed willow branches and handed them to the faithful. After this, things did slow down a bit. With the excitement and commotion of Atlanta hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, no church services were held during the summer months.
By November of 1996, (exactly one year after people read in their Glasniks that a priest was coming from Yugoslavia), President Mitch Milovich wrote a letter to all parishioners informing them that he now had new information. Mitch had received a phone call from Bishop Mitrophan who had told him that there was a young deacon in Akron, Ohio, who was awaiting ordination and his first parish assignment.
Mitch contacted this young Fr. Deacon Milovan Katanic and invited him for the church services in December. On December 6, 1996, (exactly two years after the church board decided they needed a priest), a general meeting was held at the home of Gary and Veda Burns. Fr. Deacon Milovan and his wife, Tatiana, visited to discuss the possible position in Atlanta. Saturday morning immediately following the Divine Liturgy, with both Fr. Nikodim and Fr. Deacon Milovan serving, Mitch made the announcement that Fr. Deacon Milovan had accepted the challenge of this parish and would be ordained a priest in the following weeks to become Atlanta's first full-time priest. The first Liturgy was to be served on January 7, 1997--- Christmas Day!
Fr. Milovan's first service as the priest of Ss. Peter and Paul Serbian Orthodox Church in Atlanta was, as promised, on Christmas Day. There were over 60 people at the Divine Liturgy that day and it was the last time that the Serbs met at the Presbyterian Church. The group met once more in January, this time at the Greek Orthodox Church in Marietta, Georgia. The service of the Great Blessing of the Water was served in the crowded church hall. This imperative and beautiful service was forboding of future events as Father Milovan blessed the water, then took it to his faithful's homes, in an effort to sanctify and unite the parish. It became evident that for this parish to succeed, much had to be done to organize and motivate the people. At this time, there was a little over $10,000 in the General Fund and slightly over $12,000 in the Building Fund. There was a lot of work which needed to be done to increase these numbers. And so the calling rings began.
Fr. Milovan immediately introduced himself to the other Orthodox clergy in the Atlanta area. It was Fr. Peter Shportun of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church who told him of a certain Fr. Warren Tanghe who might have space for them to rent for their Sunday services. Two weeks later, on February 2, the Serbs began worshipping on a regular basis, serving Saturday evening Vesper services and Sunday morning Divine Liturgy in a small hall belonging to Fr. Warren's Church of Our Saviour Episcopalian Church. Graciously, Father Warren offered this room to the group free of charge, for however long they needed it.
Father Milovan's first "full-time" altar boy was Stevan Simic, who quickly learned his role in the Liturgy. It wasn't long before he was teaching other boys what to do behind the altar. On that Sunday, following the Divine Liturgy, there was a meeting held to elect members of the 1997church board. It was decided that the board members who had successfully brought a priest to Atlanta would stay for another year. On February 22, a welcoming banquet was held in honor of Father Milovan and Popadija Tatiana at the Greek church hall in Marrieta. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Atlanta parish.
Although there were services held each week, as well as the total commitment of Father Milovan, the problem of attendance wasn't improving. In April, an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the Eastern Orthodox Pascha, mentioned Fr. Milovan and the newly-organized Serbian congregation. Pascha brought in a record 90-plus people to the Divine Liturgy. The following weekend, a picnic was held to celebrate the feast. During 1997 five picnics, in total, were held. The first picnic was a big success in terms of numbers of people as well as money raised. Unfortunately, attendance died down at the following picnics. However, it was with these picnics that an almost completely new group of people started taking control of social events. More and more new members outside of the original core group were becoming involved. Of course, Popadija Tatiana was a tremendous help in this field. To her aid was Marjorie Mancini, Donna Vudrag, Goran Jovanovic, and Milo Bratic (who supplied the church with 'cevapcici'), just to name a few.
Now having their first full-time priest, the parish thought it was time they officially celebrate their church Slava. On a July 12, 1997, a beautiful Saturday morning, the people met at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church for the Divine Liturgy. His Grace Bishop Mitrophan officiated in the service along with Fr. Nikodim and Fr. Milovan. That evening there was a short vesper service, after which a formal banquet was held.
Appropriately chosen, the kumovi for the first Slava were Chris and Mitzie Gousetis. That evening over $10,000 was raised, with great thanks to the kumovi donating $5,000 themselves! In short, it was a complete success. After the dinner, Bishop explained the Serbian tradition of the solicitation for the next year's kumovi and Vladimir Vujic spoke up to take the role on for himself and wife, Radina. Immediately following the speeches, a short folklore program was displayed, under the direction of Popadija Tatiana.
This enthusiastic momentum continued as many exciting things happened in the fall of 1997. Simo Tesla stepped up to take over as the choir director, beginning weekly practices and heightening participation. Popadija organized the first Church School classes in September. Teachers included Pauline Bergert, Marjorie Mancini, Jasmina Spector, as well as Popadija herself. Since the church was confined to a single room, it was decided that the children's classes would meet once a month, while the parents went on to a coffee hour in one of the church's other halls. During Bishop Mitrophan's last visit of the year, he sat in with the classes, visiting with the children. His Grace was thrilled to see the work being done for the future generations of the Serbian Orthodox people in Atlanta. Thanks to hard work and efforts of the teachers and parents, the children were taught to pray in the Serbian Orthodox Church, in the fashion and language that their fathers and grandfathers used. All of the hard work and dedication of Bishop Mitrophan, Father Nikodim, and Father Milovan, as well as the honorable and Christ-loving Serbian Orthodox people of Atlanta, Georgia, could be seen in the reflection of the eyes of our young Serbian children.
As 2001 closed, our dream of buying land and/or property we can call home was slowly becoming a reality. The members of the church board were correct in their assumptions that a full-time priest can make a difference, as they look at the Building Fund which had about $110,000 by year's end.
With the start of 2002, our parish literally entered new territory, as we purchased and moved into our first property! Renovations and improvements are still ongoing.
We welcome our new priest, Father Sasa Turkic!
In late 2004, we started a new building fund. Our church has grown so fast that we need a new building for the liturgy and for social functions.
Donations can be sent to:
Ss. Peter and Paul Serbian Orthodox Church
P. O. Box 466036
Lawrenceville, GA 30042-6036