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    Croatian American community in New York and the American spirit – part 1

    The Croatian diaspora in the United States is one of the largest and oldest communities that live outside of Croatia. There are at least 1,200,000 Croats living in the United States, and most reside in the largest cities in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburg, Southern California, New York, New Jersey, and Cleveland. One of the oldest happens to be in the New York area where the largest Croatian community still thrives. 

    There are currently over 24,000 Croats who still live in New York where the largest communities are in Manhattan and Astoria, Queens. From simple farmers, fishermen, and shipbuilders to business professionals, engineers, lawyers, and real estate agents, the Croatian American spirit of hard work and freedom thrives multi-generationally to succeed in a country they would call home while also acknowledging their overwhelming loyalty to their Croatian homelands.

    Origins of Croatians Americans 

    The earliest record of Croatian Americans dates back further to the 15th century. For thousands of years, the Adriatic Sea provided a commercial advantage for the inhabitants on the Dalmatian coast with its rich Mediterranean climate suitable for the cultivation of olives, vine, and citrus fruits. These communities thrived as a small but powerfully wealthy independent Republic of Ragusa, a city-state also known as Dubrovnik. These advantages provided skilled navigators and seamen who were in great demand for the Spanish and Italians. According to a legend, the first Ragusan sailors were onboard Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Caribbean and eventually settled in North American colonies in the Carolinas and openly traded with Spain in respect to a treaty signed in 1494. Although there are many legends surrounding Ragusan settlers, including their interactions with the natives in the English Roanoke colony, one of the earliest mentions of them was recorded in a 17th-century letter written between a Spanish diplomatic representative and the government of Dubrovnik stating that “many Ragusans” were currently inhabiting in North America.  

    According to a Croatian genealogist, Adam Eterovich, the first Croatian ships arrived in New York harbor in 1791 on the ship of Postojani. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Dalmatian coasts were largely ignored and underdeveloped while controlled by Venice and the overexpanded Austro-Hungarian Empire. Development started diminishing into the 1800s and led to many landless peasants and rural communities affected by vine diseases called phylloxera that spread throughout Dalmatia in the 1890s. As the first steamship lines quickly brought the shipbuilding industry to a collapse, thousands of Dalmatians flocked to the United States seeking a better life and financial means to pay off debts left by proprietors on their land and properties. Most of these emigrants were young men who were forced to leave their families behind to seek employment at various locations to pay off expenses or support their loved ones in Croatia. Some of them never returned to their Croatian homelands. From 1880 to the end of World War I, this period was called the “new immigration” where at least 20,000 Croatian emigrants settled and lived in the United States and many settled in Hoboken New Jersey, Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan, Astoria, Queens, and Northport Long Island, where many took on lower-skilled employment, including factory, dock and shipping, construction, etc. This influx would carry out to the interwar years and significantly increased during and after World War II, particularly by involuntary reasons of political oppression of Croats during the former Yugoslavia. 

    Fraternity and Culture 

    Over the years of growing emigration in the early 20th century, Croatian emigrants began forming groups linked to employment-seeking and faith-building throughout various parishes and organizations. One of the earliest Croatian immigrant societies was formed in the late 1800s focusing on fraternity benefits through life insurance and employment security. The largest fraternity in the Croatian immigrant community is Hrvatska Bratska Zajednica (The Croatian Fraternal Union) founded in 1894 in Pittsburg Pennsylvania and continues to serve thousands of members in the New York area and various parts of the U.S.. The Istrian Seamen’s Benevolent society club is also a few immigrant organizations that facilitates with employment needs for low skilled workers and is known to be the oldest existing clubs in New York and the United States. Founded in 1924 in 823 Greenwich St., Manhattan, the club was founded by old sailors, immigrants from Eastern Istria who were mostly men who had families back in Istria and struggled to find steady jobs without insurance. They lived in boarding houses that were poorly kept, which caused them and their family’s numerous illnesses, but most had no money to support their livelihoods, so the club was formed to provide those in financial need. These services included coverage for funerals, illnesses, and unemployment coverage from all organized dances, picnics, and events to raise funds.  

    Along with these organizations, the catholic church has severed to be the prominent influence to unifying Croatian emigrant communities in reconnecting with loved ones and friends. St. Cyril & Methodius Croatian Roman Catholic Church opened in 1913 in Manhattan and is considered the oldest parish in New York and still services at least 2000 parishioners every week. St. Cyril & Methodius also has a school where young children can attend Catechism classes and engage in folk groups where they present traditional tamburitza music and kolo or circle dances from various Croatian regions. 

    Community and Faith

    For over 50 years, folk groups, such as HKUD Kralj Zvonimir and Kardinal Stepinac, have contributed an important role in influencing young Croatian Americans about the importance of preserving their cultural roots and continue to inspire future generations of Croatian American children of all ages. Folklore and kolo dance group called Hrvatska Ruza is part of the Croatian Community in Astoria. Founded 1994 Hrvatska Ruza also performances in Croatian songs and dances from various regions and is part of preserving the Croatian language and culture. Musical groups like Klapa Astoria and Astrid Kuljanić Trio have also performed and entertain Croatian communities to bring sounds from Dalmatia to New York with these kolo groups in various cultural festivals, New York Croatian restaurants, and even sport arenas. 

    Astoria – Queens also has a dedicated parish that dates to over 100 years. Most Precious Blood Parish Astoria celebrated its first mass in 1922 on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Croatian Community in existence since 1971 in that Parish took name Apostolate of Blessed Ivan Merz. A candidate for sainthood, Blessed Ivan Merz (1896-1928) served in World War I and became a college professor of French language and literature in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia. As a lay servant to the church, he was credited for advancing the liturgical revival among Croats in the 1920s and the formation of the “League of Young Croatian Catholics” and the “League of Eagles” to guide young Croats about spiritual growth in Christ and his teachings. Blessed Ivan Merz died in 1928 at the age of 32 from a severe jaw infection. 

    In next article, read about Science and the Arts.


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