The newly finished St. Sava Cathedral was everything that the community wanted and needed. The Church* was the focal point of all things Serbian and Eastern Orthodox. A large worship area allowed for many worshipers to gather on Sundays and holidays alike. The large hall space enabled gatherings such as weddings, folk festivals, and dinners. St. Sava Cathedral was everything the Serbian community lacked at their first church on East 36th Street. The political atmosphere back in Yugoslavia would change this rather quickly. The once peaceful community shattered in two, resulting in two St. Savas. Why are there two identically named churches for the Serbs just miles apart? Read on.
Lazar Krivokapic was the first Serb-Montenegrin that settled in Cleveland; he arrived in 1893. Unlike other earlier settlers from Serbia, highly educated Krivokapic served as a diplomat in Constantinople, part of the Ottoman Empire. Besides this, most of the newly established Serbs worked in heavy industry and low-wage jobs. A steady increase in their numbers took place in Cleveland, and by 1914, over 1,000 Serbs settled in Cleveland alone. During the early to mid-20th century, Serbian families lived together in large family structures called Zadruge. Within each Zadruga lived the extended family of up to sixty people. With their settlement in Cleveland, most Serbs found the American family structure a traumatic departure from what they had known in Europe. Most of those coming from Zadruge came from Serbia’s rural areas, with limited industrial experiences, such as steel and iron factory work. Most immigrants lived close to their places of employment. Serbs were no exception, tending to settle in Cleveland proper to be near the factories. The earliest settlements were in what is now Ohio City, Broadway, areas immediately east of East 9th, and Collinwood. Collinwood Serbs worked in the railroad yards, while those living near downtown worked in the factories and boutiques. The opening of Republic Steel in the flats created new job opportunities. Serbs built boarding houses to accommodate themselves.
The outbreak of World War I devastated Serbia, as it lost around 3.1 million soldiers and civilians. Cleveland Serbs would heed the call of war and defend the motherland. Between 400 and 500 Serbs left Cleveland to fight in the European theatre. The Plain Dealer stated, "If Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, and France mobilize, Cleveland may witness an exodus unparalleled in the history of any American city, an exodus which may have a paralyzing effect on the industrial and commercial life of the community." The Cleveland Slavs, Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes were all told to guard against foreign pressure to strike during World War I. This was important because most of the southern Slavs at the time worked in the industrial complex. Today, St. Sava Cathedral in Parma holds a plaque of all those who left and lost their lives in the First World War.
Serbians are Eastern Orthodox Christians and the calendar year revolves around the church calendar. Events such as the Slava (family patron saint) are of most importance to the family. Early settlement in Cleveland left many Serbs lonely from the Church as there was no official church building until 1919. Worship services and celebratory events instead took place in rental halls and Serbian cultural societies. In 1919, the community decided to purchase a German Lutheran church, the Third Reformed Church, which was for sale on East 36th Street. It became the first St. Sava in the Cleveland area.
The devastation of World War II sent a surge of new immigration from Yugoslavia to Cleveland. These waves, which took place after World War II, went south to Parma and Seven Hills. After the war, most of those fleeing refused to return to the newly established communist state of Yugoslavia. Ratko Simic, a refugee, stated, "We came to Cleveland shortly after and stayed at Crawford Hotel on Prospect Avenue, where we had to pay $21 a week each for room and board; there were seven of us in one room, and only two beds and one chair in the entire room... About 100 Serbs were immediately employed by the Ferro Company of Cleveland." The majority of the new Serbs coming to Cleveland were prisoners of war and Chetniks, but also those wanting new economic outlooks. The Chetniks were a group of people loyal to the Serbian monarchy and Church, before the communist takeover of Yugoslavia. However, there would not be problems for quite some time, as the pressure was building beneath the surface. Some said that communist Yugoslavia was slowly corrupting the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade, directly spilling over into the United States parishes.
The massive influx of new Serbs in Cleveland was not sustainable for the small church on East 36th Street. St. Sava’s congregation purchased thirty acres in Broadview Heights in 1952 for recreational purposes. Then, in 1961, parish leaders of St. Sava decided to buy and consecrate a parcel of land on the corner of Broadview Road and Ridgewood Drive in Parma for a new church. But only two years later in 1963, the construction of the church ended. Marred by financial issues, local church leadership passed a resolution, making all church members pay $500 to the treasury. Before long, bitterness swept the community, but this would not be the end. Some parishioners began to blame the mother church in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, of communist infiltration.
In 1963, the Holy Synod of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, under Patriarch German's leadership, removed Bishop Dionisije as the American-Canadian diocese's sole leader. In doing so, they created three more dioceses to be split amongst three Bishops. Many Serbian organizations stated that the Holy Synod was forced to break the large dioceses in three by the Commission of Religious Affairs, a communist Yugoslav entity. Many organizations and parishioners stated that communists had infiltrated the Serbian Orthodox Church and, in doing so, sided with Bishop Dionisije. Factions developed, and parishioners that sided with Belgrade held services with Father Branko Skaljac. Those who sided with Bishop Dionisije sided with Father Branko Kusonjic. However, both factions claimed rights to the newly built church of St. Sava and its properties.
After a long twelve years of bitter litigation in court (during which the Parma church was completed in 1965), the pro-Belgrade faction received St. Sava and half the lot in 1975. The Bishop Dionisije/pro-American-Canadian diocese faction received the other half of the lot and the picnic grounds in Broadview Heights. In 1980, the Bishop Dionisije faction, now known as the Free Serbian Orthodox Church, finished building another St. Sava in Broadview Heights. It was not until February 1992 that Patriarch Pavle (Paul) came to Cleveland to stop the bitter ongoing dispute that ended the decades-long animosity. Now, people from both churches mix for events, religious services, picnics, and soccer tournaments.
*In this story, the uppercase "Church" means the whole body of Serbian Orthodox believers, while lowercase "church" refers to the physical building, except when part of the official name.