Kansas City, KS - On October 11, a group of seven pilgrims boarded a plane to Belgrade, Serbia for the annual trip to visit the old country. Except for Fr. Alex, it was the first time for all of the travelers to go and see the places they have heard so much about in their childhoods from their grandparents who came from there. The travelers were Danny and Dinah Zeck; Pat and Jason Hinkle; catechumen Dino Rodish, and Julie Rodish Leo from St. Demetrius Serbian Orthodox mission parish in Des Moines, Iowa.
The group arrived in Belgrade on Tuesday, Oct. 12 in the early afternoon. At the airport, Milan Vezmar, our driver for the entire pilgrimage, picked us up and drove to the city of Novi Sad, which is about 50 miles north of Belgrade and sits on the Danube river. We spent our first night in Serbia in Novi Sad. On October 13-15 we traveled through the Fruska Gora area, visiting monasteries and churches and enjoying the autumn sites of Serbia. We visited several monasteries located in the hills of Fruska Gora (Grgeteg, Hopovo, Krusedol and Mala Remeta), and the St. Nicholas cathedral in Sremski Karlovci and the Orthodox Seminary located in that historical town. During the rest of our travel through Serbia we saw the towns of Irig, Beograd, Despotovac, Krusevac, Trstenik, Kraljevo, Kragujevac and Topola; the monstaeries Manasija, Ravanica, ljubostinja, Zica; and the church mausoleum of the Karadjordjevic dynasty of St George called Oplenac in Topola, Serbia. Our faith was renewed as we prayed at the relics of St. Lazar of Kosovo, (a small piece of his relics were sealed in our church in Lenexa at its consecration). We venerated many wonderworking ikons and relics and offered our prayers for the health of our families and friends. Fr. Alex explained each place the group visited or drove by, and was the translator during the trip. Even though the economy in Serbia is suffering a lot, the people we met were so kind and hospitable, and made us feel right at home. We have experienced true Serbian hospitality and enjoyed delicious fresh homemade foods, and of course Serbian Sljivovica everywhere we went. Everyone bought some souvenirs at the monasteries to take home to remind them of this wonderful spiritual pilgrimage. Dinah Zeck purchased a lot of Serbian souvenirs and Orthodox ikons and crosses, and by the end of the trip she had a whole suitcase of ethnic items which she brought back to our church, and the items were sold at our annual Bazaar in November.
On Friday, Oct. 15 after we visited Oplenac and the museum of King Peter I of Yugoslavia, and had a fabulous Lenten meal at a local restaurant, we continued our trip to Croatia. The ride in a van took about 6 hours to reach the town of Plaski in Lika, Croatia. We arrived there around 11:30 pm and stopped by the local St Mary’s (Vavedenije) church and the rectory where Fr. Goran Slavnic, his popadija Tanja and a group of parishioners welcomed us and had a delicious meal prepared for us in the rectory. They treated us as though we knew each other, with open arms and a big heart, just like Serbs do in USA. Plaski is a town in northern Croatia, and until the second war it was the see of the Gornjokarlovacki Bishop Sava. In the second war Bishop Sava together with eight priests and the most eminent Serbs of the town were slaughtered by the Craotian Nazis. Their beautiful cathedral was desecrated. During the communist period after the end of the war the church was neglected, and currently it is in very bad shape. Plaski is the birth place of most of the original Serbs who came to KC. Pat and Jason were overwhelmed when they met their relatives Latas and Dokmanovic, saw the villages, remains of the old homes where their family members where born and visited the old town cemetery. There were a lot of laughs and tears! On Saturday evening we attended vespers and enjoyed a great party prepared by the priest and local people. On Sunday, we attended the Divine Liturgy and Fr. Alex served together with Fr. Goran. After the Liturgy we served a parastos for all KC Serbs who were baptized in the church. Fr. Alex made a list of more than 100 people, and it was very emotional. We drove to the city of Glina and the village of Buzeta, the birthplace of Danny Zeck’s grandparents. We saw the Nativity of the Theotokos Church in Glina and met Fr. Slobodan Drakulic, a local priest and a wonderful man. The most important moment was when Fr. Slobodan told us that Pavao Zec from Glina is coming to meet his relative from America. Danny and Pavao gave each other a huge hug and many kisses -- we who know Danny can imagine how emotional this scene was! We saw the village of Buzeta, the Zec family farm, the land where the old church of St Elijah was until 1995 when it was burned, and the cemetery where the Zec family is buried. Danny's grandfather changed his last name from Zec, (means rabbit) to Zeck.
After Glina we drove to Plitvice Lakes and Korenica where we met Fr. Dalibor Tanasic, who showed us the town and the church in the village of Vrelo. The next day was the feast of St. Thomas (Oct. 19) and our goal was to go to the village of Mutilic near Udbina where the baptism of Dino Rodish would take place by the ruins of Holy Transfiguration Church. Dino and Juile’s grandparents are from there and were all baptized in this church. It was a little cold but the hearts of all were filled by the warmth of the Holy Spirit and Dino was baptized by Fr. Dalibor and Fr. Alex and received his baptismal name Toma, Serbian for Thomas. Danny Zeck was Kum and, Zdravko Radocaj and his wife (relatives of Dino and Julie) attended the baptism and stayed with us while we were there. Around the church is the small cemetery, and about 200 yards away is the sub village of Popovici where Julie's grandma was born. Dino and Julie’s last name was Americanized in Iowa from Radocaj to Rodish. We went to the village of Krcana where the Radocaj’s came from, went to the small village cemetery and enjoyed a very tasty lunch at the local restaurant in honor of Toma’s baptism. We had a soup, cheese and smoked meat and roasted “Jagnjetina” with trimmings and yes, rakia and pivo.
The most valuable souvenirs the Zecks , Hinkles and Rodishs took from Lika were the dirt and rocks from the family farms and some household items they found in the destroyed family homes.
After Udbina we drove to Gospic and the village of Smiljan, the birth place of Nikola Tesla a famous US scientist who was born there.
We left Lika and the wonderful people there filled with great emotions and a desire to come back again. The lives of the pilgrims were spiritually filled with love and a lot of satisfaction and enormous gratefulness to God, along with an appreciation for Fr. Alex for organizing the pilgrimage and taking them to see where their roots are and to finally see the reality of the stories they had heard from their grandparents.
We stopped in Jasenovac to pay our respects and give honor to all innocent victims of the second war killed in the former concentration camp.
The last day was spent in Beograd, visiting the sites, St. Sava Cathedral, and dining in the famous “Skardarlija” restaurant.
On October 22 we said farewell to Serbia and Lika with a promise we will come back again.