For more than 110 years, the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral has been a cornerstone of Serbian immigrant community in Milwaukee exemplifying perseverance of our faith and connection to our ancestors.
The Founding of the Congregation
There were few Serbian immigrants in the city of Milwaukee before the beginning of the 20th century, but by 1912 there were about two and a half thousand Serbian souls here. A great number of Serbs settled in towns surrounding Milwaukee and this number accordingly was much greater. The first institutions established by the Serbian immigrants were the fraternal benevolent Lodges. Four such lodges existed before the founding of the church congregation. A great need was felt for a church. The following people took the initiative to found a church congregation here: Rade Ostojic, Aleksa Klisanac, Mile Rausevic, Nikola Kordic, Obren Zdrale and Marko Novakovic. They called for an assembly of Serbians to take place on February 8, 1912 in the shop of Rade Ostojic, where the founding of the Serbian Orthodox Church took place. Seven days later they presented a petition to the city and county authorities for permission to found the church.
In addition to those who signed this petition, the following people participated in the initial founding of the congregation: Nikola Latinovich, Iso Agbaba, Trivo Bjelajac, Mile Drobac, Vaso Miljus, Luka Stojsavljevic, Milan Jovanovic, Dahcar Zoric, Petar Zoric, Rade and Mile Maricic, Nikola Ciganovic, Simo Bukvic and Dane Medich.
That same year, the house at 724 S. 3rd St. was purchased and transformed into a house of worship. The house was registered in the name of Rade Ostojic who acted as a temporary president. The house was purchased for $3,500.00. A down payment of $500.00 was made and the remainder was paid off monthly on a land contract. The first Divine Liturgy was served on Christmas Day, January 7th, 1913.
First Executive Board
On March 21st of the following year, the first election assembly was held and the first executive board of the church congregation was elected. Vaso Dragojlovich was elected the first president, Simo Ozegovich vicepresident, Mihailo Javorina secretary, Trivo Bjelajac treasurer, Jovo Goronja president of the auditing committee and Uros Sijan and Alex Klisanac as members of the auditing committee. The first elected church board was made of reputable and distinguished men. They succeeded in placing the congregation on a solid foundation.
Vintage Photo Gallery
1912 - 1942
1942 - 1956
1956 - 1958
1960 - 1969
1970 - 1979
1980 - 1989
Early Parish Priests
There were 12 parish priests at the Church of St. Sava during the first period: Dusan Bogich 1912, Ilija Kapidjich 1912, Arhimandrite Hadji Joanikije Markovich-Decanac 1913, 1915, Milan Jugovich 1914, Pavle Veljkov 1916, Janicije Kukuljevich 1917 and 1918, Prota Milan Mrvicin 1919, and 1924-and again in 1931, and 1936, Prota Filip Sredanovich 1925 and 1926, priest Marko Komnenich 1927-1931, at various times during Fr. Komnenich’s absence Fr. Matija Stijacich served, Prota George Petrovich from 1936 to 1942.
In November of 1942, Prota Milan Brkich was elected as parish priest. With his arrival at the St. Sava Church in Milwaukee there began a new era, filled with enthusiasm and excitement. The new pastor found good men and good Serbs in Milwaukee. This young, energetic visionary surrounded himself with men of good will, those who were constructive and well meaning, and with them he marched without fear or apprehension to create that which was aspired to for many years.
Earlier parish priests also put forth great efforts to preserve and improve the spiritual life of the congregation. Archimandrite Hadji Joanikije Markovich-Decanac was experienced and already in his old age. He worked in this young parish in the year of 1915 to acquire the things necessary for church life. He instituted the record books, which still exist today and are of immeasurable historical value.
It was not easy to preserve and uphold a newly founded congregation from which even as early as 1912, ninety seven men from Milwaukee returned to the old country to participate in the Balkan Wars, and in 1915, two-hundred and sixty-four volunteers returned to take part in the World War I on the front at Salonika. Joanikije Kukuljevich and Marko Komnenich put forth great efforts to uphold the faith and loyalty to the church.
Proto Milan Mrvicin deserves much credit for founding the school and caring for the spiritual and cultural education of both children and adults. Prota George Petrovich-Kordunas also is deserving of great credit for his care for the Serbian youth, especially the choir.
Laying Solid Foundations for the Future
Prota Milan Brkic, who was elected parish priest on Oct. 11, 1942, laid the solid foundations from which everything that we have today would rise. The land on 27th street which was bought in 1938 was sold, for according to the opinion of Fr. Milan it could not satisfy the needs of the congregation.
Fourteen acres were bought at 51st street and West Oklahoma Avenue. In 1946, a decision was made to build American Serb Memorial Hall. The hall was constructed with all of the interior furnishings and was completed and opened July l, 1950. The hall is dedicated to the Milwaukee Serbs, members of the church congregation who have their lives in defense of their homeland, America. The hall was consecrated by the late Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich and the kum was Robert Bob Susnar.
At this time many new immigrants began to arrive in Milwaukee from displaced person camps in Germany. This new immigration by its very nature brought in new potential power to the spiritual community in Milwaukee to enhance its progress. In its first year of operation Serb Hall was incredibly successful. Mike Potter was elected manager of the hall and when it became apparent that the mortgage on the hall would be paid off in two to three years, a special assembly of the church congregation was called in 1951 where it was decided to begin the preparations for the building of a new church. It was decided that each parishioner should contribute $100.00 into the building fund.
On August 25, 1955 it was decided to begin building the new cathedral church of St. Sava in the Serbo-Byzantine style.
The following day, August 26, 1956 saw the celebration of the first Serbian Day and the first shovel of dirt was taken at that time. The land was consecrated by Bishop Dionisije of the American-Canadian Diocese.
Construction of the Church, Sunday School and Parish Home
On October of 1956 work began on the construction of the church, school and parish home. The school was finished by the end of the year and was consecrated March 3, 1957. The kum for the consecration was the church sexton and very active worker, Jovo Devich. Work had gone along very well to the end of the year at which time the period of the spiritual life at the old church was brought to an end.
At a meeting on February 4, 1958, the president of the congregation, George Stojsavljevich, announced that the construction of the new church, school and parish house was complete. At this meeting the building committee was dissolved because it had finished its work, and at a meeting held March 3rd a committee for the dedication booklet was held and Peter Pavlovich elected to its presidency. Workers were in a frenzy to complete the preparations for the consecration which was supposed to take place in combination with the 3rd Serbian Days celebration to be held August 30th and 31st. The reputable church member Milan Prijic was elected to be kum of the consecration.
In February of 1961, a special assembly elected Very Reverend Radovan Milkovich as Milwaukee's second parish priest. Father
Milkovich also served as Director of Religious Education for the Midwest Diocese. After a short time he left the Milwaukee parish and became pastor in Lorain, Ohio.
At the 1961 semi-annual assembly, it was decided to raise a pavilion between the church and Serb Hall and to buy a piece of property in Franklin. In 1962 the Very Reverend Dragoljub Malich was married, ordained as a deacon and began serving the Milwaukee congregation, including duties as Director of the Church School. At its special meeting of July 27, 1963, the Holy Episcopal Assembly of the Serbian Orthodox Church elected V. Rev. Archimandrite Firmilian Ocokoljich as Bishop of the Midwest American Diocese. Preparation for his consecration took place at vespers on July 31, 1963, in the St. Sava Cathedral in Milwaukee. The next day, during the Liturgy, the consecration of Bishop designate His Grace Rt. Rev. Firmilian took place. It is because of this consecration that the church could now officially be designated as a cathedral.
In November of 1964, because of health reasons, Very Reverend Milan Brkich left the parish and went to Arizona. A farewell banquet was held on November 29, and Rev. Sava Vujkov came as his replacement. This was to be a temporary exchange of parishes. Father Vujkov served here for 4 years, after which he transferred to our sister Russian Orthodox Parish of St. Cyril and Methodius here in Milwaukee. In this year Father Malich was ordained into the priesthood and left to serve the Serbian Orthodox Church in Farrell, Pennsylvania. In 1969, Father Milan Markovina, then serving the St. Nicholas parish in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, was elected through a concourse, and assumed duties here on June 15 of that year. In this same year, the 750th Anniversary of the Serbian Orthodox Church was celebrated in our parish, with Dr. Bozidar Purich and Vojvoda Momcilo Djujich as honored speakers. In 1969, a contract was signed with Sirio Tonelli Art Studios for the start of the beautiful and inspired mosaics project that would transform the cathedral.
The baby boom was in full swing and the parish was expanding rapidly with young people. A new facility to host social gatherings and to provide space for youth activities was needed. Milan Damjanovich and Emil Prodanovich had returned from the SNF Basketball Tournament with $1,500 remaining from the travel account for the Milwaukee teams. They presented this to the Board to help start fundraising for a new gymnasium so Milwaukee could host tournaments and have a place for our youth to congregate. Milan, who was serving as Athletic Director at the time, also volunteered to serve as Chairman of the Building Committee. At the semi-annual meeting in July 1971, architects showed plans for he new Cultural Center which would greatly expand the original school and administrative building constructed in the late 1950s. After the vote to proceed, Ilija Potkonjak became the first-and youngest at 1 years old-parishioner to donate, with a five dollar gift. The blessing of the cornerstone took place on June 4, 1972. The main speaker at the cornerstone blessing was Congressman Clement Zablocki.
Also in 1972, the Sumadija Serbian Folk Dance Ensemble featured in a one-half hour television special, produced on 10 in Milwaukee and aired on public television in 13 states. The consecration of the Cultural Center took place on September 1st and 2nd, 1973. This facility has since hosted thousands of cultural, social and sporting events over the years, including major gatherings such as Serbian singing festivals, the Bicentennial Celebration of our nation in 1976, Serb National Federation basketball, golf and bowling tournaments, and Roast and Toasts featuring the state's biggest sports celebrities such as Bob Vecker and Brewers Paul Molitor and Pete Vuckovich and major league umpire Bruce Froemming. In the last 40 years, tens of thousands of basketball players, golfers, dancers and singers have performed and celebrated in our cultural center, which is well known by Serbs nationally.
In 1975, a new second priest was being sought. An election was held at the regular meeting on September 9th, and Reverend George Kechanin and Popadija Peggy, from Pennsylvania, joined the Milwaukee congregation. In this same year Gerasim (Gary) Monafo, of the Milwaukee parish, was ordained to the rank of deacon. After his ordination he traveled of Belgrade of continue his studies at the Theological Faculty.
In 1976, preparations for the celebration of the American B-i Centennial resulted in a great demonstration of Serbian cultural accomplishment. In an unprecedented event, the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center was the venue for the performance of Albanska Golgotha and Father Milan Markovina's presentation of "Srpska Varijacija." Also, the Cultural Center hosted an
extravaganza of Serbian dancing and choral singing in honor of the nation's 200th birthday in front of hundreds of parishioners and political leaders. With energy and enthusiasm, Serbians proudly saluted their country and fellow Americans, and stood tall at this important time in American history. Because of the exceptional success of the celebration of America's Bi Centennial at the parish, Bishop Firmilian of the Midwest American Diocese was pleased to award an Episcopal Gramata to Father Milan and Stevan (Bato) Radjenovic, the president of the congregation. Father Milan received his pectoral cross at a banquet celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination and marriage to Protinica Martha, hosted by the St. Sava Milwaukee Parish. In
receiving the Gramata, both the pastor and the president stated that the honor did not belong only to them, but to all members
of the parish, and to the Stevan Sijacki Choir and the Circle of Serbian Sisters. This was for their efforts to assure the success of
this celebration as well as the success of the Vidovdan banquet and celebration in honor of Crown Prince Alexander that same year.
In 1977, Father George was assigned to another parish and Father Peter Jovanovich and Popadija Ljiljana came in his place, from March 1978 to February of 1980, when he was assigned to St. Sava Church in San Gabriel, California.
After years of volunteers helping our clergy in the office, in 1978it was decided that a part-time secretary should be hired. Marcia Jovanovich began on April 2, 1978 and is still serving in this capacity today. For the past 15 years Mrs. Connie Subotich has worked alongside Marcia in the office, volunteering every day for her church and community. Another great lady and very capable writer/reporter, Kata Djakovich Parker recorded and put together chronicles from 1912 - 1984 for posterity, in memory of those Serbian Orthodox Faithful who immigrated to Milwaukee in the early 1900's and founded the St. Sava Orthodox Parish. These records are kept in our newly built and renovated library.
In 1980, three new church bells in the cathedral were blessed by His Grace Bishop Lavrentije of Western Europe. Slavko Bjelosevich and Nikola Ninkovich were kumovi for the blessing of the bells. Also that year, ni agesture to express our gratitude for hisserviceandcontributionstothechurchandour parishioners, the congregation raised and blessed the headstone of Very Reverend Milan Brkich in Libertyville.
In March 1980, Father Janko Trbovich was accepted as second priest. The first 75 years of the church's existence was capped by the 50th anniversary celebration of the Stevan Sijacki Choir. A grand gathering was held amidst beautiful choral singing from
guest choir S Stevan Hristich Choir of Phoenix, Arizona, followed by a banquet. In 1982, Father Janko was assigned to Phoenix, Arizona, and Milwaukee was served by substitute priests assisting Father Milan until 1989. In November 1983, the parishioners celebrated the burning of the mortgage and the 25th anniversary of the consecration of St. Sava Cathedral. This celebration also included the elevation of Very Reverend Milan Markovina, whom the highest body of theSerbian Orthodox Church-the Holy Episcopal Synod--decorated with the pectoral cross. This triple celebration was a very meaningful day in the history of our church congregation.
On November 3, 1984, Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, appeared at the Cultural Center as part of his national re-election campaign. Security was high, including the placement of agents on the roof of the center and church, and stationed throughout the campus. At 6:06 PM, standing alongside Father Milan, President Reagan began with the
Well yours is a beautiful state, of course. But the best thing about Wisconsin is you, her people. I'm happy to be here with the sons and daughters of Wisconsin's immigrants, brave people who have followed their dreams to America, pushed back our frontiers, and built strong and thriving cities like this one. Your church and the lovely mural behind me reminds us our proud heritage, remind us how blessed we are to live in this land of hope and in a new world where all things are possible.
That impressive mural, painted with infinite love and patience by Drakse Louderback, still hangs proudly on the Cultural Center stage to this day.
On March 7, 1985 a committee was organized to collect donations for the National Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade at
Vracar, and to date more than $300,000 has been sent for that cause. St Sava-Milwaukee donated $80,000 for one bell alone - the second largest in the Vracar bell tower. Our church school congregation not only assumed a leadership position in the
entire Serbian Orthodox Church by this work, but in doing so demonstrated our high spiritual awareness and love for our patron saint and enlightener, St. Sava. The Milwaukee congregation was awarded the highest honor by the church: the St. Sava Order of the First Degree.
In 1986, the Cultural Center was filled to capacity for the International Folk Spectacular, which raised $19,000 for Vracar
in one evening. Bob and June Milkovich were instrumental in organizing the event. Hosted by dual masters of ceremonies
Bob Milkovich and Paul Markovina, a crowd of 1,500 viewed performances by guest groups representing the Hawaiians,
Slovaks, Bulgarians and Ukrainians, who were joined by the St. Sava Sumadija Dancers, Junior Dancers and Sumadija
Alumni Dancers. These groups were supported by five different orchestras playing together, along with multiple and combined
choirs. Rarely was the hall filled with so much excellent diverse, multi-cultural music and spirit.
CONTENT FOR 1990s+ COMING SOON
Payoff of Six Loans
Due to various circumstances, the church had been trapped into massive debt obligations to the Tri City National Bank. In February 2022, the total balance for six loans in question was $621,679, almost a 20% of the total annual church budget. Soon after, a newly-elected church board formed a subcommittee with a single goal, which is to organize paying off this debt as soon as possible, so as not to defer the problem to our children and future generations.
In the months ahead, our parish achieved the monumental goal of becoming a debt-free church earlier this year. A historic fundraiser that began in February of 2022 was concluded by a fabulous celebration of the achievement on April 30th when about 600 people attended the gala party.
The fundraising campaign was highlighted by the 620 x $1,000 = Debt Free Church slogan, indicating simple math needed to pay off the total prorated/approximate balance of $620,000 associated with six church loans. The final collected amount of $668,926 came as a true blessing from God because not only did we meet our goal, but we exceeded it. The excess funds collected from this fundraiser will be used for the most pressing church repair/maintenance projects and operational expenses.
This was only possible due to generosity of our parishioners and other people of good will, which serves as yet another reminder that only the sky's the limit when we’re united.