The history of the early parish years can be written today based mainly on what has been said and published in previous Anniversary parish books, Diocesan publications and Church bulletins. Some important historical facts of St. Sava Church can also be found in the “History of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America and Canada,” published by the Bishop of Sumadija, Dr. Sava Vukovic and in the “History of the Serbian Orthodox Church,” published by Prof. Stanimir Spasovic. There are also several published books about prominent community individuals that can be of interest for St. Sava church history.
I. St. Sava Church, Los Angeles
St. Sava parish has two churches: the St. Sava Church of Los Angeles, and the St. Sava Church of San Gabriel. Church records show that early settlers of Los Angeles emigrated primarily from Serbian lands of Boka, Hercegovina, Montenegro and Vojvodina. The long and storied history of St. Sava parish begins with the St. Sava Church of Los Angeles. According to early pioneers Todor Colich, Risto Kilibarda, Todor Batinich, Danilo Dakovich, Todor Polich, and Jovo Kujundzic, the history of St. Sava dates back to the formation of the Serbian Benevolent Society “Jedinstvo” organized in May of 1903. They purchased the property for cemeteries located at 2nd and Humphrey St. in East Los Angeles. The land was consecrated in the year 1908 by Father Sebastian Dabovich of San Francisco. The occasion turned out to be a great celebration rich in Serbian tradition consisting of barbequed lamb, kolo, gusle and songs. One of the members watching this celebration joyfully made a comment: “Blessed be the one, who will be the first to be buried in this cemetery.” Within a short period of time he became ill and died. He was the first to be buried in this cemetery in 1909. Petar Bakoc’s gravestone can still be found in the left East corner of the cemetery.
After the land for the Cemetery was purchased, the pioneers started plans for building a Church. In 1909, a special committee of well-known people was selected to collect donations. The members of this committee were: Gilgo Dabovich of Trebinje, Dusan Cerovina of Ljubinje, Milivoje Pekich of Drobnjak, Jovo Ukropina of Trebinje, Lazar Simovich of Niksic, Stanko Kilibarda of Banjani, Petar Janicic of Banjani, Danilo Dakovich of Grahovo, Sako Zarubica of Drobnjak, Krsto Kisich of Bilece, and Mihailo Budincich of Ljubinje. The time to have a church was appropriate. The Serbian community grew to a larger number of people. According to Bishop Sava, Serbian colonies and churches in America were visited in 1910 by a prominent Serbian Stevan Karamata. He was the director of the Serbian bank of Budapest and was sent by Patriarch Lukian to find out how many Serbian emigrants live in America. In his list of Serbian churches and colonies he found that 2,000 Serbians settled mainly around the newly built church of St. Sava in Los Angeles. However, these immigrants did not have money. They worked hard jobs as common laborers for very small wages. As they helped to buy the cemetery property, they did not have money to purchase extra land for the church. The selected committee asked the lodge ‘Jedinstvo’ for help and a piece of the cemetery land was donated for the church. The church was built and consecrated by a great missionary Very Rev. Fr. Sebastian Dabovich of San Francisco in 1910. Fr. Dabovich was the first Serbian priest born in America. In 1894 he organized and erected the first Serbian church in America at Jackson. St. Sava church of Los Angeles was the first Orthodox Church built in Southern California.
Being far away from the Diocesan center in Libertyville, Illinois, it took several years for St. Sava parish to leave the Russian Church and join the Serbian American—Canadian Diocese that was organized on November 1, 1921. St. Sava Church officially joined the Serbian Diocese in February 1927 at the meeting of the Congregation at which Bishop Mardarie Uskokovich was personally present.
The priests that have served the St. Sava Church of Los Angeles are: Father Sebastian Dabovich, Fr. Nikodim Stojakovich, Fr. Jakov Hodzich, Fr. George Milosavljevich, Fr. George Hodzich, Fr. Vojislav Gacinovich, Fr. Mirko Vujisich, Fr. Dimitrije Balach, Fr. Marko Malovrazich, Fr. Bozidar Draskovich, Fr. Jovan Kovacevich, Fr. Lazar Kostur, Fr. Paul Poznanov, and Fr. Petar Jovanovic who has been serving the parish since January 1980.
II. St. Sava Church of San Gabriel
Many Serbian Churches and monasteries are influenced to be built in a certain place by the donator. That was also the reason why the new St. Sava church was built in San Gabriel. In 1956, St. Sava Church member Charles S. Barzut donated a house with a large lot adjoining. In 1962, the parish started to make preparations to build St. Sava Church hall at 1640 S. San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel. The Church Hall was completed and consecrated in May 1963 by Rt. Rev. Bishop Dionisije and parish priest Fr. Marko Malovrazich. This was the last building blessed by Bishop Dionisije before the division happened in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
I was included in the history of the St. Sava Church at the beginning of 1980. I joined the Western-American Diocese coming from the parish of Milwaukee’s St. Sava Cathedral of Mid- Western Diocese where I was an associate priest with Fr. Milan Markovina. When I arrived the Liturgical services were conducted in a chapel on the second floor with adjacent rooms for Sunday school at the South side of the Church Hall. Also, services were held every last Sunday of the month at the Old St. Sava Church of Los Angeles. I remember Bozo Milinovic, a longtime church member and church cantor telling me: “Father, your challenge will be to build a new church next to our church hall. I know it will not be easy, but with God’s help, the dream of so many people will become a reality.” And the first important step was made. On April 12, 1981, a Construction Committee was elected to build the new church. This committee consisted of Petar Kujundzich, the Chair Person, and members: John Pecel, William Radulovich, Nick Kavic, Stanley Vukoje, George Gustovich, and Nick Pekovich. Later, Mike Perko took Nick Pekovich’s place due to Nick’s having to leave town for business. When Mike Perko left, Daniel Pavich joined the Committee. Construction for the new St. Sava Church in San Gabriel began on May 20, 1981.
On October 28, 1984, with God’s will, the new St. Sava Church was consecrated by His Grace Rt. Rev. Bishop Gregory with the participation of all the Bishops from the United States and Canada, and Metropolitan Jovan of Zagreb Diocese, who was representing Serbian Patriarch German. The parish priest personally brought the Holy Relics of the Great Martyr Prince Lazar for the Church dedication. The consecration of the Church was a very joyous event. The Choir led by then Choir Director Milos Raicevic, son of the well-known Serbian poet Stevan Raicevic responded very professionally. The Sunday School presented a beautiful program. The Kolo Group under the supervision of their teacher Pat Ducich made an excellent presentation. President of the Executive Board George Vukazich praised the dedication of Church members with the words “Pregaocima Bog daje mahove – God helps those who are dedicated in their endeavors.” The Chairman of the Construction committee Petar Kujundzich was specially praised by the priest for his hard work during the time of the Church construction. In his speech, the priest emphasized the importance of God’s House. He reminded people that through the services in God’s house we build the architectural construction of our souls.
One year later, in March 1986, St. Sava Parish hired Sirio Tonelli, a high class artist to create and install the mosaic iconography in the St. Sava Church interior. He was born in Florence, Italy and comes from the place of famous Renaissance painters. The mosaic was made in Florence before it was installed in the Church. It was created in Byzantine tradition touched with Renaissance spirit displaying beauty and grace. Judging by what has been done so far; the Church looks majestic and makes a very spiritual impression on every visitor, and especially on the faithful of the congregation. Looking at this masterpiece of art, one must agree with the 12th century observer of intrinsic beauty Abbot Suger who said: “It is only through symbols of beauty that our poor spirits can raise themselves from things temporal to things eternal.” (The Creators p. 233) by Daniel J. Boorstein. Being of such splendor, the St. Sava Church through the attention of the media was featured in KCTV popular program “Visiting with Huell Howser.” The producer promised to make another show in honor of 100 years of St. Sava parish history.
There is no doubt that there have been difficult days during these 100 years of St. Sava Parish history of Los Angeles and San Gabriel as well. However, regardless of what disappointments people were challenged with, they always had a clear vision of how to advance towards a better future. I have been personally blessed by God with good health, courage and conviction to continue my pastoral work for the last 30 years at St. Sava Parish. As we mark this year our 100th Anniversary my pastoral message to the parishioners is to stay committed to our Orthodox faith. This means to stay committed to the Kingdom of God which starts with the beginning of Divine Liturgy. I hope that our two St. Sava Churches will serve that purpose. For Orthodox Christians, where there is Divine Liturgy, there is the Church.
It is important for St. Sava parish to also preserve the cultural tradition and heritage accumulated for centuries by the rich Serbian history molded by Orthodox faith. Nothing would be more tragic for the Orthodox people than the loss of its rich tradition. The feeling of that cultural tradition and heritage was ever present in the souls of our first immigrants who built St. Sava Church of Los Angeles. Our generation now at St. Sava Church is entrusted to carry on that spirit.
Yours in Christ, V. Rev. Stavr. Petar Jovanovic