In October, 2017, the parishioners of St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church in Lackawanna, New York celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the consecration of their first church. Located on Church Street in the First Ward of Lackawanna, home to various ethnic communities of immigrants who came to Western New York to work in the steel mills located there, St. Stephen’s was the spiritual and cultural home to the region’s original Serbian community. Eager to build their church as the center of their now American-Serbian community, the Serbian Orthodox people established the Church of St. Stephen the First Martyr in the shadow of the steel mills, where many of the church’s parishioners were employed.
The faithful of the Serbian community were dedicated to the building of a Serbian Orthodox Church. The minutes of their first formal meeting, held January 16, 1916, show the strong intention that led to the establishment of the parish and the purchase of property for a house of worship on Church Street. In these minutes, it was noted that:
The meeting was opened by Brother Jovo Munich, President of the Society “St. Stephen,” who expressed the reasons for the meeting: to organize a Serbian Church-School Parish, with the intention to build first a Serbian Church and later a School.
A statement by Brother Ljuban Vuchkovich, President of the Society “Balkan,” agrees that there should be established at this place a Serbian Church and School. The parish is very necessary and he will ask his members to support and work in that direction.
A temporary Board was elected, with Nikola Sibinchich as President, Ljubomir Vuchkovich as Vice President, Stojsha Rakas as Secretary, Jovo Munich as Treasurer, and Jovo Popovich and Janko Budimirovich as Auditors. Within the year, Rev. Zarko Trifkovich came to service the parish as its priest, and with his spiritual leadership, a Building Committee was formed.
While plans for the establishment of a parish in Lackawanna were underway, the broader plans for a Serbian Orthodox Church presence in North America came to fruition. St. Mardarije (born Ivan Uskokovic on January 2, 1889) was a Serbian student of theology in Russia from 1905 to 1917. On July 3, 1917, the Holy Hierarchical Synod of Russia sent then Hieromonk Mardarije to govern the Serbian Mission in America. It was the special blessing of the St. Stephen community to have its church consecrated by St. Mardarije, who later became the first Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the United States of America and Canada. On August 12, 1917, the Russian Bishop Aleksander Nemolovsky blessed the cornerstone of the church, and on the Feast of the First Martyr and Archdeacon Stephen, the patronal feast of the parish, January 9, 1918, then Sindjel Mardarije (later Bishop and now St. Mardarije) consecrated the new church.
Twenty-three priests have served the St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church from the time of its foundation to the present:
Father Zarko Trifkovich 3/16 to 2/19 and 10/21-9/24
Father Marko Komnenich 9/18 to6/19
Hieromonk Janichije Kukoljevich 9/19 to4/20
Father Pavle Veljkov 5/20 to 6/20 and 7/25 to 9/25
Hieromonk Serafim Vukojevich 6/20 to9/21
Proto David Popovich 10/24 to 1/25 and 11/27 to 7/28
Hieromonk Sava Vujnovich 2/25 to 7/25 and 6/27 to 7/27
Father Haralampije Donevich 11/25 to 5/26
Father Hariton Marijanovich 6/26 to 11/26
Protosindjel Nestor Vukicevich 1/27 to 5/27
Proto Djordje Petrovich 7/28 to 9/30 and 10/34 to 2/35
Father Djordje Milosavljevich 1/31 to 8/32
Sindjel Sofronije Balaban 2/33 to 8/34
Proto Mane Momcilovich 7/35 to 8/36
Proto Filip Sredanovich 9/36 to 12/38
Father Djordje Popovich 4/39 to 4/45
Father Miomir Dubak 8/46 to 8/51
Proto Miodrag Djurich 9/51/ to1/70
Proto Milorad Dobrota 4/70 to 4/77
Father Bogdan Zjalich 5/77 to 12/78
Father Srboljub Bulich 5/77 to 8/84
Proto Rastko Trbuhovich 9/84 to 9/2015
Father Vladislav Golic 2016 to Present
The St. Stephen parish experienced three major periods of immigration from the homeland to the United States: the first prior to World War I, the second after World War II, and the third during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. It was during the immigration after the Second World War that another illustrious spiritual leader made his way to the parish in Lackawanna. Due to his close relationship to Proto Miodrag Djurich, parish priest in Lackawanna at that time, Holy Bishop Nicholai (Velimirovic) spent considerable time each year at the St. Stephen parish after he emigrated to America. St. Bishop Nicholai’s impact on the parish cannot be overstated. His influence on the spiritual growth of the parish engendered the second phase of the development of the parish, after the first, physical growth phase and the acquisition of a church structure.
For more than 30 years, the parish’s worship and cultural activities were centered at the Church Street location. However, when the second generation of Serbs in Western New York, those born in America, took on leadership roles in the parish, they expressed interest in relocating the church. In 1953, the parish purchased property at the corner of Abbott and Weber Roads in the Fourth Ward of Lackawanna. On July 29, 1953, St. Bishop Nicholai, with parish priest Proto Miodrag Djurich and other clergy, blessed the land. With the “ground breaking” on July 29, 1958, followed by the building of a hall for social gatherings and the erection of the parish home completed early in 1959, the community was on the path to building its new church. On March 1, 1959, Proto Djurich served the first liturgy in the church hall. By August, 1959, the holy temple was ready for services, and Bishop Dionisije, then Bishop of the United States of America and Canada, consecrated the church on August 30, 1959.
Further building endeavors included a major expansion of the hall, but the project that culminated the construction of the house of worship was its transformation into a fully appointed church in the Orthodox tradition, completed 54 years after the consecration. From March 1, 2007 through April 3, 2013, the community devoted itself, under the leadership of Fr. Rastko Trbuhovich and parish council President Savo Cugalj, to the very significant achievement of adorning of the church with frescoes, an indicator of the spiritual growth of the parish. The renowned iconographer, Fr. Theodore Jurewicz, completed the project in a style consistent with that of his mentor, Fr. Kyprian Pyzhov of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Monastery in Jordanville, NY, who had written the original frescoes in the apse and above the iconostas at the time of the building of the church. The blessing of the new frescoes took place on October 12, 2014 by His Grace Bishop Mitrophan, with parish priest Proto Rastko Trbuhovich and guest priest Proto Rodney Torbic concelebrating.
Aside from its being blessed by the presence of two known saints in its midst and numerous gifted spiritual leaders, the St. Stephen parish in Lackawanna was also the home of the most beloved first American-born Serbian Orthodox female monastic, Igumanija ANA (Radetic), Abbess of Monastery Marcha in Richfield, Ohio. Born and raised in Lackawanna, Mother Ana was well-known as a pioneer and as a speaker to a variety of groups, both those that invited her to give presentations at their churches and those who visited the monastery. She loved children and especially enjoyed working with them; she greeted and welcomed many visitors to the monastery in Richfield. Mother Ana oversaw the building of a beautiful chapel in the traditional Serbian Orthodox architectural style. She reposed at the monastery on December 12, 2015, where she is buried. Like many other parishes in the Eastern American Diocese, the St. Stephen parish is a generous supporter of the monastery.
At the center of parish life is the liturgical cycle, through which, above all, the children and adult faithful participate in the holy sacramental life of the Orthodox Church. Among the fruit of this life are three priests and three deacons who are sons of the parish. The faithful of the St. Stephen parish work together to keep their treasured spiritual and material gifts intact. In the leadership role has been the Parish Council, overseeing all activities and the financial and physical needs of the parish. Over the years, the parish initiated a Stewardship Program and provided extensive refugee relief during the Bosnian War to displaced persons in Bosnia as well as to those who made their way to the parish. The parish is privileged to have two Kolo Srpskih Sestara (Circle of Serbian Sisters) organizations, Sveti Ilija and Sveta Petka, which have been tremendous supports to the parish and the parish priests. The St. Nicholai Men’s Club was revitalized, and the Kosta Manojlovich Choir has been blessed with talented directors. The parish has a folklore group, the St. Stephen Tammies and Dancers, which has been in existence for over 30 years. Two SNF Lodges serve the parish; the Christian Education program is well-known for both its educational content and its charitable works; a decades-old Summer Day Camp continues to serve the children of the parish. The annual St. Sava Program is the highlight of the Christian Education year. The American Serbian Club, located in a northern area of the parish in the Town of Tonawanda, has been a welcoming gathering place for those born in Western New York, those who have more recently come to the parish, and countless friends from throughout the United States and Canada.
Devoted to its Serbian heritage and the Serbian Orthodox Church, the parish of St. Stephen also welcomes persons of other national backgrounds. Among them are Macedonians, Bulgarians, Russians, Greeks, and numerous faithful who are not from “traditional” Orthodox backgrounds who participate fully in the life of the parish. With an understanding of the place of the Serbian Church as part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the faithful of St. Stephen participate in events of other Orthodox parishes in the region. Pan-Orthodox activities on the Niagara Frontier are frequent, and the eight Orthodox parishes in Western New York cooperate through a Pan-Orthodox Choir and Sunday Lenten Vesper services during the Great Fast, as well as with occasional joint programming for the youth of their communities. The St. Stephen parish serves the greater Western New York area through an annual Lenten collection of foods and other items that benefit an inner-city food pantry. Through the annual SerbFest, Lenten Fish Fries, and Christmas Bake Sale, the greater WNY community is invited in to share in the cultural life of the parish and the Serbian people.
For more than 100 years, the life of the St. Stephen parish has stood firmly on the shoulders of two great saints, St. Mardarije of Libertyville and St. Nicholai of Zhicha, as much as on the lives and dedication of the faithful of the parish. In its Centennial Year, 2017, the parish received a precious gift from V. Rev. Dragan Filipovic, the protector of the vestments that St. Bishop Nicholai wore when he served in Dachau during his imprisonment by the Nazis at the time of the Second World War. Proto Dragan presented the vestments, with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Irinej, to the Lackawanna parish as a sign of the relationship St. Nicholai had with the St. Stephen parish, as well as to acknowledge the spiritual heritage of the Saint that the parish continues to exhibit. While some of the souls currently within the fold of the parish knew St. Nicholai personally or remember his activity in the life of the parish, like his memory and spirit, the memory and the spirit of St. Mardarije, who was translated from this life to the eternal more than 80 years ago, has also remained with the St. Stephen parish throughout these 100 years.