A new pastor with an “Olympic smile” is rejuvenating Edmonton’s celebrated Croatian Catholic community.
“He’s been here only two months and he’s brought so many activities in the church it’s becoming very hard to keep up with him,” said Igor Norsic, a member of Nativity of Mary Croatian Catholic Parish. “He’s so very energetic, very welcoming, and very dynamic. And he has, I would say, an ‘Olympic’ smile, a really, really big smile.”
Since Rev. Tomislav Fridl arrived from Croatia last November, children of the parish have been thrust to the forefront of the Mass. Parishioners clap and laugh during Mass as Fridl interacts with the youngest ones throughout his homilies, delivered in Croatian.
“All areas of the community are included in the Mass ,and usually he likes to open the service with the youngest singer,” Norsic said. “Our foundation, our core, is the church. Part of Croatian culture is we start every day with prayer. Then we go to work. That is the first round. Then prayer again, work, food, then after that, it’s party time.”
At a recent Mass, Fridl played his guitar and sang with five-year-old Lea, a member of one of three choirs at the parish, two of which began with his arrival. Lea calls Father Fridl “the best” priest because he teaches the children hymns in Croatian.
Church is where many children in the community practise the Croatian language they’ve learned from grandparents at home.
Celebrating Mass in Croatian is important to the whole community, said multilingual parishioner Marinka Pecuh. who feels the greatest meaning in prayers said in her native tongue.
“I pray in Ukrainian and Italian a little bit, but I can only feel when I pray in Croatian,” she said.
“We try to keep our heritage,” said Norsic, noting the Croatian community has been participating in Edmonton’s Heritage Festival since it started in 1976. “It’s a great experience for all of us to be part of Canada and Edmonton.”
There are more than 4,000 ethnic Croatians in Edmonton, including more than 1,700 Croatian speakers, most of whom are are connected to Nativity of Mary Parish. More than 200 attend Mass on any given Sunday, filling the parking lot to capacity. The Croatian Mass is also celebrated on Saturdays at 5 p.m., followed by fellowship in the hall that can last as late at midnight.
Portraits of the Adriatic Sea coastline of Croatia adorn the walls of the hall and in the church, the blue, red and white checkered Croatian flag is displayed beside the Vatican and Canadian flags.
For Father Fridl — who grew up on a farm with horses back in the capital city of Zagreb — the parish community helps with any occasional homesickness.
“I miss home and I love Canada. Canada is a beautiful country. A little bit cold, yes.”
Fridl, 44, said he always wanted to be a priest, inspired by his uncle, a Jesuit. He initially joined the Jesuits as a teenager, but was later ordained as a diocesan priest in 2001. In addition to his other talents, he has a passion for match-making young Croatians to marry. There are 150 married couples in his own family, with many kids and not a single divorce, he said — “because we believe in God and go to church.”
At Nativity of Mary, Fridl encourages the younger parishioners to stay and socialize after Mass, help clean the church and take up his challenge to games of table tennis.
“He gives really thoughtful messages to all of us, just through being him, who he is, and through his masses, said youth member Petra Mandic. “It’s really inspiring and powerful.”
“The church is really important to me and my family in every aspect, every way,” said Mandic. “What my parents taught me and church taught me, is Sundays I go to church.”
The Nativity of Mary church and hall were built in the early 1980s by the Croatian community, which started meeting in Edmonton in the 1960s. There have been six Croatian priests in Edmonton since 1977 starting with Rev. Jerko (Jerry) Caleta. Caleta helped the community realize its dream of building its own church through many bingos and other local fundraising.
Last year, the parish said goodbye to its former pastor, Rev. Franjo Visaticki, who retired and moved to Ontario.
“We were sorry to see him depart but the new, younger generation has arrived and a new spirit came and a new dynamic,” said Norsic. “The energy of the church and the youth in the church and the church members and the community since (Fridl’s) arrival has been fantastic.”
“Father Tomislav brings that new perspective, new dynamic, and he totally refreshed our spirits.”
Parishioners are amazed by Father Fridl’s musical talents and his ability to draw people back to Mass.
“He has Jesus in him,” said Ivana Bevanda. “Lots of people came back to the church and there are lots of kids now, as you can see during the Mass. He knows how to play guitar, it’s amazing.”
“We’re happy,” added Dragica Tomasic, who has been a member of the parish for 15 years. “He has been bringing us joy and happiness and unity. Everybody’s welcome.”
Igor Norsic has been a member of the parish for more than 20 years, since he arrived on the heels of the Croatian war of independence from Yugoslavia, which ended in 1995. “The war was really a difficult time,” said Norsic, holding back tears. “When the war ended, a lot of people were displaced. But our faith in God was never questioned.”
The Nativity of Mary Parish community has become a welcome place for Croatian refugees and immigrants to Canada.
“It’s very difficult for them,” said Fridl. “What’s most important for me is my mission, that the community comes to church,” he said. “It is my wish, my mission, to connect people.”