New pastor helps Croatian community maintain faith, language and culture

15 December 2023

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Father Matt Zugaj is helping Croatian Catholics maintain connection to their faith and culture.

And it’s welcomed, as Father Matt celebrates his first Christmas in Canada and helps Nativity of Mary parishioners strengthen their link to their homeland.

“This is my parish. I can’t imagine not having a Croatian pastor. We’re fortunate to have Father Matt,” said Tanja Pavelic, a mother of two young children who serves on parish council and the youth group.

“It has revitalized us and reinvigorated us by keeping us together. He’s young. He’s full of energy. He’s full of great ideas and we’re happy to support him in ensuring that we keep our parish not only open but have these traditions.”

Nativity of Mary parish is focused on the Croatian Catholic community, with Masses in Croatian only, and the growing parish has taken steps to ensure that their faith, language and culture don’t die out.

Parishioners prepare a creche scene together.

The parish has approximately 240 families. Its youth and cultural groups to maintain and teach Croatian traditions, which are very popular. Its folklore group has 80 kids. Every month, the parish hosts a lunch with food from a different region of Croatia. In January, the parish hopes to resume Croatian language school, which stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have a vested interest. I feel it’s very important to have our Croatian Catholic faith instilled in them,” Pavelic added. “The culture is so intertwined in the faith that it’s important for us to live that … This feels like a piece of Croatia in Canada. Our faith is the focal point of our culture. It truly is.”

Father Matt has moved 25 times since his ordination, in his native Croatia. Father Matt was given five choices from the Croatian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He chose Edmonton over Australia – “I’m so scared of spiders. No thanks!” – Norway, Sweden, the U.S. and even Paris, France.  “There’s nothing interesting there. Only rain,” he joked

He chose Canada, and he feels right at home.

“I like the kindness, the way of behaviour, among people,” Father Matt said. “If we apply this for every relation among people, the world would be a better place.”

The parish is located in rough neighbourhood of Edmonton. Father Matt has made friends with those living rough, near the church. “They already know by sound of the car motor who is coming, the parish manager Igor or it’s me. They are shouting from their tents, ‘Hi Matt! How are you?’.”

Father Matt’s (right) best friend from childhood, Mimi Miroslav (left), lives in Edmonton and is a member of Nativity of Mary parish.

Father Matt’s choice of Edmonton is almost providential. Born in Slavonsky Brod, Croatia, he found out later that his best friend from childhood, Mimi Miroslav, lives in Edmonton and is a member of Nativity of Mary parish.

Together, they will help make Father Matt’s first Canadian Christmas a memorable one – even if there are some notable differences.

Father Matt was struck that, in Canada, Christmas seems to begin right after Halloween. In Croatia, streets are decorated on the First Sunday of Advent. However, in the home, it’s uncommon to have any decorations until Badnjak, Christmas Eve Dec. 24.

According to custom in Croatia, families would find and cut down a pine tree in the forest. The trunk would be removed from the ground and set on the fireplace in the middle of the house. The trunk would slowly burn until Christmas Day.

Straw would be brought inside the home. Nuts and raisins would be hidden inside the straw for kids to find. Families would arrive for midnight Mass on sleighs.

Christmas Day is only celebrated with your immediate family and no meat dishes are eaten. Typically Croatians eat river fish, or Bakalar, a fish spread on toast. “It’s not Christmas if you don’t have that spread on your bread, even in coffee bars which are common in Croatia. It’s very yummy.”

For his first Christmas in Canada, Father Matt is trying to source Bakalar in Edmonton.

Father Matt recalls his favourite Christmas memory is from 1989, when he was four years old.

“I remember, the last Christmas before the war started, we had a small, triangular Nativity scene and a small light on top of this Nativity scene and it was shinning on the Baby Jesus,” Father Matt recalled.

“We were having sparklers after midnight Mass on the balcony. At that time, Mother was putting presents under the tree. When we come back, every time I was thinking that the light from Jesus brought us those presents. We didn’t learn about Santa Claus. Only Jesus brought us presents.”

Another memorable Christmas was when he was pastor of his first parish in Croatia, at age 26. An older man started drinking beer in church and lit a cigarette in church during midnight Mass.

“People were watching him, and he was surprised. He said ‘Why can’t I have a smoke and a beer here in church? All are welcome here’. You can find, at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, really everything!”

Father Matt will continue the Croatian traditions. He will celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas Eve followed by fellowship and traditional foods. He hopes to source Bakalau fish spread for that.

Father Matt has celebrated Zornice, the daily Mass at dawn during Advent. He will bless the homes of Nativity of Mary parishioners—a more manageable task than back home in Croatia, where pastors who may have 10,000 to 15,000 Catholics in their parish.

Back home in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, crowds will gather on soccer fields for the Zornice Masses celebrated outdoors —  in the cold — during Advent. In spite of cultural differences, Father Matt said Masses like the Zornice teach universal truths.

“They are teaching us what the Gospel of the first Sunday of Advent tell us: To be awake. We need to be awake. We need to be focused on Christ’s arrival,” Father Matt said.

“Zornice are teaching us to be awake even in the middle of the night when you want to stay in your cozy, warm bed and you need to go our in the cold weather to be in a cold church back home. It’s a reminder for me to be awake, not only during Advent, but awake every day. Be awake in my thoughts, my words, my deeds like every Christian should be.”

Youth and adults from across Edmonton gathered at Nativity of Mary parish to decorate for Advent and Christmas in the Croatian tradition.

-Andrew Ehrkamp, Archdiocese of Edmonton