By Michelle Manchir | Tribune reporter
Saturday's announcement that the next archbishop of Chicago is the grandson of Croatian immigrants thrilled some area Catholics with roots in the southeastern European country whose population is dwarfed by that of Illinois.
Blase Cupich, 65, who now serves as bishop in Spokane, Wash., will officially be installed in Chicago on Nov. 18.
"We're such a small country. We are ecstatic any time someone even says, 'We know where you're from,'" said Ankica Pehar, 44, who picked up her first-grade daughter from Saturday school at St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church.
The Bridgeport church is the home parish to about 600 registered families, about half with Croatian roots, said the parish's council president, Jure Kutlesa.
Kutlesa said Cupich's appointment is "a big honor for us," likening the ethnic pride to the Polish community's celebration when Pope John Paul II became pontiff in 1978.
"It's wonderful to have somebody that will be in a leadership position who is of Croatian heritage who can go forth and let folks know that we are a vital and vibrant community, not only here but around the world," said Kutlesa, 49, who picked up his daughter, a sixth-grader, at the Saturday Croatian school, where children learn Croatian language, folklore and history.
An estimated 250,000 Catholics of Croatian descent live in the Chicago area, said Maria Dugandzic Pasic, a board member of the city's Croatian Cultural Center in Rogers Park and author of a book about Croatians in Chicago.
Cupich's appointment did not surprise the Rev. Ivica Majstorovic, of the St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church. He said he expected that Cupich, whom he met years ago, would move to a bigger diocese.
"He has all this energy and this is his third diocese, so he knows what he's doing," said Majstorovic, 39, who said he met Cupich about a decade ago during a Croatian pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.
To have Cupich at the helm of the Chicago diocese, Majstorovic said, should not bring any special treatment toward his Croatian church, rather "it's just a great honor for us."
"We are delighted. We feel we've been rewarded by some good sign of grace from God," he said, joking that he hopes Cupich will be drawn to visit his church often, in part because "all these people know about to make sarma."
The Croatian cabbage roll is one of Cupich's favorite treats, he said at Saturday's Chicago news conference where he was introduced.
But along with the warm greetings come new responsibilities and expectations for the new archbishop, some said.
Paul Maslach, the pastor of Blessed Alojzije Stepinac Croatian Church in Rogers Park, noted that the church faces many problems, like financial matters and rebuilding its reputation in light of many criminal sex abuse charges against Catholic priests.
"Priests need a good leader," said Maslach, who said he met Cupich on two occasions and said he is "very friendly."
"That position is very important," Maslach said, "and I presume they would send a good man."