Sunday, November 8, 2009

St. Sava, Libertyville

I love these secret corners of the universe, stashed and tucked away from the casual eye. Drive north on Milwaukee Avenue from downtown Libertyville, and just before Route 120, pay very close attention; on your right, you will see a church, a cemetery, and a run-down building that either looks like an army barracks or a student dormitory. It's a place that almost seems frozen in time, a full century in the past, but I promise you, there's a great deal of life in there...a big, beating heart that rivals anything Algren described. I teach English Literature and Composition on these grounds at the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox School of Theology. How I got this job, I have no seemed to find me instead. I am not Serbian, nor am I Orthodox a matter of fact, I've been a Unitarian for most of my life, and you'll usually find my religious viewpoints squarely on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone at the school knows this - I've been clear about that from the beginning. But I've never received anything but respect and kindness here. I walk through the halls, slogging my bag full of textbooks and graded assignments, and students and faculty alike nod warmly in recognition: "Hello, Professor, how are you today?". I always find this moniker profoundly amusing, some kind of great cosmic joke. Outside these grounds, I am just another adjunct trying to pay the bills, but at St. Sava, I am regarded as something well beyond that. It's amazing what a little belief will do for a person sometimes.

Occasionally, inevitably, I have felt like a stranger in a strange land here, unsure of the right way to conduct myself around the senior priests, often feebly miming their actions during the prayer rituals that begin and end lunch at the school. Thank God for Lillian, who has been my mentor and cultural liaison since I joined the faculty. She immigrated to the United States from Serbia when she was in her teens, spent most of her career teaching high school English in Virginia, and is now semi-retired. We have gotten along spectacularly since the day I met her; she is kind and highly observant, always hitting the right note with her advice. She is one of the finest people I have ever known.

A while back, I noticed a last name on one of the gravesites that immediately jumped out at me, and decided to ask her about it.

"Lillian," I asked. "I noticed a tombstone that said Blagojevich. Is there any relation to our ex-governor?"

Lillian paused a moment, sighed a bit, then finally said, "Yes. Rod Blagojevich's parents are buried there."

Blagojevich is a bit of a sore spot for the Serbian community in Chicago, and not just because of his embarrassing political downfall. He left the Serbian Orthodox church quite some time ago after getting married, but has recently made some efforts to return. The whole thing smacks of self-aggrandizement (hardly any great surprise), just another reach for media attention. No matter, though. There's a deep legacy in this can feel it in its walls, and it's bigger than Blagojevich or anyone else. St. Sava was originally founded as a monastery in 1925, and the seminary commenced in 1945, the first Serbian Orthodox seminary in the United States (The original seminary only lasted from 1945-1949. The current theological school has been active since 1986). The church (pictured above) is also a notable site for Serbian-Americans, not just for its history and regular Sunday services, but because Peter II, former King of Yugoslavia, is buried inside.

Peter II is the only European monarch buried on American soil. Let me repeat this - there is a real, bona fide king buried in St. Sava, a mere 35 miles north of Chicago. I can hardly believe this myself, but it's absolutely true. Peter II was forced to flee Yugoslavia after the Axis invasion during WWII, eventually settled in the United States, and ultimately died in Denver at the age of 47 after a failed liver transplant. (He was buried in St. Sava at his own request) There has, apparently, been quite a little battle brewing over his body - Serbia now wants him back, but he doesn't seem to be going anywhere, so for now, he'll rest in the same place where he has been since 1970, unassumingly tucked away in this private corner of the universe.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked some of my students to give me a tour of the church, and it was nothing like I expected at all. Bright, colorful murals like something out of Pilsen cover every inch of its walls. Everywhere you look, familiar stories from the Bible loom magnificently - The Last Supper, The Crucifixion, Lazarus reborn. The church is simultaneously small and vast - I don't quite know how else to explain it. I wasn't quite sure how to conduct myself while inside - I'm always wary of accidentally transgressing mysterious protocols at St. Sava - but with typical nonchalance, my students told me not to worry, just enjoy myself while I was there. I asked them to sing a prayer for me...embarrassed, they hemmed and hawed a bit, murmured amongst themselves for a moment, then suddenly, astonishingly, burst forth in unison. Good lord, these guys would give the Eagles a run for their money...harmonies on the edge of the divine, ancient souls brought forth to life in gorgeous, rhythmic verse. "How did you guys learn to sing like that?" I asked. All of them smiled modestly, then Damjan spoke up. "Practice, Professor," he said. "It takes a lot of practice."


  1. Hey there, Nick! Thank you for taking your time to write this. This Pascha it was my first time at St. Sava and I was pretty amazed that there was a KING buried inside! I'm Bulgarian Orthodox so the territory and the atmosphere were familiar to me. What a lovely church, though. Definitely want to go again.

  2. Greetings Professor,

    I was looking for some info on the Monastery/Seminary for my website and couldn't resist the title of the blog with the Monastery mentioned. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thank you.

    Asking for St Sava's prayers for both of us! I wish you the best.


  3. Thank you Nick for writing this article. Worked in the Chicago are for 30+ yrs and never heard of this church. Would have loved to visit it as I thoroughly enjoyed the Bavarian churches in Germany while stationed there with the US Army.