Calgary’s Serbian community plans for new church and community centre

From the cheers and groans of the crowd gathered around the large screen TV in the Marda Loop Community Centre, one might expect that a hockey game was on.

But it wasn’t hockey that had those attending the second annual Calgary Serbian Fest glued to the screen. It was tennis. The crowd was watching Novak Djokovic, a tennis player from Serbia and currently the world’s top-ranked player, compete in a big match.

Sports — including, whether it was tennis on TV, or soccer and other competitions taking place outdoors — played a prominent role in the two-day long event designed to showcase Serbian history, culture, food, and music. Team sports — in particular basketball, soccer, and water polo — are very popular in Serbia.

“Sports are very important to our community,” says Petar Grubor, who helped organize the festival’s athletic events. “It’s a way to be involved and to attract more people.”

New church for growing community

The festival had another important function — it served as a fundraiser for a new church for Calgary’s Serbian community.

Serving a congregation of about 550 families, St. Simeon Mirotocivi Serbian Orthodox Church is the focal point for the Calgary Serbian community when it comes to maintaining its culture and religion. To meet the needs of a young and growing community, plans are underway to build a new church south of the city.

To facilitate those plans, the Serbian church purchased a 5 hectare parcel of land two years ago. Reverend Father Obrad Filipovic says that he hopes ground will be broken on a new church in June. Once the church is built, a new community centre and sports fields will follow.

Church spiritual and cultural heart of community

In addition to meeting needs of faith, Filipovic says the Orthodox church fulfils other important roles in helping the city’s Serbian community maintain its identity.

“Serbs are religious, Orthodox Christians, especially among the diaspora,” Filipovic says. “We organize ourselves around the church.

“This new church will provide us with a better chance to preserve our heritage, our faith, our language and our culture.”

Filipovic says about 40 children are currently learning the Serbian language as part of the church’s Sunday school. In addition, a very active soccer club and a quickly growing cultural society also operate in affiliation with the church.

The soccer club, SD Serbia, has seven different teams. Players range in age from under eight years old, to those over 45. Frula Serbian Cultural Society has over 100 members who perform Serbian folk dancing and take part in other creative endeavors.

The elite ensemble of Frula Serbian Cultural Society perform at the annual Calgary Serbian Fest. By:Karry Taylor

Tanja Ceklic, president of Frula, says the interest in the organization has been high. The group started three years ago with only five members, Frula now has children and adult groups as well as an elite ensemble.

Ceklic says that in addition to helping maintain Serbian culture in Calgary, the group also offers other positive things to its members, as well as to the entire Serbian community.

“There are the relationships that have developed, the respect for our culture and for other cultures, the experience of being on stage and travelling, as well meeting new people,” Ceklic says. “It’s been amazing and it’s brought us all together.

“It is a lot of work, but it’s all worth it.”

Opportunities for cultural interaction and understanding

As part of their goal of providing a cultural showcase, organizers of Calgary Serbian Fest invited other groups to share the festival’s stage with Frula. Groups representing the Hungarian, Portuguese, Slovak and Chinese communities performed ethnic dances and songs.

Filipovic says that events such as Calgary Serbian Fest provide important opportunities for all cultures in Calgary to share and interact with each other.

“We invite them, first of all, as friends,” Filipovic says. “Other than that, by interacting with other groups, you can learn from them. You can take what they have developed and apply it to your own situation and your group.”

While the new church and community centre will play a vital role in maintaining Serbian culture in Calgary, Filipovic says it will also provide opportunities for the Serbian community to continue to build relationships with other groups.

“We are not a closed community. We are inclusive. Lots of our young people are getting married with those from other cultures,” Filipovic says. “Everybody is welcome, and everybody is included.

“This new church and community centre will help us achieve those goals.”

ktaylor@cjournal.ca