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Bisbee church slowly fading away

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2005.07.31 Arizona Daily Star: Bisbee church slowly fading away; members aging or moving out It was center of a Serbian Orthodox world By Stephanie Innes
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
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      2005.07.31 Arizona Daily Star:
      Bisbee church slowly fading away; members aging or moving out

      It was center of a Serbian Orthodox world

      By Stephanie Innes

      BISBEE - They called it the Night in Belgrade and at the end of summer
      crowds came from across the state to this historic mining town to share in
      the traditional dancing, food and music of Bisbee's prominent Serbian

      By mid-July, Ople Sorich and others in the Circle of Yugoslav Sisters would
      gather in the industrial-sized kitchen at St. Stephen Nemanja Serbian
      Orthodox Church to prepare dough for strudel and macaroni sauce that they
      could freeze in anticipation of one of Bisbee's biggest yearly events.

      There is no longer a Night in Belgrade. The last one was in 1980, a few
      years after Phelps Dodge closed most of its mining operations. Bisbee's
      population shrank and businesses and homes were boarded up. The former
      company town became a community of civil servants, retirees and artists.

      St. Stephen Nemanja (pronounced NEM-un-ya) survived and stands as one of
      the last vestiges of Bisbee's early ethnic history. But the congregation
      has dwindled to 15 families, people whose roots date to the early 1900s,
      when European immigrants came here for jobs in the thriving mines.

      St. Stephen's has not had a resident priest since the 1970s and no longer
      has regular Sunday worship. Services for major holidays and special events
      are led by a priest from Phoenix.

      "You do have to recognize the reality that most of us will be gone in the
      next 20 years or so. I'm almost 70 and there are others a lot older than I
      am," said Ople's husband, Sam Sorich Jr., a retired mining employee whose
      father and grandfather worked in Bisbee's mines.

      Ople and Sam were married in the church in 1958. Their children, like many
      other children of parishioners, moved away after high school for college
      and job opportunities.

      "It's a sad situation if you really sit down and think about it," said Sam,
      now church president. "But that's life and that's how life goes."

      Still, closing down the oldest Serbian Orthodox Church in Arizona is not
      something members are thinking about. Like their Serbian ancestors - known
      for discipline, hard work and enterprise - members of St. Stephen Nemanja
      continue with worship and maintenance of the church as though it will go on

      Some say keeping the church going is a way of honoring their ancestors.

      "People are getting older, but there's a lot of pride in this church," Ople
      said. Her father was a mining employee and so was her grandfather.

      St. Stephen's congregation dates to the late 1800s. A social hall was built
      in 1939 and the copper-domed brick church went up in 1954 - both
      constructed in the Bisbee neighborhood of Bakerville with free labor by
      Serbian families, including Sam and his father.

      "The church is like a child for our members. We want to make sure it's in
      good shape," Sam said in an interview in the church social hall, which has
      gleaming hardwood floors and a piano lounge with a polished wooden bar
      where fiery Yugoslavian plum brandy was served during the Night in Belgrade

      Bisbee's population now hovers at about 6,000. But in the early part of the
      20th century, it was more than 20,000, built on the success of mining
      operations - mostly copper, but gold, silver, lead and zinc as well.

      "People migrated from Europe, and Bisbee was very cosmopolitan. Many of the
      miners who helped develop the community were of Serbian extraction," said
      82-year-old Dushan Vlahovich, a retired attorney, church member and
      lifelong Bisbee resident. Vlahovich's father moved to Bisbee from Bosnia
      alone at age 14 and became a restaurateur.

      The Serbs came from areas including Montenegro, Herzegovina, Kotor Bay and
      a region on the Adriatic Sea called Pastrovici. They began moving to the
      multi-ethnic city of Bisbee during the late 1800s, according to Mary
      Nicklanovich Hart, a Tucson resident and editor and publisher of the
      national magazine Serb World USA.

      At its height, church members say, 600 Serbian families lived in Bisbee,
      which works out to 2,000 to 2,500 people.

      Serbians were not the largest ethnic group but stood out because they had
      their own church, the center of their social lives. Others in the city at
      that time included Cornish miners from Britain, as well as Finlanders,
      Swedes, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, Mexicans and Portuguese.

      "You'd live in a boarding house and if you weren't a heavy gambler or
      drinker, you could save. They would work in the mines as their grubstake so
      to speak and then open businesses. The Serbs were particularly adept at
      that," said Gary Dillard, editor of Pay Dirt, a monthly mining magazine
      based in Bisbee.

      There are two Serbian Orthodox Churches in Phoenix, but none in Tucson.
      Some Tucson Serbs, including Nicklanovich Hart, travel to Bisbee for
      services at St. Stephen's, which are given in a mixture of Serbian and English.

      "People love the church and they love what it stands for. It's an integral
      part of their lives and their history," she said.

      The church's aging population means relying on members for upkeep and
      repair is not always possible. Members rent out St. Stephen's for events,
      but stress they are particular about who uses it. If the congregation ever
      reaches a time when there are no members, the church would be turned over
      to the Serbian Orthodox Church in the USA.

      Yet Sam Sorich Jr. believes the church still has a purpose: To provide
      fellowship to the remaining Serbian community. And others see great value, too.

      "Bisbee has changed a lot over the years. Many people now don't know about
      its heritage. I think many don't even know there's an Eastern Orthodox
      church here," said Dillard, with Pay Dirt. "But in terms of culture, losing
      that church will be a loss to a link of what created Bisbee. The Serbs
      wanted to see Bisbee become a successful community and they played an
      important, active role in the leadership of the town."

      About the church

      The Serbian Orthodox Church is part of Eastern Orthodoxy and follows the
      old Julian calendar for its holidays. Christmas is celebrated Jan. 7. Other
      major holidays include saints' days for individual churches and Easter,
      which also is calculated by the Julian calendar.

      The patriarchal seat of the Serbian Orthodox church is in Belgrade,
      Serbia-Montenegro, and it is in doctrinal unity with all other Orthodox
      Churches. In 2000, there were about 150,000 members of the Serbian Orthodox
      Church, according to Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study
      of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston.
      Numbers had been in decline in Orthodox churches across the country but
      increased during the 1990s with a wave of immigration, he said.

      Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or at sinnes@.... Go
      to www.azstarnet.com/faith for other recent religion coverage.

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