Croatia:  Small Country Has Big Impact on Pittsburgh   

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Croatian American Friendship Flags“If you have family or friends of Croatian descent around the country or across the sea, we hope you will share the Popular Pittsburgh website with them.  We believe our website is a great way for them to learn about our town and what makes Pittsburgh popular.”  – Tom Pollard

Croatia is a bit smaller than the state of West Virginia.  Nevertheless, this tiny country in southeastern Europe has had a large impact on the Pittsburgh region, as many Croatian immigrants have settled here.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Community Survey, approximately 414,714 Americans claim to be of full or partial Croatian descent, a considerable number considering Croatia’s population, which is only around 4 million.

Pennsylvania is home to the largest population of Croatians with approximately 50,000 residents in the state.  The Immigration Encyclopedia reports that Croatians were the earliest of the southern Slavic people to settle in the United States, with the first settlement in San Francisco, but by the 20th century, the greatest concentration of Croatians had shifted to Pittsburgh and the western Pennsylvania area.

It was estimated that in the early 1900s, there were more than 200,000 Croatians living in the Pittsburgh area.  It is difficult to estimate just how many Pittsburgh area residents are of Croatian descent today because “Croatia” as a country has not always enjoyed the status of an independent nation-state.  Over the years, immigrants often identified as Bosnians, Dalmatians, and Hungarians, might truly be of Croatian descent.

The American Dream and Pittsburgh Steel

Croatians came to the Pittsburgh area for two reasons-political and economic.  Historically, Croatia has had a very turbulent existence.  It has been conquered, ruled, and partitioned under many different forms of government, resulting in Croatians seeking refuge in the United States.  However, the majority of Croatians came to the states for the same reason so many other nationalities came here-for the American dream and the opportunity to better oneself.

The majority of the Croatians who came to Pittsburgh found employment in the steel mills, coal mines, or in other heavy industries.  For many, life was difficult.  They knew little English and performed backbreaking labor to survive.

To support each other, the Croatians formed social groups.  In 1893, Zdravko Muzina came to Pittsburgh from Chicago to start a Croatian newspaper.  He also sought to create an organization to benefit the Croatians living in the area similar to the one that the Slovaks had established, the National Slovak Society.  With the help of several other Croatians in the area, their first organizational meeting was held on January 14, 1894.

Three hundred people showed up; however, only 30 signed on to what became known as Lodge No. 1 of the Croatian Fraternal Union.  Soon other groups formed nearby in McKeesport, Johnstown, Rankin-Braddock, Etna, and Benwood, West Virginia.  In August 1894, these lodges came together and applied for a charter as the Croatian Association.  The charter was granted in October 1894.

Today, there are scores of Croatian Fraternal Union Lodges throughout the United States, Canada, and Croatia.   There are nearly 50 lodges in Pennsylvania alone and the group offers life insurance, annuities, and IRA plans to its members.  The Croatian Fraternal Union Scholarship fund has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous CFU students since its establishment in 1958. The Croatian Fraternal Union is still going strong and is headquartered at 100 Delaney Drive in Pittsburgh’s East Hills.

Pittsburgh’s Tamburitzans

Like most others nationalities who have immigrated to the U.S., the tamburitzansCroatians have assimilated into the culture while at the same time have made great effort to preserve the Croatian heritage.  One of the most recognizable efforts to keep the Croatian culture vibrant is the Tamburitzans.

A tamburica is a lute-like instrument favored by Slavic nations and those who play it are known as Tamburitzans.  But the word has come to encompass so much more. It celebrates the costumes, songs, and folk dance of Croatia and other Eastern European Countries.  There are quite a few Tamburitzan groups throughout the region and many appear in shows or at local festivals.  The Duquesne University Tamburitzans are the longest-running multicultural song and dance company.  Since 1937, they have been entertaining with the folk traditions of Eastern Europe.  Pittsburgh loves its Eastern European heritage and for more than 60 years, the city has hosted the annual International Pittsburgh Folk Festival, which has featured many local ethnic traditions, including those of Croatia.

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church

Most Croatians are Roman Catholic, and in 1900 the Croatian community in Pittsburgh built St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.  The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its unique murals.  In 1937, the European artist Maxo Vanka was commissioned to paint a series of murals in the church.  By that spring, he had completed 11 paintings, and henationality room returned again in 1941 to complete the second series of murals which depict the struggles of Croatian peasants in their homeland and as immigrants to the United States. The murals are so remarkable that Time magazine did a story on them and the artist in its July 1937 issue.

In 1939, the Yugoslav Room at the University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning opened and preserves the Croatian heritage under its former country name.  Throughout the year, the Croatians gather at events such as Croatian Day at Kennywood and at picnics at Millvale’s Schitzen Park.

So strong are the ties of the Croatian-Americans to their homeland that Pittsburgh has a Croatian Consulate.  It is also located at 100 Delaney Drive in the East Hills.  Although the Croatians who came to Pittsburgh left their homeland, they never forgot where they came from and have worked tirelessly to preserve their culture.  Their efforts have not only enriched those who boast a Croatian heritage but have enriched and influenced the Pittsburgh area as well.





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