Wollongong is a city in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. Founded in 1816 and becoming a city in 1843, it is now the third largest city in the most populous state in Australia, after Sydney and Newcastle. Located on the eastern seaboard, along the Tasman sea of the Pacific Ocean, Wollongong lies approximately eighty kilometers south of Sydney – Australia’s most attractive and largest city – with which it is connected by modern roads, motorways and railways. As locals tend to measure distance by time, it is usually said that Wollongong is a little more than an hour’s drive from Sydney. According to the 2018 census, the city and its surrounds has approximately 370,000 inhabitants.
The name ‘Wollongong’ means ‘wave noise’ in the local Aboriginal dialect. Of historical note is that Wollongong was the first to receive municipality status in NSW outside of the City of Sydney itself in 1859. In 1942 it officially became a city, and in 1947 the wider metropolitan area was declared a unique urban area under the name City of Wollongong. This urban conglomerate stretches along the coast for 48 kilometers and covers 715 km2. The wider metropolitan area is known for its dairy and heavy machinery industries and ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy. At the same time, the city is an attractive tourist place with many beaches and interesting natural attractions, and is surrounded on all sides by a beautiful and gentle landscape.
The Croatian community began forming in earnest in Wollongong in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Croatians started to arrive in Wollongong in greater numbers to the few that had arrived immediately after World War II. The main reason Croatians settled in Wollongong was because of the steelworks (and heavy industry in general) in which immigrants were employed. Therefore, it was mostly working-class Croatians that settled in Wollongong, hard-working and determined to work diligently and earn money so that their children would have a better life. Those who desired more moved on, so many Croatians would only stay in Wollongong in transience to their next destination. Despite this, a strong Croatian community was established by the 1960s, particularly bolstered by the arrival of Croatian priests, who first visited Wollongong occasionally, and then took up residence permanently. With their arrival, the purchase of the first church building quickly followed, and then the construction of a magnificent project of the “Mary Queen of Croatians” church along with the Croatian Catholic Centre. This centre was designed and realized by † Fr. Stipe Šešelja with his Croatian faithful; and maintained and further developed by Fr. Drago Prgomet, † Fr. Andrej Matoc and Fr. Ivo Tadić.
Approximately 2,000 Croatians currently reside in the wider Wollongong area. The story of Wollongong and the Croatians who there built the first Croatian church in Australia would not have been possible were this city not as it is: multicultural and tolerant. This city, which extended an opportunity for everyone – especially those that worked industriously and diligently, is now a home for these Croatians, even if it is far from the home of their country of origin which they remember with nostalgia. Nevertheless, they love Wollongong and consider it their homeland, working diligently for its good as well as the good of the community to which they belong and inherit. For those that have spent half of their lives in Wollongong, their return to the city (whether after a short or long absence), say that they feel like they are returning to their homeland as they make their way down Mount Ousley.
In the first distinguishable period of the Croatian community in Wollongong in the 1950s, the concept of Croatian political emigration developed. These migrants joined together in political activism, becoming the most visible participation of the community in Australian public life: participating in protests and demonstrations in Wollongong and across Australia in an effort to show to Australians that Croatia had not voluntarily become part of Yugoslavia, but was occupied and Croatians persecuted. Fr. Stipe Seselj argues that this first political emigration was is divided into three streams. First was the founding and work of the Croatian Liberation Movement, and other political associations, such as the United Croatians of Wollongong and Croatian Youth. This landscape remained for some time, and worsened in the early 1970s, when the Yugoslav secret service UDBA managed to agitate anti-Croatian sentiment with the then Labor Party, so that Croatians became persecuted in Australia as well. Yugoslav anti-Croatian propaganda managed to portray Croatians all over the world as murderers and genocidal types, ready to perform the greatest evils, not only in the Yugoslavia from which they fled, but all over the world. It was at this time, as Fr. Stipe notes, that all Croatian priests from Australia met and signed a joint petition to the Australian Government at a meeting in Melbourne, demanding that it change its attitude towards Croatians and stop accusing and persecuting them without evidence or reason.
Croatians in Wollongong were mostly young and no strangers to sports, regularly attending football matches in Sydney, where the football club Croatia already existed. From those who were active at the time, we learn that the Croatians of Wollongong founded their own football club in the 1960s, also named Croatia. In order to be able to play, some players had to sometimes be absent from work, so other members of the club out of solidarity collected money to reimburse their daily wage. Since its establishment, and especially after the construction of the new Centre, the club has been under the auspices of the Centre and is closely associated with it. Today, it operates under the name South Coast United, and throughout its history has achieved notable successes within the local league.
At the end of the 1960s, a Croatian radio program for Wollongong was established at station 2WL. Fr. Stipe Šešelja notes that it was first led by Jure Marić, and after a few years taken over by Roko Radočaj. On that radio program at that time, Fr. Euzebije Mak edited a religious program under the title of Croatian Franciscan Radio. That is to say, as Croatians moved all over the world, so too did the Catholic Church send its priests after them, so that today there are Croatian priests around the world wherever there are Croatians – even if only a few hundred.
Initially, Croatian catholic priests only occasionally visited Croatians in Wollongong. The first to come to New South Wales were the Franciscans of the Province of St. Cyril and Methodius from Zagreb. With the help of the community, they purchased a church in Sydney in Summer Hill, naming it the Church of St. Anthony. From this centre, recognising the need of the Croatians in Wollongong, priests regularly travelled to visit the community to hold Holy Mass, perform the sacraments of baptism, confession, communion, marriage, visit the sick, hold religious instruction, and bury the dead. The community first gathered in Wollongong Cathedral, then in Warrawong and Lake Heights, with services led by Fr. Rok Romac. Every third or fourth Sunday, after Holy Mass in Sydney, he came to serve Holy Mass in Warrawong.
At the end of 1968, Fr. Euzebije Petar Mak came to Sydney. While serving as a priest for Croatian emigrants in Sydney and Canberra from 1969 to 1972, he also served Croatian emigrants in Wollongong. During this time, he resided in hostels in Wollongong, and served Holy Mass in various places according to circumstance; in the churches of Warrawong, Lake Heights, and Unanderra; in the Cathedral of Wollongong; and the Church of St. John Vianey in Fairy Meadow. He travelled to Wollongong every second Sunday until early February 1972, when the Croatian community in Wollongong attained its own priest, Fr. Stipe Seselj. Since then, the community has celebrated Holy Mass every Sunday.
At the request of Msgr. Vladimir Stanković, then Secretary-General for the Croatian Foreign Pastorate, Fr. Stipe Šešelj was sent from Zagreb to Australia as a permanent priest for Wollongong. He arrived in Australia on 30 December 1971, living with his parents in Canberra for the first two months. Until the end of February 1972, he travelled to Wollongong every Sunday to celebrate Holy Mass, driven by brothers or relatives from Canberra. At 9am he would celebrate Mass at the church of St. Joseph in Lake Heights, and at 4:15pm at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Wollongong. He would then return to Canberra the same day to attend a three-month English course. Fr. Stipe moved to Wollongong permanently on May 20, 1972, received by the first Bishop of Wollongong, Msgr. Thomas McCabe. After five months he was admitted to an apartment in Unanderra (Iola Avenue) by Jordan Čajna (then an unmarried man). Fr. Stipe enjoyed free board and food with Jordan for a full nine months, for which he was most sincerely grateful.
In 1973, Fr. Stipe, with the help of his parents and brothers from Canberra, took out a loan of $15,000 to purchase a wooden house in Wollongong’s Corrimal St. From here, he founded and held a Saturday school and religious education for children in the Croatian language, as well as taking over the Croatian Franciscan Radio program from Fr. Euzebije.
Immediately upon his arrival in Wollongong, Fr. Stipe wished to establish a Croatian Centre in Wollongong where all Croatians could gather. Shortly after arriving in Australia, he realized that all Croatian Catholic centres in Australia in the 1970s had either their own church or their own hall. Though it was true that these centres were all larger than Wollongong with bigger communities, but the Croatians of the South Coast (wider area of Wollongong) remained the only ones who did not have any space of their own where they could worship God and nurture their cultural and national heritage in Croatian. As early as May 1972, Fr. Stipe’s wish began to materialize, and the first working session was held. Shortly after, at the second session held on June 10, the name and purpose of the Centre were determined – it was to be called the Croatian Catholic Centre, and its purpose was to gather all Croatians in the Illawarra and South Coast, serve the spiritual and cultural needs of Croatians, when possible, establish a school and library; and establish a fund for the purpose of social assistance for needy Croatians in Wollongong, and, if possible, others in exile and in the homeland of Croatia.
In 1974, the sentiment that the community needed a centre and a church prevailed. Therefore, Fr. Stipe, deciding to revive the old idea, and at the urging of Radoslav Džida, Pavle Šiljeg, Gilbert Vidaić and Dr. Branko Marinović, established a new committee, with the idea of buying or building a centre. From then, many parties, picnics, and similar activities were organised to fundraise for that purpose.
Not long thereafter, a local newspaper advertised the sale of the Anglican Church at 38 Rosemont Street in West Wollongong at a price of $31,000. Fr. Stipe suggested that the church be bought, but committee members were unconvinced that a small community such as the Croatian one in Wollongong had the ability to raise so much money in such a short time. When Fr. Stipe said that he would sell his house (which was approximately the same price) and buy the church himself, the committee agreed to purchase it together, so that the church was finally purchased on March 12, 1976 – a little over four years after his arrival as the permanent Croatian pastor in Wollongong. Shortly afterwards, on March 20, the first session of the General Assembly was held at the Croatian Catholic and Cultural Centre West Wollongong, and the then Bishop of Wollongong, Msgr. W. E. Murray, blessed the Croatian Catholic and Cultural Centre under the name “Mary Queen of the Croatians”.
Cultural activities aimed at preserving Croatian heritage began immediately, and in 1975 the folkloric group Zagreb was founded, which was wholeheartedly accepted by the community, who quickly joined in with its work. Quickly thereafter, this folkloric group was taken over by people who wished to actively dedicate themselves to folkloric dancing. There was so much interest in folkloric dancing at that time that shortly afterwards – in 1976 – another folkloric group called Zrinski was founded. Both groups were active and successful in their work, and after the completion of the construction of the new Centre, merged into one group who still use the premises of the Centre to this day.
In the period from 1976 to 1981, though the so-called old centre was a hub of activity, a number of problems also arose, as happens in the life of every community. Even the name of the centre became a problem. Namely, according to Fr. Stipe’s testimony, the Bishop of Wollongong was reluctant to accept the name of the centre and the church as ‘Mary Queen of Croatians’. He first told Fr. Stipe that it was separatism: “Mary is not the queen of Croatians only.” Fr. Stipe replied that Mary was certainly not only the queen of the Croatians, but she was the queen of the Croatians as well – and thus he could call her his queen. Fr. Stipe pointed out that in the Croatian church hymnal there was a song – Zdravo Djevo, Kraljice Hrvata – that was very dear to Croatians and that in his cathedral in Wollongong he had a painted window with the figure of Mary, below which was written: Mary Queen of Polonia, which the Poles had installed during the crisis in Poland. The bishop further asked him if there was a church with such a name anywhere – “Mary, Queen of the Croatians”. Fr. Stipe replied that it existed in Sljeme, above Zagreb. With this, the bishop finally agreed to this name. This church was also the Croatian centre, and therefore served the cultural purposes of the Croatian people as well.
By the beginning of 1979, the need to expand the centre, or the possible construction of a new centre, were being discussed at the meetings of the board of the Croatian Catholic and Cultural Centre “Marija kraljica Hrvata”. By April, Nikola Galović and Franjo Šušnja were entrusted with drawing up a plan to upgrade the centre, while the possibility of buying new land was also considered. This state of uncertainty lasted for almost two years, until the land in the suburb of Figtree, at the current address of the Centre, 7-9 Bellevue Road, 45 meters wide and 113 meters long, was finally purchased. In 1982, the church in West Wollongong was sold for $70,000 and the Centre took out a $50,000 loan from ANZ Bank to buy the land in Figtree for $112,000. and a plan for a new centre for $ 5,000. The sketch of the future Centre, as a model, was made by the Fr. Stipe himself.
The community immediately started raising money for the construction of the new centre, and when $50,000 was raised, construction on the church and the hall started at the same time. Though the Croatian community in Wollongong was the smallest community of Croatians in Australia, it still managed to build a church, a hall, and the priests’ residence in just one year (from November 1982 to October 1983). Everyone was amazed that this was achieved in such a short time, so much so that the Bishop of Wollongong himself could not believe it when Fr. Stipe told him that there was no debt at the end of construction. The community managed to do this because many Croatians volunteered to build the Church and the Centre. Some even took vacations to worked full-time without compensation and even eating at their own expense. The man who led the whole project, Mr. Ivo Dragić, worked entirely without compensation. Instead of going home, many came straight from their day jobs to work on the Centre. At the beginning of the construction, Fr. Stipe placed the Centre under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, and on October 29, 1983, the Bishop of Đakovo, Ćiril Kos, and the Bishop of Wollongong, E. W. Murry, consecrated the Centre as “Marija Kraljica Hrvata”. It is the first church built for Croatians in Australia.
Fr. Stipe managed the Centre until he returned to his homeland in 1993, with the parish handed over to Prgomet, a member of the Franciscan Province of Bosnia Srebrena. Fr. Drago remained until 2002, when Fr. Ivo Tadić, also a member of the Province of Bosna Srebrena, took over the pastoral care of this community. In 2007, the same province sent another priest to Wollongong, Fr. Andrej Matoc, with the intention of taking over the leadership of the Centre, taking place a year after his arrival, while Fr. Ivo returned to his homeland in Okučani. Shortly afterwards, Fr. Andrej died on October 14, 2010. The Province of Bosnia Srebrena, sent Fr. Ivo Tadić back to Wollongong as he already had Australian documents, who has helmed the Centre to the present day.
The Croatian Catholic Centre in Figtree serves as a gathering place for Croatians for religious, cultural, social, sporting and entertainment events. Holy Masses are held in the Croatian language every week, with Holy Communions held every year, and the sacrament of Reconciliation performed by a Croatian bishop every third year. Other sacraments are also performed in the church. The Centre also hosts a Croatian language school and religious education for children. The hall of the Centre is used by a Croatian folkloric group to teach children Croatian dances. Every Wednesday and Friday, the Croatians gather at the Centre to socialise by playing bocce, billiards, cards, and talking to each other. Every year, Croatians from NSW and Canberra make a pilgrimage to Wollongong on the Saturday before the Assumption (August 15), honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, as is the case with many Marian shrines in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina where believers regularly gather to pray and worship God and The Blessed Virgin Mary. The Croatian Catholic Centre Wollongong serves Wollongong Croatians as a place where they can express their religious, cultural and national identities in their Australian homeland. The Centre is also open to people of good will from other nationalities and other religions.
Cemeteries around the world represent not only burial places but also the location of memorials. So is the case with the largest cemetery in Wollongong “Lakeside Memorial Park Kanahooka”, known for its sculptures and architecture, and where Croatians are often buried. Following the example of some cemeteries in Sydney, Fr. Ivo Tadić instigated the building of a Croatian section, which opened in 2008 at this cemetery through his efforts and perseverance. With the efforts of Fr. Andrej Matoc after him, a memorial was constructed, consisting of seven stone slabs symbolizing stećak tombstones, altars and monuments – including the work of the famous Australian-Croatian artist Charles Billich, representing singing angels entitled “Alts and Sopranos”. The memorial was opened in 2012 and was blessed by the then bishop Peter Ingham. Furthermore, the hall of the Center has been renovated in recent times, and certain maintenance and arrangement works have been undertaken in churches and parish houses.
In 2015, the nursing home “Adria”, owned by the Croatian community from Canberra, and at the request of Fr. Ivo, purchased two adjoining plots to the current Centre with a total area of about 10,000 m2 with the intention to build a new nursing home in the future, in cooperation with the Croatian Catholic Centre. With the construction of this home, HKC Wollongong will gain a new dimension and significance not only for the Croatian community but also for the wider local community.
Fr. Frane Stipan Šešelja
Fr. Frane Stipan Šešelja (Fr. Stipe) was the first permanent Croatian priest in Wollongong. He was born on December 26, 1931 in Zaglav on Dugi Otok, not far from Zadar, in the very center of the Kornati archipelago. He finished elementary school in his native village, and attended high school in Zadar, Zagreb and Split. On July 14, 1949, at the seminary of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis of Penance on Školjić near Zadar, and on the feast of St. Bonaventure, he put on the Franciscan habit and began his novitiate, taking on a new name – Fr. Frane. After a year of tribulation, on July 19, 1950, he took his first Franciscan vows and continued his education at the Split seminary. On October 4, 1952, he was drafted into the then Yugoslav army. He first spent three months in Pula, and then three months in Divulje near Split, where he was arrested on March 31, 1953 and taken to the “Gripe” military prison in Split. For the first 40 days of his captivity, he lived in solitary confinement in a cell three meters long and a meter and a half wide, and then – for talking to convicts from a neighboring cell as they walked alongside his – in even greater isolation, on concrete, with a plank as a bed. On the eve of his trial, a warden came to his cell and stated that if he signed a statement that he would not return to the seminary, he would receive a high school diploma and a scholarship to study at the expense of the state at whatever faculty he wanted. Rejecting the offer, Fr. Stipe was sentenced in September of the same year by the Split military court to 3 years and 6 months in prison for hostile propaganda and revealing a military secret, which the Supreme Military Court in Belgrade increased to five years in prison and one year loss of all civil rights. He served his sentence until 1956 in Lepoglava, and then in Stara Gradiška. After serving his sentence, he was released and began studying theology at the Faculty of Theology in Zagreb, but a year later, in October 1959, he went to serve his military service in Kosovo, in Pristina, where he remained until March 1961. After that he continued his studies in theology in Zagreb, and was ordained a priest on February 7, 1965 in Zagreb by the then auxiliary bishop of Zagreb – later archbishop and cardinal – Franjo Kuharić.
In September 1965, he went to work as a pastor in Kotare near Samobor, where he remained until 1968, when he became the guardian of Školjić. In 1969, he asked for a passport so he could visit his parents and siblings in Australia. His first application was denied, and when he applied a second time, after a two-year wait, he received a passport and an Australian visa. In the meantime, for two years he served as an economist and confessor of seminarians in the seminary of the Franciscan Third Orders in Odra near Zagreb. In the meantime, at the request of Don Ante Baković, he worked for three months as a chaplain in the parish of Janjevo, Kosovo.
(Bellevue Road – Mary Queen of Croats)
Wednesday 6 PM
Thursday 10 AM
Saturday 6 PM (except the first Saturday of the month)
Sunday 10 AM
Vincentia – South Coast
(St George Avenue – Holy Spirit Church)
First Saturday of the month 6:15 PM