On Merrylands Road there is a unique ethnic chaplaincy in the white church of St Raphael, for expatriates of a country most people have never heard of: Slovenia.
When the Holy Father, Pope Francis received US President Trump and First Lady Melania, His Holiness asked Melania: “Do you feed him potica?” This confused the world’s media, which had to acquaint itself quickly with Slovenian customs and history.
“We do have potica,” said a laughing Fr Darko Znidaršič OFM, Chaplain to the Slovenian Catholic community in the Diocese of Parramatta.
“It is rolled, filled with nuts, raised with yeast and then it is baked, traditionally,” he said.
Slovenia is a land of immense beauty, with iconic castles, horses and natural springs; this part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire also has clear bearings of its Catholicism.
During Slovenia’s oppression under Yugoslavian Communists, many fled as refugees and started communities throughout the world.
This is how Fr Darko Znidarsic’s community began in Australia. Fr Valerian Jenko OFM OAM, a senior member of the Slovenian Catholic Community in Merrylands experienced this persecution first hand when the Communists intended to shut down the seminary in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Fr Valerian and some other friars and seminarian fled to Austria and then the US to continue their ministry.
In 1951, the Slovenian Franciscan priests came to Australia to meet the pastoral needs of Slovenian migrants, who were often traumatised and disoriented after their arrival in Australia.
“At that time, many people had nothing, had nobody with them, but they were people of hope, faith and love,” Fr Darko said.
2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the Slovenian Catholic Community in Merrylands and the 46th anniversary of the blessing of St Raphael’s Church.
In 1969, the old church and rectory were sold by the Presbyterians, who had built a new church at the next Monitor Road. Fr Valerian and the Slovenian community bought these two premises and renovated the old church first.
Australian Franciscan Provincial Fr Ambrose Ryan OFM blessed the first church on 31 December 1969, and Fr Valerian and Fr Basil Valentine OFM MBE celebrated the first Mass and baptism the next day, on the first day of the 1970s.
Between 1971 and 1973, a new St. Raphael’s Church was erected and was blessed on 14 January 1973 by Most Rev. Stanislav Lenič, an auxiliary Bishop from Ljubljana, Slovenia.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the Slovenian Marian Chapel at Penrose Park, which SBS Radio reported.
“We will celebrate this anniversary on Fatima Day, 13th October, 2017,” Fr Darko said.
Dozens of shrines are dedicated to Marian titles and devotions from around the world.
This beautiful shrine is dedicated to Marija Pomagaj of Brezje, meaning Our Lady Help of Christians.
The painting dates from 1814, when Leopold Layer, a talented counterfeiter, was released from prison after promising Our Lady to paint the chapel if he were freed.
Miraculous healings are reported from people praying at the image of Our Lady of Brezje.
Other Slovenian traditions include making cribs for the baby Jesus for Christmas, making palms for Palm Sunday, devotion to Christ’s Holy Tomb, devotions to Holy Mary, St. Nicholas’ Day and blessing horses on St Stephen’s Day at some parishes in Slovenia.
“Here we celebrate St. Stephen’s Day with Holy Mass in the Church, a common Christmas Lunch, and celebrate the Slovenian decision for independence,” he said.
Slovenian Independence Day is June 25, which the community celebrates with a special Mass. It is particularly significant for Catholics because it brought freedom to practice the faith from the oppression of Communist Yugoslavia.
“There was a ten day civil war,” Fr Darko said.
St Raphael’s Slovenian Catholic Church and Mission has successfully preserved the Slovenian identity in Australia and houses the significant historical archives of the Slovenian community in NSW.
Currently, they are also sheltering others who need a home – the Melkite Greek Catholic Community of St Elias, which is presently without a church.
“We are hosting the community of St Elias at the moment, while they build their new church,” Fr Darko said.