Louisiana's Croatian American Society: A Case Study in Adaptation and Resilience

By Carolyn E. Ware


With several thousand members, Louisiana's Croatian-American community is relatively small but one of the oldest in the United States.1 People of Croatian descent, coming primarily from southern Dalmatia and the Peljesac peninsula, have lived and worked in south Louisiana since the 1830s, making significant contributions to the state's cuisine, economy, and cultural life (Govorchin 1961; Eterovich 1971; Prpic 1971; Vujnovich 1974; Shapiro 1989). Many early Croatian immigrants settled in New Orleans where they opened restaurants, fruit dealerships, coffeehouses, and other successful businesses. Today, Croatian families own and operate some of the city's most beloved restaurants, such as Drago's Seafood Restaurant and the Crescent City Steakhouse.

By the mid-19th century, Croatian newcomers were moving downriver to Plaquemines Parish, where they applied skills learned in their native Dalmatia, a coastal region along the Adriatic Sea, to harvesting local oysters. As their labor and inventions transformed oyster fishing in Louisiana from a small scale, seasonal enterprise to a year-round cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting oysters, Croatians became a dominant force in the oyster industry (Vujnovich 1974; Wicker 1979; Tesvich 1996). In the 20th century, they helped to usher the state's oyster industry into the modern age, and many first- and second-generation Louisiana Croatians became successful and prominent oyster growers.2

Today Louisiana is the largest oyster producer in the nation, and Croatian Americans remain at the forefront of oyster farming and processing. The oyster industry continues to attract young Croatian-born men to Plaquemines Parish, where they typically work as deckhands for several years before buying their own oyster boats or entering partnerships with established oyster growers. This ongoing cycle of immigration ensures that the local Croatian-American community receives periodic new infusions of Croatian culture.

Louisiana Croatians in the 21st century are no longer a new immigrant population trying to adapt to American society. Instead, they are an established ethnic group that, like other American ethnic groups, must work to maintain its traditions and identity (see for example Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1983, Oring 1986, Brady 1996, Bronner 2006, de los Reyes et al. 2006). Croatians in south Louisiana face particular challenges because their community is dispersed throughout Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and other parishes. Being spread out has "always been kind of a hindrance to keep our culture alive, because we don't live in one tight little group," says Domenica Cibilich, whose parents immigrated to Plaquemines Parish from the Dalmatian coast. "When you don't see each other on a daily basis, it's a little bit harder" (Cibilich 2006). In addition, members range from first-generation immigrants, many of whom are oyster farmers in Plaquemines Parish, to families who have lived in Louisiana for generations, intermarried with other ethnic groups, work in a variety of professions, and may feel less directly connected to Croatian identity. Life along the Gulf Coast also presents its own obstacles, including hurricanes and floods that periodically displace families, destroy homes and businesses, and push residents further inland.

Because of these impediments to cultural continuity, getting together throughout the year is essential. In early 2007, as local Croatian Americans worked to recover from Hurricane Katrina, oyster grower and processor John Tesvich commented that "every get-together that we have [is] really important to the Croatian community because it shows unity, especially at a time when things are tough" (Tesvich 2007). Life-cycle events such as weddings, christenings, and funerals offer crucial opportunities for members to socialize, but regularly scheduled social and religious events are also important to maintaining a sense of community (Ware 1996, Ware 2006a). As described below, a variety of Croatian ethnic societies and industry associations have filled this need by hosting supper dances, picnics, religious services, and other activities over the years.

Many of these cultural functions have now shifted to the Croatian American Society (CAS), Louisiana's newest and currently most active Croatian organization. Based mainly in Plaquemines Parish, the CAS was created in 1991 to support Croatia in its war for independence from Yugoslavia (Croatian American Society 1999). Originally called Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia, the association was renamed the Croatian American Society in 1998 to denote Croatia's status as a free nation (CAS 1999). Despite the name change, the group remains committed to assisting fellow Croatians in need and more broadly "provid[ing] for the hungry and needy, locally and worldwide" (Buras 1993a: 8).

Another priority is promoting a sense of community and "keep[ing] our culture alive" among Louisiana Croatians (CAS newsletter Fall 1997). Increasingly, the association has turned its attention to documenting Louisiana Croatian traditions and educating a younger, American-born generation of Louisiana Croatians, as well as the general public, about the Croatian language, religious celebrations, foodways, and music and dance. Above all, members say they want to teach their children their core values: the importance of family and friends, religious faith, hard work, perseverance, and dependability (Ware field notes January 7, 2007; CAS newsletter May 2010).

This essay traces the history and activities of the Croatian American Society in order to better understand the community's dynamic and resilient nature. In particular, I examine the CAS's response to crises such as Croatia's war for independence and Hurricane Katrina; its role as a voice for Louisiana Croatians; its progress toward creating a permanent home for the organization; and its creative adaptation to changes in the community. These developments reveal the continued importance of ethnic culture and ethnic organizations in both everyday life and recovery from disaster. The article draws on fieldwork interviews and observations from 1995 to the present (see Ware 1996), as well as on CAS newsletters, Facebook and website postings, and my e-mail conversations with board members.3

A Brief Overview of Louisiana Croatian Organizations

Various ethnic organizations have played pivotal roles in Louisiana's Croatian community over the last one hundred and forty years. (These associations also reflect the different terms Croatian immigrants have used to describe themselves in different eras, including Slavonian, Austrian, Dalmatian, Yugoslav, and most recently, Croatian.) The New Orleans-based Croatian Benevolent Association, a fraternal society formerly known as the United Slavonian Benevolent Association, is Louisiana's oldest Croatian society and the nation's second oldest. Incorporated in 1874 by Croatian businessmen in New Orleans, its primary purpose has always been to offer burial benefits (including interment in the association's tombs) to its male members, and financial assistance to their widows.4 The organization, as the late Milos Vujnovich suggested in his 1974 book Yugoslavs in Louisiana, also served a social purpose by hosting banquets and other events that "kept the early immigrants from feeling isolated" (Vujnovich 1974: 164). Today, the Croatian Benevolent Association continues to maintain its tombs in New Orleans and Buras, as well as conserving a number of artifacts related to local Croatian history.

In the first half of the 20th century, Croatians in New Orleans created new social organizations such as the all-male Slavonian Pleasure Club and the Yugoslav American Club (whose membership included both men and women), which held family picnics, dances, and other get-togethers. According to Vujnovich, societies such as the Croatian Benevolent Association, the Slavonian Pleasure Club, and the Yugoslav American Club helped new immigrants adjust to American life and to acculturate; at the same time, these clubs and their activities celebrated and reinforced a strong sense of ethnic pride (1974). By the 1970s, though, these clubs had scaled back their social activities, and the Slavonian Pleasure Club has been dormant for some years.

Oyster industry organizations, whose membership includes many Croatian American oyster farmers, have also been mainstays of local social life. The Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association (LODGA), Louisiana's earliest oyster trade organization, was founded in 1955 by Croatian American Baldo Pausina, who served as its first president. For two decades, LOGDA's annual supper dance at a New Orleans hotel was the most important social event of the year for many Croatians, including a number of younger, newly-arrived Croatian men. In 1975, a second-generation Croatian-American oysterman named John Farac formed the Plaquemines Oyster Association to better represent concerns of oyster farmers in lower Plaquemines Parish. For almost twenty years, the Plaquemines Oyster Association held an annual Oyster Dance that attracted numerous Croatian Americans as well as other Plaquemines Parish residents.

Thus, south Louisiana's Croatian community has a decades long tradition of getting together regularly for semi-formal dinner dances, fundraisers, and other social occasions sponsored by various occupational and ethnic organizations. Since the early 1990s, the Croatian American Society, whose membership overlaps with other Croatian ethnic and industry organizations, has taken the lead in organizing social and cultural activities, continuing and adapting established events and introducing new ones.

The Early Years

In 1991 Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, leading to a four-year war with Yugoslav armed forces (Buras 1993a and 1993b, Barisich 1995). Hundreds of thousands of Croatians were displaced, thousands were killed or orphaned, and the country's economy was crippled. Croatian Americans, many of whom felt a strong attachment to their homeland, rallied in support of Croatia and neighboring Bosnia. Those born in Croatia or with family members there were particularly concerned, but the war effort also brought out Croatian Americans who had not previously interacted socially with the local Croatian community.5

In the greater New Orleans area, Croatian Americans formed a new organization called Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia (LCFFC) to raise public awareness of the conflict. In addition to letter-writing campaigns and petitions, the group began raising funds and collecting supplies for war victims, particularly orphans and other children. A 1993 magazine article on Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia noted that "strong religious beliefs" were "the power behind the relief efforts" (Buras 1993a: 8), and the organization's own newsletter reminded readers that "working together we can make a difference in the lives of children and adults whose lives have been torn apart by war" (April 1995). Through private donations, raffles, and other fundraisers, the group raised several hundred thousand dollars. Oyster processor Eddie Kurtich, the society's first president, and his wife Joyce Kurtich were key figures in the LCFFC war relief effort. They donated storage space at their oyster business in Port Sulphur, where volunteers filled containers of food, clothing, and medical supplies and shipped them to war victims in Croatia and Bosnia (Buras 1993b, Ware 1996; Buras 1997).6

After Croatia won its independence in 1995, the organization was renamed the Croatian American Society but continued its humanitarian outreach to Croatia, where many people still lacked basic necessities (CAS 1999). As before, a special concern was helping "war-ravaged children who had been orphaned or wounded both physically and spiritually" (CAS 1999). The group supported Croatian orphanages and children's hospitals by sending not only money, but also Christmas and Easter gifts for the children. This hands-on approach still exemplifies the organization's charitable work, as well as its ongoing focus on children and families.

Since its earliest years, the CAS has also contributed to other institutions and families in need. Among its beneficiaries are a Catholic Church damaged by Hurricane Andrew, the American Red Cross for victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and St. Patrick's Catholic Church in lower Plaquemines Parish. As described later in this essay, the CAS also played a prominent part in raising and distributing relief funds for Louisiana commercial fishing families who lost homes or boats in Hurricane Katrina.


Croatian American Society membership is open to Croatians, people of Croatian descent, and anyone interested in Croatian culture. Unlike older fraternal societies, CAS membership includes women as well as men, including a number of married couples and entire families. Both men and women play crucial parts in its maintenance and growth and contribute time, funding, and labor to the organization. Each person, officers say, brings his or her own specific abilities and interests to making the CAS a strong and sustainable entity. Volunteer work includes behind-the-scenes of planning and organizing for CAS events; serving on various committees; singing in the Croatian choir; barbecuing or making desserts for CAS dinners; helping to shuck, charbroil, and sell oysters for fundraisers at local festivals; leading Croatian language classes (as Jane Tesvich and Andrea Murina have done); offering Croatian dance classes (as Mary Jane Munsterman Tesvich did some years ago); producing the CAS newsletter; and cleaning and maintaining the society's donated property in Jesuit Bend.

With about 200 members in 2012, the Croatian American Society is growing and becoming more diverse.7 As in any organization, there is a flux of incoming and outgoing members. Some veterans have been active in the CAS since its earliest years, providing valuable continuity and experience, and now their adult children—who more or less grew up in the Croatian American society—also serve on the board and bring their own spouses and friends into the organization as well.8

Increasingly, the CAS is reaching out to other younger Croatian Americans in order to strengthen interest and pride in Croatian culture. Young members like Suzan Hihar and Anna Shapard have recently served as CAS presidents and in other board positions. Suzan, whose father is Croatian-born, says, "I love this organization and its purpose [and] I'm honored to have been a part of it because we are working to maintain a connection to Croatia and our culture for future generations." She adds, "[I] am so excited that we are seeing an influx of 'younger Croatians' [aged 15 to fortyish] involved in the organization. It tells me that we're on the right track to building and truly rooting the community to what we need" (Hihar email message to author July 19, 2013).

Other recent board members include non-Croatian spouses of young Louisiana-born Croatian Americans, who bring new perspectives, skills, and energy to the organization. Former CAS officer Trent Jorden, whose wife is Croatian-American, commented at a 2011 planning meeting, "We want to . . . bring new people in, do things to include youth" (Ware field notes June 5, 2011). Through social media such as a CAS Facebook page, Twitter, and their own social networks, young board members are reaching broader audiences and introducing activities that attract new members—including some "Americans" or non-Croatians. Seeking to make all feel welcome in the association, the CAS has also worked to bridge differences among old" and "new" Croatian Americans, making overtures to people of Croatian descent who may not have considered joining previously. This outreach demonstrates the changing nature of the Louisiana Croatian community, as well as the CAS's efforts to represent the community's diversity.

Eat, Drink, and Be Croatian

In addition to providing humanitarian aid during crises, the Croatian American Society has always been dedicated to cultural celebration and preservation. Its aim of perpetuating "the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Croatia" (CAS newsletter February 1999) is perhaps even more marked as the CAS enters its third decade. To this end, the society organizes an annual series of events that encourage members to "have a good time with friends and family and continue the Croatian culture for us and our children" (CAS newsletter May 2001). Since the 1990s, the yearly calendar has included a dinner dance with live Croatian music, two masses celebrated in Croatian, a spring or fall picnic, and an oyster concession at the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival and Fair. Some of these events began as fundraisers for Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia or for older ethnic and industry organizations. On occasion, the society has also hosted or promoted special events such as a Catholic mission week, cruises, and casino bus trips, all of which bring some members of the community together in shared interests. The range of activities reflects Croatian principles of faith and family life, but also the value of simply having a good time together.

Roman Catholicism is central to traditional Croatian culture, and the CAS's signature event is a mid-June mass in honor of St. Anthony's feast day (Buras 1993a, Ware 1996). The local celebration for Anthony, patron saint of the Croatian towns of Duba and Sujuraj, began in the late 1980s at a small Catholic church in Empire, Louisiana. In 1991, it was adopted by the newly-created Croatian American Society, moved to the larger St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, and became the occasion for the association's annual business meeting and election (Ware 1996). Father Paul Maslach, a visiting Croatian born priest originally from Chicago and now pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milwaukee, has officiated at the St. Anthony mass since its inception, and has become a mentor and close friend to CAS members.

The event begins with a ceremonial procession around the perimeter of the church. A CAS member bearing a tall crucifix leads the way, trailed by four men carrying the flower-decked statue of St. Anthony, flag bearers, altar boys and priest, a small choir singing hymns in Croatian, and then the remainder of the congregation, which can include 100 to 200 worshippers (Ware 1996).

Once everyone has filed back into the church, Father Paul celebrates mass and delivers his homily in the Croatian language, followed by a short English summary. Hymns and prayers are also in Croatian. Anka Lepetic, a realtor and CAS founder who moved to Louisiana from Croatia as a teenager in the late 1960s, explains that for a native Croatian speaker like her, "praying in your own language and hearing the homily in your own language from the altar is really so touching, when you missed it for so many years." What is most important, Anka says, "is to get together so the younger generation can pick up the habit" of worshipping together (Lepetic 2007). As the service concludes, Croatian American Society officers thank Father Paul, introduce guests of honor such as visiting Croatian consuls, and invite everyone to a barbecue dinner and reception in the church's Family Life Center.

Figure 1: Jure Slavich and Mato Bijelis prepare barbecue for the annual St. Anthony's Day celebration. Photo by Mark J. Sindler.

The Dalmation-style dinner that follows the mass reflects the importance of Croatian specialties as cultural symbols. Men have spent much of the day outside, barbecuing pork, lamb, and sometimes beef for the dinner (Figure 1). Women provide salads, other side dishes, and homemade Croatian desserts. The most popular and iconic pastry is krustula, strips of faintly lemon flavored dough tied into knots, fried to a crispy texture, and dusted with powdered sugar (Figure 2). As several Croatian Americans have remarked to me, it is not a truly special event without krustula—which, like many special-occasion foods, is time-consuming to make.

Figure 2: Vedranka Slavich and Marija Vekic prepare krustula, fried strips of dough dusted with powdered sugar. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian American Society.

After a brief business meeting and election of officers, socializing continues, sometimes for hours. The gathering has also occasionally featured other folklife performances such as instrumental Croatian music, singing, and folk dance demonstrations by a local youth group. The St. Anthony event, the CAS's earliest event, represents an important devotion to a beloved patron saint, a cultural link to Dalmatia (where religious feast day celebrations are traditional), and a chance to renew community bonds with fellow Louisiana Croatians. A second Croatian mass takes place during the Christmas and New Year season in order to "count our many blessings and to gather together as a Croatian American community" (CAS newsletter November 2001).9 Scheduled for a Sunday afternoon in late December or (more recently) early January, the holiday mass is held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Belle Chasse, a rapidly growing suburban community at the northern tip of Plaquemines Parish and a relatively central location for the greater New Orleans Croatian community.

As with the St. Anthony's day mass, the CAS invites an out of- state Croatian priest to celebrate the holiday mass. Father Giordano Belanich, a native Croatian speaker who is pastor of a Catholic church in New Jersey, has officiated for many years. During the January 2007 holiday mass, Father Belanich addressed the significance of cultural continuity from the altar; he remarked that "all of you [are] here with your friends and families to worship as your grandparents and ancestors did in the old country." Yet he also acknowledged that many second- and third-generation Croatian Americans in the congregation are not fluent in Croatian. Despite the language gap, he commented that he hoped the holiday service would "touch your hearts, even if you don't know all the words" (Ware field notes January 7, 2007). Typically the holiday celebration ends with a reception in the church cafeteria, where conversations take place in both Croatian and English.

The year's biggest social event is a semi-formal dinner dance ("the most exciting Croatian event all year!" according to a 1999 invitation) usually held in late January. As a recent newsletter suggested, it is an opportunity for members to "eat, drink, and be Croatian" together (November 2011)—a reminder that dancing, singing, dining and drinking well, and having fun are important aspects of Croatian folklife.10 The dance venue is usually an upscale country club, hotel reception room, or restaurant in the greater New Orleans area. Ticketholders, who frequently reserve entire tables for family and friends in advance, are offered an elaborate buffet meal, an open bar, and dancing to Croatian polkas, waltzes, and other nostalgic tunes performed by a visiting Croatian band. Sometimes a folk dance troupe is invited to perform; in 2012, for example, dancers from Canada led CAS members in a Croatian kolo (circle dance), and the Houston Croatian Club folk dancers were featured in 2013. The dinner dance is typically well attended, often to capacity, by two to three hundred ticketholders. For the last two years, the dinner dance has been held at the Foundry restaurant in New Orleans' Warehouse District and has been sold out.

A fourth yearly event is a Sunday afternoon picnic, an informal family event offering "good food, fresh air, fun and games for everyone" (CAS newsletter October 1998). The picnic was first introduced in September 1992 as a fundraiser for refugees of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who faced a difficult winter; a newsletter described it as an "old-fashioned Labor Day picnic" with "rides, games, entertainment" all day (LCFC newsletter 1992). Proceeds from sales of a mixed grill of pork, chicken, and sausage, available for ten dollars a plate that year, purchased supplies for the refugees.

The picnic is no longer a fundraiser for war victims, but it is still a popular CAS social event. There have been other changes in the picnic over the years—prices have predictably risen, the time of year has varied from autumn to spring, and entertainment has sometimes included dancing to live Croatian music. The most significant recent change is a new venue. For many years, the CAS held the event at Plaquemines Parish owned picnic grounds. In 2011, the event moved to the CAS's newly acquired property in Jesuit Bend, a few miles south of Belle Chasse. For CAS members, this was an important milestone in securing a permanent home for the association, an achievement that I discuss at more length in a later section.

Figure 3: Stanko Glamuzina, Kuzma Seput, and Luke Cibilich shuck oysters for the 2006 Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival and Fair. Photo: Carolyn Ware.

On the first weekend of December, the CAS rents a food booth at the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival, where volunteers shuck, prepare, and serve charbroiled, raw, and fried oysters (Figure 3).11 The booth, one of the fair's most popular concessions, not only raises thousands of dollars each year, but also enhances the Croatian American Society's public profile. A CAS banner playfully encourages customers to "eat oysters, love longer." Volunteers wear CAS tee shirts with the same slogan and the society's emblem, a fleur-de-lis (locally, a symbol of New Orleans and French Louisiana in general) in the checkered red and white of the Croatian flag, an image that represents the local blending of Croatian and Louisiana culture and identity.

Figure 4: Craig Reynolds charbroils oysters for the CAS oyster booth at the Gretna Heritage Festival. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian American Society.

Organizing and running the festival booth is time-intensive, generally requiring twenty volunteers per shift for three days. Some dedicated volunteers work all three days of the event. But working the oyster booth is also an opportunity for social interaction, as CAS members, potential members, friends, and family stop by to visit and to help out. Trent Jorden, past Festival Committee chairman, comments that "these festivals have become a bit of a social function . . . with the fun we have along with hard work." This ability to combine work and enjoyment, he adds, is "something that goes hand in hand with being Croatian" (Jorden e-mail message to author, July 19, 2013).

Figure 5: The CAS oyster booth. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian American Society.

In the past few years, the CAS has added other regional festivals to its schedule and sharply increased the group's profits. Members have staffed oyster booths at the hugely popular Gretna Festival (where they raised $11,000 in one weekend), the Plaquemines Parish Seafood Festival, and the Grand Isle Fishing Rodeo (Figures 4-6). For the 2012 Plaquemines Parish Seafood Festival, CAS officers convinced festival organizers to promote one night as "Croatian night," featuring live Croatian music on the bandstand, Croatian foods at the CAS booth, and an "inaugural oyster drop" (Plaquemines Parish Seafood Festival flyer 2012). Overall, recent festival earnings have provided annual profits of $20,000 to $30,000 a year for the club, thanks to the many faithful CAS members who volunteer each year and enthusiastic Festival Committee chairs such as Niko Tesvich, Craig Reynolds, and Trent Jorden.

Figure 6: Maria Vekic at the CAS oyster booth. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian American Society.

In addition to festival fundraisers, the CAS has introduced several new, cleverly promoted social activities to appeal to a wider audience. Barbara Cvitanovich Oustalet became the CAS event director (a newly created volunteer position) in 2011 and "took the ball and ran with it," she says (Oustalet e-mail message to author, July 24, 2013). One of the most popular new activities was the Adriatic Breeze Croatian winetasting held at a renovated Plaquemines Parish plantation house in 2011, where ticket holders were offered a range of hard-to-find imported Croatian wines, along with Croatian delicacies and music. Other recent events include a Croatian Day at the Races at the New Orleans Fairgrounds racetrack, and a ladies' luncheon at the Southern Yacht Club. Other members also continue to organize various CAS fundraising events, such as a recent charter bus trip to fashion outlet malls organized by Jane Tesvich.

Croatian American Society teams are also participating in charitable events such as the Crescent City Classic race (wearing Team CAS shirts), the American Diabetes Walk, and the Plaquemines Parish United Way Inaugural Jambalaya Cook-Off (for which CAS team captain Niko Tesvich invented a "Croatian style" jambalaya). These events are reminders that Louisiana's 21st-century Croatian Americans, while proud of their Croatian heritage and traditions, are a vital part of the larger Louisiana community as well.

Hurricane Katrina and Recovery

Created in response to a war in Croatia, the Croatian American Society also played a significant part in recovery from a recent Louisiana disaster. Hurricane Katrina came ashore in lower Plaquemines Parish on August 29, 2005, and affected almost every Croatian American Society member in some way. Families in lower Plaquemines Parish, the heart of Louisiana's oyster industry, lost their homes and livelihoods. At least half of local oyster boats were destroyed or badly damaged, and docks, fueling depots, and other commercial fishing infrastructure were gone (Domenica Cibilich e-mail message to author April 5, 2006). A number of Croatian-American families in New Orleans also lost houses to flooding from failed levees. Louisiana Croatians fortunate enough to escape storm damage hosted displaced relatives and friends for weeks and months.

Hurricane Katrina became a turning point for the Croatian American Society as national and international attention focused on coastal Louisiana. As the Croatian press discovered Louisiana's Croatians, the Croatian American Society provided a public face and voice for that community. Then newly-elected CAS president and businessman Jamie Coleman found himself fielding calls from Croatia and telephone interviews with the press, and he later commented that "it became pretty clear that we had a vehicle to help sustain the Croatian community" through the society (Coleman 2006).

As part of its efforts to assist south Louisiana Croatians, the CAS took the lead in raising and distributing funds for affected fishing families.12 Board members, scattered across the country, communicated through conference calls that enabled them to plan fundraising and other initiatives. A volunteer in New York set up a CAS website for donations and news about the association. A statement on this site explained that the CAS was now "directing our efforts to support Croatian Americans and victims of natural disaster on the Gulf Coast" through a special fund to "provide emergency financial help on an as-needed basis to Croatian American families we know are in need." The organization had the advantage of being able to "directly place emergency financial assistance in the hands of our neighbors who have experienced a total loss of property and livelihood" (

As of May 2006, the initiative had raised $44,000 in donations from all across the United States. CAS board members evaluated applications and awarded grants of $500 on average; importantly, the CAS was able to make direct deposits to recipients who could remain anonymous. Support from outside communities not only provided much-needed financial relief, it also raised morale and energized the local Croatian community. The Croatian American Society's post-Katrina work led to wider national and international partnerships, and today the Croatian government officially recognizes the CAS as a representative body of the local Croatian community (Domenica Cibilich e-mail message to author August 13, 2013).

The CAS also helped members recover through its social and cultural activities, which took on special meaning in the wake of Katrina. Displacement and loss reminded many Croatian American Society members of the importance of community and cultural institutions. Jamie Coleman remembered, "The post- Katrina environment reinforced the need to have cultural identity. Because so much had been lost, this was something that could not be lost. . . . So the impact of the storm only increased the importance of the Croatian American Society" (Coleman 2006). Resuming regular CAS events marked a major step toward recovery. On the first weekend of December in 2005, barely three months after Katrina came ashore, the CAS hosted its usual oyster booth at the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival, relocated from its traditional home in lower Plaquemines to largely-undamaged Belle Chasse. A few weeks later, an enthusiastic but much smaller crowd than usual (many residents were still displaced) celebrated an informal version of the annual dinner dance. Held in a local cafeteria, the event featured music performed by favorite Croatian singers from New York. Photos of the revelers, like pictures of volunteers at the 2005 Orange Festival oyster booth, were posted on the CAS website and offered hope of an eventual return to normalcy.

Perhaps the most emotional post-hurricane reunions took place during the Croatian American Society's two annual Croatian masses. The Christmas season mass was held as usual in early January at Belle Chasse's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. Domenica Cibilich, a CAS board member for many years, later commented that "many people attending said it was healing to hear Croatian music and prayer and feel a little bit of normal life return" (Cibilich e-mail to author April 5, 2006). Anka Lepetic, a founding member and former board member, said that this first post-storm mass together "was unreal, because people had moved on in different directions. [For] some of them, it was the first chance to see each other. So it was a lot of crying and hugging and sharing." It was also a reminder, she says, that "faith can live on—even though we lost our homes and material things, our faith lives on and that's most important" (Lepetic 2007).

The logistics of planning the June 2006 St. Anthony's Day celebration were much more complicated. Ten months after the hurricane, much of lower Plaquemines Parish remained devastated or damaged. St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, the celebration's home, received more than fourteen feet of water from the storm, and the New Orleans archdiocese instructed its Irish-born priest, Father Gerry Stapleton, to close the church indefinitely. The 2006 mass was moved to Belle Chasse, and CAS board members scrambled to borrow a St. Anthony statue to replace one lost in the floodwaters.

Meanwhile, the Croatian American Society worked closely with Father Gerry, who was determined to re-open St. Patrick Catholic Church. Members helped to clean and repair the church, and the CAS donated funds for restoration. Less than two years after Hurricane Katrina struck, the CAS newsletter announced that "this year is especially joyful because we will be back at St. Patrick Church in Port Sulphur, where we traditionally celebrate our St. Anthony's Day Croatian Mass" (CAS newsletter Spring 2007). With a newly donated St. Anthony statue, the mass, procession, and reception marked another step towards community recovery. The celebration also signaled that lower Plaquemines Parish was slowly coming back to life, although it has by no means fully recovered.

In the eight years since Hurricane Katrina, Croatian- American families have made remarkable progress toward recovery, despite having to "work so hard just to get back to where you started," in one member's words. The oyster industry has rebounded, fishing boats have been repaired or replaced, and infrastructure slowly rebuilt.13 Some Plaquemines Croatians left the parish altogether for other parts of Louisiana, but more have permanently relocated to Belle Chasse and commute forty or fifty miles to their boats in Empire and Port Sulphur. Some New Orleans members who lost their homes to flooding also moved to Belle Chasse. With this post-Katrina shift to Belle Chasse, south Louisiana's Croatian community has become more geographically concentrated than previously. It remains to be seen if this population tilt is permanent. But as the CAS makes significant progress toward building a Croatian American Cultural Center a few miles south of Belle Chasse, it seems likely that the greater Belle Chasse area will be the heart of Croatian cultural and social life in Louisiana for some time.

Croatian Cultural Center

Making progress toward establishing a Croatian cultural center is one of the Croatian American Society's most significant accomplishments in recent years, but also one of its greatest challenges. Having its own building has been a goal for generations of Louisiana Croatians. John Tesvich, an engineer who currently serves as CAS president and Building Committee chairman (with co-chair Joe Piacun), remembers planning meetings thirty-five years ago or more—long before the Croatian American Society was formed—but these efforts were never successful (Tesvich personal communication September 14, 2013). Sites discussed at various times included New Orleans and lower Plaquemines Parish.

The Croatian American Society made a significant stride toward this goal in 2009, when a supporter donated two and a half acres of land and a hurricane-damaged three-story house along Highway 23 in Jesuit Bend, a few miles south of Belle Chasse. Later, the CAS purchased an additional acre of land behind the donated property to provide space for parking and picnic areas. The Croatian American Society recognized that these acquisitions marked an important opportunity for organizational growth; a permanent home would give the CAS crucial stability and an opportunity to "showcase and celebrate [Croatians'] unique culture on a broader and more regular basis" (Sercovich 2011). Members envisioned the planned community center as "a place where the Croatian ideals of hard work, perseverance, love of family and friends instilled in us by our Croatian immigrants can be preserved so that our children and others can better appreciate what sacrifices our fathers and mothers have made to provide a better life for their families" (CAS newsletter May 2010).

CAS officers and other members approached the planning process methodically; they formed a building committee with several subcommittees, sought public input through a newspaper survey, engaged an architect, applied for permits, and made plans for fundraising. Through a Louisiana Division of the Arts grant, they brought in folklorist Amy Skillman to lead a focused planning session on ways to present and preserve Croatian arts and culture.

In the meantime, the Croatian American Society transformed a metal outbuilding into a comfortable interim cultural center called the Konoba (wine cellar). Members donated building materials and labor; they cleaned up the wind-damaged property and kept its grass mowed; framed the Konoba's interior; built a kitchen and two bathrooms; laid flooring; and installed air conditioning. Many members contributed their specialized skills. For example, Nikola Vekic, who worked as a painter in Croatia, painted the interior; Kristian Murina, a brick and tile mason, was in charge of creating a distinctive Dalmatian-style stone front to the metal building; John Tesvich designed plans for both the Konoba and a storage shed, and applied for permits. Members donated many of the Konoba's furnishings, and in March 2012, the group celebrated its progress with a "Blessing of the Croatian CACC [Croatian American Cultural Center]" mass there, followed by a barbecue.

Despite their dedication to the project, CAS members have encountered obstacles to planning and implementation. For one thing, various factions in the organization have disparate ideas about what and where the cultural center should be. Other factors such as the viability of the donated hurricane-damaged house have complicated and prolonged planning. Initial plans called for renovating the three-story home and converting it into a large cultural center comprising almost 2,000 square feet, including meeting rooms, a ballroom, kitchen, library, and museum (CAS newsletter January 2010). After a series of plans to save the building, engineers ultimately declared the old building unstable and it was demolished. The Building Committee began planning for new construction, and two rounds of fundraising letters raised a total of $300,000.

Another setback occurred in 2012, when Hurricane Isaac threatened to flood areas that typically did not flood, including the Jesuit Bend area. Realizing that they must rethink their vision, the Croatian American Society held a meeting to address members' concerns about possible flooding in the future. Some members suggested considering other possible building sites. Ultimately, the Building Committee decided to "build smarter" on the Jesuit Bend site by making the center smaller and raising it higher, and they returned to the project architect for new plans (Tesvich personal communication September 14, 2013). Once the final design is approved, the group will send out a third letter to raise the remainder of the estimated cost. At that point, a business plan will be drawn up and the CAS will approach corporations and prominent Croatian-American families as potential sponsors.

Despite the challenges of planning and building a permanent cultural center, the interim Konoba has already had a considerable impact on the CAS and its members. As Domenica Cibilich notes, it has "helped keep the culture alive" by making it easier for the group to have gatherings (e-mail message to author August 8, 2013). The annual picnic is held there, along with new activities such as a springtime "Kids' Day at the Konoba" featuring an Easter egg hunt (now an annual event), a New Year's Eve bonfire, and Sunday-afternoon gatherings to watch televised New Orleans Saints football games. The interim cultural center has given members "a sense of being an established organization by having our own place" (Trent Jorden e-mail message to author July 19, 2013). The Konoba also provides a place to entertain a growing number of visiting dignitaries; a recent example was a Croatian breakfast in honor of the Croatian Ambassador to the U.S, with over a hundred invited guests.

A number of new Konoba events are focused on sharing and teaching Croatian traditions. Recently, schoolteacher and former CAS board member Jane Tesvich initiated a series of monthly intermediate Croatian language lessons, aimed at improving basic conversational skills, at the Konoba. Tesvich, who considers herself an intermediate student of the language, calls the meetings a "collaboration of people" and explains that "I'm just putting the structure out there for the lesson and all of us work together" (Jane Tesvich personal communication September 14, 2013).

Foodways provide another convenient framework for cultural demonstrations. During the Easter season, Croatian born Tereza Tesvich showed children how to knead dough and shape it into a braided wreath to make a Croatian Easter bread called sirnica. Women also got together in the Konoba kitchen to make Croatian desserts for the 2012 dinner dance, and a CAS newsletter pointed out that this was a "perfect opportunity" for other cooks to "learn to make your favorite desserts" (CAS newsletter January 2012). Another workshop entailed culinary exchange with women from an older Croatian society in Biloxi, Mississippi, in which Louisiana women demonstrated how to make krustula, and the Biloxi cooks made their specialty, donuts called pusharatas (or prsurate). Barbara Oustalet, who helped to organize the event, wrote, "We shared the time with Croatian recipes and stories and became good friends" (e-mail message to author, July 24, 2013).

The pastry exchange grew out of the CAS's recent outreach to Biloxi's Slavic Benevolent Association of Saint Nikolai, founded in 1905. Croatian American Society officers recognized that the older, larger, and financially stable organization might offer lessons for their own club. In May 2010, several board members visited the Mississippi group to "learn of their history, current success of their membership, and to tour their new facility," recently rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the former hall. More inspiring than the marble-and-stone St. Nikolai building itself, the CAS committee reported, was the association's "infectious and inspiring devotion to our Croatian culture and heritage" (CAS newsletter May 2010). After that initial scouting trip, the St. Nikolai Association invited forty Croatian American Society members as guests at "an evening of friendship and information sharing" (CAS newsletter May 2010). Both groups seemed to find their new connection invigorating: Croatian American Society representatives saw new possibilities for their organization, and the more assimilated Biloxi group was eager to learn about Croatian culture from "real" Croatians, as they called CAS members. The cultural and social interchange continued when the CAS hosted St. Nikolai members at their annual dinner dance.

The CAS is also reaching out to cultural experts for ideas on documenting their traditions for future generations and presenting them to the public. Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program, led about thirty members through a workshop discussion of different kinds of folk cultural projects and their implementation. Now, an oral history project with older community members is in progress, with assistance from a Tulane University graduate student. This attention to community history and the cultural significance of CAS activities suggests a greater sense of permanence and stability in the organization. It is also a recognition that localized Louisiana Croatian culture—as well as the culture of the homeland—is distinctive, important, and worthy of conservation.


In a little more than twenty years, the Croatian American Society has come far. It has provided substantial humanitarian aid during a war and after a hurricane, and proved flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and membership. The association has been producing events long enough, regularly enough, and well enough that community members expect it to continue doing so—a strong indication of its success. It has also "put a face and name to New Orleans-area people of Croatian heritage" both locally and abroad, as Domenica Cibilich writes (e-mail message to author August 2013). For example, a Republic of Croatia Embassy newsletter in 2010 applauded the Croatian American Society's "persistency and effort" in "the fostering of ethnic affiliation and Croatian culture in Louisiana," and commented that the organization is becoming "one of the most important holders of Croatian national identity in Louisiana" (Republic of Croatia Embassy January 23, 2010).

As a recognized voice for the Croatian community, the CAS can also lobby for smaller but significant requests from its members. For example, local grocers are now selling Croatian wines, beers, spices, and chocolates after CAS members requested them. These symbolic victories are reminders that Croatian Americans are a significant economic and cultural presence that has often been overlooked in the past.

Part of the society's sustainability may lie in the various meanings it holds for different members. For first-generation Croatian Americans, it connects them to their homeland and its values, language, and other cultural traditions. A second generation Louisiana Croatian, Suzan Hihar says, "[W]e are working to maintain a connection to Croatia and our culture for future generations. We must know where we've started [as a community] and be proud of the work that's been put in to get us where we are" (Hihar e-mail message to author July 19, 2013). For those farther removed from their Croatian heritage, attending CAS events and interacting with other members offers a way to learn about their Croatian culture.

For non-Croatians who marry into close Croatian families, being involved in the CAS can be even more important. Trent Jorden, who has two young children with his wife, Melissa Cibilich Jorden, says that the CAS is "important to me for two main reasons." The first is that "since the first day I attended a CAS function, I was totally welcomed and accepted among the group." A second and more important factor is that "I have two children now that are true Croatian Americans." He continues, "The Croatian community is so close here and has taught me a lot about family and friendship values. . . . Moreover, there is a strong amount of pride in being Croatian and it's important for me to know that my children will be able to trace and participate in their heritage" (Jorden e-mail message to author, July 19, 2013).

With an interim community center in place, and plans and fundraising for a permanent home in progress, the CAS can—for the first time in its existence—feel secure in making long-term plans and mapping its future. The community's success in maintaining its cultural identity and ties to Croatia, and its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, demonstrate the importance of traditional culture and ethnic organizations both in everyday life and in disasters. In addition, CAS activities demonstrate members' determination to maintain their ethnic heritage and claim their place in Louisiana's cultural mix.


1. Exact numbers for Louisiana's Croatian-American population are difficult to determine. In his 1976 book Yugoslavs in Louisiana, Milos Vujnovich estimated five to six thousand people of Croatian descent live in Louisiana. In 2013, some members of the Croatian American Association estimated that there are at least three thousand Croatians in the greater New Orleans area. Part of the difficulty in counting the local Croatian population is that members describe their ethnicity variously as Slavonian, Slav, Yugoslav (south Slav), Dalmatian, and Croatian on censuses and other documents. Those who emigrated before World War I were identified as Austrian, because Dalmatia was then part of Austria-Hungary.

2. Bi-generational or multi-generational Croatian oyster families that made their mark during the early 20th century included the Pausina, Frank, Slavich, Zibilichs, Vujnovich, Tesvich, Skansi, Petrovich, Popich, Taliancich, Jurisich, Sercovich, and Farac families. Newer (post World War II) immigrants included the Lepetich, Cibilich, Tesvich, Murina, Bilich, Piacun, Hihar, Slavich, Jurisich, Tomasevich, Garbin, Cutura, Glamuzina, Madjor, Dekovic, Dragobratovic, and Bijelis families (John Tesvich, e-mail to author, September 10, 2013).

3. I am very grateful to the officers and other members of the Croatian American Society who have been endlessly generous in answering my questions and including me in their events, where they have made me feel welcome. Any errors are my own. I am also grateful to the Louisiana Folklife Program which provided funding for the 1995 Croatian Folklife Survey, and to Louisiana State University's interdisciplinary research grant program which supported post-Katrina research. Some quotes in this essay are from January 2007 interviews for a documentary film project on Croatian Americans recovering from Hurricane Katrina, produced by my LSU colleague Jim Catano, whom I also thank.

4. The United Slavonian Benevolent Association's founding members were primarily Croatians from Dalmatia and a few Bosnians; the term "Slavonian" encompassed both. See Milos Vujnovich's Yugoslavs in Louisiana for a thorough discussion of the USBA's history and activities through the 1970s. The organization's name was changed to the Croatian Benevolent Association at some point after the Croatian war for independence.

5. Oyster grower John Tesvich notes that some Croatian Americans who became involved in war relief efforts were "driven more by their nationalist political interests," while others were motivated by "the simple fear that their communities, families, and friends will have to endure a nasty, prolonged war." Because Louisiana's Croatian community comes mostly from the culturally mixed Dalmatian Coast, it did not, Tesvich adds, generally include "the more radical political dispositions that were apparent within some other Croatian American communities" (Tesvich e-mail message to author September 19, 2013).

6. Many of the specifics in this paragraph come from a September 19, 2013, e-mail message from John Tesvich, and a conversation with John and Jane Tesvich on September 14, 2013.

7. A May 2001 CAS newsletter noted that the organization "has kept growing and growing," with 140 members that year, an increase from previous years. The newsletter also acknowledged that the "dances, the picnics, Masses and various fundraisers have been successful thanks to the Croatian community and friends who have come out to help and participate in the activities" (May 2001). Apparently the society had as many as 300 dues-paying members during the Croatian war, in part because people who did not regularly interact with the local Croatian community were inspired to become involved during the crisis. After the war ended, membership dropped as these individuals disappeared again.

8. The dedicated volunteers who have contributed generously to the Croatian American Society's success over the years are too numerous to count. Among them (in no particular order) are the late Nick Skansi, Domenica and Luke Cibilich, Nedo and Mary Jane Tesvich, Joe Piacun (co-chair of the CAS Building Committee), John and Jane Tesvich, Niko Tesvich, Paula Bilich, Ante Slavich, Anka and Ante Lepetic, Nikola Vekic, Andrea Murina, Braco Madjor, Marija Madjor, Stanko Glamuzina, Tjeso Glamuzina, the late Visko Seput, two volunteers named Ivo Bilich, Tereza Tesvich, the late Vilka Barisich, among others. Newer members who have played an active part in recent years include Suzan Hihar, Barbara Oustalet, Trent Jorden, Craig Reynolds, Nedo Seput, and many others.

9. Similar Croatian masses took place in New Orleans in the past, sponsored by the United Slavonian Benevolent Society.

10. On reading a draft of this essay, John Tesvich pointed out that the Croatian American Society dinner dance more or less grew out of a long tradition of semi-formal dances hosted by other organizations such as the Plaquemines Oyster Association (POA). Their annual "Oyster Dance" was usually held at the Buras Auditorium in mid-May. He writes: "Guided by Beatrice 'Miss Bea' Farac, and her husband Mr. Mato, the POA Supper Dance was a signature event for many residents of Plaquemines Parish, including a very large contingent of Croatian-Americans. Soon after the POA quit having their annual supper dances (around 1994) the CAS started having their annual Croatian dances" (e-mail message to the author September 19, 2013).

11. The CAS oyster booth also began with the Plaquemines Oyster Association, which started its oyster concession booth at the festival under the mentorship of Mato and Bea Farac. The association continued the booth until the early 1990s when the Croatian American Society took over that role and began using it as a fundraiser. John Tesvich writes, "Basically we just changed the name on the food booth from Plaquemines Oyster Association to Croatian American Society, with many of the same people staffing the booth" (e-mail message to author). The Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival itself has long ties to the Croatian American Community. When it was founded in 1947, several Croatian families were prominent in the local citrus industry, and many of its festival kings and queens have been of Croatian descent. The festival's annual coronation ball is another significant social event for south Louisiana Croatians.

12. The CAS's Hurricane Katrina relief efforts had precedents in the United Slavonian Benevolent Association's assistance to victims of the 1893 hurricane in Plaquemines Parish. USBA members formed a relief committee and placed its entire treasury at its disposal. The committee hired a steamboat to send food and medicine downriver, helped rescue survivors, and financed burial of the dead, whether they were USBA members or not. The organization also helped victims of a catastrophic hurricane in 1915, sending food, money, and medicine to victims downriver; donated funds to the American Red Cross for victims of the 1927 flood; and gave money to the Plaquemines Parish Relief Fund after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 (Vujnovich 1974:162).

13. Louisiana's Croatian-American community suffered another blow in April 2010, less than five years after Hurricane Katrina, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leased by the BP corporation, exploded and poured millions of gallons of crude oil into local waters over the next few months. At the time, many Croatian families described the oil spill crisis as more difficult, in some ways, than a hurricane. They knew how to recover and rebuild from hurricane damage, but the oil spill was new territory, full of uncertainties. As in Katrina, religious faith, strong community ties, Croatian values, and Croatian American Society gatherings gave community members strength and resilience. At the annual CAS dinner dance, John Tesvich reminded his fellow Croatian Americans that "We didn't let Katrina stop us, and we're not going to let BP stop us!" (Ware field notes, January 22, 2011).


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Carolyn Ware is a folklorist at Louisiana State University, Department of English. This article was first published in the 2013 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.