Croatians in Southeastern Louisiana: Overview

By Carolyn Ware


The greater New Orleans area is home to several thousand people of Croatian descent. Many of those who settled in Louisiana came from towns or villages on the Dalmatian coast along the Adriatic Sea, such as Duba and Sucuraj. Once called Yugoslavs, most now call themselves Croatians, or sometimes Dalmatians. Yugoslavs in Louisiana, written by Dr. Milos Vujnovich and published in 1974, provides a good overview of Croatian history (both in Europe and in Louisiana) and a good deal of information about traditional life in the earlier part of this century.

Teresa Tesvich shared her Croatian embroidery at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1998. Photo: Maida Owens.

Shapiro (1989) suggests that Croatians have been present in the New World since the 18th century and that seafaring Dalmatians were the first to come, settling primarily along the Gulf of Mexico and California coasts. The height of Croatian immigration to the United States took place between 1900 and 1914 (Shapiro 1989). (Several of those I interviewed mention that many Dalmatians also immigrated to New Zealand, and so many of those in Louisiana have relatives there.)

New Orleans was a center of Croatian immigration during the early 19th century. Louisiana Croatians settled in or near Plaquemines Parish fishing communities like Olga, Empire, Buras, and Port Sulphur. Many of the early Croatian immigrants were single men. Married men often had to leave wives and families in the old country for years at a time. Eventually they either returned to Croatia after making enough money or brought the family to Louisiana to live.

Fishing families in Louisiana often spent much of the year in camps, which were built on posts driven into the marsh. The women might move to New Orleans or Empire (at least during the school year) so that their children could attend school. Today, a number of younger families are moving to Belle Chasse from "down the road" (further down the parish along Route 23) because of the schools.

Teresa Tesvich made this embroidered tablecloth, 1998. Photo: Maida Owens.

People of Croatian descent also live in Jefferson, Orleans, and other parishes, but many remain in Plaquemines Parish, especially those who make their living by fishing. As one New Orleans Croatian man says, "They have their own little colony there, in Empire . . . and Buras. You're likely to hear Croatian there. You don't know where you're at." There seems to be some sense of separateness between the Croatian communities in New Orleans and in Plaquemines Parish, and one woman notes that members of these communities do not always attend each other's events.

Following is a brief, and certainly not complete, overview of some aspects of traditional life among Croatians in Plaquemines, Jefferson, and Orleans Parishes.


Many Croatians born in the old country arrived in Louisiana knowing little or no English, and they had to learn the language once they were here. The Croatian language is still heard widely at gatherings of Croatians, or in homes with older, Croatian-born relatives. Many younger Croatian Americans nowadays speak little Croatian, especially those who have one non-Croatian parent. But some young people make a point of maintaining the language and of teaching their children to speak Croatian, notably those who have married Croatian-born spouses. Most of those whom I interviewed spoke Croatian easily and frequently with other family and community members.

Occupational Folklife

Commercial fishing has long been the most prevalent traditional occupation among Croatian men in Plaquemines Parish, particularly oyster fishing. Croatians are credited with developing the state's commercial oyster industry, and Luke Jurisich (who settled at Bayou Creek in 1855) is often called the father of Croatian oyster fishing in Louisiana. Occasionally women fished oysters with their husbands, although this was rare. Neda Jurisich, now 91, worked with her husband for many years, doing the backbreaking work of tonging oysters and shoveling seed oysters that fishing required earlier this century.

Many of Louisiana's Croatian men continue to fish oysters, and some are third- or fourth-generation oystermen. Sons often start fishing with fathers on weekends and summers as children. As adults, they frequently still fish on the acres once leased by their fathers. Fishermen need more acreage today than they did sixty or seventy years ago, though, because the dredges used require more space than oyster tongs did.

The oyster industry has undergone many changes in the last sixty years. Some older men like "Captain Pete" Vujnovich remember first-hand the life in the oyster camps and describe the transition from tonging oysters to dredging and the move from shovels to water pumps in seeding oyster beds. Fishing vessels have changed from wooden boats to fiberglass or aluminum boats and have become much more comfortable. Although fishing techniques and equipment have changed, men still make and repair their dredge nets by hand; as one says, "We all have to know it." Other occupational skills include building a reef, seeding oysters, operating a dredge, and oyster shucking.

Older fishermen think that the industry is much easier today than it was in their youth and that young fishermen are not as careful today. Pete Vujnovich learned to fish oysters from his father almost 60 years ago, and he says, "I work my oysters. My father taught me. Even, like I tell the Board of Health, my father and the old-timers, they were their own Board of Health. They took oysters from close to where the people lived, and brought them out there close to the Gulf, and kept them a month before they'd sell them to people. Today, oysters are caught all over."

Oysters are now fished year-round, since they can be kept longer with refrigeration. Some Plaquemines Parish fishermen like the Vujnovichs once brought their oysters to market at the wharves in New Orleans, but today refrigerated trucks pick them up at the dock. Fishermen and seafood suppliers feel that the bad publicity oysters have gotten in recent years as possible health hazards has hurt the business.

Shrimping has never been as wide-spread among Croatian-Americans as oyster fishing, but some do trawl for shrimp. The late John Barisich, for example, preferred trawling for shrimp to oyster fishing, and today his son George continues to make his living as a commercial fisherman, primarily by shrimping, although he also fishes oysters at times. Like many commercial fishermen, shrimpers feel their way of life is endangered by increasing government regulations like the requirement that they use TEDs (Turtle Excluder Devices.) Traditional skills include trawl net making and repair.

Some Plaquemines Parish Croatian families went into farming, particularly citrus farming. Vujnovich (1974) reports that N. Vasovich began cultivating oranges as early as 1885 near the town of Triumph. In the years between World War I and the middle 1960s, there were a number of Croatian orange farmers near Buras and Triumph. The George Pivach family, for example, raised and sold oranges, and owned an orange wine bottling plant near Triumph earlier this century. Vujnovich says that George Pivach and his partner Anthony Lulich "pioneered the Louisiana orange wine industry" (1974:61) and their wine was sold widely as a seasonal item.

In the 1960s, repeated freezes and hurricanes destroyed many of the citrus groves. According to George Louis Pivach, Jr., now a realtor, his family gave up orange farming after a big freeze in 1962, and their winery burned down two months later. He decided to pursue a profession rather than farming, and the family has no connection to the industry today. Although there is still a vital citrus industry in Plaquemines Parish, Mr. Pivach says that it is not run by Croatian families. Indeed, he says that his family's was a small business, perhaps not as important in the industry as Vujnovich's work suggests. This occupation is mainly of historical interest to this survey.

Many Croatians established businesses in New Orleans, especially seafood supply businesses and restaurants in New Orleans. These were often small family establishments. Restaurants like Drago's and the Crescent City Steakhouse are still owned and managed by Croatian families.

Of course, many (especially second generation) Croatians have also gone into other professions like real estate, the law, medicine, government, and education. Some young men, like George Barisich, have earned college degrees but decided to return to commercial fishing for a living because it is "in their blood," they say.


Croatian families in Louisiana rarely had a shortage of food at their fishing camps, even during difficult economic times. They usually raised chickens and perhaps ducks, turkeys, or a pig, and had a garden for fresh vegetables. These foodstuffs were supplemented with the speckled trout, sheepshead, mullet, and of course, oysters and shrimp they caught themselves. Men did the cooking at the camps when women were not present. Pete Vujnovich remembers meals consisting of dishes like pork shoulder boiled with red beans like a soup, served with spaghetti, and oyster macaroni with tomato sauce. His wife, Eva, notes that the Croatians ate spaghetti frequently and only learned to eat rice after arriving in Louisiana.

A number of traditional foods are still part of everyday life and special occasions among Louisiana Croatians. Perhaps best-known are the pastries, especially the Dalmatian cookies known as krostule served at weddings and other events. (A dough made of eggs, shortening, flour, milk, sugar, baking powder, and lemon peel, is cut into strips, tied into knots, fried and dusted with powdered sugar.) In Louisiana, pecans were substituted for the almonds or walnuts that might have been used for pastries in Dalmatia. Kolach, a round, lemon-flavored sweet bread, is also traditional.

Lamb roasted on a long spit is a traditional Dalmatian festive dish. It is still prepared by Croatian men in Plaquemines Parish for special occasions like the St. Anthony's Day celebration in Port Sulphur. Another holiday food is a special dried fish dish with onions, which is traditionally served on Christmas Eve and Good Friday. Although some women used to dry the fish on clotheslines in their homes, most now buy it at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter. Prsut is a dried, smoked ham that is sliced thin and served on bread. Pursuta is usually found at Croatian gatherings in Louisiana, according to Paula Bilich.

Domenica Cibilich, of Empire, Louisiana, raises goats and makes goat's milk cheese, a skill she learned from a friend raised in Croatia, who lived in Louisiana for some years. She heats the fresh milk and enzyme cheese starter on the stove top, slowly increasing the heat until the milk forms curds, which she cuts with a knife. The cheese, aged in the refrigerator, makes a small round somewhat like mozzarella in texture. Croatian goat's milk cheese is traditionally aged several months and is harder and sharper-tasting than that Domenica makes, because her family always eats it before it can age long.

Several people describe their families' cooking as "simple," without many spices. When asked what the typical ingredients for Croatian cooking are, most cooks mentioned a good olive oil (which they often import from Croatia), garlic, and onions. A number mention fresh vegetables like cabbage and collard greens, which are often grown in the family's garden. (Gardening seems to be the province of women, for the most part.) Fruits like figs and peaches are also important in the cuisine. Most Croatian American gardens have a fig tree; while figs are dried in Croatia, in Louisiana they are usually eaten fresh or used to make preserves.

Wine is another important feature of Croatian foodways. Many Dalmatians grew grapes in the old country, and a grape arbor remains part of many gardens today. Croatians used to make wine at home, including a raisin wine made by letting raisins ferment in a barrel for a few months. As mentioned above, the Pivach and Lulich families made orange wine commercially, and George Pivach, Jr. compares orange wine to sherry in taste.

Religious Traditions

The Catholic Church and its practices are a very important part of many Croatians' lives in Louisiana. Medjugorje holds a special significance for Louisiana Croatians, many of whom have visited the site. A group of women gathers each Wednesday at the statue of Our Lady of Medjugorje outside St. Anne's Church in Empire to say the rosary for peace.

Christenings and first communions remain big celebrations among Croatians. Christenings, for example, are important social as well as religious events, and house parties for 70 or more friends and relatives are not uncommon for these occasions.

Most Croatian Americans maintain a strong identification with the Croatian village in which they, or their parents, were born. Each village has a patron saint, and in Croatia, that saint's feast day is celebrated with a procession and Mass. In Louisiana, saints' days have usually been celebrated less formally. Often neighboring families came from different villages with different patron saints. Some of these patron saints include St. John, Sts. Kuzma and Damien, St. Anthony, and St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother.

Men and women in their sixties and seventies remember building bonfires at their fishing camps on their patron saints' days. Pete Vujnovich, now 73, recalls that when he was a boy living with his father in a Plaquemines Parish fishing camp, people would gather at one of the camps on holidays like Saint Anthony's Day. They would kill a few chickens for a good meal, the women made cakes, and people played cards. The Vujnovichs' neighbors came to their camp for St. Anthony's Day, and the family would visit other camps for their respective saints' days.

Milos Vujnovich says that earlier this century, St. John "somehow became [the fishermen's] 'patron saint.'" On St. John's Day (June 24), "the oystermen put their tools and paintbrushes away and took a holiday. . . . Boats tied up alongside each other. . . . The day was spent in feasting, drinking, swimming, singing, and romancing, the latter under the watchful eyes of the elders. In addition to the wide variety of seafood--oysters, shrimp, and fish--a lamb or a side of beef was barbecued on a spit, Dalmatian style" (1974:65). However, since oyster fishing has become a year-round occupation, St. John's Day is no longer celebrated this way.

When Croatian families celebrate saints' feast days nowadays, it is likely to be with a family get-together and a special meal. Over the last several years, however, St. Anthony's Day has become a general meeting day for the larger Croatian community. Participants attribute this primarily to the efforts of a man named Kristo, a Croatian-born fisherman who is devoted to St. Anthony. Under his direction, an annual St. Anthony's Day procession and Mass was initiated at St. Ann's church in Empire in the late 1980s, and then moved to the larger St. Patrick's church in Port Sulphur.

Kristo recently returned to Croatia, but the celebration still takes place. On the Sunday closest to June 13, a procession around the church is followed by a Mass in Croatian and a barbecue dinner. After the first year or two, the Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia, a religion-based humanitarian aid organization, began organizing the celebration, and they hold their annual business meeting and election at the same time. (A description of the 1995 celebration, which took place on Sunday, July 11, can be found in my Fieldwork Report.)


Milos Vujnovich, describing Croatian weddings, says that when one Croatian marries another, "The conversation is more in Croatian than in English. . . .The band plays a dancing piece or two of Croatian music. If it is the score of a popular song, the guests may break into song and sing along. During intermissions, the men form into a group and sing" traditional songs (1974:69).

According to those I spoke with, weddings are still a time when much of the Croatian community gets together. A number of traditions are still seen at wedding receptions: the band plays traditional polkas and waltzes, and amateur musicians are likely to pull out an accordion and begin singing. Traditional pastries like krostule are usually served.

Music and Dance

Traditional music and dance are not as immediately evident in the Plaquemines Parish or New Orleans Croatian communities as they are in some other American cities which have ethnic dance and music troupes. There are no tamburitza orchestras or folk dance groups performing kolo dances (circle dances) in public, for instance. Indeed, I was told that the tamburitza is traditional to central Croatia (a region from which many Croatians in Chicago and other parts of America emigrated) but not to Dalmatia, where the button accordion is the primary traditional instrument.

In South Louisiana, Croatian music is most likely to be played informally, by self-taught musicians, at gatherings like weddings, family parties, and the St. Anthony's Day celebration mentioned above. Milos Vujnovich describes groups of men singing songs like "Lijepa Nasa," "Marijana," "Oy Slaveni," and "the fishermen's song," "Yedan Malic Brodic" ("One Little Boat") (1974:69). His brother, Pete Vujnovich (who recited a verse of "One Little Boat" in English for me) says of this singing, "It was our way of expressing our happiness. . . . By singing. That's a thing that's hardly done [today.] It's diminishing."

This spontaneous singing is still found at some Plaquemines Parish gatherings like house parties, christenings, and weddings. Some members of the community are known as good singers, and often lead others in singing traditional songs. (Paula Bilich and others say that almost no get-together is complete without a rendition of "Marijana," for example.)

A few individuals in Plaquemines Parish play traditional songs on the accordion at festivities like those described above. Self-taught amateur musicians, they often have a repertoire of only a few songs and are somewhat shy about performing in public. Two of these musicians are Ante Cibilich and Jure Slavich, both of whom sometimes play the accordion and sing at Croatian gatherings.

Waltzes and polkas are frequently played by bands at Croatian wedding receptions in Louisiana. Tape-recorded music from Croatia is popular among some Louisiana Croatians. This music is often sentimental, ballad-like songs.

Sacred music is also sometimes performed in Croatian. A small choir sings Croatian hymns during the St. Anthony's Day mass at the St. Patrick church in Port Sulphur, for example. Paula Bilich says that Croatian Christmas songs are popular and are sometimes performed at other times of the year.


In Croatia, virtually all women once learned to do needlework from their mothers and female relatives, and often in school classes as well. Knitting, crochet (called plata in Croatian), and embroidery are common skills among older women raised in Croatia. There, in the past, women carded and spun their own wool thread and made socks, clothing, and linens. Croatian women also used to make embroidered kitchen cloths to hang above their stoves, to absorb splatters. These cloths usually depicted a domestic or religious scene accompanied by a saying and seem to resemble Czech American kitchen cloths.

The family of Vilka Barisich considers her embroidered dresses family heirlooms.

Younger Dalmatian-born women like Anka Lepetic, who moved to Louisiana at the age of 15, also learned traditional handwork skills. However, young American-born women are less likely to do needlework.

Teresa Tesvich made this embroidered panel to hang over the stove. She displayed it at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1998. Photo: Maida Owens.

Tereza Tesvich, who learned to knit and embroider from her older sisters as a girl in pre-World War II Croatia, still has wool carders and a hand spindle for spinning thread, although she does not use them. Mrs. Tesvich makes a variety of items, mostly for her daughter and granddaughters or for the church: embroidered pillowcases, cutwork tablecloths and altar cloths; a cutwork blouse; knitted bedspreads; and cross-stitched decorative pieces. Much of her embroidery work is white-on-white, which is typical of Croatian linens, she says, but she sometimes uses pale blue or taupe thread. Some decorative pieces like throw pillows are more colorfully stitched, and she says that red, blue, and purple were popular colors for such work in Croatia. She is currently working on an altar cloth with an embroidered and cutwork design of roses.

Mrs. Tesvich gets her designs from a number of places, including printed cloth kits or transfers, magazine photographs, and other sources. Floral designs, fruit baskets, religious images, and domestic scenes (like a child with a dog or a woman in the kitchen) are traditionally popular, she says.

Teresa Tesvich's daughter Dominica Cibilich joined her at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1998. Photo: Maida Owens.

Domenica Cibilich's mother-in-law (who lives in Croatia but spends long periods with the Cibilichs near Empire) crochets, as do many Croatian women. Domenica's house contains many examples of her work: curtains, bedspreads, table runners, and framed decorative pieces like a large crocheted image of St. Anthony.

Mrs. Popich, a woman in her 80s who speaks little English, also crochets, and her home in Empire is filled with crocheted baby clothes, doilies, table runners and tablecloths, and bedspreads. She, too, learns patterns from other women, from books or magazines, and from looking at other work; she says that she can figure out the pattern by just looking at it.

Vilka Barisich, in Arabi, is a seamstress who often makes Mardi Gras ball costumes. She made many of the traditional Croatian costumes a group of young girls wore for the 100th anniversary of the United Slavonian Benevolent Association in 1974.

Gardening Traditions

Keeping gardens is another aspect of traditional Croatian women's culture that has been maintained in Louisiana. In the past, Louisiana Croatian women traditionally had gardens, even at their fishing camps, where the men brought soil to heap on top of oyster shells. The women grew cabbage, greens, tomatoes, sometimes potatoes and lettuce, and often fruit trees. According to Vujnovich (1974), they often filled wooden troughs with soil and planted flowers and sweet basil brought from Croatia, on the porch.

Neda Jurisich, for example, recalls that she had a garden at her family's camp to help feed her family. Today, she still tends the gardens in front and in back of her house in Empire. She grows cabbage (from seeds brought from Croatia), collard greens, tomatoes, among other vegetables, and figs, as well as flowers.

Many younger Croatian American women in Plaquemines Parish still grow their own vegetables (although others, like Paula Bilich, do not, and say that this is a difference between their mothers' and their own generations.) Domenica Cibilich, for example, raises tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other produce in her backyard garden, as her mother always has. She also has fig trees and a grape arbor.

Croatian American women like Domenica may not think of gardening as a specifically Croatian tradition, but in fact there is much that is traditional and culturally significant in these gardens. Their contents are much the same as in gardens in Dalmatia, and often seeds are brought from Croatia. Garden produce includes vegetables central to Croatian foodways, like cabbage (including a Dalmatian variety), collard greens, and beans. Gardens also invariably feature at least one fig tree (and sometimes several varieties of fig) and often other fruit trees like peach trees. (Tereza Tesvich recalls that children in Croatia used to make dolls from pieces of fig trees.) A grape arbor is another traditional element in Croatian gardens.

Social and Religious Organization

Benevolent associations were once an important part of Croatian American life in Louisiana. The United Slavonian Benevolent Association is a men's organization that served to provide medical and burial assistance to members within the Croatian community. Many men still belong to the organization (which today has about 152 members), but it is thriving less well than in the past. One woman suggests that people today need the benefits it offers less than they once did.

The war in Bosnia is, of course, of great concern to Croatians here. Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia, a relief group, was formed in 1991 to pray for their people and to organize humanitarian aid to war-torn Croatia. They sponsor a number of fundraising projects each year: a raffle, making and selling Christmas ornaments, and selling oysters at festivals. They also sponsor the St. Anthony's Day celebration at St. Patrick's church in Port Sulphur.

The Mir Group (mir means "peace") describes itself as "a non-profit organization whose purpose is to provide timely, accurate information concerning the messages given by Our Lady, the Queen of Peace in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina," and its mission as spreading "the peaceful message of Medjugorje worldwide." The organization publishes a bimonthly magazine called the Mir Response, which contains inspirational articles and testimonies. They also hold a monthly Mass for Peace and an annual Youth Prayer festival. Recently, the New Orleans group sponsored an evening of prayer with Father Jozo Zovko from Medjugorje. The magazine Down the Road publishes features on Plaquemines Parish and the surrounding area and often includes photographs and items about Croatians in the area.

Other Events

The Orange Festival in Buras takes place the first full weekend in December and has been taking place for at least forty years. Although it is not a specifically Croatian event, many attend, and Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia uses the festival as a fund raising opportunity by selling oysters on the half-shell. The festival's king is sometimes Croatian.

The Cut-Off Oyster Festival in mid-July also has some Croatian associations and brings together Cajun and Croatian oyster fishermen. These days, the festival ball (held the weekend before) seems to be a bigger draw for Croatians than the festival itself. Traditionally, either the king or queen of the festival has been Croatian, and the other has been Cajun. As in Mardi Gras krewes, the king must finance souvenirs like plastic cups imprinted with his name and the year. Croatian businessmen like Pete Vujnovich may also sponsor a young woman for queen.

St. Anthony's Day Celebration in Port Sulphur

In Dalmatia, the patron saints of parish or village churches are often honored with processions on their feast days. Croatians who immigrated to South Louisiana came from a number of different communities, and in the past, they often lived in isolated fishing camps. Although saints' days were celebrated within families, or within the oyster fishing community, the custom of religious processions does not seem to have been maintained in Louisiana. However, for the past five to ten years (estimates vary), an annual St. Anthony's Day Mass and procession has taken place in Plaquemines Parish.

The St. Anthony Mass and Procession in 2006 was held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Belle Chasse, in the northern part of Plaquemines Parish due to damage to lower Plaquemines Parish by Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, the event returned to St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Port Sulphur. Photo: Maida Owens.

St. Anthony is the patron saint of Duba and Sucuraj, two Dalmatian towns from which many of the Croatian fishermen in southeast Louisiana emigrated. Today, the Sunday closest to July 13 (St. Anthony's Day) has become a general meeting day for the Croatian communities of Plaquemines and surrounding parishes.

A Croatian immigrant named Kristo, whom friends describe as "devoted to St. Anthony," and his sister first organized a St. Anthony's Day Mass and procession at St. Ann's church in Empire several years ago. After a year or two, the celebration moved to the larger St. Patrick's church in Port Sulphur. The procession, Croatian Mass, and subsequent barbecue dinner are now organized by the Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia, a Catholic humanitarian aid organization, which holds its annual business meeting and election during this get-together.

Several of the individuals I interviewed are among those most closely involved in organizing the event. At their suggestion, I attended the 1995 celebration, which took place on Sunday, July 11. Kristo had recently returned to Croatia, and this was the first year the celebration took place without his guidance. The service drew perhaps 150 people, all of whom (except for me) seemed to be members of the Croatian community. I was welcomed and introduced during the organization's business meeting.

Fresh flowers adorn the arch in 2006. Photo: Maida Owens.

I arrived early on Sunday morning to watch preparations for the celebration. By 7:30, four women were already at work on the church's altar steps, decorating the statue of St. Anthony. The statue, on a wooden stand with four handles, is borrowed from a Buras church for the occasion. Talking softly in Croatian, the women attached fresh-cut flowers (roses, carnations, and other flowers) and greenery (including asparagus ferns, which are common in Dalmatia) to a wire arch over the statue. They begin at each end of the arch and work towards the center, saving several of the largest blossoms for the top. Many of the flowers come from the women's gardens and others are purchased from a florist. This was their first year without Kristo, and they frequently stopped to evaluate their work, discuss how it should by done, and wonder whether he would approve. After covering the arch completely, they blanketed the wooden base with greenery.

In 2006, Kristo was honored with a cake. Photo: Maida Owens.

Once they were satisfied with the decorated statue, they carried it (wobbling on its stand because it was missing a screw--one woman joked in Croatian that St. Anthony is dancing and then translated her remark for me) to a table near the altar. The table was covered with a cutwork linen cloth made by Tereza Tesvich, one of the workers, and the other women made a point of telling me that she made it by hand and encouraging me to get a photograph of it. They then arranged the remaining flowers in vases on the altar, and vacuumed bits of greenery from the carpet, finishing well before the 10:30 Mass.

Meanwhile, several men had arrived at the nearby church hall to prepare the lamb, chicken, and pork chops that would be served later at the barbecue. One peeled potatoes and onions inside the hall, while others skewered the lamb meat on a long spit and seasoned it. The work pace was leisurely, as the men drank and talked, and women set up tables and decorations inside the hall.

By 1:00, between 100 and 200 people had gathered in St. Patrick's church, including some from New Orleans and a number from other Plaquemines Parish communities like Empire. For the last several years, Father Paul Maslac, a Croatian-born priest from Chicago, has been invited to Louisiana to lead the celebration. This year, the Croatian consul from New York was also present, and local men had taken him fishing the day before. After the choir (of eight to ten people) sang one or two Croatian hymns, Father Maslac explained the order of the service to the congregation. He spoke in English for this introduction and for instructions at several other points later, but otherwise the Mass was conducted in Croatian.

Mass, 2006. Photo: Maida Owens.

Ante Lepetic, carrying a tall crucifix, led the procession from the church. He was followed by perhaps six or eight flower girls (young girls about five or six years of age, in pastel, floral dresses and carrying baskets of fresh flowers.) The flower girls were followed by four or five teen-aged or pre-teen girls in traditional Croatian costumes, embroidered dresses and round red hats. Next came four men carrying the decorated statue, and then three men walking abreast and carrying flags, one of which was the American flag.

The altar boys and Father Maslac were followed by the choir, which sang in Croatian (although it was barely audible to those of us at the end of the procession), and finally the congregation. Usually the procession's route includes a stop across Highway 23 to greet the statue of the Blessed Mother there. This year, because of the day's heat, the procession simply circled the church, with the flower girls strewing flowers in its path.

Congregational singing, 2006. Photo: Maida Owens.

Once the celebrants and congregation had re-entered the church, Father Maslac said Mass and served Communion, and the choir sang several more Croatian hymns. Afterwards, people made their way back to the church hall, where they could purchase tickets for the barbecue dinner at a table near the entrance: $10 for a mixed grill or $25 for a lamb dinner. Members of the Louisiana Citizens for a Free Croatia also sold raffle tickets from the table; this meeting is one of their primary fundraisers. A cash bar staffed by volunteers sold wine, beer, soft drinks, bottled water, and alcohol.

The organization's business meeting and election for board members was held first. Present officers were seated in a semi-circle of chairs at the front of the hall, and the remainder of us found places at the long, cafeteria-style tables where we would eat. Nominees to the board were introduced, ballots were circulated and collected, and the election results were tabulated and announced soon afterwards.

Once the meeting was adjourned, people began lining up to be served their barbecue dinners from long tables that formed an "L" near the front of the hall. Each person was handed a styrofoam plate with a pork chop, a generous piece of chicken, and sausage (or lamb for those who bought the lamb dinner), potatoes and onions, pepper salad, and bread. Another "L" of tables held a large assortment of cakes and pastries made by the women of the community, including a few traditional Croatian desserts. Donations of about one dollar were requested for desserts.

As people ate, drank, and talked, and as children chased each other around the hall, an accordion player began to play music in front of a microphone set up near the bar. Not of Croatian descent, she was a professional musician hired to play Croatian songs on her piano accordion and keyboards. Later in the afternoon, as she took a break, a local man, Jure Cibilich, took over the accordion and began to play and sing. He was surrounded by a small group of men (and at least one woman, Paula Bilich's mother) who accompanied him in singing the standards like "Marijana," without which no gathering is complete. By about 8:30 that evening, the women chased the last stragglers out of the hall so they could clean up.

References Cited and Consulted

Kraljic, Frances. 1978. Croatian Migration to and from the United States, 1900-1914. Palo Alto, CA: Ragusa Press.

Lloyd, Timothy, and Patrick Mullen. 1990. Lake Erie Fishermen: Work, Identity, and Tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Louisiana Department of Commerce. 1916. The Louisiana Oyster: Its Cultivation and Use.

Louisiana Oyster Commission. 1904. The Oyster in Louisiana. New Orleans: American Printing Company.

Shapiro, Ellen. 1989. The Croatian Americans. New York: Chelsea House.

Vujnovich, Milos. 1974. Yugoslavs in Louisiana. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company.

This article was originally published in the 1996 issue of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany and is reprinted with permission. Dr. Carolyn Ware teaches folklore at Louisiana State University in the Department of English. This article is based on a final report on the Plaquemines Parish Folklife Survey, a field research project by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The project was made possible by funds from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, within the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.