PARISH OF THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS, Niš
History of the Catholic Church in Niš has its roots in the earliest Christian times. Here are some of the most significant events: Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who issued the well-known Edict of Milan on the freedom of Christian faith in 313, was born in Niš. Moreover, Bishop Nicetas wrote a hymn Te Deum laudeamus which is still sung throughout the whole Catholic world. It was written in Remesiana, today’s Bela Palanka, near Niš. There are traces that a Catholic parish existed here in the XVII century. As soon as the Ottoman rule ended, people from Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and all over Europe came here and worked on the organization of life. Niš became the first city in Serbia where Catholic mission and Catholic parish were established. Catholic parish was established here in the late nineteenth century. Catholic settlements have been mentioned in this region since the Middle Ages. In the Ottoman era, bishops of Skopje cared for a tiny minority of Catholic immigrants in Niš.
Famous Kosovar missionary and martyr Antun Maroević visited the Catholics in Niš in the first half of the XIX century. Catholics in Niš and elsewhere were mostly workers employed on the construction of the Belgrade-Thessaloniki and Niš-Constantinople railway, which was to be built according to the provisions of the Congress of Berlin in 1878. There were also miners, as well as numerous professional workers employed in mines and industrial enterprises, who were permanent residents at the time. On 7 October 1884, a private house near the Marger inn was rented where the chapel was temporarily placed, along with a permanent priest in Niš who cared for all Catholics in the territory of former Serbia and these were the foundations of today’s parish in Niš. In 1884, Cesare Tondini de Quarenghi, a missionary-Barnabite based in Kragujevac, spent three months in Niš as the first priest who blessed the newly built chapel on 30 October.
The history of parish in Niš is associated with the name of Prof. Willibald Czock, a missionary of the Benedictines, who led the Catholic mission in Niš and in Serbia from 1884 to 1903. Chzock organized the parish community (which encompassed the entire southern and eastern Serbia) and started the construction of the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the parish house in 1887. In 1889, he opened a Catholic school where he was almost the only teacher, but the Serbian government closed it after three years. In addition, he was continuously visiting Catholics scattered in various mines, construction sites etc. who accounted for around 3000. Czock advocated Church independence from political authorities, particularly from the tutelage of the Austrian consul in Niš. However, due to a conflict with his bishop, J. J. Strossmayer, Czock had to leave Niš in 1897. He was succeeded by Julius Biljan, who remained there until 1918. Czock, however, returns in 1901 but he did not take over the parish. He died there in 1903. His other successors were Hubert Karthaus for two years, and from 1920 to 1927 Ferdinand Hrdy, a native of the Czech Republic, who arrived in Niš as an Istrian refugee. As he was appointed as apostolic administrator in 1921, he organized the parish in Kragujevac and founded the parish in Bor in that capacity. He expanded and renovated the old church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1925, in Niš, decorating it with a tower with three bells. Soon after handing the duty of apostolic administrator to Belgrade Archbishop Rodić, he left Niš and went to the Czech Republic in 1927. The parish was entrusted to the Bosnian Franciscans in 1927. Friar Srećko Perić came to the parish in May and he remained there until 25 March 1937. During that time in the territory of Niš-based parish, new parishes were established, but the number of believers didn’t decrease, as they were coming from all over Europe (Hungarians, Poles, Austrians and others). Friar Srećko was replaced in regular course of alternation by Friar Julian Jurković, who stayed in Niš until 29 August 1940. Unfortunately, the Franciscans left Niš and Serbia then. The Franciscans stayed only in Belgrade, in the monastery of St. Anthony in Crveni Krst. With constant helpers, the then parish priest was often aided by the teachers of Franciscan Classical Grammar School in Visoko and the Franciscan Theology in Sarajevo. Today, parish in Niš has a branch with its chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Queen – a facility which was purchased in 1967 and converted into a chapel. Masses were held every Sunday; and although it was Franciscan parish upon the establishment, it was also led by the Salesians and Diocesan priests. In 1940, Dr. Milorad Avramović was appointed as a new parish priest in Niš.
The Ordinary sent him a chaplain Đuro Nemeth, a priest of Banat administration, as an assistant. He was appointed administrator of the parish in Niš by the decree of the archdiocesan ordinariate no. 42/41 from 13 January 1941, and by the decree no. 43/41 from 13 May 1941, Viktor Zakrajšek, former consultor to diocese of Skopje and the priest of Diocese of Ljubljana, was appointed dean of Deanery of Niš. The following day (14 January 1941) he took over administration of the parish in the presence of a delegate and secretary of the Ordinariate Rev. Sandri Ivot. The events in the parish were very turbulent during the Second World War. Pastoral work was hindered due to these circumstances. Believers were scattered all over the world. A lot of them returned to their home countries. A lot of them got killed. The parish priest and the chaplain had a lot of problems with subsequent authorities, the Communists, as they were not members of the local people, and also because German soldiers regularly came to church to attend Holy Mass during the war. The parish chronicle hides plenty of interesting and unbelievable events. The territory of Niš-based parish was large and it encompassed: Niš, Vranje, Caribrog, Svrljig, Soko Banja, Aleksinac, Prokuplje and Kuršumlija. More than 5,000 Catholics lived in this area during that time. They arrived from different countries and different walks of life, such as engineers, workers and military officers. Some were coming and others going!
In 1983, at the request of Archbishop Msgr. Alojzije Turk, Franciscan Province of Bosnia Srebrena in Sarajevo takes over the care of the parish in Niš. In a letter dated 12 August 1983, the Archbishop writes to the father provincial in Sarajevo inter alia: “There is an urgent need to find two priests, capable and apostolically enthusiastic, with the ecumenical dimensions for our most important parish in central Serbia, in Niš etc. I am asking you dear Father Provincial to come to the aid, at least for a few years (at least two or three!)!” Chapter of Mats of the Province decided, in a meeting in Sarajevo on 5 and 7 October 1983, that Franciscan province of Bosnia Srebrena, at the request of the Archbishop of Belgrade, takes over the parish in Niš and proposes Friar Ilija Piplica for the parish priest. The parish was taken over “ad experimentum” until further notice. Thus, after 43 years, the Franciscans were present once again in Niš.
The Franciscan Sisters of the Slovenian province, who came in 1935 at the invitation of parish priest Srećko Perić and during service of the Belgrade Archbishop Rafael Rodić, also served in the parish. Up to 1947, they had a kindergarten, and from the very beginning, they worked in a hospital as well as in the parish. Sisters of the Holy Cross, who stayed in Knez Selo and worked in a local sanatorium, also left recently. Friar Ilija Piplica was the parish priest until 13 September 1991, when he leaves the parish due to illness. Pastoral leadership of the parish was again handed over to the care of the Archdiocese of Belgrade. Rev. Antun Pečar was appointed the new parish priest and he celebrated first Holy Mass on 16 September 1991 in the parish church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Church dedicated to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Niš
A plot of land for this church was bought during the Ottoman rule. The funds were raised by the Archbishop of Prizren, Bugareli. Turks did not allow building the Catholic Church in Niš. It was built after Niš had been liberated from Turks, after the completion of the Belgrade-Niš railway in 1884 when the town had 200 permanent Catholic residents. Upon the arrival of the second Catholic priest Willibald Czock to Niš in 1885, the first “Catholic church, house and school” were built in town. Almost four decades later, in 1925, the church was renovated and expanded and a tower was built next to it. In 1934, Catholic Church in Jug Bogdanova Street got one more floor. This project was carried out by Julijan Djupon, an architect from Niš. In 1992, during the service of Rev. Antun Pečar and at the meeting of the parish Council in the presence of the Belgrade Archbishop Franc Perko, decision was made to build a new and bigger church. Mr. Zoran Marković was chosen to be an architect. And so the construction began.
The new church and parish house were built thanks to the devotion of Rev. Antun and with various donations. The Franciscans of Bosnia Srebrena came back once again in 2007. In fact, on 21 October 2007 during the Holy Mass at 10.00 am, Fr. Niko Josić was appointed parish priest of the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Niš, which was consecrated on that occasion. The introduction of the parish was conducted by Belgrade Archbishop Msgr. Stanislav Hočevar in the presence of Vicar General Fr. Leopold Rochmes as an envoy of the Franciscan Province of Bosnia Srebrena. Friar Kristijan Montina was appointed the parish chaplain who remained there until January 2008.
When it comes to places of worship in our branches, there is only one house in Leskovac which was adapted for performing pastoral work. This spiritual space (a branch) is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary the Queen (celebrated on 22 August). Pastoral care for believers in Pirot is performed once a month and in a private home of the Andrea family. The parish in Niš is large, occupying almost entire southern Serbia – from Aleksinac to the border with Macedonia, Kosovo and Bulgaria. Currently, the pastoral work covers two branches: Leskovac and Pirot. The parish has about 700 believers scattered in this large area. Most of them are located in Niš. Catholics are minority in this area, as the parish is located in two Orthodox Eparchies: Niš and Vranje! Catholicism of this community can best be seen in the national diversity, in mixed marriages and cultural characteristics. Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Poles, Albanians, Serbs, Romani, Italians and others are present in the parish. Every nation contributes to this rich mosaic of the parish.