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Tuesday, 20 November 2012 16:55

Blessed journey

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The moon-like landscape of Coober Pedy must have been quite a sight for the Croatian migrants who found their way to the Outback town during the sixties in the hope of making their fortune from the opal fields.

Forced to adapt to the harsh climate, they built dugouts for their families and formed a vibrant community with their own Croatian club and worship in an underground Catholic church. Some of them moved on to better prospects in other mining towns, some had children who left for the bright lights of the city as soon as they could, and some stayed on in the only place they have known since they left their homeland of Croatia. 

When Sr Slavica Turcic ASC went to Coober Pedy in 2010 with a visiting Croatian priest, she was shocked not only by the unique scenery but the isolation of the ageing Croatian migrants, many of them single men living alone in their dugouts with little social interaction and battling alcohol and gambling dependency.

She started thinking about how she and the Sisters could provide some sort of pastoral care but the challenge of servicing a community more than 800kms from Adelaide was daunting to say the least.

Fortunately the State Government came to the party with their Home and Community Aged Care Program (now run by the Federal Government), which provides funding for the Croatian Care for the Aged Association that Sr Slavica and her committee manage. The Association was already providing services for about  300 elderly Croatians in Adelaide and the Government, after identifying regional places with small ethnic groups such as Coober Pedy as needing help, asked Sr Slavica to extend their service to the remote Croatian community of about 40. 

“Some of them managed to organise their lives,” said Sr Slavica. “But others didn’t and their families dispersed, the children have gone to the cities and now they are ageing on their own...there is not much there for them. Some speak broken English but most speak very little English and as they become more frail and aged, they lose what little English they had.” 

After visiting them all individually and hearing their life stories, she found that what they wanted most was to socialise again. Now they are meeting once a fortnight for lunch and activities such as bingo, indoor bowling and painting.

Sr Slavica delights in the fact that when she prepared some Croatian carols for Mass last year, their faces lit up as they remembered the melody of songs they had not sung for 40 or 50 years. “It was very touching,” she said. “If I can put a little spark in their day or in their life, then at least I am making a difference.”

Sr Slavica’s affinity with the elderly Croatians of Coober Pedy is not surprising, considering she has experienced first-hand the challenges of migration.

It was 44 years ago that her parents took the courageous decision to uproot their nine children, aged between nine months and 19, from their home near Osijek, Slavonija, and emigrate to Australia.

Her father, a factory worker, was worried about how he could afford to educate his children and, together with the growing political tensions, was lured by the Australian Government’s promise of good jobs and housing.

The young  Slavica had completed grade 8 and had plans to enter the convent, like her Carmelite aunt, but this was put on hold when the family departed by train, stopping in Vienna for three days before taking the cheapest possible flight to Australia.

It was in Vienna that Slavica says “God’s providence” first came into play in the form of a gentleman at the railway station who assisted four Croatian families with accommodation. Together there were about 20 adults and children and the man took them all to his large house.

“I remember arriving in this foreign place by train - we were at the railway station and had nowhere to stay but this man appeared and asked if we were looking for accommodation,” she recalled. 

“We thought he might be plotting to kill us and use us to make soap, (as the stories went around at that time) so the first night two adults and my brothers kept guard to make sure we were safe.

“But when we woke up and he showed us where to buy milk and other supplies, we knew it was God’s providence. We had very little to give him but he let us stay there for three nights – we were so grateful we thought ‘God had sent that person’.”

At the migrant camp near Wollongong they joined thousands of other Europeans, all waiting to find work and housing. After a year they were transferred to another camp in Melbourne and the 16-year-old Slavica found work in a cable factory while her younger brothers and sisters went to school.

Slavica’s mother, who knew of her daughter’s desire to be a nun, was carrying the linen to the laundry in the camp one day when she saw two nuns approaching and she was eager to hear what language they were speaking.

“When she heard them speak Croatian, she felt like the heavens had opened up,” said Sr Slavica. The Sisters Adorers of the Blood of Christ, who had been working for Croatian migrants since 1963, helped the family find a rental place and then their own home with a big backyard in St Albans. In the meantime, Slavica joined the formation community at North Fitzroy and went on to take her final vows in 1977.

She became a welfare worker and continued to support migrants such as herself over many years. She studied a diploma in welfare in Canberra where she also worked in a childcare centre.

After being transferred to Adelaide in 1998, Sr Slavica worked as a community settlement service worker and in 2005 began focusing on aged care for migrants, firstly as president of the Croatian Aged Care Association and then as manager of the Home and Community Care Program of the same Association.  Her family, which grew to 11 brothers and sisters, is scattered around Australia. Her parents, aged 83 and 85, are still living in Melbourne and are now grandparents and great grandparents to many.

“My parents made such a big decision; they landed with nothing, no English, and just two or three suitcases,” said Sr Slavica.

 “I can’t imagine what forced them to come here. They had a very strong faith and this pulled them through.”

Whether she is visiting the vulnerable in Coober Pedy, running social activities for the elderly,  or playing the organ at the Croatian community Mass at St Patrick’s Church on Sundays, Sr Slavica’s journey to Australia is without doubt a blessing.  

(Topmost photo by Jenny Brinkworth)

Read more about the Sisters Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

This article by Jenny Brinkworth was originally published in the November 2012 edition of The Southern Cross.