Beginnings of cultural activities

In 1951 two priests came to Sydney from the USA, Fr. Beno Korbič and Fr. Klavdij Okorn. They came in response to a letter by Jože Čuješ, a well-known Sydney Slovenian, who felt they were needed to assist the Slovenian migrants to establish a community. Traditionally the Franciscan order fulfiled an important social function, not only to administer to migrants spiritual needs, but also to establish structures that would support and encourage communication between the new migrants and help foster a culture of mutual help.

In 1952 the Franciscan priests began to publish the monthly journal Misli (Thoughts), initially consisting of a few sheets of cheap paper, duplicated and sent out to Slovenian migrants wherever they could be contacted. The publication was to provide an all-important link for all Slovenian immigrants in Australia for the next 50 years.

The first issues contained advertisements of services and goods offered by enterprising Slovenian individuals, such as electricians, merchants, builders and dentists who could speak to you in your own language and understood what you needed done. Agents also advertised their services for sending food-parcels and other goods to alleviate the severe shortages suffered by families in Slovenia.
The journal soon provided for other needs – advertising Slovenian books, and also requests for information about people with whom they had lost contact. For a time it also published English lessons.

Above all, the Slovenian publication reflected the life of Slovenian immigrants. They reported on traditional festivities and celebrations. Slovenian masses around Australia were announced in Misli, as was the next visit by the priest. The journal also became a chronicle of marriages, births and deaths.

Misli was later joined by other publications, but it still remains the premier publication for Slovenian immigrants, where one can read about the gatherings, celebrations and festivities of Slovenes around Australia.

In the first year the number of subscriptions rose from 266 to 750. Misli linked Slovenes everywhere in Australia and gave them a sense of identity and belonging. They countered the effects of dispersion and made them into a homogenous group, linked through common roots and language.

A succession of Slovenian Franciscan fathers continued to undertake invaluable pastoral, educational and social work among the Slovenian migrant population. They continued to publish and develop Misli, the most notable being Fr. Basil Valentin, who was the editor for 25 years. They were based first in Sydney, then in Melbourne and in Adelaide, where they built Slovenian churches. It was due to the efforts Fr. Basil Valentin that the Mission of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Melbourne became a major Slovenian Religious and Cultural Centre with the hostel Baraga House, the Office of Misli, Baraga Library, Slomšek School, the Hall of Ss.Cyril and Methodius and the Mother Romana Home for the Aged. The priests still regularly visit Slovenian families, groups and settlements wherever they live, from Tasmania to Cairns, from the eastern seaboard to the shores of Western Australia.

Misli of those early years also reported on Slovenian traditional festivities. New Year, Easter, St. Nicholas, and Christmas were celebrated with all the traditional icons – the religious rituals that gave the event meaning and all the other ways of marking the occasion, Christmas tree and manger, traditional dishes and potica, music and dancing. Above all it was the Slovenian togetherness that gave comfort and made the new country less alien. They were making Australia their own, making it just a little Slovenian.

The fifties were a time of beginnings. A great deal was accomplished during that early period. It was a time of settling in and establishing their own kind of social and cultural forms. The first Slovenian publication. The first homes. The first Slovenian associations in the making. The first celebration of “Miklavž”, the first children”s choir, the first male choir. Fr. Basil began his 40 years chronicle “Fr. Basil is typing”.

In the late fifties and sixties Slovenes – teachers, priests, academics – began to organize Sunday language classes for the younger children. These were for the most part conducted in Slovenian associations and religious centres. It was practical and desirable for children to learn the language, while parents helped to build the community centre.

1960 was the year when the first formal Sunday school was established in the Slovenian Religious and Cultural Centre, Kew in Melbourne. Fr. Basil Valentin thought it was time that the children receive some formal tuition in Slovenian language and helped revive the Slovenian church tradition of the Sunday school. Jože Kapušin opened the first Slovenian language class at the Centre, which was continued by Anica Srnec. The classes included teaching Slovenian and a range of cultural activities such as singing, folk-dancing and appearances on stage at various celebrations and cultural days.

1966 marked the arrival of the Franciscan sisters of the Immaculate Conception who took over a part of the educational work and organization of cultural events. We can say that the children of Slovenian immigrants were now participating fully in the cultural life of the Slovenian community and its social and cultural traditions. All the traditional feast days, St. Nicholas, Christmas with manger and Christmas tree, Midnight mass, Shrove Tuesday with masks, dancing and “krofi“ and All Saints day, were lovingly celebrated.
The most vivid memories held by many young Australians who were either born in Australia or arrived at a very early age, were of being taken by the parents to the ritual blessing of the Easter basket on Easter Saturday or attending the Midnight Mass at Christmas.

In the seventies the Slovenian radio program was established, initially on a voluntary basis. It was presented by the Melbourne businessman Ivo Leber and Helena van de Laak (now Helena Leber). Victorian Slovenes could listen to Slovenian popular music, hear the latest news from Slovenia, and hear about various events among Slovenian community in Victoria and elsewhere in Australia. There were also interviews and talks on any issues of interest to the community.

From 1975Youth Concerts became a feature of Slovenian cultural life in Australia, in which ensembles, choirs, music bands, solo performers from all over Australia took part.

In the eighties Slovenian organizations took part in multicultural festivals. A number of cultural workers within the community ensured that Slovenes participated with folk-dancing groups, choirs, and accordion performances. They are still active in the community today. Their work, particularly with youth, has been of incalculable value. There are names that should be on a memorial as a record of achivement and service: Lidija Čušin, Draga Gelt, Meta Lenarčič, Viki Mrak, Eli in Vinko Rizmal, Lucija and Štefan Srnec. Ivo and Helena Leber organized an annual Christmas Melbourne Council event, contributing Slovenian costumes, music and dance, as well as a stall with Idria lace and other embroidery. The event was supported for a number of years by the Slovenian National Council of Victoria.

In the nineties, after Slovenia achieved independence, Prešeren Days and Independence Days featured as annual cultural events under the direction of Slovenian National Council of Victoria, with active organizers: Eli Rizmal, Pavel Šraj, Karolina Antauer, Christina Cestnik, Lucija Srnec and Lenti Lenko amongst others. The first Prešeren Day was celebrated in 1992 under the direction of Draga Gelt on the occasion of the visit of Janez Janša, the Minister of  Defence of the Republic of Slovenia.

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Aleksandra Ceferin
Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers' Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.