Monday, August 23, 2010

Fr. Ivan Dobrsek, SDB (1911-2010)

Fr. Ivan Dobrsek, SDB (1911-2010)
Fr. Ivan Dobrsek, SDB, retired pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Hamilton, Ont., died on Sunday morning, August 22, 2010. He was 98 years old and had been residing at Clarion Nursing Home in Stoney Creek, Ont., since April 2008.

Fr. Dobrsek was born to Ivan and Terezija Perhne Dobrsek at Zagreb, Croatia, on September 7, 1911. At the time Croatia was part of the kingdom of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The kingdom of Yugoslavia was created in 1918 out of remnants of that empire and the existing Balkan states of Serbia and Montenegro.

At the Salesian school in Ljubljana, Slovenia (a province of Yugoslavia), Ivan learned the trade of tailor (1927-1930). Among his teachers was the Servant of God Fr. Andrej Majcen, who later became a missionary in China and Vietnam and whose cause of canonization has been initiated.
After practicing the trade of tailor for several years, Ivan became a Son of Mary (a “late vocation” to the Salesians) in August 1935 at the Salesian house in Verzej, Slovenia. One of his companions at that time, Fr. Aloysius Hribsek (now a retired priest of the Bridgeport Diocese), recalls: “He was musically talented, played organ, was an excellent stage actor, just call him a born artist. [In] some musical stage skits…he was like a professional.”

Years later those talents availed his parishioners greatly, according to Fr. Romeo Trottier, SDB, a former provincial delegate for Canada; he “offered his services for the music (he played the organ well), theater, sports for the youth programs, the Slovenian school, and so many other services a parish can offer.” At St. Gregory the Great he relaunched the Slovenian Saturday school, enrolling as many as 150 youngsters, to teach them the language, music, and culture of their ancestral land. They learned it well and, as adults, are immensely proud of their heritage. Fr. Ivan founded the Slovenian Theatre of Hamilton, using the parish’s community center, and there he and his troupes put on shows “worthy of Hollywood,” says Fr. Luc Lantagne, Canadian provincial from 2000 to 2006.

On August 1, 1936, Ivan started his novitiate in Radna, Slovenia, and made his first profession there on January 13, 1938. He completed his philosophy studies, also at Radna, between 1937 and 1939.

Bro. Ivan undertook his practical training at St. John Bosco Oratory in Celje, Slovenia, in 1939. In April 1941 the German Army invaded Yugoslavia, opening a new front in the world war and touching off a long, partisan conflict within the country. In that context, Bro. Ivan made his perpetual profession on July 7, 1941, at Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then left for theological studies at Monteortone, Italy.

Conditions changed in Slovenia in 1943 after Italy’s surrender to the Allies and the German occupation of northern Italy and the part of Slovenia where the Italians had been in control. Bro. Ivan and other Slovenian students left Monteortone to resume their studies at Ljubljana. It seems that he was ordained deacon during this time.

The war years had been difficult in both Italy and Yugoslavia. When the Communists under Tito took over Yugoslavia in the spring of 1945, following Germany’s defeat, the suffering continued. The Communists shot seminarians and clergy by the score. Learning of the execution of several of their confreres, Deacon Ivan and other Salesians saved their lives by fleeing to Italy.
A good number of those refugee Salesians would eventually find their way to the United States, including Bro. Oscar Andrejasic, Fr. Francis Blatnik, Fr. Charles Ceglar, his brother Fr. Stanley Ceglar, Fr. Andrew Farkas, Fr. Mirko Flac, Fr. Aloysius Hribsek, Fr. Francis Knific, and Fr. Joseph Simcic.

Fr. Ivan was ordained a priest on March 16, 1946, in Padua, the city nearest Monteortone. He was assigned to the Salesian Generalate, still located at the Oratory in Turin, as a secretary in the missions department. He labored there for three years, and in 1949 was sent to the community of Castellamare di Stabia, near Naples, to serve as a chaplain in the refugee camp at Capua. In 1952 he was appointed an assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Naples (Vomero), serving until 1965.

In 1965 Fr. Ivan returned to the Yugoslav border. At Opcine, on the Italian side of the border near Trieste, where there is a large population of ethnic Slovenes, is a Slovenian cultural center known the Marianum. He joined its staff and the following year became director, remaining till 1970.

On December 8, 1970, Fr. Ivan made his migration to Canada; during the spring of 1971 he and Fr. Stanley Ceglar became assistant pastors at St. Gregory the Great, a Slovenian national parish in Hamilton, the third-largest diocese in English-speaking Canada. And there they both remained until their deaths, Fr. Stanley’s in 1994 and Fr. Ivan’s now.

The parish was less than ten years old at the time. The confreres, who became three when Fr. Charles Ceglar joined them in 1975, at first lived in rather primitive conditions behind the Slovenian community center on the church grounds. But Fr. Charles was a visionary and a builder, and eventually a great parish complex was erected—and the Salesians got a proper rectory.

Fr. Ivan’s fluency in his native languages, Slovenian and Croatian, and in Italian were of great pastoral advantage to him during more than 64 years as a priest. (He was also fluent in Latin.) He functioned as pastor from 1971 until January 1, 1978, when Fr. Charles Ceglar succeeded him.

Fr. Lantagne called him “the spiritual grandfather of the parish, very beloved” by everyone.
He suffered a serious heart attack in 2005, but was able to return to the parish. The parishioners paid to have two chairlifts installed in the rectory so that he’d be able to manage the stairs and remain in residence as long as possible. After Sunday Masses the people would visit him in his room, bringing along their children for him to bless.

In March 2008 he entered an assisted living facility, St. Joseph’s, but that proved inadequate for him, and he moved to Clarion Nursing Home on April 7.

Fr. Trottier writes of him: “He had suffered much from being exiled from Yugoslavia, but he was very discreet about the past. Until his co-nationals obtained their freedom [when Slovenia became independent in the break-up of Yugoslavia], he suffered silently with them.”

Fr. Trottier concludes, “I always admired his humility, his sense of service and prayer, his attention to people, his devotion to duty.”

Fr. Hribsek, who often visited the Hamilton parish to help with the Slovenian services, adds: “As a person, he was well organized, responsible, and reliable in whatever he undertook. In his older age this habit became proverbial in the house for his punctuality at scheduled events, like church services [and] morning meditation.”

Fr. Hribsek noted two forms of Fr. Dobrsek’s charity: “[He] never saw anything improper in anybody’s actions, and thus never said a word of criticism against anyone—even when the improper conduct was visible to everyone else.” And: “His out-of-the-ordinary dedication to visiting the sick of the parish till the last ounce of his physical energy should not be forgotten. (After he was no longer able to drive himself, a good layman in the parish became his constant volunteer driver so that Fr. Dobrsek could continue visiting his beloved suffering homebound parishioners.)”

Fr. Ivan at his 96th birthday party in 2007.

Fr. Ivan was professed as a Salesian more than 72 years. He was the oldest Salesian of the New Rochelle Province—a designation that now reverts to Fr. Joseph Bajorek, 94, who held the “title” prior to the Canadian Province’s reunion with New Rochelle on July 1, 2009. The oldest confrere in the States is Bro. Abel Zanella, 95, of the San Francisco Province.

Following a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Gregory the Great on August 25, at which Bishop Anthony Tonnos of Hamilton will be present, Fr. Ivan will be buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Burlington, Ont., next to Fr. Stanley Ceglar in the “Slovenian corner” where Fr. Charles Ceglar reserved some places.

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