ARMOUR SQUARE — Velika Gospa is many things to many people: a big Croatian reunion, a parade, a dance, a holy ceremony, an old-school Chicago street fest and a chance to order spit-roasted lamb by the pound.
"If you want to see and be seen by Croatians in the Midwest, this is the place to be," said the Rev. Ivica Majstorovic, pastor at St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church of Chicago, 2823 S. Princeton Ave. in Armour Square.
Above all, it's a joyous celebration dating back more than a century at St. Jerome — and long before that.
Velika Gospa is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It's rooted in a story in which the townspeople from the small Croatian town of Sinj prayed to a painting of the Virgin Mary in a local church to help fend off approaching Turkish soldiers one summer night in 1715.
The next morning on Aug. 15, the story goes, the Virgin Mary appeared, the incoming soldiers got sick, retreated and never returned to the area. To pay homage to the miracle the town had witnessed, people from all over the country have made the pilgrimage to Sinj, bringing with them requests for help and hope each year.
The tradition carried over with the waves of Croatian immigrants into Chicago, many of whom settled in and around Bridgeport and helped erect St. Jerome, where parishioners started their own Aug. 15 procession and festival.
Today, the parish is the spiritual home for upward of 800 families. Many of the parishioners and students in adjacent St. Jerome Catholic School are Croatian families with deep roots that stretch back generations in the neighborhood.
Technically, the festival began Tuesday with the first in a series of nine daily Novena masses, where priests from across the city will lead evening worship services designed around a spiritual topic. (Schedule here)
But Aug. 15's block party is the main draw, luring Croatian-Americans from all across the Midwest for a reunion and giant street fest, famous for its procession of a replica painting of the original "Our Lady of Sinj" carried through the neighborhood and led by colorful floats along the way.
The procession kicks off at 10 a.m. Aug. 15 at 28th Street and Princeton Avenue, then makes its way to 26th Street, south on Wells Street to 33rd Street and back up Princeton.
Then, of course, there's the food.
The church has ordered 65 lambs that will be roasted the night before the celebration and sold for $12 per pound. It goes quick.
Some 120 cases of beer are on their way. Ten hogs will be roasted and 100 pounds of mostaccioli will be dished out to the estimated 4,000 people who'll descend on Princeton Avenue.
Countless pounds of cabbage leaves will be used to make sarma snacks, and countless pounds of mixed meats will be rolled into Ćevapi, a mildly spiced meat dish that looks like a sausage but has the consistency of a meatball.
The Rev. Alberto Rojas, auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago, will be on hand throughout the day.
Fueling the celebration will be marching bands, performances of traditional tamburica music and Kolos dancing, bingo sessions and kids games. There's even an Elvis impersonator, fireworks and a raffle with a $20,000 grand prize.
For Majstorovic, 38, who hails from the southern Croatian village of Drinovci, the 107th installment of Velika Gospa is the first time he'll be in charge of presiding over the festivities.
He'd been a deacon at St. Jerome prior to serving as a priest in Canada, New York and the North Side before returning to the parish last year.
He'll be aided by about 100 people who will help prepare for the procession and block party, perhaps the city's largest and longest-standing ethnic celebration.
"Without their help, all of this would be impossible," he said.