ARMOUR SQUARE — When it came to ordering roasted lamb at St. Jerome Croatian Catholic Church's annual Velika Gospa festival and block party Thursday, there seemed to be two types of customers: the newcomers and the veterans.
The newcomers stepped up to a counter at the outdoor shed and sheepishly asked for half-pound portions; the veterans ordered nine or 10 pounds at a time and yelled to the volunteer meat-cutters for ribs and chops so as to avoid getting hunks of gristle and fat.
Helping to serve it all up was Sirvio Martin, 75, a longtime parishioner who was married at St. Jerome and had his three daughters christened there. He said crews began the roasting around 3 a.m. Thursday.
"I help out every year. Well, only the last 38 years," he said.
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. Ever since, Croatians have made a pilgrimage on Aug. 15 to the church to pay homage.
The tradition carried over with Chicago's Croatian community, many of whom settled in and around Bridgeport and helped erect St. Jerome parish.
Croatian-Americans like Carol Zigulich, of Bridgeport, said they come to the fest each year to "see the same people every year, because everybody who moved out of the neighborhood comes back."
By 12:30 p.m. Thursday, the food lines had already begun to swell, the vodka lemonades were getting poured and the roasted lamb and pig were selling quick.
One of the young men tending to the rotisserie in the smokehouse shed said he was going to stick around and "see all the cute Croatian girls."
Many of the patrons planned on sticking it out throughout the day and would be treated to performances of traditional tamburica music and Kolos dancing, bingo sessions, kids games, fireworks and $20,000 raffle.
The festival, now in its 107th year, is the parish's main fundraiser.