“Remembering ‘Father Peter'” was written by Fr. Tom Kazich and originally shared as a speech at St. Sava’s 100th Anniversary, November 23, 2014.

Remembering “Father Peter”

Rev. Peter Bankerovich

Rev. Peter Bankerovich

In January of 1964, I was home on Christmas break from Indiana University, and had prepared for Holy Communion. Arriving before services at St. Sava’s on 13th and Connecticut, I stepped up to the iconostasis in front of the Icon of Christ where confession was usually held. I don’t remember much about the priest at that moment. I do remember his words of comfort.

It was a tragic year, Kennedy had been assassinated two months earlier. The Viet Nam war was heating up. And many of us youth were trying to find our way in an unstable and unpredictable world. And then there were those questions about God, the church, one’s faith, and the Serbian people that fascinated us. Questions without answers. The priest’s gentle and wise words were welcome. And his invitation to come later to talk about all this would be accepted.

And that’s how and where I met Father Peter for the first time.

I’m sure each of you who knew him can remember back to your first encounter. He stayed in Gary for seven years, adding his contribution to the growth of this church community. Those years, of course, led dramatically to the crisis moment in 1968 when he struggled between life and death. We’ll get into the details of that later, but first his background.

Father Peter was born to Ilija and Bosiljka Bankerovich in Split, Yugoslavia, in 1925, where his father, a high ranking military officer in the King’s elite guard, was stationed. His mother, a Dalmatian, was Roman Catholic. The marriage barely lasted seven years. And the separation and divorce affected the young boy. Due to his father’s duties, his education took place in Novi Sad, Cetinje and Belgrade.

In Gymnasium, the teacher failed him in his last test for the Velika Matura, as it was called, because she noticed nationalist and religious sentiments. Later he was able to retake the exam, but his fate was sealed, He couldn’t get into university. He found work in those early days of communism, mainly in Belgrade. So Perica, as he was known in his family, was a lost young man.

That is until he heard Bishop Andrei, then just an archimandrite, preach at a service in Belgrade in 1951. That’s when the life of Father Peter turned around.

Spiritual family background

Fr. Andrei’s sermons lifted the young Perica up, filled him with hope, with direction, yes, and with a sense of purpose. After more sermons and discussions, he was sent to the monastery of Josanica near Jagodina. There he met his second spiritual mentor, the well known ascetic, Father Hristopher, and became a novice. From there he went to Gornjak, a monastery in ruins, which he and his good friend, Bishop Basil of blessed memory and others, helped to restore.

Finally he reached the Monastery of Great Dechani, in Kosovo, where he was tonsured a rasaphor monk in November 53, a monk deacon in April 54 in Prizren, and a monk-priest in October 54 in the Russian Church Sveta Trojica in Belgrade. In Dechani, he was under the direction of his third spiritual mentor, Archimandrite Theodosije Melnik. Fr. Theodosius played a major role in Fr. Peter’s development. He had been the kelenik and secretary of the late of blessed memory Metropolitan Antony Hrapovitsky, a widly admired Russian hierarch and leader of the Russian Church in exile. Fr. Thedosious was a compassionate man, very down to earth, humble and yet wise, and he molded the young Perica into what he later became.

Fr. Peter’s church life took a unexpected turn in 1955. Deeply disturbed by the goverment’s onslaught on the church, he and Dechani’s abbot, Father Theodosious, with help of Attorney Ivan Michaelson Czap of Philadelphia, made plans to escape. Fr. Peter left the country for Paris first, where he soon enrolled in St. Sergius Theological Institute. Fr. Theodosious died before he could leave. In Paris, Fr. Peter’s confessor and fourth spiritual mentor was Archbishop John Maksimovich, now St. John, who helped him gain a clearer vision of his calling.

In 1957, Fr. Peter left for the US where he enrolled in St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York and graduated in 1961. During his time in the US, Fr. Andrei, who was a priest monk at Novo Diveevo Convent in Spring Valley, NY, and later bishop in the Russian Church, was his fourth spiritual mentor. Fr. Peter’s new life in America thereafter became a mosaic of places. He spent a year in Alaska on St. Paul Island as parish priest. He then was accepted in the old Serbian Diocese in 1962 by Bishop Dionisije. Serving in Galveston, and Akron, finally he was sent to Gary on Spasovdan in May 1963. After Gary, he served in St. George’s in Oakland, was a missionary priest in the Japanese Orthodox Church in Toyko, parish priest in Holy Resurrection Church in Lebanon, PA, before finally being elected in 1977 Bishop of the Diocese of Australia and New Zealand under the Free Church, where he fell asleep in the Lord on 4th of October 1988 and is buried in St. Sava’s Monastery-Kalenich in Canberra, Australia.

Arrival at St. Sava – Gary, Indiana

Arriving in 1963 Fr. Peter found St. Sava’s Church already well established, after some 50 years. Priests before him had left a good foundation and rich parish life. Fr. Peter found Gary to be a unique community. He always liked to speak of Gary as “Slavna Srpska Butovna Gera”. Butovna meaning here – always rising up, different from the mainstream. When he arrived, 700 families stared him in the eye. But in a short time he captivated the people by his sincereity and Christ-like commitment. They asked that he remain.

From 1963-68, his outreach was to everyone – the American born, the political immigrants of the WWII, the old timers, the young. He was idealistic, just 43 years old. He worked well with the youthful church and school board, led by Nikola Sever. He awakened an enthusiasm in the people, in the way he explained Christianity to them on their level. People heard his sermons on Sundays. They saw that his faith meant something to him. He was uncompromising when it came to the church, but at the same time, understanding when it came to the individual soul. He got to know people, whether they were a seljak from Crna Gora, a steel worker, a young college student, or an old church cook. He made everyone feel welcome in the church, and he was completely accessable to all. At least twice a week someone dropped by the church office for help in filling out a work or citizenship application. I remember Fr. Peter typing away to help one of his members.

Fr. Peter represented Christ in the most human way, of caring, of seeing the needs of his people. He was at peace with himself. And that’s how he was able to bring everyone in the church community together – as a family. He opened to us a new world, a hidden life, through the stories he told and explanations of faith he related.

During the week in the church office another family was forming – the inner circle, like Savo Vrtiikapa, Milja Bogicevich, Ljubo Dakich, myself, and board members who dropped by during lunch hour – like John Nickovich, George Domazet, and the cooks preparing for a banquet downstairs like Milica, Bosiljka, Mica, Anka, Pepa. And there were those long philosophical talks with Sava, who could remember things from the 18th -19th centuries. Fr. Peter once said, “Savo, don’t you have any history closer to my age?” And Sava would roar with his unforgetable laugh. Everyone enjoyed being together. Of course, over the years, Fr. Peter had his critics, but most people liked him.

Fr. Peter loved the children. He brought three of his Alaskan children to attend camp in Libertyville one summer and they visited Gary too. He taught the Serbian school for several years himself. This was a small group but many of those children rose to serve our church today in prominent positions such as: Mike Ajder church president (and his sisters Dragica & Jelena); Dorothy Mulin Paunovich, Serbian museum curator, (and her brother Peter); Sammy Roknich, church financial secretary, (and his sisters Nadine & Nancy); Ljubisha Milicich, diocesan legal council. Fr. Peter worked with them, laughed with them, teased them, scolded them, they played tricks on him, but I know he loved them and they felt that too. That’s why they always ran to him and were around him.

He introduced an English Liturgy once a month for the English service group. He changed Sunday School to Saturdays one year, concerned that children were not being exposed enough to the Liturgy. He was very Eucharistic minded. Besides the joys, there were all the tragic events that hit the community – youth killed in accidents or by violence, broken marriages, sickness – the parish was truly a living organism of the church. And Father Peter became, in a way, the rock that everyone turned to. And looming in the background was the early stages of planning, fundraising, and erecting a new Hall on 49th Avenue in the fall of 1969.

One person described him, “as the epitome of an Orthodox Christian, compassionate, modest, scholarly, pious, and an ever so subtle sense of humour, removed from, yet one of his flock. Bishop Basil, his old friend from Great Decani, said, “he was a silent spiritual struggler, peaceful and humble monk and prayerful hierarch.”

A Fateful Day

That was Gary St. Sava’s Community back in the 1960’s, until that fateful day of 14th of November 1968. It was a Thursday – – actually SS. Cosmas and Damian, holy doctors of the soul and body. That day, Fr. Peter had gone to O’hare Airport, to pick up some church articles from Greece. He always had his eye on beautiifying the church. He came back in the early evening, tired. He briefly talked with Milja, the church janitor. He said to her, “I’m constantly on the go, from one place to another…I just want to turn in early.” They said goodnight. But Fr. Peter didn’t retire immediately. He remembered that the previous week the hall doors were left open. So he went out to make sure they were locked. (Later Nick Sever would find his watch in the bushes, the glass smashed and the dials stopped at 9:40 pm.) The hall doors were about 10 feet from the gates which led to the street. As he was checking the doors, a car pulled up, 6 people got out, all black, and began their surprise attack in the church courtyard. Two were women and 4 were men. This ruthless gang beat him senseless, severely with lead pipes and a baseball bat, and robbed him of his overcoat and $2 in change.

By ordinary logic, that should have been the end. The whole world went to sleep. And he would have been found the next morning dead. But God’s plan is mysterious. Across the street in the park, a young black boy walked his dog. He saw the whole thing. As he explained, it happened so quickly. He ran home, told his parents, and the police station a block east of the church was alerted. And the rest is history. He was taken to Gary’s Mercy Hospital, and lay in the intensive care unit in critical condition. I got a call from Milja and dashed to the hospital, as did Nikola Sever, and others. He lay in a deep coma, his face and right arm a mass of cuts and bruises, with both eyes swollen shut. His head was crushed on all sides like an eggshell.

At first Fr. Peter was not expect to live. Then it was thought he would survive but without the use of his paralyzed right side or power of speech. All they could do those first days was clean up the wound and wait for the swelling to go down. I asked the top neurosurgeon in Gary at that time, Dr. Marvin Bernard, what were his chances. Dr. Bernard said he didn’t think he would ever return to his duties as a priest. But when I asked Dr. Robert Milos, his family doctor, he answered, “He’ll be allright. He’s a fighter.” One answer a scientific response, the other a response of faith.

During those first days, while he lay in a semi-conscious state, his only word uttered over and over again as he battled for life, was “Why? Why, why, why.” That was probably the last word he said when he was struck.” Four days afterwards, Dr. Bernard operated, picking out 36 bone fragments from his brain. A thin membrane covered the opening where doctors worked while people prayed for his recovery. Later a plate would be inserted to cover the opening.

Blazo Dragic, 101 years old, former janitor and a poet printed a book of poems, one of which was dedicated to Fr. Peter. Here’s how a poet looked at this:

Србима се Бог окрену
Па им молбу испунио
Стештеника оца Петра
Здрава њима повратио.

Very simple, yet it says it all.

Recovery and Returning Home

Fr. Peter’s recovery was seen by many as a kind of a miracle. He, who could not speak and was partially paralized, was beginning to regain his functions. Finally we got him to follow along as we sang Resurrection tropars and the Troparion of St. Sava. In the initial days, Metropolitan Iriiney flew in from California and local priests came and performed the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Physical therapy would follow for five weeks. Finally he returned home on December 21st. Fr. Nikolaj Dazgich was assigned to replace him. And Milica Milojevic became his housekeeper-cook.

Backing up, the Sunday after the attack, the Church’s 54th Anniversary banquet that had been scheduled, was cancelled. Instead, after the Liturgy there were special prayers for Fr. Peter’s recovery. 1000 people attended. A third of them were blacks from the surrounding neighborhood. The Mayor came. Many said they wanted to show their concern over the rising number of violent crimes committed on Gary’s streets. You know, this was happening every day, these robberies and killings to ordinary people. But because they aren’t famous, nobody pays attention. When it happened to a priest, in his church, then the media picked up on it, and it spread like wildfire, apprearing in headlines from coast to coast.

During the hospital stay, Fr. Peter later reflected. “I don’t believe God is deaf,” he said. “Maybe he decided my time had come, but after he heard so many prayers, He changed his mind…” And later at home, he continued “I have to say that there are no words in this world which can explain what I’m feeling. It is my firm belief about my life that, first, it was God’s will that I live. Second, it was the prayers offered by persons from coast to coast, of different faiths, white and Negro – everyone’s prayers for me that saved my life. I cannot explain in words, only the heart can feel it.”

Many VIP visitors came, including King Peter II. On Christmas in church, Fr. Peter thanked God and all his parishioners and the people of Gary for their prayers and donations for hospital expenses. As for St. Sava’s and Gary, he said “I was unknown in this country, and they were very good to me…..My people have had an enormous amount of love and patience. They feel like my family.” He later singled out two people with helping him the most. I was one of them. The other was Jean Jagoda Sever, wife of Nikola. Jeanie was like a white tornado, each time she came. Her manner was one of care. Sometimes she would drop by, stay 15 minutes, clean up some mess, lay out a table of home cooked goodies, give a pep talk, as only Jeanie could. She really cheered up Fr. Peter and all of us. And then she was out the door, because she had a husband and four children to take care of.

As for Fr. Peter’s feelings towards the attackers, he said, “In spite of all of our human feelings, I don’t judge anyone. I don’t hate anyone. As a priest I believe the sole judge is God…” They apprehended the six people, when one of them bragged about taking part in the beating and his remarks were overheard by a patrolmen. When the trial of his attackers came up, Fr. Peter was asked to testify. He couldn’t identify anyone, nor would he ever lie to say that.

If there was a theme that Fr. Peter spoke of throughout his life, that he expressed daily, it was the theme of Love and Sacrifice. He would say, “Love without Sacrifice is not true Love. If you love something and don’t sacrifice for it, your love is empty. And yet Sacrifice without Love is meaningless. Your Sacrifice is silly. Love and Sacrifice must always go together.”

Many of us would not be here without having known him. I would not be where I am today if it had not been for him. He inspired me. He stood by me. He believed in what I could do with my talents. We pray that God may grant peace to His faithful servant Bishop Peter, in a place of blessed repose “whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away….”

Continuing Life in the Church

We all know that this was not the end of a very productive life in the church. Nine years after this happened, he was elected Bishop of Australia/New Zealand in the Free Church there, and continued his mission in the vineyard of the Lord. He fell asleep eleven years later, on October 4, 1988 and is bured in St. Sava’s Monastery-Kalenich in Hall (Canberra) Australia.

In closing I just want to mention two things:

  1. Some people were deeply affected by Fr. Peter’s story. I know of one person, a woman, on whom this whole incident had a powerful impact. She was a member of St. Sava’s, raised in the church, but I don’t believe that it was very deep faith. She told me that when this happened, she began to pray for Fr. Peter, pray as never before. I don’t mean just on Sunday or once a day, it was continual. And that opportunity to get back in touch with God through prayer transformed her. She said, “I could never forget how that experience of praying to God for someone affected and changed me.”
  2. When police asked the woman, the chief attacker, why she continued to hit Fr. Peter in the church courtyard, she said, “Because he wouldn’t stay down. He kept getting back up.” Well dear friends, that’s our Father Peter. He wouldn’t stay down. He was an ordinary man like all of us. He had weaknesses and sins and imperfections, but he was so rooted in his faith, deep in his soul. He believed one thing for sure, and that was that salvation would come to them who never give up, “who endure to the end.” Let us not forget, that for one shining moment in Gary, Fr. Peter showed us that in the world, Light can conquer darkness, that Compassion can break through indifference, and that Love can crush hatred.

Thanks for listening and for allowing me to share memories of Fr. Peter.

Fr. Thomas Kazich