Above: Father Miloš M. Vesin stands near the altar of St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church in Lansing. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
LANSING, Ill. (October 3, 2023) — Tucked away in a little corner on the west side of town, you may not know St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church was there unless you were looking for it.
Built in 2001 near the intersection of 186th Street and Stoney Island Avenue, it appears more grand than most construction of the 21st century. It harkens to an earlier time. And as impressive and nostalgic as it appears from the exterior, your breath is taken away as you enter the sanctuary. Surrounding the pews are beautiful murals with scenes of saints upon a blue backdrop with gilded panels behind the altar. Light streams through the glass panels of the dome and its interior is decorated in detailed artwork. For a moment you forget that you’re in Lansing and not in an ancient city in Europe.
It’s the place where Father Miloš Vesin, Ph.D., has led services since the building was consecrated in August of 2001 — it was the first Serbian Orthodox Church consecrated since the start of the new millennium — and where he also led the congregation’s earlier church location in South Chicago.
On a recent morning, following a conversation in Serbian with the church secretary, he sat in a chair in the church office in his long, black robe, a sprig of basil in his hand from the previous night’s service, contemplating the 33 years and four months that he has served as a priest with the church before his planned retirement in late October.
About Father Miloš M. Vesin
Miloš M. Vesin was born in Novi Sad, Serbia, to a father who was a professor, publicist, and writer and a mother who was an economist. He attended St. Arsenije Serbian Orthodox Seminary in Sremski Karlovci while also attending Isidor Basic Music School in Novi Sad. He then studied for five years at the Theological Faculty in Belgrade.
In 1977 Father Vesin, more commonly known as Father Miloš, became director of the newly formed St. Sava Clergy Choir where he toured throughout Europe and made many recordings. He sang professionally at Belgrade’s At Terazije Theatre.
He spent eight years living in Switzerland for postgraduate studies in Theology and Music and traveled to such places as Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Sweden, Holland, the United States, Africa, Asia, and Australia representing the Serbian Orthodox Church at various international conferences.
He married his wife, Dragana, in June 1990 and was ordained into priesthood that same month in South Chicago. His son Marko was born in 1991.
Father Miloš is the is the longest serving priest in the history of the South Chicago/Lansing St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church.
A compassionate leader
His career has included approximately 8,300 church worship services, 724 baptisms, 277 weddings, 1,002 funerals, 11,000 hospital and nursing home visits, and 4,300 blessed Slava’s Kolaches (breads). Slava is a tradition of the ritual of glorification of one’s family’s patron saint, found mainly among Serbian Orthodox Christians. The term “Slava” comes from the old Slavic word for “glory” or “honor” and is a deeply cherished tradition that is passed down through generations of Serbian families.
While there are church leaders who do their work largely within the church in a community where its parishioners live within close proximity, St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church serves a wide geographical area with parishioners spread throughout Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana. Father Miloš has spent much of his time traveling to visit the sick and elderly. “There were not many days that I was not at a hospital or nursing home,” he said. “During all of my 33 years almost the majority or good portion were people who were 50 or 60 or above. Most of my time apart from church services was ministering to the elderly and sick.”
There were 32 hospitals and 28 nursing homes in the greater Chicago area that he was traveling to, and he considered it a privilege to be there for those parishioners in their time of need.
“I will miss him a lot,” said Radmila Trikcik, of Highland, who is the church secretary. “He has been my mentor for 20 years, and it’s been a blessing to work with a man like him. He is intelligent. He is a real gentleman. He is so many things that in a person is hard to find.”
Ministering through change
In his three-plus decades leading the church, Father Miloš has seen many changes within the church, the world, and in human behavior.
“We are a typical old-timers parish, and now the children who are being born are the fifth American-born generation. They had ancestors that came at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century to America,” said Father Miloš. “The origins of our church were closely connected to the steel industry on the south side of Chicago, and from the beginning of the late 1960s people started moving out of the area and all over. We now have more parishioners in Northwest Indiana than Illinois.”
Keeping up with all the needs across such a wide area has been difficult. “Parishioners could reside from Valparaiso to Naperville and downtown Chicago to Lowell and everything in between. It’s very difficult to keep in touch with all the people. Plus, the sad truth is that every year we have had more funerals than christenings,” said Father Miloš. “And still it is a very vibrant and dynamic community.”
Stephanie Pyrzynski was the first baby that Father Miloš baptized at the church.
“Father Miloš is the priest who baptized me, officiated both funerals of my maternal grandparents, and would come over every year to their house for the annual St. Archangel Michael Slava,” she said. “He is someone I’ve always revered and regarded highly.”
Father Miloš said the church invests a lot into the youth in hopes that they will remain active in the church. “We have quite a number of mixed marriages (where one of the couple is outside of the church) with children being exposed to both cultures, and we try to use that as an advantage and not a separating moment,” he said.
The congregation was once one of the five largest of its kind in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. It’s now on the lower end in size among the Midwest parishes with about 500 households — around half of which are active.
“It used to be 1,500 households,” Father Miloš said.
When the decision was made for the church to relocate, Lansing was chosen not because there was a large Serbian population in the area, but because it was a geographical center to the 44 or so suburbs where parishioners resided. Land had been purchased in Crete previously for a future church, but it was deemed to be too far for many families to travel. Father Miloš said that there are only seven or eight families from the church that live in Lansing. Miloš himself has lived in Lansing with his family since moving from Serbia.
He acknowledged changes in society that have impacted church attendance and involvement in not just his church, but in the Christian community in general.
“From the beginning of the 1990s, sports activities for kids are now organized on Sundays. There’s been a gradual decline of respect of any kind of authority, and, of course, all the cultural changes in society that cannot help but leave their traces upon the life of the church. All of the new winds are blowing towards us with artificial intelligence, tablets, mobile devices, and other technology posing a challenge. We’re paying a large price to the computer era,” he said.
He also had the challenge of leading a church through pandemic times.
“Every day we had something going on. We respected the restrictions on capacity and space, but we played a tremendous role for the people in the neighborhood,” he explained. “After service I would take a walk around the grounds of the church and many people would do the same. They would tell me ‘Thank you. The sound of your bells gives us strength. We know you are praying for all.’”
Making an impact
In his time as a church leader, Father Miloš has played a part in many initiatives and supported many ongoing programs. A bookstore opened in the social center called Narrow Path.
“That has been very instrumental in the mission of the church,” said Father Miloš. “It’s not just for parishioners, but for others who wish to learn about the history of the church and the church services and the architecture.”
“He came as a deacon to our parish and was ordained at the old church in South Chicago,” said Sunday school Superintendent Elaina Visnic of Oak Lawn. “One of the highlights after he came here was his starting of our retreats for Sunday school during the advent season for Christmas and Easter. We’ve continued that every year since.”
Visnic was born and baptized in the church. Her father immigrated from Yugoslavia following World War II, first to New York and then Chicago because of the church community and he went to work at Republic Steel.
“To me he is a very good listener with the needs of the people. I’ve found him to always be there during illnesses. To many of us, he is our priest. However, many of us consider him a member of our family,” said Visnic. “He knows almost everyone by name. He’s like the brother I never had. His knowledge is amazing. He can give you the history of everything when asked a question.”
Father Miloš has supported many organizations under the umbrella of the church, including the Sloboda Choir, which has existed for 80 years and been invited to perform at the inaugurations of two presidents; the women’s auxiliary; and the Serbian Eagles, a sports organization that organizes and hosts tournaments for basketball, golf, bocce ball, and other sports.
Moving forward and back home
As he finishes his time as a priest in Lansing, Father Miloš is making plans to move with his wife back home — to Novi Sad in Serbia. He said that one challenging part of the move is packing up his personal library of about 7,000 books.
A retirement celebration was held for him last past weekend and his official duties will continue until October 22. He’ll be leaving to go home to Serbia immediately after that. The new priest will be announced and introduced before his departure.
Although he’ll be retiring from the priesthood, he will continue teaching at the School of Theology in Libertyville. He said he’ll spend half of his time lecturing online and will return to the campus two or three times a year for intense courses.
“I have my schedule already filled,” said Father Miloš.
He has a number of speaking engagements coming up this year in such places as Ireland and Switzerland. Early next year, he’ll travel to Australia and Great Britain to speak.
“He’s always been big on world travel and being an ambassador for Orthodox Christianity and sensible living — a bit of a philosopher, frequent guest lecturer around the world, and guest on many different media programs,” said Pyrzynski.
The history of St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church
The origins of St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church go back to 1904 when South Chicago was designated as a parish district with the name Serbian Orthodox Parochial District of St. Elijah of South Chicago. Church services were held in saloons, halls, and private homes. At the time there was no organized Serbian Orthodox Church in America, just scattered congregations and parishes that at that time were under Russian spiritual jurisdiction. Additional dates and years of note are included below:
- 1906: Serbian priests met to attempt to organize and the Russian Metropolitan appointed the first America-born Serbian Orthodox priest as Dean in charge of Serbian Missions. Also, the American Srborbran is first published, which still exists today as the oldest and largest continually published Serbian newspaper in the country. Additionally, St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church’s first baptism takes place.
- 1912: A large number of Serbian men leave South Chicago to fight on the side of Montenegro and Serbia in the Balkan War. By 1913, the church was under Serbian jurisdiction in Belgrade, Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church of America was separated into the districts Eastern, Midwestern, and Western.
- 1919: Chicago Serbs finally had a church home after parishioners purchased the Danish Lutheran Church and named it “St. Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church.” The first congregational meeting of the Serbian Orthodox Church and School was held in South Chicago on March 9, 1919.
- 1923: The Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Monastery and School of Theology was established in in Libertyville, Illinois where Father Miloš would later teach.
- 1925: 200 parishioners approved the purchase of property for a new church at 98th & Commercial and five lots were purchased for $4,550.
- June 26, 1927: The new church is consecrated. The consecration banquet is held, and served were 60 lambs, 10 pigs, 100 chickens, 100 cases and 10 1/2 barrels of beer, and three barrels of wine.
- 1951: the parish sponsored the first Serbian National Federation basketball tournament. With a growing congregation, an addition is added to the church, and the hall and a church school are organized.
- 1956: The first English services are held.
- Late 1950s: After continued growth, more property is purchased for a picnic grove, playground area, storage building, and hall that would include a 24-lane bowling alley. Sunday school enrollment is so large that classes are held in two shifts while a Sunday school building is being built. A little league park is built as part of the Serbian Eagles Athletic Club of South Chicago, and the first game is held.
- 1960s: A Cub Scout Pack and Girl Scout Troop are introduced, and athletic opportunities are expanded. The decade winds down with a three-day celebration honoring the 50th Anniversary of St. Archangel Michael Church.
- 1972: Land is purchased in Crete with plans for a future church.
1980: The church decides to look for property closer to the homes of parishioners. In 1981, the church approves the purchase of 21.6 acres of land in Lansing for future development of a new church.
- 1986: The Church Social and Cultural Center is dedicated in Lansing.
- 1990: Rev. Deacon Miloš M. Vesin is ordained into the priesthood in the church.
- 1998: Additional land is purchased in Lansing for the building of a new church.
- 2001: The new church building in Lansing is consecrated in August.
Weekly services take place at St. Michael Archangel Michael Serbian Orthodox Church on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome. The church is located at 1500 186th Street, Lansing, IL.
- Royalty visits Lansing, Illinois: Serbian Prince Alexander and Princess Katherine attend banquet at Serbian Social Center (June 24, 2019)