June 18, 2024
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Serbian Orthodox priest to retire after serving Joliet church for 40 years

Serbian Orthodox priest to retire after serving Joliet church for 40 years

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JOLIET – Looking back on 50 years in the priesthood – 40 at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Joliet – the Rev. Nedeljko “Ned” Lunich expressed dichotomous perspectives.

“I have the feeling of some accomplishments, which makes me feel, I would say, satisfied,” Lunich said. “On the other hand, I feel, perhaps, I could have done more in certain areas.”

One success Lunich points to was moving the parish from its previous location at Scott and Ohio streets on the east side of Joliet to 300 Stryker Ave., along with construction of the church building and social center.

However, Lunich said he wishes he could have effected more spiritual enrichment, especially in the adherence of certain Eastern Orthodox tenets and initiating formal Bible studies.

For instance, Eastern Orthodoxy requires a strict fast four times a year – in the weeks before Christmas, Easter, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul and before the Dormition, the falling asleep of Jesus’ mother, Lunich said.

It also requires confession of sins in the presence of a priest before receiving communion. Despite occasional dispensations, the precepts have not changed, regardless of relaxations with interpretation.

“We tend to allow people to decide based on their own consciences,” Lunich said. And of Bible studies, he added, “We have not been very successful with that.”

Winding path to St. George

The road that led Lunich to St. George’s was an adventurous one. Born in 1938 and raised in a small Yugoslavian village five miles away from the nearest town, Lunich has memories of five protective older sisters and of hiding in the woods from Croatian extremists, he said.

For four years, starting at age 7, Lunich attended an “open air” school, which was moved to a rented room in winter. A change in the education system caused Lunich to miss the fifth grade. When he resumed school, it was at a location five miles away from home. Lunich’s mode of transportation was his feet, in sun, rain or snow.

A strong faith made hardships bearable. Lunich said his family observed all Orthodox holy days, fasting periods and traditions, and his parents taught him key prayers at a young age. Not many people in his village had attended school, which made Lunich in demand by the local church.

“Whenever someone died or needed prayer,” Lunich said, “I was the one to recite the creed and the Lord’s Prayer for those occasions.”

Obtaining a secondary education was more challenging. Family income was meager, Lunich said, which limited his options – the military academy on full scholarship, or St. Sava Seminary on partial scholarship in Beograd, 400 miles away from home.

Seminary became the choice when he failed his military physical due to temporary conjunctivitis. School ran three months a year due to lack of food and heat, Lunich said. Four years later, Lunich enrolled in Theological College, also in Beograd, served two mandatory years in the military and then finished college.

“I was the first person in my family to graduate from college,” Lunich said.

Disliking the political situation in his country, Lunich received a visa to leave, coming to the United States in 1963. For a time, Lunich lived with a Serbian family in Indiana and worked for the Gary Park District and a steel company in East Chicago.

He continued his studies at the University of Detroit and Wayne State University, both in Michigan. In 1965, Lunich got married and was ordained to the diaconate, and then the priesthood.

Lunich served as an assistant priest at St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Cathedral “Ravanica” in Detroit for four years, then as parish priest at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in East Chicago before his Joliet appointment in 1974.

Again, Lunich has two viewpoints on remaining at one parish for four decades. On the one hand, Lunich has walked with his people – joys and sorrows, births and deaths – for generations.

Yet Lunich believes a priest should remain outside that parish family to be most effective as intercessor and spiritual leader, a role he has cherished.

“Serving the people and praying for them, it comes from the heart and soul,” Lunich said.

On a personal level, Lunich said he went through a difficult time when his marriage failed, but believes God blessed him with his children (Stevan Lunich of Chicago and Neda Bilder of Elmhurst) and his grandchildren (Gabriella and Alexandra Lunich, and Stella and Michael Bilder).

Lunich will remain St. George’s pastor until the end of the year. His successor, the Rev. Nikolaj Kostur, becomes pastor on Jan. 1, 2015. Lunich’s retirement plans include assisting Kostur when needed and continuing with his current work on the diocesan level. He intends to continue his membership at St. George.

Mostly, he is thankful for 40 years of God’s mercy and grace.

“My parishioners at St. George, I appreciate all their hard work and their dedication for the good of the church,” Lunich said, “and also their kindness shown to me all these years.”