Remembering the deceased: 'You miss them every day'

Slovenian-Americans remember their dead at La Salle monument

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Mitzi (Komater) Banich, of La Salle, stood with head bowed Sunday as the names of the departed were read aloud. Among them were her parents and her in-laws and her late husband, Judge William R. Banich.

Bill has been gone nearly 16 years, yet the mention of his name remains a poignant one on the vigil of the Holy Souls.

“You miss them every day, no matter how long they’ve been gone,” Banich said after a short ceremony at St. Vincent’s Cemetery in La Salle. “But it’s so nice to have faith knowing they’re going to be in heaven if they’re not already there.”

Banich and about 20 residents of Slovenian heritage clustered Sunday around the “roadside chapel” erected three years ago to honor their departed ancestors, though the practice of communal prayers on or about Nov. 1-2 was started years earlier. Those who’d taken heritage tours of Slovenia were impressed with the elaborate rites commemorating the departed and brought them back home.

“It’s really huge in Slovenia,” explained Debbie Pohar, the de facto leader of Sunday’s observances. “They even have picnics on the grave sites.”

“Weeks before, you see 90-year-old ladies are walking up hills with pebbles and flowers to decorate graves,” added her sister, Bonnie Prokup. “One looks better than the other.”

Picnicking was off the table Sunday thanks to blustery weather— strong winds also precluded the yearly placing of tealight candles atop individual graves — but the nearly two dozen participants were able to get a priest, the Very Rev. Paul Carlson, to intone prayers for those who’ve gone.

Though Sunday’s was a Slovenian tradition, the occasion was a Roman Catholic holy day — two of them, actually. November is dedicated to prayers for the departed and it kicks off with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on Nov. 1 and 2, respectively.

But the Slovenian observances gained momentum nearly a decade ago after a series of heritage tours led to a renewed effort to honor the Slovenian immigrants who helped settle Starved Rock Country.

The observances are centered around a granite “roadside chapel” — a monument with space for one to kneel in prayer — erected at St. Vincent’s near the grave of the Rev. Michael Zeleznikar (1892-1983), a former St. Roch's pastor who arranged for persecuted Slovenians to emigrate to the United States.

Members of the Slovenian Union of America, branch 24, had been sitting on an endowment and had mulled over how best to use the funds to celebrate their heritage. In 2016, a decision was made to build the Slovenian-American Roadside Chapel. It's believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.