Fra Jozo Grbes OFM


Fr. Paul (Nikola) Maslach OFM

I know one always has to go,

I know there are countless places,

But there’s at least one road

To all places, of all people.

I know somewhere there’s a trail,

One trail, quite small

that would know how to lead us

To all people, to the hearts of all.

I really would like to tread every path,

I’d like to get to every place,

To all of them would I speak dear words:

I am a kind friend to everyone.

I know there are many trails,

Many words as well as hopes,

One must now be found

For all hearts, of all people, of all people... (Croatian poem, D.T. )

Life is like this path that leads, that keeps on going. I do not know its directions or windings, but on it our destiny prints its times. This poem is like talking about a friar’s life very well. Trails and journey, unpredictability and sharing in the destiny of the world, in the time that the Lord grants him as a gift. Suffering and joy mark all her zigzags and straight ways.

Fr Paul was born August 25, 1937 in Ljubljenica, Rotimlje parish in eastern Herzegovina (now Stjepan Križ parish). His father and mother were Jozo (born 1911) and Stana nee Raguž (born 1914), The six children born to Jozo and Stana were: Nikola (Fr. Paul) 1937, Danica 1940, Janja 1942, Ivan 1948, Stojan 1950, and Dane 1954.

When his life began in August 1937 he was just a carefree child in Eastern Herzegovina, with no idea of what was ahead of him in life nor where it would take him. Not his wildest dreams nor probably even his worst nightmares could have predicted it. Already when he was only four and a half years old, his journey of homelessness began. He was on the way to becoming a world-class homeless pilgrim, ever moving from place to place. 

In spring of 1942 his whole family had to flee from Ljubljenica to Mostar to escape the ravages of the Chetniks. Mostar for them was like a really big and huge city. They just spent the night in it for protection. But war kills everywhere. It’s not safe anywhere. From Mostar out across the whole of Bosnia his family had to keep traveling by train in railroad cars normally used for moving cattle.

Journey into the unknown

The Maslach family, like all the other families, were fleeing somewhere far away in search of security. All the way as far as Stara Gradiška at the crossroads of Croatia and northern Bosnia.

Father and mother, Jozo and Stana, Nikola (Fr. Pavo), sisters Danica and Janja, and Grandmother Ruža Maslać (nee Konjevod), father Jozo’s mother, began the journey together. They traveled with other families also, like the Bošković, Gagro, Perić, Primorac families and more. In Stara Gradiška they were put up in “some building”. His father Jozo was in the Croatian army. So they rarely saw him. Sometimes he succeeded in coming to see his family. Fr. Paul hardly remembers those days and has especially weak memories of his father during those years. During these times it was like Fr. Paul was beginning first grade in “kind of school” They stayed there until 1945. 

Austria, Italy ...

At the end of April and the beginning of May of that last year of World War II, we started moving again. This time a journey to Austria with the other families. It was to escape from the Communists who were already known to have killed many people, both the innocent and the accused. Grandmother Ruža Maslać also went along further with them on this journey.

It went through Zagreb into Slovenia and then to Austria. They traveled by train to Austria. Fr. Paul tells of remembering how they would often run out of the train to protect themselves from airplanes and bombing. In Austria they were given a place to stay at Andorf, a small town between Linz and Passau that still today has no more than 5,000 inhabitants. They placed a group of about 50 of them in one hall. Everything went on there, sleeping and cooking,

all in the one space. Taking a bath was very difficult to get done. "Us kids ran around all over looking for food.” At that time there was an organization called UNRO that helped refugees.

There he saw a US Army soldier for the first time. The family, mother Stana, sisters Danica, Janja and little Nikola stayed in Andorph for about two years up to 1947. Their father, Jozo, stayed in the homeland. They did not know anything about him. Sometime in early 1947 Stana heard that he was alive. He had gone toward Bleiburg and then like many others ended up in the

Bleiburg march. Through Slavonia he got to Serbia. From there he got to his village, Ljubljenica in Herzegovina, only by 1947. Grandmother Ruža died in Austria and was buried somewhere there.

I don’t remember much about my parents. I know my father went into the army and was not at home very much. We were living with our mother but still like orphans, especially in Austria where we felt hungry, where children were dying of hunger. One of the reasons many parents let their children go to Italy was so they could survive. They knew that somebody would take care of them, that they would have something to eat and be able to go to school.

Some Croatian Franciscans likewise used to come in the Austrian camps to visit the refugees and take an interest in helping to save the children. They asked parents for permission to save and educate their children. Among the Franciscans there was also Fr. Dionysius Lasić whom Fr. Paul remembers well from those times. He remembers how he greeted his mother and sister. 

We hugged because we did not know when we would see each other again! They picked us up and by train and we went through Italy to Grottammare. This small town on the eastern coast of Italy is not far from San Benedetto del Tronto. A large complex was there, a parish, a school and a monastery.

There they enrolled him in a Croatian language school led by the Croatian Franciscans. The Rector of the School was Dr. Fr. Oton Knezović. They had textbooks and some school supplies. Other friars who taught were Dr. Fr. Zoran Ostojić, Fr. Kvirin Vasilj, Fr. Gracijan Raspudić, Fr. Ivo Sivrić, Fr. Tugomir Soldo, Fr. Trpimir Musa and others.

Again he started school from the beginning. He finished four grades of public school in two years. Quick learning. After that two more years of higher grades. There he met Dr Fr. Dominic Mandić, Fr. Vitomir Naletilić, Fr. Paul Melada, and Fr. Dominic Šušnjar.

Those were painful years. We were orphans. “Keep quiet! Pay attention! Study!” Education was miserable. We could never just sit and talk, and we were so eager to do that  grateful for everything, but it was difficult. Fr. Ivo Sivrić remains long remembered. He accepted us as children. He was very gentle and he understood us. Very polite. Fr. Dionysius was also very polite and full of understanding.”

In the group that left Austria with Fr. Paul were also Fr. Jozo Abramović, some men and women by the name of Marić, Vrban, Grgo Musa, Gavranović, Andrija Urban, Dinko Krpan, Agata Primorac, Dragica Gagro and others.

Meanwhile his mother Stana heard that her husband Jozo was alive and had sent a message for her to return. She returned from Austria to Herzegovina in 1947 with her daughters Danica and Janja. Jozo had already arrived back in Herzegovina. He survived the postwar hell.

While on the Bleiburg death march he managed to escape alive through Slovenia, Slavonia, and Serbia. Then back in Herzegovina three more children were born: Ivan (1948), Stojan (1950), Dan (1954).

The lives and destinies of us refugees all had a similar pattern. For us children it was not so terrible, but for our parents it was a great suffering The Friars would find out where their parents ended up and then contact them to see if they wanted their children to come back. I was incapable of making that decision by myself. I did not know very much. Then I talked to the Friars, followed their advice and stayed. Through those four years, contact with my family was rare. I did not even know where Ljubljenica or Herzegovina were. I remember for the last year of school that we went to the Italian school in Sassoferatto. That was a minor seminary of Italian Franciscans. There were fifteen of us. We already knew a little Italian, but this was all new because everything was in Italian. There we actually learned Italian. It became like our mother tongue. Not one of our Croatian Friars was there. Fr. Dionysius Lasić was our only contact. He lived in Rome and often came to see us.

The journey to America 

At the end of that last school year, the Friars decided that we will go to America. They picked us up at Sassoferatto and took us somewhere close to Naples. We stopped over briefly in Rome and then they drove us to Capua. That was a camp from where you would travel on further. Fr. Dionysius was our leader. We were in barracks and waiting for necessary documents. From here we traveled by train for about two days to Bremenhaffen in Germany. In that port city there were mostly U.S. naval ships. We were also in a camp there for a few days until it was time to board the ship named BLACHFORD for America. It was in August 1951. The journey at sea to New York took fifteen days. We arrived at Ellis Island. I remember that here we met Fr. Steve Raić and another Franciscan who were then stationed in New York. Then they settled us somewhere in New Jersey for a short time. From there we traveled together by train to Chicago. There they settled us at St. Jerome, our Croatian Church in Chicago. There was an old school where they put us. The pastor, Fr. Ferdinand Skoko, our dear Fr. Ferdo, was the one who received us. Those of us who had family and relatives in America were then given a chance to visit them.

Again starting a new school

“In September those of us who remained were sent to school. It was St. Joseph College, Westmont, Illinois, the minor seminary of the Franciscan St Louis Province of Sacred Heart with High School and two years of junior college about tweny miles west of Chicago. They enrolled Jozo Abramović, Eugene Petrović and me in the third year of high school. We continued with

fourth year of high school and the first two years of college up to 1955. So from 1951 to 1955 it was a time when I started all over again, learning English and going to school. Only God knows how we did it, how we succeeded! Fr. Kvirin Vasilj was our teacher and pedagogue. There were about 120 students in all. School went pretty well. We three had each other, but we got along well with the other students too. Since the Sacred Heart Franciscans originated in Germany, a sense of German discipline was very present there. Throughout all those years I knew that something very important was always missing. Emotions were everywhere. And I was a boy without a family! My family did not even know I had gone to America. During the time I was in Westmont, I would come to Chicago during the summer to our monastery on Drexel Blvd. where I finally managed to make contact with my family through mail. Unfortunately, nothing preserved from those letters. They were tough years, but I survived ok. I missed out on my childhood. Early education did not exist at all. All the rest were just replacements. I later had the feeling of when someone loves you, that someone cares for you and that was a nice feeling, but I always missed that special love of childhood. And still do today. The camps were a great experience, but a place where all the decisions for my destiny were made by others. When someone was kind and really nice to us it was something new for us! While at Westmont I learned by letter that I had three more brothers. There was no telephoning in those days. Hardly any news from home. Mail was rare. I never grew up with brothers and sisters together in the same family. All of that has affected my life. I probably did not realize it when I was younger. Sometimes I would like to know what it’s like to to grow up all together, loving your father and mother, to feel the love of your father and mother in action. I never knew that. I hardly saw my father at all. I almost never really lived with him. At Westmont after the last two years of college which I finished in 1955, the time for decision had come: will I go on elsewhere in life or remain in the Franciscans. Fr. Jozo, Fr. Eugene and I chose to be Friars. The other two were two years ahead of me so they had already gone to the novitiate. I went to the novitiate of the New York Holy Name Province in Lafayette, New Jersey. I took Paul as my new name as a symbol of my new life becoming a permanent journey and search, I was a

Croatian Franciscan from then on. I was a one year novice up to 1956. After that I made my first profession of simple vows in the Franciscan Order and started studying in the same Province of the Holy Name, but farther north in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, north of Boston, Massachusetts right in the US Northeast. There I finished the first two years of philosophy. It was good there.”

In 1956 Fr. Paul became an American citizen. The American friars helped him to get the necessary documents. He was at Rye Beach for two years until 1958. During the summer they were sent to St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan in NY, where they attended the summer semester. Contact with his family was still very little. Fr Paul made his solemn (life time) Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1958 while at St. Bonaventure University.

Washington D.C. President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration

After that sometime in August 1958 he moved to Washington D.C. with the Franciscans to continue his study of philosophy and theology at Holy Name College for the next four years. That was a very nice experience for him. He called it ”Beautiful!” for that time and period of his life. Then added, “Today I would not wish anyone to have to go through it.”

“I remember very well how in 1961 they let us attend the inauguration of President Kennedy. It was as if we were going to heaven. We were not far from the podium where Kennedy was sworn in. I could see him very well while he was taking the oath.”

As students during those years they regularly went to visit in hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. They rarely saw television and never saw newspapers. Fr. Paul said everyone was good to him. Summers again were spent at St. Bonaventure University. So in Washington, D.C, he was in studies from 1958 to 1962. He was ordained a priest on March 17, 1962. His ordination to the priesthood took place in the Franciscan Monastery of the Custody of the Holy Land. The ordination was conducted by the Apostolic Nuncio in America, Egidio Vagnozzi. Fr. Paul was the only Croat among the 30 who were ordained to the priesthood that day. He remembers that some Croatian Franciscans were also there for the ordination. He remained in Washington until June of that year, 1962. Then they sent him to Steelton, Pennsylvania where he celebrated his First Holy Mass. “It was nice with the people there. A week later I celebrated another Holy Mass at our Sacred Heart Church in southside Chicago.”

He forgot Croatian

The Custos and Custodial Council assigned him to be Assistant pastor for Fr. Miron Lasić at Sacred Heart Church in southern Chicago. 

“My pastoral ministry began there in July 1962. I stayed there until 1964. Work on building the new church had began. It was a very exciting time. There was always something going on. I was mostly involved with the young people. We started a school football team. That was a “big deal” then. Many children received scholarships on that basis. It was our strongest parish at that time. Fr. Gracijan Raspudić also lived with us. I was a young priest. I listened a lot. I had almost completely forgotten Croatian. I was not able to preach in Croatian. For the last 11 years I spoke almost all English. It was difficult for me. I had to learn Croatian all over again. I had a hard time then! I was learning by myself, listening to others, reading, talking to people. The language came slowly, as if it was coming back. It took me a long time to get free enough to speak in public and preach in Croatian. I was reading sermons. I think that was pretty sad. Meanwhile, my family learned that I was a priest. They listened to Radio Vatican and that is how they learned that I had become a priest and that I had my First Mass.”

He stayed in south Chicago until 1964, when the community transferred him to Sacred Heart Croatian parish in Milwaukee where he stayed till 1970. During that time he was Assistant pastor to Fr. Ferdinand Skoko for three years, and to Fr. Častimir Majić for three years. He liked being at that parish. It was new life again. Most of the people were Volksdeutschers, good Catholics and good Croats. It was very nice working with them.

First return to Homeland and family reunion

“During that period I went back to Croatia for the first time. It was the summer of 1968. The first time I was back after 23 years. I was traveling with Fr. Marko Kozino. I landed in Zagreb. I immediately got on a bus and went straight to Ljubljenica, to the home where I was born. Then for the first time I met my family after almost a quarter of a century. For the first time that I can remember I met my father. For the first time in my life I met my brothers Ivan, Stojan and Dan. They were born after I had left and now they were grown up at the ages of 20, 18, and 14 years old. We all cried together. We were together again. We talked on and on for a long time. My father was mostly quiet. There were lots of questions, a lot to tell about, where we were and what we survived. My father was quiet but profoundly happy. He slaughtered a calf. His son had come back. It called for a feast. A lot of emotion. Even much more happiness!

For me it was a powerful emotional experience. I had only gotten to know my parents a little. My two sisters Danica and Janja were little when I went to the Franciscans, and my three new brothers Ivan, Stojan and Dan were born after my departure. By coming to Herzegovina, I got to know much more about my family and their way of life and the situation of the Croatian people and the Franciscans under Communism. All this helped me to better understand the

Croats in the United States and Canada who have found their new life outside of the Homeland. Then the UDBA (communist secret service) arrived to question me, where was I working and what kind of work was I doing. They were always keeping up on us. They were very uncomfortable. They wanted to win me over to their side. They knew everything about us Franciscans! About our work, about our communities . My parents were afraid again of what might happen to me, what they might do to me. They were also afraid of what they might do to them and to the other children and the whole family. There were always two UDBA partners in the interrogations. They would last for several hours. They knew that I had arrived and when I had arrived. When I refused to cooperate, they threatened my family. But I did not give in. Altogether I was over there for four weeks. When I left, again it was very difficult. Again a separation. Again we did not know if we would ever see each other again. Leaving them was painful, but still with hope for a reunion! Fr. Marko Kozina also saw his family for the first time. His experience was just like mine. The

UDBA also questioned and threatened him. Then after a month back over the ocean again, another journey to America. It was a time of searching for memories. I filmed everything I could with that old 16mm camera.”

New places, new journeys

In 1970 the Franciscan Custody sent him to be pastor in of St. Joseph Church in St. Louis. A new community, a new city. He had never been in that city before. “It was nice. It was likewise a mixed community: Croatian-English. There I worked quite a lot with the local community. I was involved in various projects to get that part of the city declared a “Historical District” (Soulard neighborhood). And that did happen. All in all it was an active and a nice time.”

The second time Fr. Paul went to his homeland was in 1971. It was a little easier because of the “Croatian Spring” movement. He spent most of the time with his family, went around the Province and got to know the Friars a little better. His brother Stojan came to America in 1973. First he went to visit Fr. Paul in St. Louis. He stayed to live in America. Stojan is the only member of Fr. Paul’s family on this continent. Fr. Paul stayed in St. Louis until 1976 when he became pastor of St. Jerome Church in Chicago. 

“Each parish community has its own beauty and its own problems. I fit in pretty well. I was aiming at working harmoniously with the people in the spiritual and social sphere. I always wanted people to be involved in the work and decisions of the community, to understand that it is their community and that it serves them, that it does not belong to the priest or anyone else, but just to them, that they are at home here! As assistants to work with I had Fr. Slavko Soldo and

Fr. Leon Galić. At that time we were active in politics for the cause of Croatian freedom. I think it was here that I got hurt the most. Politics always has a high price. The parish was complex and very active. I saw my father for the last time in 1979 when I went to visit again. My father died on May 14, 1983. He had been working, he rested a little, then sat down and died. Blissfully and

quietly. I went to my father’s funeral. I arrived late, but I still got to the grave in time to bury my father. He had a tough life, but he was a good man!”

In 1979 he was in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania for a short time. He was looking for a little time to rest. He stayed there for three months. After Fr. Eugene Petrović departed, Fr. Paul was appointed pastor in Ambridge PA. from autumn 1979 to the summer of 1982. 

“I had always been in big cities, and somehow I didn’t like going to that little place of just 15,000 people, but I quickly fell in love with those people. I soon got to know a lot of them and they all knew each other. It was nice for me. The experience of a small place was interesting and even attractive.”

In the summer of 1982 he returned to Chicago. The community appointed him Guardian of St. Anthony Franciscan monastery. The Guardian’s term of office is for three years. “It was nice being with the friars those years. At that time we had quite a few older Friars. A lot of discussion. Then I took over the administration of the Croatian Franciscan Press.” 

He was in charge till the end of its operation in 2008. It was an interesting but difficult job but a lot of good work was done. A huge number of good books were printed, the Glasnik magazine, and a lot of work with Croatian communities, families and individuals.

Custos of the Croatian Franciscans

In the summer of 1985 his confreres elected him to be Custos of the Croatian Franciscan Custody. The mandate for Custos was in three terms, through nine years of service until 1994.

“Those years were very nice, but demanding, and difficult. Solving the problems of Franciscan communities and friars was not always easy. It was the time of the Norval problem in Canada and other problems. It was the time of independence for the Croatian nation”.

In 1987 Fr. Paul celebrated his 25th anniversary of priesthood in the Croatian parish of St. Jerome in Chicago. Fr. Joseph Abramović preached. In 1988, during a routine meeting of the Franciscan provincials and Custos’s of the

English-speaking countries, Fr. Paul got to met Pope John Paul II personally in his chapel at the Vatican. In 1991 the organization “Croatian Catholic Community” requested him to be the spiritual director for the whole community. Fr. Paul agreed and remained in that service until the end of the Community’s work in 2006. In 1994 he was again the Guardian of St. Anthony Monastery in Chicago for one year until 1995 when he left to be pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Chicago for the next five years. Most of that time Fr. Marko Kozina also was stationed there with him. In 1996, his mother Stana dies. She was a refugee in the Second World War and again in the war of 1990s. She died as a refugee. In 1998 during the proclamation of Blessed Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac, Fr. Paul personally met with John Paul II in Croatia at the shrine of Marija Bistrica. In 1999 Fr. Paul was honored by the Croatian President Franjo Tudjman with the Order of Danica Hrvatska.

In 2000 - 2013 Again pastor in Sacred Heart, Milwaukee

In 2002, Fr. Paul celebrated his 40th anniversary of priesthood in the Croatian parish of Sacred Heart in Milwaukee.

In 2010 - 2013 second time Custos of the Franciscan Croatian Custody

In 2012 Fr. Paul celebrated his 50th anniversary of priesthood in the Croatian parish of Sacred Heart Milwaukee. Fr. Jozo Grbeš preached. He also celebrated his Golden Jubilee with his family and friends in Stjepan Križ, Herzegovina.

In 2013 he became pastor of another Croatian parish in Chicago, the parish of Bl. Aloyzije Stepinac. He thereby has served in all three Chicago Croatian parishes. He stayed on until his retirement, May 1, 2017 when he moved to St. Anthony Monastery. 

Today, looking back while enjoying the peace of the Franciscan monastery in Chicago, Fr. Paul says: “When I look back all the time, I can see the way in which God’s hand is constantly present. In spite of all the troubles, I have come to realize that all this has a great meaning. Love is a key, without love man is alone. Without love nobody can live a normal life. So it is with the homeland. All the suffering has made my love for the homeland even deeper.”

When he speaks about Croatia, he says: ”I wish that we have good leaders in Croatia who are aware of the love of many generations towards the homeland to raise the people up and give them the dignity of living. I believe and pray that Croatia will truly become an example to other countries and peoples. With so much treasure and wealth it can provide a lot. That is possible. I learned that nothing is impossible in life when a man is faithful to the ideals and to God with whom he travels for centuries.”


Fr. Paul (Nikola) Maslach

1937 Born August, 25 in Ljubljanica, parish of Rotimlje, eastern Herzegovina, father, Jozo and mother, Stana nee Raguz.

1942 At four and a half years flees from Chetniks with family from Ljubljenica to Mostar.

1942 Escapes from Mostar in Old Town.

1945 Travels through Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, camp Andorph.

1947 Departure to Italy (Grottammare)

1950 - 1951 Sassoferatto in Italy

1951 Capua / Napoli in Italy

1951 Bremenhaffen, Germany for boat to New York

1951 August arrival Ellis Island, / New York / Chicago

1951 Westmont, IL St. Joseph Seminary

1955 - 1956 Lafayette, NJ Novitiate Holy Name Province

1956 - 1958 Rye Beach, NH philosophy Holy Name Province

1958 - 1962 Washington, D.C. theology, ordination Holy Name Province

1962 - 1964 Chicago / Sacred Heart Church

1964 - 1970 Milwaukee Sacred Heart Church

1968 First return Croatia / first reunion with family

1970 - 1976 St. Louis, St Joseph Church

1971 Departure to Croatia for the second time

1973 Brother Stojan comes to America

1976 - 1979 St Jerome Church, Chicago

1979 Departure to Croatia. The last encounter with the father.

1979 Beaver falls, PA

1979 - 1982 Ambridge, PA Holy Trinity Church

1983 Father Jozo dies

1982 Guardian St. Anthony Monastery, Chicago

1982 - 2006 Croatian Franciscan Printer Manager

1985 - 1994 Custos Croatian Franciscan Custody

1987 Celebration of 25th anniversary of the priesthood in St. Jerome / Chicago. Fr. Joseph Abramovic preached

1988 Personal encounter with Pope John Paul II in his chapel in the Vatican

1991 - 2006 Spiritual director of the Croatian Catholic Community

1994 - 1995 St. Antony Monastery, Chicago

1995 Brother Dane dies

1995 - 2000 Parish Sacred Heart, Chicago

1996 Mother Stana dies

1998 Personal encounter with Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the proclaiming Blessed A. Stepinac in Marija Bistrica, Croatia.

1999 Awarded by President Tudjman in the Order of Danica Croatia

2000 - 2013 Parish of Sacred Heart, Milwaukee

2002 40th anniversary of priesthood Sacred Heart, Milwaukee. Fr. Mate Reyechan preached.

2010 - 2013 second time Custos Franciscan Croatian Custody

2012 50th anniversary of priesthood Sacred Heart, Milwaukee, and at birthplace Stjepan Križ.

2013 - 2017 Parish of Bl. Alojzije Stepinac, Chicago 

2017 - May 1, retirement St. Anthony Monastery.

2018 Sept 24 Journey to Croatia, Medjugorje, Germany to October 24.

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