CHICAGO — It has been 53 years, but the members of the Slovenian Catholic community in the Chicago area and around the world are only now finding closure in the death of their former Bishop Gregorij Rozman.
Accused of collaborating with Nazis by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia during World War II and only cleared of the charges after death, Rozman was forced into exile and eventually buried in Lemont, Ill. after he died in late November 1959.
On Sunday, a memorial service at the Slovenian Catholic Mission in Lemont celebrated his life and the journey his body will finally make to be laid to rest in the capital of his native Slovenia.
“He’s going home finally,” a teary-eyed Kathy Kaye, 50, of Milwaukee said. “He was a man without a country.”
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Kaye and her sister Helen Frohna, 56, also of Milwaukee, attended the service in traditional, gold-sequined Slovenian costume. They grew emotional as former World War II refugees and concentration camp survivors gave testimony in Slovenian about how Rozman had helped them or touched their lives in some way.
“We’re just so happy,” Frohna said. The sisters’ mother had also been forced to flee from Slovenia, at that time Yugoslavia, for the United States during World War II. The sisters said Rozman was their mother’s bishop and his guidance helped her remain faithful, passing that faith on to her children and grandchildren.
The repatriation of Rozman’s remains speaks volumes to how far Slovenia won its independence in 1991, said Stan Kastelick, 52, of Chicago.
“The bishop took a stand against communism, and he paid the price,” Kastelick said. “Today is meaningful for all the people who fought for their country and their faith. This guy was a hero, not a traitor.”
Rozman was tried by the Yugoslav military court in absentia in 1946 and found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis. The evidence against him included a picture he had taken with a prominent Nazi leader at the time and the fact that he’d been born in Austria, according to Slovenian Catholic Mission deacon John Vidmar. In 1999, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Slovenia remanded a review of Rozman’s case to the lower courts, which decided in 2009 not to review it, recognizing that the accusations had been “politically motivated,” Vidmar said, making the charges moot.
This decision cleared the way for Rozman to obtain a death certificate and finally return home, Vidmar said. He will be buried in a crypt at St. Nikolaj Cathedral in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
Anton Gombac, 79, of the town of Oak Lawn, Ill. who met Rozman while he was a refugee in Paris, reflected on Rozman’s character after the service.
“He was such a quiet, gentle man,” Gombac said.
Rozman had chosen to be buried in Lemont, a place where American-Slovenian immigrants sometimes pilgrimage, because he knew his body couldn’t return home.
People from all over the country, including places such as New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, gathered in the packed chapel along with Archdiocese of Ljubljana auxiliary bishop Anton Jamnik and former Cleveland auxiliary bishop Edward Pevec. A handful of men and one woman, including two men who had been personally confirmed by Rozman, carried a casket containing Rozman’s remains out of the chapel at the conclusion of the memorial service and placed it in a hearst.
Jamnik cast holy water onto the casket before the hearst drove away. A funeral mass for Rozman will be held in Ljubljana on Saturday.
Pevec knew Rozman for the nine years preceding his death.
“Probably there are many doubters who don’t see Rozman as we do,” Pevec said. “They never walked in his shoes or suffered the agony … of bitter judgment and hatred. They never saw what we saw. They never heard what we heard. We pray for them, and we ask them to see this bishop for who he truly was, not the one his enemies made him out to be.”