Saturday evening was approaching. The day was warmer than usual, or what we had been used to this year. My family and I had a busy morning traveling to the Madera/Chowchilla area. We got home in the early afternoon and relaxed. By 6 p.m. our plan was to head to St. Peter the Apostle Serbian Orthodox Church for the Serbian festival.
For years we have been wanting to attend. Somehow, we always seemed to miss it, even though the volunteers at the church have put the event on since 1990. Not this year. This year we were determined to get there.
Not too far from St. Peter the Apostle Church is St. Paul Armenian Apostolic Church. On our trips to St. Paul, we always would pass the Serbian church and were curious about what the interior looked like and wanted to learn about the Serbian community in Fresno.
With my sister Hilda (who refers to herself as Nanny Hilda because she always seems to end up with us during our trips), we loaded up our van and headed to the festival. As luck would have it, a vehicle was leaving from the very first parking stall near the church. We quickly pulled in and knew this was going to be a good evening.
We got out and as we entered the gate, we were greeted by a young lady in traditional Serbian attire. She gave us a pamphlet and we walked in.
The line dancers caught my attention right away. Men and women, young and old were holding each other making similar dance motions. The moves were a little different than the Armenian or Greek line dances I was used to seeing, but there were many similarities. The dancers were doing a good job following the music.
Not too far from the stage, we found half of a table that was unoccupied and sat down. The kids played in the play area and immediately made a few friends. Not too far from our table, the grill was beautifully laminated with wood cooking the meat.
Meat being cooked on an open flame? Reminded me of kebab and other food items from different cultures.
I got up to check on the kids. My oldest was running around the area near what I presumed was a classroom with his new friend; a young boy about his age. The mother of the young boy and I both told our kids to play on the grassy area and not near the buildings.
We got to talking. It was her first time at the festival as well and her plan was to return the following year.
As I arrived back at the table, my wife and sister had purchased the sampler plate. To my surprise it included “sarma.” Sarma is one way that some Armenians refer to stuffed cabbage. Stuffed cabbage is something I grew up eating at least once a week.
I cut the sarma open and found seasoned ground beef and rice mixture. Some flavors were different than what I was accustomed to, but I was impressed with the taste. It was delicious.
Next on the plate was a rice dish with raisins on top. This was similar to a rice dish my in-laws make. This too, made me feel like home.
After eating a few other items, I made my way to the church. I didn’t get far before I ran into several people I knew from the community. They too were enjoying the food and music.
I entered the church with my 18-month old and sat down on a pew facing the alter. The story goes that the consecration of the church was held on the weekend of June 15 and 16, 1957. The parishioners donated the necessary church furnishings, stained glass windows, chandeliers and three bells that were crafted in Belgium.
The interior was beautifully painted. In fact, the paintings on the iconostasis were the work of the late Innocenzo Dario, an artist from Los Angeles. I immediately noticed similarities between this church and St. George Greek Orthodox Church, where the Greek Festival is held.
I found out that Mr. Dario had done some work on both churches. Sitting there with my child, I took in the moment.
I thought of the line dancing, the food, the music, the families having a good time and the volunteers working hard to make the event a success and share their culture. It reminded me of the my own Armenian culture. Serbia and Armenia are over a thousand miles away, yet there are many similarities.
Next year we will attend again. Something tells me we’ll see many of the same people, and many other new ones coming to explore Fresno’s diversity.
Diversity is one of our strengths and a piece of that diversity comes from the Serbian American community. Watch for the Serbian festival next year, the first weekend of June.
The website for the church is https://stpeterfresno.wordpress.com/