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Croatian Hall a community centrepiece for 90 years

A group bought the former Maple Leaf Theatre on Schumacher's main street in the '30s, nine decades later George Stefanic says, 'It’s nice to be part of something that still has a heart'

For generations, there has been a special place in the Porcupine Camp. If you have family or friends in Schumacher, chances are you attended an event there. If you are of Croatian descent, it likely holds some of your most cherished memories.

The Croatian Hall has been a pillar of the community for 90 years. A special event recently marked the anniversary of the historic building.

“We celebrated 90 years of existence in Schumacher as a building,” said George Stefanic, secretary/treasurer of the Croatian Society: Schumacher.

“In the late ‘20s, Schumacher had many Croatians living here. So many that they called it Little Zagreb, and another nickname was Little Croatia. There were so many men who came over to work. Most of them brought their families over. They had the opportunity to get away from the political strife that was ongoing in Europe at that time.

“There were so many here that they had to figure out a way to continue with their cultural background. They had to figure how to keep their culture Intact, through food, dance or whatever.”

That’s why a building was purchased for the Croatian community.

“This was a theatre before. It was called the Maple Leaf Theatre,” he said. “The Croatians at that time banded together and bought the theatre out to get a place for themselves. That’s the origin of this hall, back in 1932. They bought it before that.

“The first dinner/dance held here had 200 people in it on Dec. 17, 1932. That was for the inauguration. That was, we’ve got it made, let’s have a dinner. To get in, it cost you two bucks.”

This auspicious occasion was covered by The Porcupine Advance in its Dec. 22, 1932 edition. “Croatian National Society Have Finest Hall in North” boasted the Page 1 headline.

“The formal opening of the new hall of the Croatian National Society on Saturday night, Dec. 17, was one of the most impressive events in the camp for some time,” the story read. “The new hall, which is located in the premises formerly occupied by the Maple Leaf theatre, is one of the most attractive and commodious halls in the North Land. The whole building has been completely overhauled and remodelled and then painted and decorated throughout.

“On the main floor there is a dance hall of modern type with a roomy gallery for guests, and with dressing and rest rooms and a good stage. Cloak rooms, check rooms and ticket booths are also on this floor. The lofty ceiling adds to the advantage of this part of the building. The room may also be used as a concert hall or for meetings, and so is of particular value to the Croatian National Society. The hall is artistically decorated and presents a particularly good appearance.

“A basement has been added to the building and this also is well finished and equipped. There is a good kitchen, a large room for storing food, etc. A special feature is the playroom for the children, the idea being that the youngsters will enjoy this playroom while the adults of the family will be using the hall upstairs.

“Situated in a prominent position on the main street of Schumacher, the new hall is convenient for the people of the whole camp and is likely to prove specially popular for dances, meetings, concerts, etc., on account of its large size and its many other advantages and conveniences. The new hall is said to have cost the Croatian people about $8,000, but this does not include the free labour given so generously by members of the Croatian National Society in the work of remodelling and decorating of the hall and building.”

Not only did the grand opening attract local dignitaries from across the Porcupine Camp, but one guest came from the United States for the occasion. Congressman William Boyd of Ohio was a special guest speaker.

“Congressman Boyd spoke of his just pride in being a Croat, the first Croat to be elected to a Legislative position in the United States,” the Advance reported. “It was his duty and privilege, however, to be first of all an American citizen and his adopted country must have first place in his heart.

“In eloquent words, he spoke of the wonderful history of the Croatian people with their story running through a thousand years. Once they were the leading nation of Europe and held the balance of power. More than once it was the Croatian people who had saved Europe for Christianity. As an American citizen, he appealed to the Croats in Canada to become loyal Canadian Citizens.

“’Ninety-five per cent of us are here to stay,’ he said. ‘Let us forget the old quarrel of Europe and seek to do our part to build up a virile and happy people on this continent.’ Croats are always loyal to their adopted country, he pointed out.”

The hall became the centrepiece of both the local Croatian and Schumacher communities. Stefanic said the building has always helped Croatians preserve their culture, in particular music and food.

“I was born in 1938. When I was eight or nine, my parents enrolled me in the orchestra,” he said. “We had orchestras here, from all the guys playing their Croatian instruments. That went on for years. A lot of my friends who were born here, because of job opportunities or whatever, they’re not here anymore.

“Even with the orchestras we used to have, a lot of people kept moving. Over time, maybe a couple of decades, we couldn’t get people in the orchestras any more. So, that sort of phased out. The only way we could, even today, one of the few ways we could still maintain our culture or try to promote our culture is through food. Not only Croatians love the food, everyone seems to love the food. That’s one way we continued to function was to have dinner parties a couple times a year. All our young ladies are Croatian and they continue to cook.”

The Croatian Society: Schumacher has a much larger reach than just the immediate area. Paid memberships come from across the province, the country and even from as far away as California.

“Membership in the Croatian Society of Schumacher is not just for Croatians,” Stefanic said. “We have many people who haven’t lived here for 30 years but still support us because they were born in Schumacher. Whether they were Croatian or not, they used to come here with their friends, and they still have a soft spot in their hearts for this building. They send their membership in because they love the Croatian Hall and don’t want to see its demise.”

During the last couple of years, the pandemic restricted the use of the hall.

“We went through a lot of problems with COVID because we couldn’t have dinners and we couldn’t rent the hall,” he said. “That proved to be tough on us. We started to have bundles of food preparations for special times like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, they were making meals. Come pick up your meal and that’s what sort of saved us over the last two years.

“The biggest part is we can start renting the hall. Things are hopefully going to get a bit better.”

The timing of the pandemic impacted plans to repair and restore the building.

“After our 86th anniversary, we met because we were starting to run into trouble,” Stefanic said. “The building is old and the foundation was starting to give away. The roof started giving away. That’s when we said we’ve got to do something. To save the building, you’ve got to protect the outside and the foundation.

“Three years ago, just before COVID came down, we started a fundraiser (with) the expectation of hopefully raising about $150,000. We got estimates on how much it would cost to have everything fixed and we started our fundraising. As soon as we started fundraising, COVID hit and that really hurt us because we couldn’t hold functions.”

Despite a global pandemic, the Society pushed forward — with a lot of help from their friends.

“The people of this community and business owners, they have big hearts, and they came through supporting us,” he said. “We tried to reach our objective, and we did. However, COVID knocked the hell out of us because (we) lost 18 to 20 per cent on prices, for lumber for example.

“We got the foundation done, the roof was changed, and we added a few other things, like new windows because the windows were leaking. We did a very good job with the community’s help and some corporate citizens. That saved us, to get the building in repair.

“But we’re not finished. We have a little hall downstairs, it took a beating because the foundation was leaking and it screwed up the walls. So, we have to raise, we figure, another $45,000 to fix that up. That’s where we all right now.”

Plans are ongoing to raise the rest. There is a buy a brick donation program, with bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond levels. There are Croatian Kitchen Embroidered Aprons for sale. And more events will likely be held.

“It’s nice to see these young people involved,” Stefanic said, praising a new generation of volunteers. “All Croatian blood, their grandparents are the ones who put their hearts and souls into it. So, they say, if they could do it, I can do it.”

At the same time, he made it clear you don’t have to have Croatian roots to be welcomed by the group, attend events, rent the hall or even volunteer. Just as their people were first welcomed to Canada, they are paying it forward.

“You don’t have to be Croatian to come have a good time and have good food,” Stefanic said. “It’s a reciprocal type of deal.”

Surrounded by memories created in the hall, he shared his feelings about the Croatian Society: Schumacher and his community.

“It’s a pleasure to be part of this committee,” Stefanic said. “It’s nice to be part of something that still has a heart and is trying to function.”

The Croatian Hall is located at 24 Father Costello Dr. in Schumacher. Follow the Croatian Society: Schumacher on Facebook or the website.