St. John the Baptist Catholic Church has been a little rowdier than you might expect a church to be this summer.
Every time the Croatian national team has played a World Cup match, generations of Croatian families have crammed inside a small bar in the basement. Hundreds more take seats throughout the building, spilling over into the bowling alley one room over and filling the gym upstairs.
“When I first came here 19 years ago, I did not expect nothing like this,” Goran Dordevic said during the team's semi-final celebration last week. A first-generation Croatian, Dordevic emigrated to Kansas as a refugee after the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. He said he never pictured finding a community like this outside of his home country.
St. John’s is part of the Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. The church, which sits atop bluffs over the Kansas and Missouri rivers, has long been a home for immigrants settling in the area.
Originally hailing from Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Russia, the demographics of Strawberry Hill have shifted over the years, but the community still provides a home for hundreds of families with Croatian heritage and thousands more with familial roots back to the 1800’s. These watch parties have been about more than just soccer.
“It’s a mixture of family, community, culture, heritage, history, religion, sports, a love of all those things,” Nikola Tomisic said.
Tomisic helped organize the World Cup watch parties that have flooded the usually quiet community for the past six weeks. He's spent his whole life in and around St. John’s, which was founded in the 1904 by many of the same families watching the games here today.
“I went to grade school upstairs, born right here, baptized, married in the church next door, all my brothers and sisters too, this is my family right here,” he said.
Anywhere from 200 to 500 of fans have been turning out to watch since the Croatian team began an unlikely run through the tournament in early July. After wins in the first few games, Croatia proved themselves an underdog to watch when they defeated host country Russia in the quarter finals. They sealed their spot during a nail-biting round of penalty kicks.
When Croatia’s victory over England last week placed them in the World Cup final for the first time, the fans in the 400-strong crowd at St. John’s ranged from a 99-year-old woman who came over from Zagreb six decades ago, all the way down to a two-month-old baby.
It’s a holiday for many community members like Kristina Mikesic.
“I went in [to work] for a couple hours then I took off to come over and be a part of the atmosphere and the energy,” she said.
Fans gathered around everything from cevapi, a traditional Balkan sausage dish, to Karlovacko beer imported from the same region where many of Strawberry Hill’s residents hail. Even the native tongue could be heard rallying the crowd to chants of “Hrvatska,” which means Croatia.
As the clock ran out during the semifinal game clinching Croatia’s spot in the championship, members of a local folk music group called Hrvatski Obicaj or “Croatian Traditions” grabbed their guitars and led the crowd in folk songs. Fans clambered up on bar tables, and a mixture of sweat and tears began to wear off the red and white checkered Croatian flags that painted their faces.
Tomisic found his way out of the near mosh-pit and wiped at his own eyes.
“Seeing grown men cry, some of the toughest men on the planet when Croatia wins — if I live to be a million I don’t think I’m ever going to experience something like this ever again,” Tomisic said.
Croatia takes on France at 10 a.m. Sunday in the World Cup final. Dordevic says he expects up to 1,000 fans to turn out at St. John's.
Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.