By Karen Caffarini
Sept. 30, 2016
Crown Prince Alexander views the many photos of Serbians who served in the military at the WWII Halyard Mission exhibit at St. Sava Chuch. (Jim Karczewski / Post-Tribune)
Crown Princess Katherine of Serbia told of families who were broken, brothers and sisters who became separated, and children turned into orphans as a result of the 1990s Balkans conflict during a visit to the region with her husband, Crown Prince Alexander, on Friday.
"The children have suffered a lot," the princess told those who gathered at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville for the royal couple's first visit there.
They'll be attending receptions throughout the Midwest, including one in Merrillville, to recognize the contributions St. Sava and many other Serbian communities have made to support relief efforts through the Lifeline Humanitarian Organization, founded by Princess Katherine in 1993.
"People have been very generous and very special. This country has been very special," Princess Katherine said. "Lifeline has made a difference in the lives of our children."
She said the organization has been able to provide clothing, shoes and other gifts to the children.
Prince Alexander did not know the total number of orphans in the country but said the couple host about 1,200 orphans twice a year, at Easter and Christmas.
"The children have a name. When we call their name (to give them their gifts), they know they have not been forgotten," the princess said. "We have their correct shoe size and clothing size. They get so excited."
Donna Erceg shows Crown Prince Alexander a photo of her sons along with a
uniform worn during one of their weddings. (Jim Karczewski / Post-Tribune)
She told of one Easter event when two children received a gift more personal than clothing. She said when the two children returned to the palace after an egg hunt on the grounds, they began screaming.
"They were a brother and sister who had been separated from each other because of the war and had found each other there," the princess said.
She said they are now in the same orphanage together.
Donna Pejnovic, president of St. Sava, said the church has been donating clothing, shoes, bedding and other items to orphans in Serbia through Lifeline.
"There are a lot of orphans in post-war Serbia. The funding for them is not where it needs to be," Pejnovic said. "Lifeline is amazing."
She called the royal visit a very big occasion for the church, which Jelena Jovovic, of Lifeline Chicago, said has about 400 family members.
"It's a privilege and an honor to have them here," Pejnovic said.
The Very Rev. Marko Matic said the Merrillville church is a copy of the church built in Serbia by Prince Alexander's family years ago.
Crown Prince Alexander and Princess Katherine of Serbia accept a gift of commemorative wine from Donald M. Pujo. (Jim Karczewski / Post-Tribune)
"When the people of Northwest Indiana wanted to build a church of their dreams, they looked to Serbia," Matic said.
In addition to attending a charity banquet for Lifeline, the royal couple also visited the World War II Halyard Museum located inside the church, which commemorates the airlifting of 512 downed Allied airmen from Nazi-occupied Serbia to safety, without the loss of a single life. About 7,500 Serbian soldiers defended the airlift, according to reports.
This was not the royal couple's first visit to Indiana or the region. Prince Alexander went to school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and said he has been to the area a number of times.
Princess Katherine went to college in Colorado and Texas, and the couple met in Washington, D.C., in 1984. They married in London in 1985. They have five children between them, all of whom were born in the U.S., and five grandchildren.
They lived in exile for many years and returned to Belgrade in 2001.
"We now have peace. The country is moving forward, and unemployment has dropped from more than 40 percent to around 18 percent. We hope to be a part of the European Union and hope to get investors," Prince Alexander said.
Karen Caffarini is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.
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