ODYSSEY OF CARDINAL STEPINAC'S CAPE
As the images of Kosovo's fleeing refugees and the news of mass grave
sites fade from memory, we are still haunted by the hard and unanswered
questions about who did what to whom during the 10 year conflict in
disintegrating Yugoslavia. Although few seem aware of it, what the
Serbs did in Kosovo was no worse than what they've done in Croatia
and in Bosnia, where over a quarter of a million souls perished with
far less notice.
All of the slaughter and destruction were symptomatic of a disease
carrier that didn't want to die: communism pretending to be Serbian
nationalism. Few Western thinkers can appreciate the evil that communism
brought to the world. But even Adolph Hitler's tally sheet of murder
does not come close to matching the 100 million who were murdered
in the name of communist progress. Certainly communism is a force
that affected more lives detrimentally than any other is during the
20th Century. And Belgrade based communism was among the most notable
in that regard.
According to human rights organizations, it had the distinction of
having one of the worst records among the world's totalitarian communists,
holding more political prisoners than all the Eastern Bloc countries
After World War II the Communists formed the new government in Yugoslavia.
Since the Party hierarchy perceived the Catholic Church as its arch-nemesis
and greatest threat to the regime, its first order was to set about
to control it. Obviously the Church didn't cooperate, so the communists
systematically persecuted and decimated the clergy. For example, Yugoslav
forces entered the Franciscan Monastery of Siroki Brijeg, doused fourteen
friars with petrol and set them afire. In another example, only 88
priests of Senj's diocese survived of the 151 that were there before
the war. Half the parishes were left with no clergy.
The anti communist nature of the Church posed the most significant
single threat to the success of communist ideology. So the object
of the murders was to destroy as many priests as directly as possible
and try to intimidate others into leaving. The idea clearly was that
if the shepherds were eliminated it would be easier to scatter the
But the biggest thorn in the Communist side was
Alojzije Stepinac, the Bishop of Zagreb. A smear campaign against
him had little affect in Croatia, but tragically the American press
bought it, lock-stock- and barrel and published it as gospel. Although
there isn't a shred of evidence that
Stepinac was a collaborator, the propagandists effectively painted
him on the fascist canvas.
Prior to Stepinac's Beautification, amidst an intensive negative media
campaign the media, including the Catholic press in the U.S., instead
of focusing on his goodness, the half-truths and lies about his role
in World War II Croatia were resurrected. No less a personage than
Milovan Diljas, then in the communist hierarchy, admitted in his book:
"He would certainly not have been brought to trial for his conduct
in the war...had he not continued to oppose the new Communist regime."
When Stepinac published a pastoral letter declaring 273 clergy had
been killed, 169 imprisoned and 89 were "missing" since
the communist takeover, it was the excuse the regime was looking for.
The authorities tried and sentenced Stepinac. Once "freed"
after sixteen years of imprisonment, the Cardinal was exiled to his
home village and never allowed to preside over his flock from Zagreb.
He died in 1960. Rumor has it-- of poison.
It was recently brought to light that Stepinac was buried in a cape
that had been smuggled into Yugoslavia in 1954 by Frances Chilcoat,
an American housewife.
The tale of the cape has all the elements of an Eric Ambler novel:
an innocent caught in a web of intrigue -- the same exotic cities;
Rome, Trieste, Zagreb; clandestine meetings; a harrowing border crossing;
and a refugee who triggered the affair. Ambler, however, never had
a saint as a main character. Truth, indeed, is stranger than fiction.
The odyssey of the cape started soon after the imprisoned Stepinac
was named Cardinal and shortly before Ivan Ivankovic, the refugee,
escaped from Yugoslavia in 1947. Communism was at the apogee of its
power and imposing its iron rule on Yugoslavia. One of the first priests
killed in the communist Yugoslavia's campaign against the Church was
Medjugorje's pastor. Ivan, who was also from Medjugorje, perceived
his life in danger, had no choice but to flee. Medjugorje today is
the scene where the Blessed Mother is appearing.
In retaliation, the authorities killed Ivan's brother, Martin, and
jailed his mother for 3 months. One of his sisters, Sima, also went
into hiding. Another sister, Jela, was taken ill and died soon after
she was forced to search for Ivan in the hills. His father was severely
beaten and denied medical attention on the kitchen floor.
After 2 years in hiding, Ivan escaped to Italy, ending up in a refugee
camp and was finally freed when Father Ivan Tomas of the Croatian
Radio Program of the Vatican got him a job at the Croatian College
of St. Jerome in Rome. Eventually, with Father Tomas' help, Ivan immigrated
The Chilcoats in the San Francisco area opened their
hearts and home to the refugee. Treating him as a brother, they were
present at one of Ivan's proudest days - his swearing in as American
When Frances Chilcoat was preparing for a trip to Yugoslavia, by way
of Rome, Ivan asked her to look up his spiritual advisor and mentor,
Father Tomas. Little did Ivan realize that simple request would set
in motion, an international, potentially dangerous intrigue.
Once in Rome, Frances met with Father Tomas a number of times. The
evening before she was to leave for Yugoslavia, Father Tomas approached
Frances, in what she thought, a surreptitious manner. He asked her
to smuggle the cape of Cardinal Stepinac, which was awarded by the
Pope. Despite the danger, Frances
Her mission came to an end in a Yugoslav village, when a relative
of Frances she was visiting surprised her by asking about bringing
something from Rome?
After she produced the package, they took a walk through the pitch-dark
village. Out of the gloom, they were approached by an unknown male,
who took the package and crept off into the night. Skeptics may weave
their own rationale but there are far too many coincidences in the
story of the cape for it to be completely attributable to less than
One incident stands out in particular. While a Yugoslav border guard
was fumbling to open Francis' baggage, he cut his finger, yelled a
few unprintable expletives and gave up on opening the suitcase. Had
he managed to open the clasp he certainly would have found the cape,
and the story would have had a tragic ending.