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THE 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 combined.
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 flocks.

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 to America.

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 citizen.

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
reluctantly agreed.

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 divine intervention.

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.
Jerry Blaskovich

 


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