Peter II’s 1942 Visit to Ravanica Cathedral in Detroit

Peter arrived in Detroit by train from Washington, DC on Wednesday morning, July 1, 1942. Peter had met with FDR and Winston Churchill at the White House the previous week on Wednesday, June 24 and had delivered an address before Congress on Capitol Hill on Thursday, June 25.

He was met at the train by Michigan Governor Murray Van Wagoner and Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries on his arrival. He would spend 18 hours in the city. He visited the armament plants in Detroit of the Big Three, GM, Ford, and Chrysler. He met with Ford Company President Edsel Ford and toured the River Rouge complex. Detroit was specially chosen by the U.S. government to demonstrate its wartime role as “the arsenal of democracy”.

Peter traveled to the Book-Cadillac in downtown Detroit where he had lunch. He was interviewed by reporters there. Peter emphasized that the reason for his visit to the U.S. was “to seek supplies for the army still fighting in Yugoslavia.” The objective was to obtain arms and equipment for the Yugoslav guerrillas headed by Draza Mihailovich who had been promoted to the rank of General and appointed the Minister of War in the London-based Yugoslav Government-in-Exile. He informed reporters that he was in constant communication with Mihailovich. Asked if the guerrillas needed aircraft, he replied that they would be of little use to a guerrilla army, especially in a mountainous area with hardly any areas to land. Delivery of weapons would have to be by air drops. The most pressing needs were food and small arms. He explained that the guerrilla forces consisted of 100,000 men, although not all are in uniform, but could be mobilized if supplies could be provided.

After his inspection tour of the plants, he traveled to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral “Ravanica” located on Russell Street and East Warren Avenue in the Poletown East area of Detroit east of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Reverend Firmilian Ocokolich was the priest at the church. Peter had met him in Washington, DC where he had traveled to greet him. Peter stated that “it was in Washington that Father Ocokolich had invited me to visit ‘one of the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox churches in America—Ravanica Church in Detroit.’”

The Ravanica Serbian Orthodox Church on Russell and Warren in Detroit was photographed in 1934. This was the church Peter visited in 1942. This was the Ravanica church before the new and current church was opened in 1967 on Outer Drive and Van Dyke in Detroit. Peter visited the church a second time in 1959.

Peter recalled his visit to Ravanica in his 1954 memoirs, A King’s Heritage (New York, Putnam): “I then took time off from my inspection to visit the Serbian Orthodox Ravanica Church of Detroit where I attended a Mass celebrated in memory of my father, King Alexander.”

Peter was photographed alone holding a long candle with a burning flame with both hands during the special services held in the Serbian Orthodox Ravanica Church. Parishioners, adults and children, could be seen in the background. Peter was wearing his military uniform with the Yugoslav Air Force badge on the right on his jacket. The service was dedicated for the safety and long life of the King, for the soul of the late King Alexander, and for “the brave Yugoslavs suffering persecution and death as they resist Nazi aggression.”

Peter was photographed at a reception standing between the Rev. Benjamin I. Hoffiz of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Rev. Firmilian Ocokolich.

Peter was shown kissing the cross which was held by Reverend Firmilian Ocokolich, the pastor of the Serbian Orthodox Church “Ravanica” of Detroit. Peter was holding a long candle in his left hand. Constantin Fotich looked on from behind in the background.

As Peter entered the full church, there were 1,000 parishioners outside. Stanley Papich, the President of the Church, gave Peter bread and salt, which was a Serbian custom. American and Yugoslav flags were arrayed in a row at the entrance.

Peter described the church: “The church was indeed very beautiful, a choir of a hundred voices was singing and many candles flickered on the altar which was banked with flowers. High at the back of the church, painted on the front of the choir loft, was a portrait of my father. As I walked with head bared toward it Father Ocokolich met me. I kissed the cross he brought to me. While I stood before the altar the pastor handed me a candle to hold through-out the service, which was deeply moving.”

Tears were seen to be streaming down Peter’s cheeks while he was listening to the choral music presentation.There was a painting of his father, Alexander, who was assassinated in 1934, painted on the choir loft at the back of the church.

Reverend Ocokolich recited the final prayer and the choir sang a psalm. Ocokolich then welcomed Peter in Serbian: “You visit to the Third Serbian ‘Ravanica’ in America will remain forever with us as our most cherished memory.

“Serbian people, who came from their old country, did not forget the religion of their fathers, nor the customs or language. As a result, they are ever thankful for the liberty which we all enjoy in this great land, building this Third ‘Ravanica,’ an exact replica of the first Serbian Ravanica in Serbia.

“Permit me, as your Serbian priest, in the name of all Serbs in Detroit, to express our desire and prayer that you return soon to our proud Belgrade to rule our homeland.

“Thank you, Your Majesty, and may the blessing of God lead you on your journey.”

After a tour of the church, Peter stated: “I believed ‘Ravanica’ to be beautiful, but did not know it was this beautiful.”

After his visit, Peter sent a check from Washington to Ravanica for the purchase of a large candle “to burn continually for all those who gave their lives in the defense of Yugoslavia.”

From the Ravanica Church, Peter went to a reception at the Book-Cadillac Hotel. He was later part of a radio broadcast at station WXYZ-Detroit, on the NBC Blue Network, to the U.S. and by short-wave to Yugoslavia.

The Detroit Free Press ran a front page story on his visit in the  Thursday, July 2, 1942 issue, “King Peter ll in Detroit on Hunt for Arms.” Two photographs showed Peter with Charles F. Kettering and Albert Bradley, the Vice-Presidents of GM: “GM officials chat with royal visitor. A second photo showed Peter driving a jeep with William Ford. The caption was: “Yugoslavia’s monarch and Henry Ford’s grandson ride a jeep.”

The focus of the article was on his tour of the munitions plants in Detroit: “The young King took it like a man. From rnldmorning until nearly midnight, Peter II of Yugoslavia was led past miles and miles of armaments and shown in intricate detail the workings of the greatest munitions machine that man has ever built. Throughout, he was unfailingly courteous and attentive. Yet there must have been many moments of bitterness for him and his warrior aides when they looked at the thundering aircraft engines, the overwhelming tanks, the cannon and the machine guns, and thought of their people struggling bare-handed in the mountains and forests back home.”

Peter stated that his objective for the visit was to obtain arms and supplies for the guerrilla resistance forces under Draza Mihailovich: “I am in the United States to seek supplies for the army still fighting in Yugoslavia and to plan the future, too. I can not say what I will get, but I can’t go back with nothing. We do not need planes, because planes cannot be landed in our mountains, but they would be useful based elsewhere and attacking the enemy. We can’t use other large supplies because there is no way to deliver them. Everything we get must be dropped to our troops by parachute. What we need mostly is ammunition.”

On his departure, Governor Wagoner told him: “God bless you.” Peter departed by train from Detroit for his next stop, Buffalo, New York, to inspect plants there.