Lazarica Church in Birmingham is one of many Serbian Orthodox churches dedicated to the Holy Prince Lazar. It is the first purpose-built Serbian church in the UK, built and maintained by exiled Serbs and their supporters in England with the exceptional, continuous and most appreciated help off the noble, widely respected and philanthropic Cadbury family, together with the late Sir Alfred Owen and his family.
In 1947/48 many Serb exiles from (former) Yugoslavia were recruited from Displaced Persons Camps in Germany to work in essential industries in the UK. Over 10,000 Orthodox Serbs came to this country. They lived in industrial and agricultural hostels and their religious life was centred around the priest’s homes, with their religious services being held in Anglican churches and hostel chapels.
After demobilisation, when labour shortages eased off, the immigrants were allowed to find more congenial employment, and many moved to larger industrial cities such as Birmingham. Thus, the nucleus of the present parish of St Lazar was formed.
The church before Lazarica
A residential property was bought in 1954 in Middleton Hall Road in Cotteridge, Birmingham, to provide a residence for the priest, Fr Radovan Miljković. He had worked tirelessly to gather Serbian Orthodox people in the Midlands and travelled great distances to find camps and hostels with Serbs living in them.
A small chapel was created and the extension was consecrated in 1959. Up until 1955, most of the congregation was male, as up until that date families, wives and children were prevented by the communist regime from leaving Yugoslavia. Also, many of the young men were not yet married.
With the increase in the number of parishioners, a decision was made to buy the land on which the church now stands. This was then a wooded area in the heart of leafy Bournville, owned by the Cadbury family who offered the land at a very favourable price. Thus, the foundation stone was laid in 1965.
The driving force behind the building of our church was the late Fr Milenko Zebić with his devout comrade exiles who made many sacrifices, both physical and material, to build for themselves and future generations a fitting place in which to worship. Fr Milenko had been ordained in 1958 and he replaced Fr Radovan Miljković who went to a parish in USA.
The church was built under the Patronage of Prince Tomislav of Yugoslavia and Princess Margarita, joined later by Aleksandar II, Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, and, in 1968, with much jubilation and in the presence of 6,000 people, Lazarica Church was consecrated.
Remembering those who helped
It is hard to conjure up in words the enormity of the endeavour of the Serb community to build such a church in this country, at that time. There are still a few men with us today who helped to build the church with their own hands. But, inevitably and sadly, the majority are long gone.
We thank them and remember them in our prayers; all those who worked night shifts so they could help with the building during the day, all those who contributed substantial sums of money from their meagre wages, all the wives who still had to put food on the table on a much reduced income.
We are grateful also to our benefactors at the time, amongst whom were Laurence and Michael Cadbury, the Bournville Village Trust and the whole philanthropic Cadbury family, as well as the great Midlands Industrialist, Sir Alfred Owen with his family, and our compatriot, Dragan Lukić, the “godparent” of the church.
Architecture and paintings
The church is a unique example of 14th Century Byzantine – Morava artistic style and architecture in the UK and is dedicated to the Holy Prince Lazar of Kosovo, whose relics lie in the church foundations. The marble for floor and walls, the sandstone columns, the walnut furniture overlaid with beaten copper, the candelabra were all brought from Yugoslavia and have a symbolic association with sacred places there. The architect was Serbian Dr Dragomir Tadić who worked collaboratively with Mr S. J. Clewer, the chief architect of Bournville Village Trust.
The al-secco paintings which cover the walls and ceiling of the church, painted by the Serbian artist Dušan Mihajlović, are copies of the best-known medieval frescoes found in some of the oldest Serbian monasteries located in Kosovo including Visoki Dečani, Gračanica, and Patriarchate of Peć. Many of these historical buildings are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger following the systematic destruction of Serbian heritage in the 1999 Kosovo war and its aftermath.
Lazarica is evidence and a reminder of the strength and power of faith. Those who came to UK after the Second World War, who lost all their earthly possessions, their friends, family, their homeland and their youth, brought with them their faith and the need to follow the example of Christ, Saint Sava and Saint Lazar. This church is their legacy.