BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - A celebration of family, culture and history marked the 100th anniversary of the Slavic Benevolent Association in Biloxi Saturday night. More than 500 people with names synonymous with Biloxi like Gillich, Skrmetta, Kuluz and Dubaz, gathered to honor their ancestors who immigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. A representative from the Embassy of Croatia to the United States was the group's special guest.
A short video traced the journey of the Slavs from Europe to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, illustrating the rich history with photos of fishing boats, seafood factories and celebrations of community milestones. Association President Andrew "Fo Fo" Gillich couldn't conceal his emotion as he talked about the shared roots in Croatia, a nation with a turbulent past steeped in tradition. Mario Skunca, Deputy Chief of Mission from the Embassy of Croatia told the crowd the circumstances of their shared families could have easily landed him in Biloxi, as his family too had roots in the seafood industry and sought a better future in other nations.
"Your ancestor's homeland in now free and safe," said Skunca.
He compared his nation's struggle for independence with the struggle to overcome the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Skunca said both efforts have been successful due to the strength of the people.
Skunca confessed he had visited Biloxi in the months after Hurricane Katrina but at the time did not know the deep connection between the people of the city and his homeland.
"I was here taking pictures, just 200 yards from here, and had no idea there were Croatians here. Now that we have reconnected, we will always be connected."
The diplomat also urged Biloxians to visit the land of their ancestors.
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway praised the contributions of the Slavs.
"Your values and traditions made Biloxi the seafood capitol of the world," Holloway said.
He closed with a nod to the families who have helped build Biloxi, telling the crowd, "Just call me A.J. Hollovich."