The bottles of slivovitz were empty by Sunday night behind St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Hermitage.

The pavilion was filled with people, some of whom had their fill of the potent plum-based potable, enjoying the church’s annual picnic.

It was time to party after a meal of roasted lamb and pogaca; a time to visit with family and friends and celebrate the heritage of the colorful culture they share.

It’s tough to sum up their story in a few sentences, John Kasich said.

“Being Serbian orthodox — it means our ethnic and religious identity,” Kasich, of Austintown, said.

He’s one of a score of Serbs from the Shenango and Mahoning valleys who worship and socialize at St. George’s. Originally in Farrell, the church is now on Keel Ridge Road in Hermitage. Tucked into a copse of trees behind the ornate church is a social pavilion and cooking area where Serbs gather.

In addition to succulent lamb roasted over hot coals and cut into pound-sized slabs, there were palachinke — a cheese filled crepe, ustipca — a cross between a donut and croissant, and a score of other treats in addition to the slivovitz and other liquid libation.

By then it was time to talk, dance and listen to the toe-tapping tunes of Orkestar Junaci, a Serbian band that features an accordion, guitar, bass and drums that belt out folk songs and contemporary tunes.

The families that filled the pavilion are part of one of the many ethnic groups who settled in the Shenango Valley to work in the steel mills.

Men like Gojko Grkinich, Dinitar Kolar, Milos Miodrag, Lalo Raketich and Djuro Jelic are octogenarians now, and before they were steelworkers they were freedom fighters during World War II.

“Those guys fought for democracy,” Kasich said, just like his late father did.

“I’m the son of a Chetnik,” he said, his eyes gleaming with pride.

Those who were called Chetniks revolted against the Communist regime of Tito in Yugoslavia, Kasich said. Serbs, he said, were persecuted for centuries prior to that and the Balkan peninsula the Serbs who settled here once called home remains in turmoil today.

Mile and Vesna Repaja are among those who fled the homeland in the 1990s when the war there escalated. They settled in Sharon with their 13-year-old daughter Svetlana.

Americans are more tolerant to others beliefs than the various ethnic and religious groups that have staked a claim in the Balkan peninsula, the Repajas said.

America is “lots good” Mrs. Repaja said.

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