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Brother Gabriel Balazovic

   

Brother Gabriel Balazovic Oral HistoryBrother Gabriel Balazovic (born Julián Balažovič), 1949

Brother Gabriel Balazovic was born Julián Balažovič in Dolná Krupá, Slovakia, in 1949. His father worked as a forest ranger and then in a facility for the mentally ill, while his mother stayed at home and raised Julián and his six siblings. Upon finishing school in Dolná Krupá, Julián attended Pol’nohospodárska záhradnícka škola (where he trained to become a gardener) in Rakovice. In 1967, he was invited alongside two of his cousins to visit his aunt Mary who lived in Toronto. He accepted her invitation and came to Canada, where he was impressed by the standard of living and decided to stay. Brother Gabriel says he was handed a ten-month prison sentence in absentia for failing to return to Czechoslovakia. In Toronto, he became a very active member of Sts. Cyril & Methodius Slovak Roman Catholic Church, to which his aunt belonged. He says that he enjoyed a busy social life as a member of the parish, attending dances and soccer matches which were organized by the predominantly Slovak congregation. He began to do a lot of singing and reading within the parish, and he met one nun in particular who spoke with him about the possibility of joining a monastic order. At this time, Brother Gabriel says he also subscribed to the Slovak-American magazine Ave Maria, which was published in Cleveland.

 

It was during a trip to the United States in the late 1970s that Brother Gabriel says he first thought seriously about becoming a monk. He was traveling to a conference when he stopped at the Czech monastery in Lisle, Illinois. There, he says, he heard the monks sing vespers which had a profound effect on him. He was told by a priest traveling with him that there was a Slovak monastery in Cleveland which he may be able to join. After a number of discussions with members of the Benedictine Monastery at St. Andrew Abbey in Cleveland, Ohio, Brother Gabriel did indeed begin the process of taking his vows in 1980. He has lived there and been a member of the order ever since. He returned to Slovakia for the first time to see his family after the fall of communism in 1989. In more recent years, he has traveled to Slovakia to help with the opening of the Benedictine Transfiguration Monastery in Sampor in 2010. Brother Gabriel still travels on a Canadian passport, but became a dual citizen of Canada and Slovakia following the Velvet Revolution.

Brother Gabriel remembers his schooling in Dolná Krupá

“We were never told the right history, for example, the history of the First Slovak Republic. That was completely wiped out from history. I never knew that we had a Slovak flag, Slovak emblem, Slovak national anthem and all that until I came to Canada. So that was kind of blocked out from the younger generation. And I think that’s sad, because history is history and should be taught as history was and is going and so forth. Because you cannot wipe that out. Sooner or later that registers somewhere.

“But as I kid I did not [notice this], the only thing at times that I would here was if a young man or a woman wanted to go to study university and have a good position, then they had to deny their religion. If they didn’t, then they were not allowed to go to those schools. Or in one case that I know, one of my cousins, he finished his university in ten years, by [studying] in the evenings or something like that, and in some cases even grandparents would have to deny the religion, not only the parents. So, that would be the oppression, I would say. Sometimes that would come up from the kids, like when there was the feast of St Nicholas, Svätého Mikuláša, they usually had their shoes out, clean and all that but you didn’t talk with the teacher about it. Nothing about religion. If something came up, it was like ‘stop talking about it.’”

He then went to Rakovice to study gardening

“As a kid, I always was in the garden, and then when my mother, God rest her soul, was able to come here for the first time, then she even told me that the neighbors, the ladies, when they used to go to the forest to get some sticks for the stove to burn, she says that I was always in the garden weeding out. And the ladies were surprised, they said ‘How come you leave him in the garden, doesn’t he pull out the good with the bad?’ But I seemed to know what to leave and what to pull out. And the lady across the street, she used to bring her pot, soil and cuttings and she said ‘You plant that for me, because it looks like it will grow for you but not for me.’ I always liked to make bouquets and decorations for some reason, so…”  

Brother Gabriel came to Canada in 1967

“Once we tasted life in Canada and saw everything in the stores, and the cars and you name it… Of course, for an 18-year-old, the cars were a big thing. The first thing I thought was ‘I will never learn how to drive here!’ Because there were so many cars, big roads, the number of lanes on the highways and stuff. And I said ‘oh my God!’ You know, back home, when I left as an 18 year old, I think there were maybe two cars or three cars, everybody else had bicycles. But it wasn’t that… we always had food back home, and clothes. We were not rich, but we were living.” 

Brother Gabriel discusses what made him decide to stay in Canada

“I think when we came in, in ’67, and got busy with going to English school, then came ’68 and Dubček and a little bit more freedom, and more people were coming, younger, you know. Our age or a little bit older maybe, and so forth. So you had a good number of people who came to Toronto for example. So you got involved with them trying to help them out. There were different organizations, so we used to go almost every Saturday to dances for example. In summertime after mass we went to a farm, soccer, singing and stuff. So we kind of didn’t think about anything at that point. We were just enjoying the freedom and the new way of living. That’s what I would say.”

Brother Gabriel first thought of becoming a monk on a visit to the Czech monastery in Lisle, Illinois

“The monks were singing their vespers and it just came out from me, I have no clue why – I said ‘This would be something for me!’ Crazy! So monsignor said ‘Well, we’ve got the Slovak monks in Cleveland. And I have a number of priests that I know.’ And, he said ‘We can go and visit.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, okay.’ And that was the end of that. But his friends used to come to Toronto, because he had a cottage and they used to spend some vacations there, so I used to join them the last week of their vacation. And then one of them from Cleveland for some reason said… and he brought me an application to the monastery here one year, and I looked at it and I just threw it in the garbage. So the following year he said ‘What’s the matter? You chicken?’ He said ‘You can come and visit at least?’ So I said ‘Okay.’ So that year we came and I spent about three days with the monks here. And I said ‘Gee! I think I would like it, maybe.’ And so, they told me to come again for a visit and so I came again for a visit, and that’s how I came actually to the monastery in 1980.”

He returned to see his family in Slovakia for the first time after the fall of communism

“I would say as you are staying longer in a country, you grow more into the country you are living in. But, in your heart, when it is Christmas, Easter, or some other doings, obviously, you miss your parents and your brothers, especially when you are not able to go back. The first time I went back was after the collapse of communism. That was my first time going back. So by that time, both parents were gone, two of my brothers were deceased, even our parents’ house was sold because my brothers were living in other villages. And so when I came, it wasn’t home. I fell in love with my sister-in-law, whom I met for the first time and their kids. And [they were] of course very welcoming, and I felt like I was back at home again, but it’s not the family home in which you’ve grown up. So, we went there to visit the family that bought it, but they were in the process of remodeling, so they had windows where all the doors had been and it looked like after the War!”

Category: Cleveland, Oral History