Rev. Joseph Mikulich, Confessor with Soft Touch

By Maya Suryaraman
San Jose Mercury News [California]
March 20, 2000

Not even failing health could stop the Rev. Joseph Mikulich from hearing the confessions of the parishioners at San Jose's Assumption of Mary Croatian Church.

Last year, after he reached the age of 101, he became too frail to climb the church's steps. So he began hearing confessions inside his small stucco house on the grounds.

In fact, Father Mikulich kept on hearing confessions nearly till his death last week, just shy of his 102nd birthday. With his nurse at his side, he stopped breathing Wednesday.

For the past 12 years, Father Mikulich was a retired priest in residence at Assumption of Mary, a Croatian Catholic church in San Jose's Willow Glen area. He said Mass at the church daily until last year, and heard confessions until about a month before his death.

"He thought it was the most important thing to say Mass and give confession," said Agnes Zammit, who helped care for Father Mikulich for the last six years. "He lived for that."

Parishioners said the Franciscan priest had a special gift for listening to people's transgressions in a way that made them feel remorse without condemnation.

"He made you feel God's mercy and love," Zammit said.

Father Mikulich was not one to simply go through the motions of confession, it was said. He listened patiently, and offered his wise counsel.

His touch was so gentle that the children of the parish often sought him out. And when they went to visit him, he would invariably pull a candy out of his carved wooden jar to offer them.

As much as he loved children, he also loved nature. At his small stucco house on the church grounds, he kept a bin of cracked corn, which he scattered for birds in his garden. Even feral cats befriended Father Mikulich and followed him around, Zammit said.

And he had a special passion for flowers, which he often grew by simply sticking some shoots in the ground. One spring two years ago, he sowed sunflower seeds all around his home. By summer, the house was surrounded by a dazzling display of 5-foot-tall sunflowers.

"It was so gorgeous, it was unreal," Zammit said.

Father Mikulich was born in Croatia in 1898, the ninth of 10 children in a peasant family. He entered the seminary when he was 11 years old, and was ordained in 1922.

After World War II, he fled Croatia, which had become part of Yugoslavia, to escape communism. After holding several positions in Catholic churches in California, he became the pastor of St. Stanislaus Church in Portland, Ore. When he arrived there, the Polish-American church only had five parishioners. But Father Mikulich built the parish into a thriving community.

"He saved their parish," said the Rev. Dujo Boban, pastor of Assumptionof Mary.

After retirement, Father Mikulich moved to San Jose in 1988, so that he could be a part of this area's large Croatian-American community.

"He wanted to be with his people," Boban said.

At Assumption of Mary, Father Mikulich was a beloved figure who was constantly blessing everyone. When his health prevented him from hearing confession in church, parishioners began lining up outside the door of his home to see him there.

"He was so pious and humble," said parishioner Mary Poell.

About a month ago, Father Mikulich's health began to deteriorate quickly. He lost his appetite and started shedding weight. Finally, on Wednesday, he stopped breathing.

Assumption of Mary will hold a Mass in his honor today at 7 p.m.

The Mass will be celebrated on the same day the church celebrates the Feast of St. Joseph, whose name Father Mikulich took when he entered the priesthood.

NOTES: The Rev. Joseph Mikulich

  • Born: April 3, 1898, in Prolozac, Croatia

  • Died: March 15, 2000, in San Jose

  • Survived by: Niece, Patricia Litaker of Oregon; and nephews, John Mikulich of Kansas City, Mo., and Zlatko Pulic of Germany.

  • Services: Mass at 7 p.m. today at Assumption of Mary Croatian Church, 901 Lincoln Ave., San Jose

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