The First Serbian Benevolent Society of San Francisco is the oldest Serbian organization in America. Founded in 1880, the FSBS was originally called the Serbian-Montenegrin Literary and Benevolent Society. It was organized to promote social and intellectual interchange, and establish a system of general philanthropy and benevolence for Serbian immigrant laborers toiling far from their homeland. The eight founding members were Antonije Vukasovich, Jovan Jovovich, Jovan Pavkovich, Krsto Gopcevich, Rade Begovich and Vladimir Jovovich, all from Boka Kotorska, George S. Martinovich from Montenegro, and Mikhail Rashkovich from Vojvodina. From these eight founders, the Serbian-Montenegrin Literary and Benevolent Society grew to a membership of three-hundred and four at the time of its twenty-fifth anniversary. In 1909, following the Annexation Crisis, it merged with the Serbian Benevolent Society “Zmaj” (organized 1904) and gained close to two-hundred additional members. On the eve of the First World War, the society numbered over six-hundred members. Before the formation of the new Yugoslav state in 1918, the society changed its name to the First Serbian Benevolent Society. In 1924, the Serbian-Montenegrin Society from Angels Camp, California, joined the First Serbian Benevolent Society. Today, with a membership well over three hundred, the FSBS remains the largest Serbian organization in California.
San Francisco was one of the earliest centers of Serbian immigration to North America. The first Serbian pioneers who settled in California came mainly from Boka Kotorska (the Bay of Kotor), the coastal region of present day Montenegro. Later, they were joined by Serbs from Hercegovina and, in smaller numbers, form other regions. The California Serbs played important roles in laying down the foundations of Serbian religious and cultural institutions in this country. Through the efforts of the Serbian-Montenegrin Literary and Benevolent Society, California became the birthplace of the first Serbian-American newspaper, the first Serbian Orthodox Church, and the first Serbian mutual-aid society in the United States.
The original immigrants flocked to the mining camps of California’s Mother Load and Nevada’s Bonanza towns. They worked as miners, and in the mining towns and in San Francisco, they established restaurants, coffee houses and saloons, and became prominent fruit and liquor merchants. Many Serb immigrants became fruit ranchers in the rich Santa Clara and San Joaquin Valleys. In more recent years, many Serbs have moved to California from the industrial parts of the United States, including the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Serbs also moved to California from the once thriving copper mining regions of Montana and Arizona. Five Serbian Orthodox Churches have been established in the San Francisco Bay Area. Serbian Orthodox Church communities also exist in Sacramento, Fresno, and Jackson. There are an additional seven Serbian Orthodox parishes in Southern California.
Today, the Serbian community, a mixture of American-born and immigrant, includes many doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, elected officials, judges, educators, scientists, businessmen and other individuals who have made broad contributions to the state and the nation. In the last three decades, the Society has made a strong move to regain our leadership position and establish a good reputation not only in our communities but also in our homeland. Several activities were re-activated or newly established such as “Dusan Silni”, “Junior Order”, the scholarship fund, celebration of our Krsna Slava, memorial services in Angels Camp, annual picnics, quarterly bulletins and upgrading of the cemetery operations.
In the past years, the FSBS scholarship fund has given close to 200 scholarships totaling approximately $500,000 to our members and their daughters. Some of the young men who received these scholarships now sit on the board of the society. The FSBS has donated generously to churches and cultural institutions. It has also maintained it’s tradition of relief activities for the homelands of its immigrant founders by dispatching funds for medical expenses and rebuilding following the devastating earthquake that hit the Montenegrin coast in 1979. More recently, the society has given aid to the refugees and children from Bosnia and Herzegovina, has helped to rebuild our churches here in the United States and in Belgrade, and has sent special scholarship funds to the children of the New York freemen and policemen who lost their lives during 9-11. These benevolent acts form a continuum of FSBS work that dates back to the Balkan Wars and the World Wars, when our members sent relief funds, ambulances and volunteers for Serbia and Montenegro.
There are not many institutions that can be as proud of their achievements for a period of 126 years as we are proud of the work of the FSBS. The credit for our achievements and existence in the first place belongs to our founders and older members who taught us how to stand up above personal interests and how to work in harmony for the benefit of the lodge and our greater community. Several times, political or religious differences were splitting our communities, but the society stood above all those problems and kept unity and harmony among members. As the oldest Serbian-Montenegrin organization in the USA, we have been an example and guideline for the many other Serbian institutions. The Society has been the most distinguished, not only because it was the first institution, but because of its commendable social, cultural and benevolent programs.
By joining the FSBS, all of us took responsibility to work towards a common goal, benevolence and prosperity of the lodge. We only get as much out of the lodge as we put into it.