Born in the city of Osijek in north eastern Croatia in 1991, Fr Luka Poljak’s arrival into the world was unforgettable for many reasons.
“I would say that my birth started with a bang,” he quipped, explaining that it coincided with the start of the Yugoslav wars.
“I was born in a hospital basement under heavy bombardment and at one point me and my mum were refugees in the capital city because my hometown was completely surrounded and under heavy siege.”
Fortunately, his father, who stayed to defend the city, was unharmed and four years later while the heartache of war lingered, the family joyously welcomed another son.
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Fr Luka, 32, said it had sparked an interest in history and the folk traditions of Croatia and Serbia, leading him to take up folk dancing, collect antiques and undertake academic research.
Following his ordination as a priest in 2019 he was delighted to spend some time as an assistant in the archives office in the diocese of Subotica, Serbia, taking on the task of digitising the old photographs and documents.
“That helped me nourish my thirst for history and get to know my diocese,” he said.
“I really love history and collecting antiques…at home my mother calls me the house hamster because I am always dragging antiques into the house – furniture, books, artwork.”
Describing his as a “traditional” Catholic upbringing in Croatia,
Fr Luka said he first felt called to the priesthood at the age of seven when he became an altar server.
“I had really good priests when I was a kid and they were great role models,” he said.
“Over the years I’ve encountered priests who would make you fall in love with the vocation.”
Attending a high school run by the Jesuits also helped form his faith and again he was influenced by them when he studied at their faculty of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Zagreb.
Eventually, however, he realised that being an Order priest wasn’t for him and joined the diocesan formation program, being ordained a priest on May 25 2019.
Adept in many languages, Fr Luka was duly appointed to serve as a parish priest in the Subotica diocese on the Serbian border with Hungary and Croatia.
“What attracted me to the diocese was its multiculturalism and it is very diverse,” he said. “Almost all parishes are multilingual which meant it was an opportunity for me to speak Hungarian as well as Croatian.”
Adding to his impressive list of languages, Fr Luka also speaks German, English, Italian and French, as well as some Finnish and Swedish thanks to his time spent as an exchange student in Finland.
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“I’m not perfectly fluent in all of those languages and it depends on the environment that I am surrounded by as to how easy it is to converse,” he explained.
“I like to say that God gave me the talent for languages but my parents recognised it and always pushed me towards expanding on those talents.”
As part of his vocation, Fr Luka has written columns for the Zvonik diocesan magazine and hosted a religious radio show. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a book for religious education that will be used in schools in Serbia. While waiting for his visa for his move to Australia, he also spent time in Paris as part of Croatian Catholic Mission.
Arriving in Adelaide in October, the outgoing priest said he was overwhelmed to receive a “beautiful warm welcome” at the airport from members of the local Croatian Catholic community – some dressed in national costume – and representatives from the Archdiocese.
Now, along with Sr Slavica Turcic and Sr Lily Muzic from the Adorers of the Blood of Christ congregation, Fr Luka begins the task of bringing together the local Catholic Croatian community.
“There is much work to do,” he said. “One of the main goals initially will be to get the community back together as they haven’t had a priest for several years so we need to find out what the current status is.”
He also hopes that between his priestly commitments he will find time to visit some of Adelaide’s historic sites and buildings, as well as keeping fit with daily visits to the nearby gym.