Emily Novak made a video to help orphans half a world away. This summer, she got a chance to meet them.
by Joe Bollig
As anyone who’s ever tried a slice of the rich, nutty delicacy knows, a little povitica can go a long way.
But seldom have some loaves baked on Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kan., nourished people half a world away.
That’s exactly what happened, however, when St. John the Baptist parishioner Emily Novak put her povi-making skills to the test and at the request of Don Wolf, helped make an instructional video on how to make the Croatian treat.
Wolf, also originally from “the Hill,” although now a parishioner of Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Kan., packaged the video (and later a DVD) and sold it to benefit two orphanages in Croatia.
This past June, the 84-year-old Novak was able to witness the fruits of her baking labors when she traveled to Croatia to meet the children of that and a second orphanage, and the Sisters who care for them.
“[The orphans] just loved her,” said Wolf, a photographer, who made the June 5-18 trip with Novak, her son Charles, and Al Janes from Overland Park. “They laughed and hugged her. These kids really need hugs. They are so full of life and hugs. It was really hard to leave them.”
The generous hugs from the orphans at St. Theresa’s Orphanage in Zagreb and St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Leskovac, Croatia, matched the generosity of Novak, Wolf, and the others who made the video. Since 1993, when it was made,sales of the video have resulted in approximately $43,000 in donations to the orphanages.
The steady sales of the video testify not only to a desire to help the orphans, but also to the popularity of povitica.
Povitica is a dessert bread containing swirled,sweet layers of filling, traditionally composed of walnuts, cinnamon, honey, and other delectable ingredients. Immigrants from Croatia brought the recipe to Kansas City, Kan., just before the beginning of the 20th century. For many Croatian families, no special occasion would be complete without a plump loaf of the bread that made the ethnic Strawberry Hill neighborhood famous.
Emily Novak learned to make povitica the same way she learned to speak Croatian — from her family, as she grew up. The recipe was more art than science, however.
“When my mother and grandmother made povitica, they did a little of this and a little of that,” she said. “They didn’t have a scale, or measure and weigh, or anything like that.”
When it came to recreating the traditional recipe, Emily had to experiment until she produced something that agreed with her taste buds and memories. Judging by the sales of the videos,she got the recipe just right.
She might have never seen the impact of those povitica videos had not her son Charles Novak urged her to visit Croatia. He especially wanted her to see Gerovo, the village where their ancestors came from, and the two orphanages his mother had helped.
“I went [to Croatia] last year on my own, because I wanted to see where my grandparents came from,” said Charles. “And so this year, I wanted to go back with Mom because I met up with relatives we’ve been in contact with in the past by mail.”
The visits to the two orphanages were certainly among the highlights of Emily’s visit. Since she spoke Croatian,she was able to interact a bit with both the children and the nuns, who areDiscalced Carmelites.
“The nuns knew that my mom had helpedDon Wolf in his efforts to raise money for them,” said Charles.
“They were very warm [to my mom],” he added. “They’d talk about just everything.” “When they came to dinner, Emily would sit and not eat because she was talking to the nuns,” added Al Janes, a member of Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, Kan. “We’d be done eating, and she’d have half her food on her plate!”
The nuns complimented Emily on her Croatian, although some of them took the opportunity to try out their English on the Americans.
Emily was particularly impressed by the joy the nuns found in their care of the orphans, despite the paucity of resources and the difficult living conditions.
“It was very heartwarming to see the Sisters at their work, and how happy they were in what they were doing,” said Emily. “That to me is very important.”
“Anything else we could do to help them financially would be something they would be forever grateful for, because when they started out they didn’t have hardly anything.”
If the Sisters welcomed her with open arms, Emily found herself to be an even bigger hit with the kids.
“The kids just gravitated to her,” said Al. Charles agreed.
“She was like a little, grandmotherly figure [to them],” he confirmed.
St. Theresa’s Orphanage— for children under nine—is in relatively good shape now, although it still has issues. Funds raised with the povitica videos have provided a new roof, flooring, and plumbing, as well as washers and dryers.
St. Joseph Orphanage, on the other hand, which is for children ages nine to 19, is in terrible shape. The building, which was a cowshed before it became an orphanage in 1917, has mold and fungus problems. The children get water from a neighboring house by forming a bucket brigade.
Neither of the orphanages could exist, much less make improvements, without outside help. The government of Croatia offers more help to state-sponsored entities than to those run by churches.
“I’m continually begging for funds,” admittedDon, who has initiated many fundraising efforts for the orphanages in the past.
Fortunately, the povi-making videos have struck a sweet spot with those addicted to the taste of Old Croatia, and funds from those video sales are building a future for the youth of a New Croatia. Any way you slice it, it doesn’t get much sweeter than that.