The 97-year-old priest in the white chasuble with an embroidered cross on the front approached the wood lectern with short steps. By his side was the chaplain of Nazareth House, Trinitarian Father Frank Whatley. Normally because of his balance problem and poor eyesight, Msgr. Felix Diomartich would concelebrate the daily morning Mass sitting down. But August 8 was the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and there was no way he wasn’t going to be up on his feet celebrating the liturgy.Looking out at 30 or more members of the congregation, including three priests in wheelchairs, he first spoke movingly about the country of his birth, Croatia, on the beautiful Adriatic Sea. “Little did I ever think that from those shores on the little Adriatic I would come to the big shores here,” he said. “But God’s providence is strange. You never know how it’s working. So I’ve been able to minister here, and I’m grateful to all those who helped me.”After a moment, he continued, in a different tone: “Death will come always. But it is not as difficult as some people believe. Here I am in this country. I’m walking into a sunset, and it’s going to be the sunset in my life. I’m looking to the sunset, but with your prayers and help I’ll be looking more towards a sunrise with the Lord.” Long life of ministryAs a boy growing up in a land that had been part of the Austrian/Hungarian Empire, Felix saw many beautiful sunsets and sunrises. Centuries before that, however, Croatia had been part of the Roman Empire and home of the Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians during his reign from 284 to 303 A.D. One day, when Felix was just finishing grammar school, a priest his family knew asked, “Would you like to go to the seminary?”The adolescent said, “I would.”And those two words would set the course for a long life of service and ministry. After finishing the Theological Seminary at Split and further studies at the University of Zagreb, he was ordained in 1937. For a year, he served as an assistant pastor and then was appointed secretary to his bishop. Meanwhile, World War II had broken out in Europe. After the war, the Communists took over the region and Croatia became a federal constituent of Yugoslavia. His brother, Bruno, was killed and his mother and two sisters barely escaped with their lives. But the young Father Diomartich had impressed his superiors so much that they’d sent him off to Rome to earn a doctorate in Sacred Theology and Canon Law at the prestigious Gregorian University. The seven years he spent in the Eternal City was providential in many ways, not the least of them meeting Msgr. James Francis McIntyre, a priest (and later auxiliary bishop) of the New York Archdiocese. In 1947, Bishop McIntyre invited the priest to come to New York to serve at a Croatian church. “I didn’t really want to come because I didn’t know much about this country, and I was scared to come,” Msgr. Diomartich admitted. “I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anything.”But the 36-year-old priest did come. Three years later, after the New York auxiliary had become Archbishop McIntyre of Los Angeles, he asked Father Diomartich to come west, which he did, becoming the administrator and later pastor of St. Anthony Church on the corner of Alpine Street and Grand Avenue on the edge of Chinatown.“When I came in 1950, you know, old-timers were still living in the neighborhood, and there was another group of Croatians in East Los Angeles and a third group down by the Coliseum and west section,” Msgr. Diomartich recalled of the ethnic church established in 1909. “Of course, the group was concentrated in San Pedro, but they were served by Mary Star of the Sea Parish. Our problem then and now is that our churchgoers were scattered 50 miles one way and 30 miles the other way, from Orange County, which was part of the archdiocese then, way up to Santa Barbara. “Because it was, and still is, a territorial parish,” he explained. “And when they needed some priest, they would call me. So I’d go from 10 in the morning to after midnight, making visits and sick calls. They were all over and this is why it’s a difficult pastoral problem for the priest. I learned about Los Angeles quickly,” he added with a laugh. “It wasn’t my doing to live this long or to be a priest for 75 years. It was given to me.”uring his 36 years at St. Anthony’s, more and more Croatians moved away from the urban parish, but they still came back on Sundays, especially for Christmas and Easter, and for baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. “I was happy, but there was pressure on me being alone,” acknowledged the priest. “The people would come to me with their problems and concerns.” Somehow, he also found time to work in the Marriage Tribunal as an advocate, serve as Episcopal Vicar for Multilingual Ministry plus being named to the board of consultors by Cardinal Timothy Manning. In addition, he organized the annual Mass for Migrants in St. Vibiana’s Cathedral. Pope Paul VI honored him in 1978 by naming him a prelate of honor (monsignor). Love of languageBut the joys always outweighed the challenges for the foreign-born cleric at St. Anthony’s. It may have been a “scattered” parish, but there was also a real sense of closeness among the people and their priest.“Well, it is your own people, your own culture, your own language and history,” Msgr. Diomartich explained. “The Croatian people brought their Catholic faith here. They built their own new church, and it wasn’t easy to raise money back then in 1930. So there were these joys of ministering to my people.“God gave them that language, so they loved to talk from their hearts and with their own words. And they were far away from their homeland. Even those who learned English, whenever they talked to me in confession and counseling as well as our prayers, it’s not so easy as in your own mother language. The younger ones spoke English, but the older ones preferred Croatian. So you needed both, otherwise you couldn’t be fully useful.”In 1986, at the age of 72, Msgr. Diomartich retired, partly because of health reasons. For a number of years, he lived in St. Anthony’s rectory, continuing to help out pastorally by celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing babies and presiding at funerals. Four years ago he moved into Nazareth House in West Los Angeles. Although he no longer drives, he still does funerals for old friends at the church near Chinatown. And at his new assisted-living home, he concelebrates the morning Mass with some of the other priests who reside at the retirement home along with more than 100 lay men and women. ‘Life goes on’After the Aug. 8 jubilee Mass was over, the priest took some time in the chapel’s sacristy to reflect back on the day 75 years ago a Croatian bishop came to the island of Zlarin to ordain him.“There were five or six priests, and the church was packed with people — for just me and myself and nobody else,” he said with a semi-mischievous smile. “Of course I was nervous: ‘Should I move this way, that way?’ But then I had these other priests, like Father Frank today, who helped me out and showed me where to go. Then after, I went to talk to the people. And only later did I fully realize what that ordination meant.”About being a priest for three-quarters of a century plus living to be 97, Father Diomartich mused, “I never thought I would live this long. My mother always told me, ‘You’ll die young.’ But she lived to be 100.”And he laughed out loud.“What can I say?” the priest said with a shrug. “It wasn’t my doing to live this long or to be a priest for 75 years. It was given to me. So I only want to give thanks to the Lord for his goodness. Life goes on and we often worry what the future will be. Little by little, you’re prepared for what happens, until you come to the sunset years. But behind that is the sunrise.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0817/frfelix/{/gallery}