Volume 40, No.2 - Summer 1994
Editor of this issue: Robert A. Vitas, Lithuanian Research & Studies Center 
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1994 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



On the day Lithuanians left the family cottage, they began to change. More than likely, it was the first time they saw a railroad station, a large city, a harbor, and an ocean-going vessel. Furthermore, while aboard ship, these Lithuanian immigrants began to hear unfamiliar languages. Already these adventurers were confronted with a touch of the multicultural world that awaited them in America, and they had to begin to adjust. The thought of going to America, the land of imagined gilded streets, nevertheless, helped to quell any fears or discomfort arising out of these new experiences.1

Lithuanians entered the United States through the ports of New York, Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. An awaited trusted relative or friend provided the newcomer with safe haven. Otherwise, dishonest greeters on the docks practiced their exploitive craft on unsuspecting newcomers. Those who were so victimized promptly got a taste of a darker side of America. They had not yet learned about recourse to the legal system and would scarcely have known where to turn for help in their plight.

After settling in the cheapest available boarding house, their first step was job-hunting. In the latter years of the 19th century, the United States held an open door to immigrant labor. The Industrial Revolution was underway. Beckoning were the railroads, coal mines, and steel mills of Pennsylvania, the textile factories and metal works of New England, and the slaughterhouses of Chicago graphically described in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. Generally speaking, except for prolonged labor disputes in the coal mines, Lithuanians elsewhere in their diaspora suffered only intermitten layoffs. For the first time in their lives, they were fingering cash in their pockets. These immigrants began to learn about paychecks, taxes, banking, loans, mortgages; and also about greedy employers, labor unions and strikes. Like other East European immigrants, Lithuanians had no vocabulary for notions such as "pay," "miner," or "boarding," so they quite naturally improvised "pėdė," "maineris," and the phrase "ant bordos."2 Right away they were becoming more American than they realized. In this process they could not help but compare this fresh experience with their different homeland and upbringing. In doing so they were simultaneously and gradually sensing an awareness of their Lithuanian identity.3

Invariably as soon as a handful of immigrants identified each other, they started a mutual-benefit society. These organizations multiplied rapidly, at first choosing a saint's name, always a male, e.g. Casimir, Joseph, John the Baptist, or Vincent. When immigrant women began coming to America, they adopted saints of their own gender, particularly Holy Mary and St. Anne. Still later, under secular and nationalistic influence, the immigrants honored medieval heroes and heroines such as: Vytautas, Algirdas, and Gediminas. Birutė was quite popular for women's groups, as were titles that included the word "Free" to express religious neutrality or freethinking leanings. In any case, the American freedom to associate helped to sharpen the immigrants' consciousness as to who they were.

Alongside their material needs of food and shelter, the newcomers gave priority to their spiritual requirements. The minority of Lithuanian Protestants turned to Lutheran neighbors in their German churches, and eventually established a small number of their own congregations such as those founded in Philadelphia and in Collinsville, Illinois, by the Evangelical minister. Pastor Martinas Keturakaitis. As to Lithuanian Jews, they tended to band together in synagogues where their common origin in Lithuania and Yiddish common speech served as a bridge.4 The Lithuanian majority was Roman Catholic, at least nominally so. The story of their struggle to establish their own parishes provides the perspective for this study on the immigrant in an American setting. Herein lies our inspection of several remarkable ways in which Lithuanians achieved identity by being more American than they realized.

* * *

In the United States, the immigrants gained such freedoms as that of association, religion, the press, and enterprise. In their homeland under Russia, Lithuanians scarcely enjoyed such guaranteed rights. The czarist government severely limited education, restricted the use of the Latin alphabet, and sought to enforce a Russian Orthodox version of Christianity. Economically the vast majority were limited to an unpromising rural livelihood. In contrast, arrival in America suddenly meant a marvelous inheritance of benefits and recognized rights. Lithuanian^ quickly discovered these rights and managed to exercise them with varying degrees of success.

What was the setting in which the immigrants pursued freedom of religion? Two acknowledged studies of prejudice establish intermittent outbreaks of anti-Catholicism throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Ray Billington's study called The Protestant Crusade (Chicago, 1938, 1964) and John Higham's monograph. Strangers in the Land (New York, 1975), document the often hostile environment that the host society provided for the likes of the Lithuanians and their fellow Catholics. Still as a barely known minority, Lithuanians as Lithuanians were seldom a specific target for hostility. When they suffered prejudice, they were lumped together with others in an umbrella phrase such as "Slavs," "Polocks" or "Hunkies." The more challenging Lithuanians' task was to find a niche within their own religious structure.

The Catholic Church had gone through periodic 19th century convulsions in the matter known as "Trusteeism." As far back as the early 1800s, virulent quarrels broke out among Irish, Germans, and French-Canadians over lay control of the financial and administrative aspects of parish life. Because the majority of bishops—either Irish-born or second-generation Irish—looked askance at lay participation represented by parish trustees, by the late 1880s, an independence movement among Poles was in the making in place like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Chicago.

Along came a swelling wave of determined Lithuanians, settling first in New York City, and soon after in Pennsylvania and later spreading to New England and westward to the Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit areas. In the beginning they gravitated to existing Polish parishes or else from the beginning formed joint parishes with the Poles. Such association was quite understandable. Lithuanians had grown up in a Church that was strongly Polish-oriented. Many Lithuanians understood Polish and some even spoke it better than their own language. At the same time, they had little consciousness of their own Lithuanian ethnicity. On immigration and census records, they described themselves as Poles and gave their homeland as Russia or Poland. In early partner parishes with Poles and even in their own parishes, Lithuanians initially designated their churches as "Polish" on official records. When Polish-Lithuanian quarrels erupted, their disputes often shifted to the county courthouse, according to the slogan, "When you cannot agree with your adversary, take him to court." Lithuanians quickly learned this lesson, flooding the judicial system with lawsuits. What could be more American? At the same time, by engaging in these quarrels, these immigrants were honoring their self-perception more and more markedly.

In numerous instances, the lay people organized a parish committee, chose a parish patron, conducted a fund drive, and purchased land for a place of worship. In a few instances, they even built a church, as happened in Ansonia, Connecticut and South Boston, Massachusetts. All this they accomplished on their own initiative. Only then did they approach the local bishop to appoint a resident priest. Typically the diocesan head faced two vexing problems. There were few suitable and available Lithuanian-speaking priests. Moreover church policy required the bishop to control the parish property. This was done by one of two legal devices. A parish might be chartered in the name of five incorporators: bishop, vicar general, pastor, and two lay trustees; or, the parish might be in the hands of the bishop as "Corporation Sole"—a legal fiction by which ownership rests in the position of the bishop, whoever he might be.

Such protocol bewildered most immigrants. Furthermore, emerging Lithuanian socialists and freethinkers taunted their fellow countrymen for giving away their hard-earned real estate to the Irish bishop, stressing his ethnic roots in place of his religious office. Pennsylvania became a battleground among pastors, people, and church superiors.

Even after parishioners were persuaded in most cases to comply, the continuing parish committee sought to dictate parish policy. Often the laity paid the pastor his monthly salary; set down fees for baptisms, marriages, and funerals, and specified salary and work conditions for organists and housekeepers. Pastors almost always resisted such intrusion as unwarranted interference or resignedly tolerated it. Few heeded the admonition of Fr. Aleksandras Burba when he warned his brother clery in 1895: "Every Lithuanian priest must share administration with a committee elected by the people..."5

Pastor-parishioner tension not infrequently characterized life in the early years of a parish. In many cases, the disputes spilled over into the courts, lasting for months, or even years. St. George Parish in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, witnessed a legal skirmish that lasted for decades, filling hundreds of pages in court records. At St. George in Chicago, litigation against Fr. Matas Kriaučiūnas consumed some 500 pages in the 1900 book Istorija Chicagos Lietuvių.

When positions became hardened and then irreversible, lay insurgents, together with their Polish neighbors, struck out on their own, independently of the local bishop. One notes such endeavors in the 1900s at Shenandoah and Dubois in Pennsylvania, and at Harrisburg and Dorrisville in Illinois. In the second decade of this century, other dissident bodies emerged in the Town of Lake and Bridgeport sectors of Chicago. Nor did the notion of independence easily die out. In the 1920s and beyond, Pennsylvania separations occurred in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre, with another Illinois instance in Westville. These break-away groups took shape within the framework and protection of civil law.

In the long run, the religious separatist movement among Lithuanians failed. Nevertheless, a study of this phenomenon shows that there were at least 15 Lithuanian independent parishes of varying lifespans. To this day there are surviving separatist parishes of the Sacred Heart in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Providence of God in Scranton, Pennsylvania— both under the authority of the Polish National Catholic Church. In all of these instances, with their own Roman church against it, the dissidents were clearly exercising the kind of enterprise and free speech allowed in civic affairs. They were more aggressive than their more deferential relatives back in the homeland. In taking the initiative in their religious life and invoking the aid of civil law, the immigrants were acting more American than they realized. Again, this kind of activity illumined their Lithuanianism.6

Separatists were not the only ones who sensed an ally in the arm of legal power. Devout churchgoers could also look to the government to protect their creed as two fascinating and rare cases in the history of law illustrate. Immediately, both stories became regional if not national sensations. The central figures were defendants Mykolas X. Mockus and Anthony Bimba. Mockus mocked religious beliefs wherever he traveled. In contrast, Bimba was a committed Marxist who linked religion and capitalism as the enemies of labor while on his speaking tours. Mockus familiarized himself with the bible at a Protestant seminary in Fairmont, Ohio, and then made a career of ridiculing religious tenets. He would show lantern slides of famous sacred paintings, only to proceed to mock the truths they expressed. He began his controversial career in Detroit in 1908. In the heydey of socialism and freethinking among Lithuanians, Mockus embarked on lengthy speaking tours during World War I. For more than a decade he moved about from one immigrant enclave to another whenever a socialist or freethinker chapter invited him. In some cases, Catholics successfully blocked his lectures by recourse to Irish Catholic officials. Speaking without a permit, disturbing the peace, prevention of violence, inciting to anarchy—these were some of the excuses a mayor or police chief would use.

Most of the time, the popular Mockus managed to draw large crowds, and did proceed to give his talks. Meanwhile, churchgoers, especially the Knights of Lithuania, sought to disrupt his disturbing talks with catcalls, foot-stamping, stink bombs, and even threats of violence. When Catholics took legal action, Mockus usually escaped punishment on the basis of free speech. Nevertheless, his string of legal successes finally snapped in 1919 at the immigrant community of Rumford, Maine, that did not even house a Lithuanian parish. Mockus was arrested for blasphemy and found guilty. Despite his appeal to the Maine Supreme Court, the judges upheld the lower court decision. Mockus faced one to two years in state prison. So, for some unknown reason, he chose to escape to Mexico rather than to nearby Canada, for a five-year self-imposed exile. From there he wrote to Lithuanian newspapers in America, seeking financial help to pay his lawyers, while offering literature for sale. On return to the Chicago area, he eventually faded from the public eye and died in Oak Forest, Illinois, in 1939, a hero to the freethinkers.7

On the heels of the Mockus case, there came the Bimba trial six years later, also in New England—this time in the shoe city of Brockton, Massachusetts. One of two feuding local factions capitalized on a typical Bimba speech at the local Lithuanian Hall. The next morning two churchgoers filed charges of blasphemy and spiced up the complaint with an accusation of sedition. The colorful though slow-paced trial required the use of interpreters, providing reporters with abundant copy for their stories. The District Court judge found Bimba innocent of blasphemy, but slapped the defendant's wrist with a $100 fine for sedition. Needless to say, Bimba appealed the verdict to Superior Court in Plymouth, Massachusetts, There a year later, the District Attorney's Office squelched the matter. In the attorney's nolle prosequi ruling, he decided that the evidence was conflicting, and that nothing useful could come from further pursuit of the dispute.8

Recourse to the court system against both Mockus and Bimba dramatically shows that the immigrants understood and appreciated the legal system of their adopted country. Once more they were acting more American than they realized, while protecting their religious values as Lithuanians.

Beside constant attention to religious creed, indifference or hostility to it, Lithuanians needed something more in order to link together their extensive diaspora. In this regard, another facet of American life that charmed Lithuanians was freedom of the press. Thousands had left their homeland during the czarist Press Ban of 1864 to 1904. Literate Lithuanians cherished contraband prayer books and nationalistic publications in their own language as one would cling to a winning lottery ticket. Here in the United States, the immigrants could use the press to foster rising nationalism, promote or attack religion, propagate socialism, freethinking, and later communism.

Many idealists plunged into publishing, despite little or no practical expertise in writing, marketing, or advertising. Expectedly, the majority of publications failed after a limited lifespan. Even so, an astonishing number of newspapers and magazines sprang up in an attempt to practice fully this newly-acquired American freedom. To measure the extent of the immigrant press, one can cull statistics from a bibliographical masterpiece published in Kaunas in 1991.9 Therein one finds descriptions of as many as 143 publications originating in Chicago alone. Figures for other large settlements include: New York City—48; Brooklyn—47; Boston—44; Philadelphia—29; Cleveland—21. Altogether, Pennsylvania accounts for 74 publications. Let me name a few.

Begun in 1886, Vienybė Lietuvninkų (later shortened to Vienybė) became the longest running newspaper. The socialist Keleivis (1905-79), communist Laisvė (1905-1973) and communist Vilnis (1920-89) of Chicago also enjoyed lengthy lives. In the early history of Lithuanian journalism, leftists and freethinkers chiefly led the way from 1879. Only in ensuing decades did Catholics, especially the clergy, manage to take the offensive. In the 1890s, one finds examples of individual initiative in Fr. Aleksandras Burba's weekly Valtis with its Sunday Scripture readings, and in Fr. Juozas Žebris' weekly Rytas. The controversial Fr. Antanas Milukas deserves credit for the most prolific output.10 He published his magazine Žvaigždė for nearly 40 years, while pouring out several hundred booklets, almanacs, and chronicles. Only in 1909 did Catholics produce a permanent newspaper of greater frequency. In that year, the revived Priests' League succeeded in launching Draugas (Chicago-based since 1912, and now under the authority of the Marian Fathers) so familiar to Lithuanians everywhere. Darbininkas in the east began in 1915, and continues to this day in the hands of the Franciscan Fathers.

A most helpful feature common to these warring newspapers was their "Review" column in which they quoted, attacked, and answered each other. Through extensive use of freedom of the press, all bickering factions could air their viewpoints and plead their causes. Was this not typically American? Again, the Lithuanian immigrants were acting more American than they realized, and in doing so were enhancing their ethnic identity.

When they took time out from arguing with each other, Lithuanian antagonists found common ground in exercising the bonus of free enterprise. Bear in mind that to a great extent, educated Lithuanians were temperamentally more oriented to service careers and professions. Still, in every immigrant community there was a small handful of entrepreneurial bent. Historian and emigre of World War II, Vincentas Liulevičius of Chicago, has enriched our knowledge of such undertakings by compiling a volume called Amerikos Lietuvių ekonominė veikla [Economic Activity of Lithuanians in America] (Chicago 1980). All Lithuanian colonies supported more than a few saloons and undertakers, alongside travel. agents, grocers, tailors, barbers, and bakers to supply the much-sought European rye bread. Most settlements attempted to set up cooperatives, though with modest success as described in Fr. Fabijonas Kemėšis' doctoral dissertation of 1924 prepared at Catholic University.11 In larger cities one finds more ambitious immigrants founding money-lending institutions such as the Kestutis Loan and Building Association of 1897 in Chicago; or the Plymouth-Chrysler Balzekas Motor Sales, of which the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture is a beneficiary. Using their American freedom to plunge into business, these immigrants catered especially to their fellow countrymen who could supply their material needs in a Lithuanian atmosphere.

Curiously and perhaps strange to us in retrospect, even a few of the clergy did not hesitate to engage in one or another entrepreneurial venture. The New England pioneer priest, Fr. Juozas Žebris, advised readers in his newspaper Rytas on starting cooperatives. When he personally failed in obtaining investors in a farm and bakery, he took on these ventures by himself, using personal funds. Through these undertakings, he furnished jobs for fellow Lithuanians, and provided food at little or no cost to indigent Lithuanians. 12

In the early 1900s at Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, Fr. Simonas Pautienius started the Merchant Banking Trust Company, organized an electric company, and opened a butcher shop within a block of a Lithuanian competitor, whom the pastor supposedly attacked from the pulpit. In a later Pennsylvania assignment. Father Pautienius also organized the Shenandoah Trust Company. His goal was to aid parishioners and other fellow Lithuanians in more easily obtaining loans. Fr. Aleksandras Skripka joined with others at Chicago in 1905 to form a clothing and furniture cooperative.

Several priests owned and operated their own printshops to provide prayerbooks and other devotional literature, to promote religious beliefs and practices, and furnish societies with the text of their bylaws. Besides printers Fathers Žebris and Milukas, Fr. Baltramejus Žindžikus of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1898 bought out a printshop in Minersville, Pennsylvania, and transferred the equipment to his parish to continue publishing the newspaper Garsas Amerikos Lietuvių.

In addition to these examples, some clergy, like Fr. Juozas Lietuvinkas of St. Alphonsus in Baltimore, acted as private bankers, holding large sums of money for parishioners. Pastors also frequently borrowed funds from individuals and societies to build churches and rectories. All these enterprises with their inherent risks showed Lithuanians displaying typical qualities of American initiative and free enterprise. Once more, the Lithuanians were acting more American than they realized. Such endeavors were quite in keeping with the American way of business opportunity that allowed these entrepreneurs to express their Lithuanian spirit.

Allow a few final examples, little-known to the general public. Another way to strengthen the faith of one's flock and to maintain Lithuanianism would be the establishment of a secluded colony. Such colonization projects were commonly attempted among most immigrant groups, though practically all of them failed. One such Lithuanian Utopian venture dates from 1895 when Fr. Petras Abromaitis of Shenandoah bought several thousand acres of land near the Morattico River in Virginia, hoping to create a settlement of 15,000 fellow Lithuanians, complete with church and monastery. (A generation earlier in 1854, Polish Silesians set up a Texas colony in what came to be called Pana Maria, though with limited success.)

Then too there were real estate speculators who gambled on luring Lithuanian immigrants from urban Chicago to settle in the prairies of Arkansas. By January of 1895, the first Lithuanian colony bearing the name "Lietuva" took temporary root in the town of Hazen where 10 families relocated, and another 24 households had bought property at $6 to $8 an acre. Fr. Jonas Balsevičius ministered briefly to this immigrant cluster of farmers in the diocese of Little Rock.

In review, one can catalogue the factors that influenced and molded the immigrants into new persons starting on the very day of departure from their birthplace village. While growing up, native Lithuanians had no sharp sense of being Lithuanian. Rather there was simply an awareness of being a country person. Beyond that, these natives sensed living under czarist authority in the midst of a strong Polish atmosphere. This consciousness clearly reflected in replies given to immigration and municipal officials at the time of entry into the United States and on occasions such as obtaining a wedding license and incorporating a church. Ethnic and nationalistic sentiments gradually emerged and became clearly pronounced only in this transplanted life across the ocean.

In America the immigrants encountered a way of life almost entirely foreign to them, both literally and figuratively. They enjoyed a repertoire of freedoms, rights, and privileges unheard of in their homeland. These benefits they incorporated in their daily lives, finding and keeping a job, joining a mutual-aid society, and founding a parish. They did not hesitate to turn to the legal system with its civil power to determine their stake in the practice of religion and to settle personal and organizational disputes. They embarked on an astonishing array of publications to voice their ideological views. At the same time, immigrant newspapers summarized events in America and abroad. The papers also provided an arena for personal search notices for relatives and spouses, warnings about delinquent boarders, thieves and straying husbands and wives. Finally, a small army of merchants sprang up, catering to the daily needs of their countrymen.

Within the sinews of the immigrants, there was at work the complex processes that sociologists label assimilation and acculturation. A variety of differences and strange customs in this land compelled the immigrants to make comparisons that awakened an awareness of Lithuanian identity. They necessarily mingled with other immigrant groups, at least in the workplace and often in the saloons. Meanwhile, they deliberately chose to congregate among themselves in their own neighborhoods, societies, and churches. This dual phenomenon of mixing and staying apart provoked the stirrings of Lithuanianism. The Lithuanians did not reproduce village life here in America. Rather they salvaged essential elements of that homeland upbringing, and blended them with plainly American ways that gave rise to a new creature, i.e., a Lithuanian American. Such a one became consciously Lithuanian by becoming an American.


1 For a composite of a typical immigrant see Oscar Handlin's Pulitzer Prize essay. The Uprooted, (New York), 1951). David Fainhauz, Lithuanians in the USA: Aspects of Identity (Chicago, Lithuanian Library Press, 1991) provides invaluable insights into the process of immigrant adjustment.
2 A similar linguistic experience is described in Thomas A. Michalski's doctoral dissertation, "A Social History of Yugoslav Immigrants in Tonopah and White Pine, Nevada," State University of New York at Buffalo, 1983.
3 Little has been written about Lithuanians in the labor movement. Scattered data is found in Victor Greene's monograph. The Slavic Community on Strike: Immigrant Labor in Pennsylvania Anthracite, (Notre Dame, 1968).
4 E.g., see Michael R. Weisser, Brotherhood of Memory: Jewish Landsmanshaften in the New World, (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
5 Valtis, April 3, 1895.
6 See William Wolkovich-Valkavičikus, "Religious Separatism Among Lithuanian Immigrants in the United States and Their Polish Affiliation," Polish American Studies, Autumn 1983. Such a separatist movement could not have occurred within the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania itself.
7 On Mockus, see Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred from Moses to Salmon Rushdie, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), pp. 512-16.
8 On Bimba see William Wolkovich, Bay State "Blue Laws" and Bimba, (Brockton and Sandwich, MA, 1973). The Mockus and Bimba trials are compared in William Wolkovich- Valkavičius, "Two Lithuanian Immigrant Blasphemy Trials During the Red Scare," paper at American Catholic Historical Association spring meeting, Boston College, April 3, 1981.
9 Julius Tamošiūnas, Lietuviškų periodinių leidinių bibliografija (Kaunas, 1991).
10 Vladas Mingėla, Kunigas Antanas Milukas: ]o gyvenimas ir darbai, (Detroit, 1962) lists 190 titles. 
11 Fabian S. Kemesis, Cooperation Among the Lithuanian Immigrants in the United States of America, (Washington, D.C., 1924). 
12 For details of this extraordinary pastor, see William Wolkovich-Valkavičius, Lithuanian Pioneer Priest of New England, the Life, Struggles, and Tragic Death of Rev. Joseph Žebris, 1860-1915 (Brooklyn, NY: Franciscan Press, 1980).