Volume 44, No.2 - Summer 1998
Editor of this issue: Robertas Vitas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



Separation of Church and State has been one of the enduring and vexing chapters of politics in the United States. The twentieth century emergence of a variety of church minorities and assorted non-believers has constantly questioned a monolithic Christian religious underpinning to the government. In the last decade of this century, the three newly-freed Baltic nations may well benefit from the complex US. experience as they face their own distinct challenge of coping with minorities among their citizens.

The perennial issue of the Church-State variant - the connection between religion and ethnicity - has long perplexed émigrés to North America. For instance, the lack of an explicit mention of the Supreme Being in the Lithuanian national anthem has provoked a periodically recurring debate. Indeed, this delicate matter of God and Caesar has surfaced anew for Lithuanians. An anonymous woman's letter resurrected the question in the Canadian Catholic weekly, Tėviškės Žiburiai, in 1991, provoking a flurry of responses.1

A similar enigma about the wisdom of mixing prayer and nationalism erupted noisily and dramatically eighty years ago in New York City among Lithuanians assembled at the dawn of the declaration of Lithuania's independence. The convention showcased for the United States2 a hitherto barely visible minority, seeking to arouse world opinion for its land of birth. The purpose of this study is to explore and assess the tension that arose from the religious aspect of the so-called "Great Convention" of 1918 in Madison Square Garden, New York City.

The vast majority of Lithuanian immigrants were at least nominally baptized Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, a sizable minority became hostile to religion, espousing socialism and freethinking, as advocated by men such as Jonas Šliūpas. Another minority, the Tautininkai, focused on nationalism as its goal, prescinding from religious affiliation. These Nationalists, such as Fr. Jonas Žilinskas and layman Juozas Širvydas, flourished especially within the ranks of the National Alliance of America. People like Širvydas, though ideologically socialists, gave primacy to their homeland as nationalists.

Meanwhile, in the forefront of the Catholic party, dubbed pejoratively as the klerikalai (clericals), was a large number of clergy in the midst of lay leaders. Priests such as Fathers Fabijonas Kemėšis, Antanas Milukas, and Juozas Dabužinskas (Dabužis) stood in the front ranks, along with laymen such as: Julius Kaupas, Kazys Pakštas, and Leonardas Šimutis. By the time World War One was coming to an end, there had been three clearly established movements, each competing for allegiance, i.e., the Catholic, Nationalist, and Socialist.

Early in 1918, two of the three parties, the Catholics and Nationalists, managed to join forces to stage a huge political rally at Madison Square Garden after only eight weeks of preparation. The Socialists refused to participate, choosing to boycott the event. Instead, they circulated an official memorandum to their membership to account for the failure to participate. They explained that it was impossible to link up with Catholics and Nationalists who in bourgeois fashioning opposed the interests of laborers. Immigrant unity was merely a device to attain bourgeois ends. Besides, Socialists hitherto had never joined with the other political movements.3

The memorandum elaborated further. Socialists must not concede to the majority. Freedom for Lithuania would be good only if the new government did not restrict the concerns of the working class. The proposed free Lithuania would be only an instrument for imperialist designs. Militarism would have to be introduced into an independent homeland - a goal contrary to the struggles of laborers. An unfettered Lithuania would merely be a congenial home for the likes of Jonas Šliūpas, Antanas Olšauskas, and Martynas Yčas.4

The Socialists' lack of ethnic pride was evident. As one Nationalist editor correctly observed: "We cannot fault them [Socialists] with a lack of logic. If they disavow themselves of nationality, why should they attend?" On its part, the nationalist newspaper admitted that the convention would be a test of. maturity. Love of homeland should take precedence over all other matters, mused the editor, troubled by rumors that Catholics were being told how to act.5

Among the convention planners, the preponderance of political-activist clergy was an unwelcome omen to some of the Nationalists. Indeed, a half-century later, these Nationalists would find an unexpected ally in the longtime dean of American Catholic historians, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, who once wrote: "I have observed that when ministers of religion leave the duties of their profession to take busy part in political matters, they generally fall into contempt and sometimes even bring discredit to the cause in whose service they are engaged.6

Nevertheless, many of the fifty-nine clergy among the 1,001 registered convention participants would have disagreed with this perception. Accounting for one of every twenty delegates, the priests came from all over the east coast, twenty-five of whom arrived from Pennsylvania, the early heartland of Lithuanians. Nine priest-delegates represented New York colonies, while eight and seven came from Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively. Three traveled the longest distance from the Chicago area. Somewhat surprisingly, despite proximity to New York City, only four clergy originated in New Jersey and its seven parishes.7

In what proved to be a spectacular midweek in the late winter of 1918, delegates began pouring into the city on Tuesday, March 12. According to an unsympathetic Lithuanian Socialist source, the clergy stayed at the Hotel Breslin, while local committee members housed other Catholics in cheap taverns in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Nationalists lodged at the Hotel Imperial. Separate locations reflected a lack of warmth between the two camps in their shaky coalition.8

According to the same account, a priest and sacristan or organist led the inaugural march of society representatives, adorned with their insignia, evoking bystanders' ridicule. A sprinkling of non-participating Socialists scattered throughout the crowd out of curiosity to observe the "circus."9 Officially, 1,001 delegates streamed through the gates of Madison Square Garden, though dozens failed to register, bringing the total to an estimated 1,200.

The two-day congress took place on Wednesday and Thursday, March 13 and 14, 1918, while word had not yet reached the participants about Lithuania's Declaration of Independence on February 16. The assembly proceedings consisted of the predictable elements of formal processions, announced greetings, and fervent political speeches.

In this premier ad hoc venture, the union of Catholics and Nationalists was at best a fragile partnership of mutual tolerance. In contrast to their refusal to take part in a similar rally in 1914, Nationalists consented this time for the sake of political peace.10 These Nationalists embraced a variety of members, including Socialists and Freethinkers for whom the homeland took precedence in their thinking. At the same time, to expose unbelievers in the Nationalist party at the convention to an expression of religion, however brief, was hardly politically expedient and could jeopardize the Catholic-Nationalist coalition. Thus, at the preparatory meetings in January the Catholics discarded plans to launch the convention with a prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Furthermore, when the Nationalists threatened a walkout if any convention prayers were attempted, the Catholics further agreed to forsake any invocation of the Deity. Consequently, the first plenary session was to transpire without any such mention.11 This omission would explode into an unexpected twist of events.

From the outset there was an appeal for patient tolerance between the two parties, officially recognized as the Christian Democrats and the Nationalist Democrats. In behalf of the Arrangements Committee, Julius Kaupas - editor of the Catholic Garsas, announced a formula for procedure, namely:

Agreed: to accept for discussion at the convention only those issues that embrace both parties in common, concerning which both parties have agreed in advance in the form of resolutions; as to questions about which it was not possible to reach a prior consensus, such questions will simply not be allowed at the convention.12

Using a roster drawn up on the previous day, each party then proceeded to submit to a vote its own slate of candidates for the presidium. A pair of speakers from each wing lobbied on behalf of the nominees, careful to accent the common cause of homeland liberty, requiring unity between the parties. Delegates elected Fr. Jonas Miliauskas, pastor of St. Mary, Wanamie, Pennsylvania, as president, by a margin of 641 to 361 over the Nationalist choice, Stasys Gegužis, a coal miner and union activist. In another round of balloting, Gegužis became vice-president over three other candidates.13 Delegates then accepted pre-chosen officers for other positions, as recommended by the joint Selection Committee. The clergy presence was obvious in the Catholics' proposal of three priests for the Resolutions Committee, namely: Antanas Kaupas, Fabijonas Kemėšis, and Konstantinas Vasiliauskas.

After the voting at this first plenary session, several speakers addressed the congress. In a protracted lament, a certain Vinikaitis decried the Socialists' failure to participate. Pijus Norkus intervened to limit the speaker but in vain. Finally, objecting delegates whistled Vinikaitis into silence, showing no lack of reticence in articulating their displeasure.

Then the lively Fr. Jonas Jakaitis, pastor of St. Casimir, Worcester, Massachusetts, mounted the podium. He praised Catholic leaders and urged audience allegiance to Catholic societies. He remarked further that the Nationalists were present only because of Catholic benevolence. Don't let Nationalists take over your societies to "charm you," Jakaitis cautioned.14

The next speaker, Bronius Balutis, strove to offset Jakaitis' blunt comments, asking his listeners to prescind from all "isms," including Catholicism, for the sake of being Lithuanian. His mention of the Catholic faith provoked hisses and boos from the devout women in the assembly, though he did manage to finish his talk.15

By now it was 1:30 in the afternoon. So the presider struck his gavel, calling for a lunchtime recess.

The scene was now set for a clash that nearly wrecked the whole convention. The Arrangements Committee had no crystal ball to forecast the role that women might play at the congress. As the record shows, there were many women among the delegates, 173 in all, i.e, over seventeen percent of the entire gathering. Furthermore, 135 of the women or 78% of their gender, represented religious societies.16

Bear in mind that by convention time in 1918, Catholic women in the Lithuanian community had become more visible and vocal than when immigration first began in a prior generation. Women were already part of the Catholic Knights of Lithuania, founded in 1913. Beyond that, in December of 1914, Catholic women formed their own association -Moterų Sąjunga. By 1915 women of leftist bent socialized in their own Moterų Progresyvinis Susivienijimas (Women's Progressive Alliance). Not surprisingly then, women constituted a recognizable minority of the convention participants.

The second session began when President Miliauskas reconvened the gathering at 3 P.M. with the singing of the Lithuanian and American national anthems. Right away the tempo slowed badly by the reading of endless greetings. This recitation became so tedious that the presidium mercifully discontinued these messages.

Then as the members were about to address the first order of business, a female delegate in the gallery boldly interrupted the proceedings. Anastazija Petrauskaitė of Waterbury, Connecticut, shouted: "We here are Catholics, not pagans or Socialists. So I offer a resolution that we begin and end each session in a Christian manner with prayer."17

Her plea sent shock waves throughout the assembly. As the Catholic weekly Garsas accurately asserted: "Immediately the hall became electrified." The daring young woman's recommendation was just the kind of issue that leaders on both sides did not want to hear. The delicate advance efforts of Catholics and Nationalists to avoid controversy were now in danger. These men had failed to calculate the presence of women in their midst. "Nothing so provoked tension between the two parties as did the prayer question."18

How did the congress react to the prayer resolution? A few Nationalists swiftly hollered that there was no room for prayer. Delegates Vinikaitis, Liutkauskas, and Birštonas attempted to speak against the use of prayer, but their pleadings were blocked with protests and shouts. Nor could presiding officer, Jonas Miliauskas, quell the outbursts.

The Nationalists themselves were split. A Chicago attorney, Pranas Bračiūlis, voiced his surprise that such as august gathering had begun without an appeal for divine aid. But this lawyer's intervention aroused a more violent response from the Freethinkers.19

The official published convention Minutes give only a bland, truncated version of the controversy, not even naming Anastazija, the maverick of the day. Instead, the account explained:

When the convention began its proceedings, a delegate proposed a resolution that it would be a good idea to offer a prayer. A segment of delegates protested. Then Father P[ranas] Augustaitis [of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania] suggested a silent prayer for which some delegates stood up to offer along with him.20

The Minutes concluded the outcome of the episode with this description of a related intervention:

In the face of dissension over the prayers, a young Lithuanian soldier in an American uniform deftly brought calm. Vincas Vaškevičius, mounting the stage, took the Lithuanian flag in hand and waved it about in front of the crowd of a thousand. In his fervent remarks he confessed that for the Lithuanian soldiers present in the assembly the [prayer] dispute was entirely inexplicable. After all, for those in the army, members of every ethnic group and religion prayed, each in one's own way, and no one raised any objections.21

Leonardas Šimutis' memoirs quote the soldier further:

We young men are fighting on the war front, risking our lives with the thought in mind that we are fighting not just for the honor of America, but for the good of oppressed nations, and for the liberation of Lithuania. You here, on the other hand, are arguing about prayer, and refuse to ask God's help for our principal goals.22

The commentary in the Socialists' newspaper Keleivis was much more colorful. In response to Anastazija Petrauskaitė's wish to introduce prayer, "the whole assembly came to its feet; some in favor, some against, midst shouting, whining, and raving." Several priests, including Fathers Steponas Čepanonis, Jonas Jakaitis, Augustinas Petraitis, and Juozas Zidinavičius, "stood up on their seats, flaying their arms about, with faces reddened, screaming at the top of their lungs. Their wailing was scarcely discernible, except for their outcry: '[We are] not pagans, but Catholics.'"23 The turmoil resonated for ten minutes.

After throats had hoarsened sufficiently, Kazys Pakštas ran on to the stage to voice a strange ultimatum from the Nationalists: If the Catholics were praying to God, then the Nationalists would erect a photo of Šliūpas and demand that the assembly pay reverence to him. The proposal was so absurd that some of the Nationalists themselves rose up, shouting "in ungodly fashion, scolding, and whistling insanely" against Pakštas until he was forced to withdraw from the platform. "It appeared that the convention would split in two because of the prayer issue."

Unlike the Minutes that credited the soldier Vaškevičius with instant success in calming the boisterous crowd, Keleivis offered a different version. The sight of his military garb did momentarily hush the throng. But when he spoke of the army practice of prayer, some delegates bellowed at him: "Dumbbell, who is stopping you? If you want to pray, go ahead and pray. [But] go off to church to pray. This congress was not convened for prayer. Haven't you prayed enough at home?" As a result of this retort, further confusion reigned, this time for an entire half hour.24

The spotlight now fell on Fr. Kemėšis, one of the masterminds of the convention. A generation later, a memoirist would assess him as "a clever priest and nimble politician."25 The prevailing disorder challenged Kemėšis' wit. When the clamor subsided, he seized the podium. Drawing on his political wisdom, he protested: "Any prayers we would offer in these circumstances of disruption would neither benefit any of us, nor redound to the glory of God. For the sake of peace, I recommend that we forego this privilege [to pray]."26

This suggestion infuriated some of Kemėšis' fellow clergy. They perceived his appeal as a cowardly concession. One gray haired priest shouted "traitor" in both Lithuanian and Polish - Išdavikas - zdraica. Other clergy joined in with upraised, clenched fists, yelling: "atheist, pagan, traitor, Judas." More turmoil ensued for yet another half hour.

As the screaming began to diminish, the presiding, befuddled Miliauskas blessed himself and uttered some vocal prayers, infelicitously described by Keleivis as so much "mumbling." In the waning bedlam, many of the Catholics, both men and women, brandished their rosary beads, joining in with audible prayer. Meanwhile, the Freethinkers among the delegates grumbled, chattered, and argued among themselves, according to the Socialists' version.

In the midst of the fray, attorney Bronius Balutis seized the podium to defend his Nationalist colleagues. As members of their movement, they had never declined to pray and would not do so, he claimed. At the same time, they had never coerced anyone to pray, nor would they ever do so. This interjection failed, nevertheless. Believers began to shout against Balutis, eliciting this rejoinder: "By this whistling we can whistle away Lithuania's freedom." Even so, he too was shouted off the stage.27

The chaos over prayer did not die down. It reechoed in the third plenary session. On the previous day, Nationalist Pijus Birštonas had publicly acknowledged that prayer would do no harm. This gained him at least mild clerical approval. Now Birštonas declared that, in a gathering such as this convention, participants should forget for the moment that they are Catholics or Freethinkers, but be united in the common homeland cause. This observation stirred up more clamor, especially from the Catholic women.28

On their part, the clergy were divided. Fathers Motiejus Gustaitis, Jonas Kasakaitis29, and Augustinas Petraitis were among a dozen who joined the shrieking. Among those who "remained seated calmly" were: Fathers Jonas Jakaitis, Nikodemus Petkus, Sylvestras Remeika, Vincentas Slavynas, and the Žilinskases - Jonas and Tomas. In the center of the confusion, shouting "with all his might," Fr. Steponas Čepanonis stepped forward as a cheer leader. "Pagans, atheists, we will not give you a voice!" Pandemonium of the worst sort broke out again. In the midst of this uproar, Father Pranas Augustaitis strove to lead those who wished to pray, as they held their rosaries aloft.30

At this point, Father Kemėšis beckoned the crowd with a resolution to back the war effort of the United States. This proved to distract the delegates from their dispute over prayer, and moved the assembly back on track to make some unanimous declarations. During these votes of total consensus, the Catholics even slipped in a greeting to the reigning pontiff, Pope Benedict XV. The exasperated Nationalists held off any criticism.

An inspection of the aftermath is most revealing. In a few weeks, the Catholic house organ of the Knights of Lithuania indulged in a bit of wishful thinking if not outright cover up. Editor Matas Zujus of their Vytis wrote in his Apžvalga (New Review) column that "a strong bond had been forged at the convention between Lithuanian Catholics and Nationalist-Liberals." Julius Kaupas merited a photo with the inscription: "He was destined to open the historic nationwide political convention of America's Lithuanians." In two unrelated stories, photos featured several women, but there was not a whisper about Anastazija Petrauskaitė.31

Privately Catholic women may well have touted their outspoken colleague as a heroine, but they hesitated to do so in print. After all, Father Kemėšis had been one of the founders of the Catholic Women's Alliance (Moterų Sąjunga) just a few years earlier. To praise Anastazija openly would have been a slap in Kemėšis' face. In that day it was not fashionable for the laity, especially women, to voice public criticism of their clergy. Thus, the editor of the Catholic women's magazine, Moterų Dirva, failed even to mention Petrauskaitė in the edition subsequent to the convention. Curiously, leftist women passed up the chance to cast ridicule on her in their Communist publication, Moterų Balsas, merely remarking that the congress was a waste of money.32

On the first anniversary of the convention, another Catholic women's journal at least seemed to allude to the prayer episode in a scolding commentary:

It's good that Catholics have so many editors and newspaper publishers, but it's no good that Catholics have neither an editor or publisher of at least one newspaper with faith-content. Its content would be solely along Catholic lines - a newspaper that would not mix Catholicism with politics, a mixture - if you will forgive the figure of speech - like peas and cabbage.33

The prayer controversy bequeathed a legacy of embarrassment to the Catholic community and a painful memory for Kemėšis. Hardly a trace of commentary has survived. One vainly searches in two pertinent Kemėšis essays, i.e. "Amerikos lietuvių kova už Lietuvos laisvę," and "Ideologinės kovos lietuviškoje Šiaurės išeivijoje." Though the priest noted the importance of the 1918 convention, he stayed silent about the prayer controversy.34 In 1940 the Marian priest, Fr. Adomas Markūnas, glided quietly past the prayer issue in his master's thesis on Lithuanian independence endeavors of the years 1905 through 1922.35

For the 1968 golden anniversary of the convention, Vatican Radio, though with a touch of unintended fiction, proudly described the resolution about the papal greeting as an "expression of the Lithuanian people's fidelity to the Holy Father," but kept quiet about the prayer dispute as did the editorial writer of the Catholic daily Draugas. When the convention secretary, Leonardas Šimutis, recalled the incident, he passed over the lively Petrauskaitė, stating vaguely that "Catholics called for the convention to open with prayer," over which the congress "wasted a half day discussing and arguing about prayer." On its part, the nationalist newspaper Tėvynė imprecisely acknowledged that Catholics scored a victory with the introduction of prayer.36 Later several Catholic historians trod the same path of silent discomfort. Antanas Kučas, summarizing the congress a half century later, ignored the acrimonious dispute, just as Vincentas Liulevičius remained muted.37 Even Laurynas Kapočius, writing in Soviet Lithuania, failed to note the prayer dispute, while remarking about the congress.38 The convention prayer controversy faded from published sources.

Questions of Church-State or religion and ethnicity, nevertheless, are never quite laid to rest. In the 1990s, churches in the Baltic nations are struggling to regain and clarify their identity. For their part, governments are seeking to stabilize their yet uncertain internal and international positions. In the midst of these growing pains, Church-State issues unavoidably loom up. At this time, both Lithuanian government officials and church leaders are facing problems such as pornography, religious instruction in public schools, and prayer in public. What transpired in New York City in 1918 suggests some proverbial food for thought to the resurgent Baltic nations.


1. Tėviškės Žiburiai, Feb. 12, April 30, May 21, July 2, 1991; March 31, May 5, 12, 1992. Pennsylvanijos angliakasių Lietuva (Chicago: Lithuanian Library Press, 1977), p. 257, makes the pertinent assertion. The writer Liudas Dovydėnas regarded Fr. Jonas Kasakaitis as "one of the most enlightened Lithuanian priests who toiled in the old Pennsylvanian coal mine district. Yet, granted, perhaps in his old age his views were too conservative. Together with Fr. Miliauskas of Wilkes-Barre, the Lithuanian pastor there, neither wanted the Lithuanian hymn sung in church on the occasion of national observances because its text was 'atheistic'."
2. New York Times, March 14, 15, 1918.
3. Vienybė Lietuvninkų, March 6, 1918.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., March 13, 1918.
6. American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, 2nd ed.), p. 40.
7. Distribution culled from the published Convention Minutes called Laisvėn bežengiant: Amerikos lietuvių visuotinio seimo protokolas ir peveiksluotas aprašymas (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1918), edited by Paulius Mulevičius.
8. Keleivis, March 20, 1918.
9. Ibid.
10. Juozas O. Širvydas: biografijos bruožai (Cleveland, 1941), pp. 331-32.
11. Garsas, March 21, 1918.
12. Laisvėn bežengiant, p. 46.
13. Identified by surname only as Birštonas, Lopeta, and Staknevičius in Keleivis, March 20, 1918.
14. Ibid. In the light of Jakaitis' subsequent career, the newspaper account in credible.
15. Ibid.
16. Culled from Laisvė bežengiant,
17. Keleivis, March 20, 1918. Miss Petrauskas represented Chapter 40 of the National Fund (Tautos Fondas). Two decades later, she was among the pioneers who formed Chapter 43 of the Catholic Women's Alliance at Waterbury, Connecticut, on June 4, 1939. Anastasia E. Petrosky (as she was known in English) was born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in 1894, but lived the rest of her life in Waterbury, Connecticut, from 1909. This enterprising and talented woman owned a millinery and dry goods store, and with her sister, managed the "Tabor Art Studio" as specialists in home portraiture. She was also a registered pharmacist. Her death came at age 84 on Aug. 14, 1978. Waterbury City Directory, 1922; Waterbury American, Aug. 15, 1978.
18. Garsas, March 21, 1918.
19. Ibid.
20. Laisvėn bežengiant, p. 49.
21. Ibid.
22. Draugas, Feb. 17, 1968.
23. Keleivis, March 20, 1918.
24. Ibid, and Vincentas Liulevičius, Išeivijos vaidmuo Lietuvos nepriklausomybės atkūrimo darbe (Chicago, 1981), pp. 146-149; p. 147, also mentions the sailor - V. Zupkus.
25. Lavinskas & Banišauskas, Angliakasių atsiminimai (Long Island City, N.Y., 1952), p. 156.
26. Keleivis, March 20, 1918.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Fr. Gustaitis (apparently Mykolas) was not among the registered delegates; the identity of Kasakaitis is unclear since there were two priests by the name of Jonas.
30. Keleivis, March 20, 1918.
31. Moterų Dirva, No. 7 (22), March-July, 1918.
32. Moterų Balsas, April, May, 1918.
33. Aušrinė, March, 1919, signed only as "Viktorija."
34. Pirmasis nepriklausomos Lietuvos dešimtmetis, 1918-1928 (London, 1955) and Krikščionybė Lietuvoje (Kaunas, 1938).
35. Adam Markūnas, 'The Lithuanian Independence Movement, 1905-1922," (DePaul University, Chicago, 1940).
36. Draugas, March 13, 1968; Tėvynė, April 26, 1968; Šimutis Papers, courtesy of Leonard Šimutis, Jr.
37. Amerikos lietuvių istorija, pp. 350-352; Išeivijos vaidmuo, p. 147.
38. Laurynas Kapočius, Senoji išeivija ir Lietuva (Vilnius, 1981), p. 231.