Volume 50, No.4 - Winter 2004
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2004 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Norwood, Massachusetts

Lithuanian immigrants established approximately 140 parishes in the United States. One is compelled to say "approximately," since a precise count is impossible. At the outset of foundation, Lithuanians almost always affiliated with extant Polish parishes or formed them jointly. In fact, some were officially designated "Polish-Lithuanian" in diocesan church records and national directories. More often, these parishes were unofficially mixed Polish-Lithuanian, with one or the other majority gaming the designated title. In a few instances, there was an amalgam that included Ukrainians and Slovaks as well. Eventually, these parishes evolved according to which group gained the upper hand. In Pennsylvania, the count was evenly divided. Sometimes the Poles achieved control, ousting the Lithuanians, who were left to start afresh. The reverse was also true. Usually the parting was less than amicable, sometimes resulting in civil suits in the courts, and even occasional physical violence.

Meanwhile, a minority of bilingual Polish-oriented Lithuanians remained in Polish parishes, while a smaller minority of Lithuanian-oriented Poles comfortably affiliated with Lithuanian congregations. Interethnic marriage clearly played a significant role in the choice. For example, Mykolas Norkūnas, father of the Knights of Lithuania, married a Pole. As a result, Polish was the language of the home, with membership in the local Polish parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In any case, for purposes of this essay, the count of 140 is used for the total of Lithuanian churches.

In 1840s, Bishop Benedict Fenwick of Boston attempted to establish a colony for Irish immigrants in the potato growing region of northern Maine. He named the community "Benedicta" after himself. In this paper, we are concerned with parish naming that arose among ordinary laborers, whose naming sentiments and opinions have, for the most part, escaped written evidence. It is usually impossible to identify the person or persons in a given parish who chose or recommended a name for their parish. One can correctly surmise that the founding mutual-benefit society engaged in discussions and then voted unanimously, or nearly so, for a choice. The pastor's selection would often carry weight among the participants.

Among the congregations, there were thirty-six distinct designations. Among the most popular parish patrons were St. Joseph at eleven; Sts. Peter and Paul at ten; St. Anthony at nine; and St. Francis at seven. To no one's surprise, St. Casimir ranked first with a count of twenty-one. Was this an expression of ethnic awareness? Possibly. History, nevertheless, imposes a qualification on such an interpretation. Recall that St. Casimir was also very popular among the Poles. When Lithuanian immigrants arrived, they already found Polish societies and parishes named after St. Casimir. It may be that Lithuanians emulated their neighbors by choosing the same patron. It is most interesting to note that the name of St. Casimir was adopted by the first clearly Lithuanian parish in Pittston, Pennsylvania, in 1885; the name of St. Casimir also prevailed in the last to be erected at Los Angeles in 1941.

The case of Brockton, Massachusetts, provides a rare naming example. Here was the only Lithuanian parish given the name of the fourteenth-century St. Rocco. In his short entry in the Letuvių enciklopedija, Juozas Vaišnora explains that St. Rocco was revered as the patron of health, especially in times of plague. It happened that a St. Rocco monastery was opened in Lithuania in 1713. During an epidemic, these monks distinguished themselves with extraordinary devotion to the sick. Consequently, there arose a devotion of gratitude to St. Rocco among some Lithuanians. It may well be that descendants of people saved from the plague were among the organizing members of the Brockton parish. Thus, the founding St. Rocco Society chose the same title for the parish. For decades, Brockton could boast of a unique parish patron. To this day, the church interior displays a statue of St. Rocco with an exposed leg being licked back to health by a dog.

After World War II, the American-born Msgr. Francis Strakauskas became pastor. Being a fervent devotee of his Lithuanian heritage, he wanted to show his patriotism to the large number of Displaced Persons among his congregants, even though he often scolded them from the pulpit and in his parish bulletin. It happened that for decades the parish had only a basement church. The pastor was determined to complete the structure with a more attractive place of worship, converting the lower level into a social hall. The construction would offer an opportunity to change the parish name. So Strakauskas asked his classmate, Archbishop Richard J. Cushing, for permission to switch from St. Rocco to St. Casimir. Relying on this informal verbal approval in a conversation, the pastor quickly changed name plates and parish stationary to reflect the new name. Meanwhile, the pastor sought the needed official consent in writing. As a motive for change, Strakauskas maintained that the founding society had fallen under leftist influence, dropping the name "Saint," from its association. The members, who became known simply as "Rokiniai," subsequently engaged in many quarrels with the parish. As a result, the mere mention of the name "Rokiniai" (and indirectly the parish patron) allegedly annoyed the faithful parishioners.

The pastor had not delved sufficiently in Canon Law on the name change. A change can take place only when an entirely new church is built. This happened after a fire at the St. Louis (Liudvikas) parish in Maizeville, Pennsylvania, allowed the new structure to assume the name of Our Lady of Siluva. In the Brockton case, only the upper church structure was being added, an alteration that did not qualify for a name change.

As a result, when the official word arrived from Rome, permission was granted to add the name of St. Casimir to St. Rocco, creating the anomaly of combining two saints who were unconnected historically. There was no parallel here with Sts. Peter and Paul. For the next few years, mail from the archdiocese was addressed to Sts. Rocco and Casimir, and it was so listed in local and national directories. The determined pastor paid no heed. He continued to call the parish St. Casimir in speech and in writing. Finally, the Chancery Office gave up. Gone was the ousted St. Rocco. St. Casimir prevailed as sole patron!

Studying parish names, one observes that the immigrants were not in a hurry to express ethnic consciousness, which was barely awakening among Lithuanians in the 1880s and 1890s. Rather, they tended to stay with traditional and more universal saints, though not entirely.

Consider the annual convention of the Lithuanian Alliance of America on October 30-31, 1888, at Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. The assembly voted to honor, on its official seal, the Blessed Mother under her title of Aušros Vartai [Gate of Dawn], the celebrated shrine in Vilnius. That devotion, nevertheless, barely found its way into parish choices. Apart from the predominance of St. Casimir, there were only five Gate of Dawn selections. The distinctive character of these parish names was diluted, however, when by common usage they often became simply "St. Mary's."

Further inspection of church names makes it clear that only men conducted the affairs in the founding of parishes. In the early years of emigration, there were few married women or young maidens among the immigrants who could have made suggestions. Nor were they even admitted into membership of the first benefit societies. Male saints, then, dominated the choices.

Apart from the Marian titles, St. Anne was the only other female saint for whom three parishes were named. This is a bit surprising from the perspective of Baptismal name selections. "Anne" as "Ona" was one of the most popular names given to baby girls. As to popularity in the homeland, recall the famous church of St. Anne in Vilnius, and the annual indulgence devotions (atlaidai) of St. Anne in Alytus.

Expectedly, holy Mary merited twenty parishes under various titles. Besides the aforementioned five instances of the Gate of Dawn, there were five Immaculate Conceptions; three Annunciations; three Saint Marys; two Our Lady of Perpetual Help; and one each of Queen of Angels and Sorrowful Mother. Of the 140 Lithuanian parishes, these twenty Marian churches represented a little less that 17 percent. Compare this with the Boston archdiocese when it had 409 parishes a decade ago. Here there were ninety-one Marian churches, or over 22 percent of selections.

It is true that Lithuania had its share of miraculous Marian shrines, but the founders of these parishes in the United States grew up during the czarist press ban of 1864-1904. These mostly illiterate villagers had little opportunity, other than by word of mouth, to learn in detail about places like Siluva. In any case, the arduous life of the peasants hardly allowed the luxury of a pilgrimage to one or another holy place. If one looks at parish name selections, it seems clear that the early immigrants did not arrive with a vivid enough awareness of Lithuania's Marian shrines to memorialize one in a parish name.

After St. Casimir, one finds St. George (Jurgis) not far behind with a count of sixteen. This knight on horseback has been very popular throughout eastern Europe, especially among Russians and Greeks. On a return trip from Lithuania in 1999 via British Air, I recall the pilot's surprising intercom greeting: "Happy St. George's," the patron of England.

The traditional mounted figure reminds Lithuanians of their own national symbol of the knight (vytis). In the homeland, the feast of St. George (Jurginės) has been a major holy day on April 23. He is regarded as the protector of horses and domestic animals in general. In some places, his image adorns the barns that shelter livestock. St. George is also the patron of the earth and its herbs. He is even mentioned in a few folk songs. The saint has had more than a little influence in Lithuanian folklore. Accordingly, it is understandable that the mounted horseman gained the patron's title of sixteen Lithuanian parishes. In making this choice, the transplanted villagers recalled their czarist-occupied homeland and expressed the Lithuanian spirit of determination and the desire to struggle for Lithuania's freedom through the intercession of St. George.

The faithful presently await another George in the ranks of the saints. When the reviewer of Marian Fathers, Blessed Archbishop George Matulaitis, is someday canonized, no doubt a church somewhere will be dedicated in his honor.