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Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha looks strange among the American cities with Lithuanian communities as it is far from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes where most Lithuanians settled.

However, it was not the location that used to attract Lithuanians but city size (and thus job opportunities). When the first Lithuanian wave of migration was gaining momentum in 1890 Omaha was the second largest US city this far west (after San Francisco). The "Manifest destiny" to conquer the "Wild West" has already been completed; the Native American lands were partitioned and White settlements established in many locations. However, most of them were small: even Los Angeles had merely 50 000 people (smaller than cities of Lithuania back in that era). However, Omaha had a population of 140 000 and thus dominated a massive region. It was growing swiftly as well: from 31 000 inhabitants in 1880 to 213 000 in 1915.

Still, the number of Lithuanians was only 400 thus the erection of a wooden church in 1907 had been a tremendous initiative. An initiative that seemed to be compulsory to every immigrant community of the era. South Omaha thus had 23 churches, most of them ethnic. Current St. Anthony Lithuanian church (5402 South 32nd Street) has been constructed in 1936.

St. Anthony Lithuanian church in Omaha (Nebraska). Google Street View.

Its establishment met opposition: the bishop proved to be extremely hard to convince that Lithuanians are a separate nation with their own language. He did not understand why Lithuanians could not pray at English churches as the Irish do. An urban legend(?) says that the bishop changed his mind after Lithuanians said: "Do you wish that we, like Irish, would lose our language?". Struggle for Lituanity continued even after the church was established. It included long (eventually successful) campaigns to invite Lithuanian nuns to teach at a local school and replace a Polish priest with a Lithuanian one. All this evidenced that the church became a kind of "Homeland outside homeland" rather than merely a place to worship God. It (or nearby localities) were used for watching Lithuanian movies, theater, listening to Lithuanian lectures, doing picnics. After Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union (1940) and the USA allowed the persecuted Lithuanian refugees to immigrate Omaha community temporarily housed them in the church cellar.

A new school building has been constructed in 1953. But the American-born generations showed less attachment to their old homeland and the church attendance dropped, the school was closed in 1980. But the holy mass is still celebrated in Lithuanian - something increasingly rare in the USA. An interesting moment in parish history has been the appointment of a famous priest Peter Stravinskas in 2005. This Lithuanian author of various books has many followers in America (among non-Lithuanians) and the parish rapidly expanded as the followers moved in. Old parish members were disappointed; especially so after Stravinskas spent the parish fund that was saved up in order to prove bishop that the parish is financially solvent (in the USA many Lithuanian parishes were suppressed citing bad financial situation). Afterward, the parish was indeed closed in the 2010s.

Omaha Lithuanian community is still active, it has ~250 members, some 100 actively participating. Under their initiative, Omaha twinned with the city of Šiauliai in Lithuania. In 2015, a joint initiative of the two cities was to create a Lithuanian sculpture garden "Path of the sun" in Lauritzen Gardens of Omaha.

Omaha has two Lithuanian bakeries, this mini-chain established by Vytautas and Stefanija Mackevičius in 1962. "Lithuanian Bakery and Kafe" is in 7427 Pacific St while "Lithuanian Bakery and Deli" is in 5217 S 33rd Ave. The latter has a Lithuanian-style wooden-looking house nearby.

A Lithuanian bakery in Omaha, Nebraska. Google Street View.

Additional reading: Joseph F Rummel, George Jonaitis, George Mikulskis, Joseph Jusevich Mūsų šventas lietuviškas žodis: Šv. Antano kultūrinės vienovės troškulys [anglų k.].

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Nebraska, USA 9 Comments