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Chicago, Illinois

Home to some 80 000 Lithuanians Illinois is perhaps the second important center of Lithuanian nation after Lithuania itself. Lithuanians are nothing new to Chicago, having worked side-by-side with Germans, Poles and the Irish in its massive slaughterhouses as early as late 19th century. Between 1890s and 1930s there were more Lithuanians in Chicago than in any town or city of their still agricultural former homeland. Chicago Lithuanian numbers increased rapidly from 14 000 in 1900 to 80 000 in 1924.

After earning enough money some Lithuanians went back to Europe yet others remained, starting influential families. Elaborate churches were built, Lithuanian restaurants, shops, cultural institutions and media opened. The center of Lithuanian settlement gradually moved: from Bridgeport and Back of the Yards (in 1900s - 1910s) to Marquette Park (in 1950s). After Marquette Park was overtaken by Blacks there is no longer a Lithuanian district in Chicago, but a community center exists in the Lemont suburb.

Sadly, Lituanity in Illinois seems to be somewhat on decline. In 1990s - 2000s several Lithuanian churches were demolished or no longer celebrate mass in Lithuanian. The older generation of Lithuanians ("second-wave immigrants") pass away, and the third wave fails to replenish Lituanity. Many decades-old Lithuanian restaurants and diners closed down, leaving Marquette Park neighborhood without Lithuanian food for the first time.

Back of the Yards Lithuanian heritage

The prettiest of Chicago's Lithuanian churches is the Baroque revival Holy Cross in Back of the Yards. Built by the original community of slaughterhouse workers in 1913 the elaborate church once anchored a district full of Lithuanian homes and institutions. With immigrants from Latin America displacing Lithuanians the parish was abolished in 1970s and the Lithuanian mass ceased to be celebrated in ~2005. Condition of the building deterioriated as now only the Sunday mass is held (in Spanish). Plaque "Lietuvių Rymo katalikų bažnyčia" remains near the entrance ("Lithuanian Roman Catholic church" in pre-modern Lithuanian language when "Rome" was still called "Rymas"), as do the vaults depicting scenes from both Lithuanian and American history.

Holy Cross Lithuanian church and its pre-modern Lithuanian language plaque. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The life of Lithuanian butchers of the era is described in the fictionalized account "Jungle" by journalist Upton Sinclair still held to be of great importance to Chicago history. It was in these slaughterhouses where the industrial might of the Chicago was born. For the first time the animals were slaughtered in a single city only to be sold in far away places like New York or Boston. Prior to this "to buy meat" meant "to visit a local butcher", something changed for good by the Chicago's businessmen and countless immigrants from thousands of cities and towns around Europe (the number of Lithuanian butchers was only surpassed by Poles).

Bridgeport Lithuanian heritage

Bridgeport was once outflanked by a beautiful massive tower of 1909 Gothic revival St. George Lithuanian church. It was the oldest Lithuanian parish in Chicago. Unfortunately by bishop's decision the church was demolished in 1990 and replaced by a modern building, after donating the church's works of art and furniture to a parish in the recently-independent Lithuania. The riches of the fading emigre were thus symbolically repatriated. Only a cross left on the Open Street Map in this place reminds of the lost beauty of St. George.

Bridgeport St. George Lithuanian church (demolished; left and center), its parish school (top right) and rectory (bottom right).

Bridgeoport also had a 1000-seat Lithuanian theater Milda (est. 1914) that has been also demolished in the same period after a long decline. Another theater "Ramova" still stands albeit closed (3518 S. Halsted Street) with a movement to save it. The name is Lithuanian but the crumbling decor is Spanish.

A street in Bridgeport is still named Lituanica Avenue. Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas lived there. They became instant martyrs in 1933 when after flying across the Atlantic ocean their plane "Lituanica" crashed in what is now Poland, only several hundred kilometers from destination Kaunas. S. Darius and S. Girėnas were also worldwide pioneers of air mail and their continuous flight time was the second largest ever at the time (6 411 km).

The two pilots who perished while trying to make Lithuania's name famous are still the key figures for the Lithuanian-American community. In 1993 a plaque was unveiled for them in Midway Airport which happens to be at the center of various past and present Lithuanian districts. In 2008 this plaque was reinstated after reconstruction through titanious efforts of some Lithuanians.

Marquette Park Lithuanian heritage

Main historical monument for S. Darius and S. Girėnas stands at the northeastern corner of Marquette Park. The unveiling of this art deco sculpture in 1935 was attended by 60 000 people. The anniversaries of their "glorious but doomed" flight are still celebrated annually there, even if drawing only 100 people. By the way, S. Darius, a lover of sport and Olympic participant, is also credited for writing one of the first books on basketball in Lithuanian (in 1922), making foundations for this American invention to become Lithuania's national

Darius and Girėnas monument on the Marquette Park corner. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

It was east of Marquette Park where post-WW2 Lithuanian community developed, after the old immigrants were joined by the "second wave" of refugees fleeing from almost certain deaths in their Soviet-occupied country. Coming from intellectual backgrounds these refugees created a well crafted and rich community, centered around Lithuania Plaza street. In its heyday Marquette Park area housed 30 000 Lithuanians (out of total population of 45 000).

Virgin Mary Lithuanian church in Lithuanian Plaza Road. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A large 1950s church of Virgin Mary birth towers over the district. It combines post-war architectural austerity with pre-war size and historicist details. Lithuanian mass is still celebrated there and everything tells of the longing for their lost homeland. The tricolor is always waving and patriotic historical mosaics, such as "The corronation of King Mindaugas" adorn the walls. Bas-reliefs represent the sites of Lithuanian Maryan visions.

Corronation of Mindaugas mosaic on the Virgin Mary church exterior. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The district itself however is now populated by blacks who started moving in in 1970s displacing the Lithuanians. Some buildings are now abandoned, but in Lithuanian Plaza Avenue (named so in 1970) you may still see crumbling Lithuania-inspired tricolor and Vytis decor. The last Lithuanian restaurants have been closed in ~2007. There was Antano Kampas, for example, its premises now searching for a new tenant. Several years old maps still have "Gintaras Club" marked. Even this was already only a shade of the original community which had many businesses and cultural institutions in extensive area between 63rd st., 73rd st., Western Avenue and California Avenue.

Lithuanian architectural details in Lithuanian Plaza Road. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

This district also boasts a St. Casimir nunnery that keeps exceptional relations with Lithuania. A neighboring street is called "Honorary Maria Kaupas road" after the 1880-born Lithuanian woman who established the nunnery.

West of the Marquette park there is other important Lithuanian heritage. Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture established in 1966 is the largest such institution outside Lithuania (South Pulaski Rd. 6500). The "Draugas" ("Friend") publishing house building is home to the oldest continuously published Lithuanian language newspaper (first edition in 1909). Aimed at Lithuanian Americans it used to be daily until 2011 and now is issued three times a week with circulation halved since 1960s. Unlike non-Lithuanian-owned "Čikagos Aidas" ("Echo of Chicago") "Draugas" publishes solely its own material on its website.

Entrance to Balzekas Museum. The local road is named Honorary Stanley Balzekas Road. Google Street View.

Another massive key Lithuanian hub in Chicago is Lithuanian Jesuit Youth Center (5620 S Claremont Avenue, ~3 km north of the Marquette Park). This is yet another Cold War-era institution (built 1958) funded by Lithuanian diaspora desperately trying to help their culture survive for the generations to come (even as a minority). Lithuania-themed activities/education for children and teenagers had been its goal. The massive building complex uses patriotic architecture with a large modernized Vytis forming its façade Given the Catholic nature of the institution there is also a chapel and a traditional wooden cross. While Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union and religion was persecuted there Lithuanian Jesuit province was effectively based here in Chicago.

The main entrance of the Lithuanian Youth center with Lithuanian coat of arms Vytis. Google Street View.

While today the Lithuanian nation is predominantly Catholic prior to World War 2 up to 15% of ethnic Lithuanians were Lutheran. These people hailed from Lithuania Minor region of what was then Germany. Tragically they wiped off almost completely by the Soviets in their Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1944-1949). Two Lithuanian Lutheran communities of 1910s however still exist in Chicago centered around their modest churches not too far from the Marquette Park.

Brighton Park and Cicero Lithuanian heritage

Back in 1920s Chicago had 11 Lithuanian Catholic parishes, each of them centering a Lithuanian community. The church of Providence of God (1927) is the closest to downtown (since 1960s the district population was replaced by hispanics and the mass is now celebrated in English and Spanish).

Providence of God church no longer dominates the panorama as much when the highways were constructed. Google Street View.

22nd West Place had Our Lady of Vilna church (demolished), its name now remaining only in the St Paul Our Lady of Vilna school name (to be closed in 2013). Chicago Sun Times reported an interesting story in 2013 of scrapyard worker noticing Lithuanian inscription on a bell and the diocese reaquiring it. It turns out this bell has disappeared from Our Lady of Vilna site after closure; it will now call the residents of Tinley Park suburb to prayer, thus itself completing a migration that so many did before: from inner city to suburbs and from ethnic culture to "United American" culture. The inscription on bell reads (reminding that Lithuania of 1900s-1918s was still under the rule of Russian Empire and giving reasons why Lithuanians migrated to Chicago so eagerly): "Bell, little bell, sorrowfully ring and proclaim the Miraculous Madonna of the Gate of Dawn in Lithuania, where our enemies suppress us. Our oppressed fellow countrymen are comforted. Call us to prayer, to the Church, in her name, so that we may feel a part of God’s flock. Call us three times daily, without fail, and the deceased lead with your sound. From this day forward, speak to the living, and accompany the dead to the cemetery".

Brighton Park district west of former stockyards is now also largely hispanic but its modernist Lithuanian church of Virgin Mary Immaculate Conception (built in 1964, 2745 W. 44th St.) still offers Lithuanian mass. The parish dates to 1914 but like some other churches this one was rebuilt post-WW2 to accomodate a major influx of Lithuanian refugees.

Immaculate Conception church includes secular institutions as well. Google Street View.

Further west from the downtown Cicero has a massive St. Anthony Lithuanian church and school. Lithuanian, English and Spanish mas is now offered and only the US flag waves.

Romance Revival St. Anthony church in Cicero is among the more impressive Lithuanian churches in America. Massive parish school and other buildings are behind. Google Street View.

Chicago far southside Lithuanian heritage

The Chicago district further south are currently nearly completely inhabitted by Blacks. There have been Lithuanian districts there but they collapsed even earlier (most churches closed in 1985-1990 when most Lithuanians left).

South Chicago area is only 1,92% White. Its small single-floored St. Joseph Lithuanian church (8801 S Saginaw) has been closed in 1986, now used as part of McKinley public school (itself built in 1953 as parish school). A former priest's house stands next, it is older and more interesting; the priest used to have an animal sanctuary between the buildings.

St. Casimir Lithuanian church of Chicago Heights (283 E 14th Street) suffered a similar fate (closed 1987). It looks like a century-old residential. Its two floors used to house a school as well as a church and just like on Holy Cross the former fashion to inscribe institution names on stone led to survival of its Lithuanian name. Empty lots are now all around the building.

All Saints Lithuanian church in Roseland (0,42% White district today) with art nouveau inspired nice semi-open metal tower has been sold to the baptists in 1989 (a more popular faith among Blacks than Catholicism). The survival of the church still is not easy at it has been robbed numerous times recently.

All Saints Lithuanian church in Roseland. Google Street view.

The only area's Lithuanian church to remain in Catholic use is St. Peter and Paul church in West Pullman. The building modernist with some gothic inspirations (built 1959). The parish has been established in 1913 and celebrated cetennary in 2013 but it has nothing to do with Lithuanians today. West Pullman is only 0,56% White and the Lithuanian share is now negligible. Pullman was once famous for its world-class factory of railway carriages. Modern Far South Chicago however differs from that of 1900-1915 (when most Lithuanian parishes were established) like day and night. The industry collapsed ~1970, the ethnic groups are also all different.

Lithuanian cemetaries in southern Chicago

Deceased Lithuanians used to be buried in Lithuanian cemetaries since well before World War 1. St. Casimir Catholic Cemetary was established in 1903 at the extreme south of Chicago. The entrance plaque "Lithuanian Cemetary" was removed in 1997. This is not the first such move - in 1965 cardinal Cody removed the word "Lithuanian" from the cemetary's official name, leading to a mass demonstrations of post-war Lithuanian refugees. This is one of many similar episodes in the history of Lithuanian Chicagoans. E.g. in 1972 local Lithuanians chartered a plane to Rome in order to protest in St. Peter square against the presenting of first Holy Communion to Lithaunian children in the English language.

Latin Americans (today the largest Catholic community of Chicago) now have joined Lithuanians in the St. Casimir cemetary rows. Yet the massive Lithuanian gravestones, built throughout eight previous decades, far outflank small American plaques. It seems that entire major city is buried here and everywhere the surnames are Lithuanian, some of them shortened or spelled in English. Among those interred is the Lithuanian general Povilas Plechavičius who moved to the USA as a refugee in 1949. There is a monument to Romas Kalanta who self- immolated in Kaunas to protest against the Soviet occupation. It was built the same year in 1972 by sculptor Ramojus Mazoliauskas.

Romas Kalanta monument in the St. Casimir cemetary. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another Lithuanian cemetary is next to small forest outside the official borders of Chicago. This is the multi-denominational Lithuanian National Cemetary and the word "Lithuanian" remains in the official name. It was established in 1911 when a local priest refused to bury Lithuanians who did not activelly participated in Lithuanian communities in the St. Casimir cemetary. There are some 2500 graves. Among those buried here are 1925-1926 President of Lithuania Kazys Grinius (the remains were repatriated in 1994 but the gravestone remains). Art deco buildings are pretty.

Art deco pavillion at the Lithuanian National Cemetary. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lemont and the modern Lithuanian community

Further southwest lies the modern heart of the Chicago Lithuanian community. After the disintegration of Marquette park there are no longer any district where Lithuanians would make more than a few percent of population. But in the automobile-loving USA driving 10 or 20 km is no obstacle. In 1987 the "Lithuanian World Center" was opened in Lemont suburb. Various events such as concerts and Chicago Lithuanian Basketball League matches are held there (basketball is the Lithuania's national sport and the Chicago league was established in 2003; its ~15 teams play using the FIBA rather than NBA rules). There are sport, event halls, schools, Blessed J. Matulaitis chapel. To the southwest of Chicago stands the Grand Duke Lithuanian cuisine restaurant which replaced those closed in Marquette Park and Bridgeport.

Lithuanian heritage in Chicago map.

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  1. “Draugas” yra lietuviu nuosavybe, pelno nesiekiantis laikrastis, ir nekonkuruoja su “Cikagos Aidu”. “Draugas” turi interneto svetaine – , Minetas “Aidas” yra rusu bendroves “Ethnic-Media” nuosavybe, kuri leidzia laikrascius rusu kalba, ir islaikomas prekybininku apmokamais skelbimais. Negalima traktuoti “Cikagos Aido” kaip lietuviu spauda.


  3. Hello,

    My name is David Lisker, I am artistic director and violinist at the Lisker Music Foundation (non profit organization based in Northbrook, IL). One of the many ways we aim to support the music scene in Chicago is by presenting world class concerts in the Chicagoland. We have one such concert scheduled for February 28 at the Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. The concert will feature a fantastic Lithuanian pianist Andrius Zlabys. He has performed all over the world, graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and has been nominated for a Grammy for a recording he made with Gidon Kremer. I would really love to spread the word among the rich Lithuanian community, I was hoping you might be able to help me. If you have some interest in this, I would love to discuss it further.

    thank you so much and Happy New Year!

  4. Graziai padaryta.

    Good job. However it should be noted that Our Lady of Vilna Church has not been demolished . It was closed and sold to the Chicago Public School system. It is currently again for sale. The original, very simple, leaded glass windows were given to the Balzekas Museum. The colored glass modern altar backdrops by Adolfas Valeska were moved to the Lithuanian Mission (Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis Mission) some years ago. Again it has not beed demolished yet. What has been demolished is St. George’s in Bridgeport and St. Michael’s in the Bucktown neighborhood (near north) in Chicago.

    Also check out the new English language paper Draugas News


    Saulius K

    • Thank you for the information. I haven’t found the Our Lady of Vilna church (I have not been to the place myself when I visited Chicago, just checked there via Google Street View) so I assumed it has been destroyed (as the address of Our Lady of Vilna I found online is now occupied by some private home, but probably that address is incorrect). Could you give me the true address so I could check it on the Street View? Also, where exactly was the St. Michael’s located?

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