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 influental 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.
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.
That 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
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).
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.
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 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.
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 its competitor "Čikagos Aidas" ("Echo of Chicago") "Draugas" lacks a modern website that shares articles with Lithuanian news portals.
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).
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.
Near Brighton Park a major Jesuit building (1958) includes a Youth center offering both religious and seccular activities, a chapel and a monastery. When monastic life was banned in Lithuania by Soviet occupational regime the Lithuanian Jesuit headquarters operated from here.
Further west from the downtown Cicero has a towerless St. Anthony Lithuanian church.
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.
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.
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.
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.