Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Lithuanian Churches Abroad

Many Lithuanian churches in foreign lands are surprisingly impressive. They are like islands of Lithuania. Sometimes it may even seem doubtful whether they were built for the glory of God or the glory of far-away homeland. These churches are full of tricolors, images of Lithuania. Massive walls reminds of the titanious job done by the builders of these churches - thirty years or a century ago.

Holy Cross Lithuanian church In Chicago and its pre-modern Lithuanian language plaque. Today Lithuanian mass is no longer celebrated but the church has Lithuanian interior. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most Lithuanian churches outside Lithuania and neighboring lands are located in USA and Canada. A few are in South America and Australia, one is in London. In the 19th century and early 20th century a Lithuanian church used to be an anchor for the future development of the Lithuanian district nearby. The parish owned schools while Lithuanian laymen expanded the area by establishing Lithuanian clubs, bakeries, barber shops, credit associations, and travel agencies nearby. And, of course, even more Lithuanians used to settle down in the surrounding area.

A map of Lithuanian churches in the Northeast and Mid-Western USA, as well as Ontario and Quebec (includes closed ones)

A map of Lithuanian churches in the Northeast and Mid-Western USA, as well as Ontario and Quebec (includes closed ones). The darker is the marker the better surviving and more important the Lithuanian church is

The ethnic parish used to be not only the center of religious worship but also of public life in general. Most of the internal and external art are related to motherland. Most names of Lithuanian churches are traditional: St. Casimir (the only Lithuanian saint and also the country's patron saint), St. George (another patron saint of Lithuania), Our Lady of Vilnius, Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. Lithuanians were not alone: other ethnic groups built their own churches in immigrant societies such as the USA.

Coronation of Mindaugas mosaic on the Marquette Park Lithuanian church exterior in Chicago. This is the largest Lithuanian church abroad and the mass is only celebrated in Lithuanian. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Up to the 20th century, the main goal of Lithuanian emigration was the USA. The USA hosts many Lithuanian churches. In the Pennsylvania coal region (where the first foreign Lithuanian community established) alone there were at one time ~40 Lithuanian churches, Chicagoland had ~15. The only Lithuanian church in Europe to survive from that era is located in London which was then the world's largest city and thus attracted a Lithuanian community despite being European.

The Lithuanian churches of US villages and further suburbs were small. But most Lithuanian migrants at the time opted to leave for US cities and many of them attracted large communities. The massive revivalist (gothic revival, baroque revival) churches they built there still surpass most American churches in size. After all USA has not main religion so instead of a single big church there are typically many small ones.

Lithuanian wooden crosses near the Gervėčiai church in Belarus. Such crosses, a UNESCO-inscribed ethnic art stand in the yards of most Lithuanian churches abroad. Lithuanian churches in Poland and Belarus are unique as these communities are native ones rather than immigrants. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Smaller cities had at least a single Lithuanian parish while the large cities had multiple. Old Lithuanian churches survive in Chicago, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland and some small US towns in New England and Midwest.

In the 1870s-1880s some Lithuanian churches would be built together with Poles, as Polish was the "elite language" even for many Lithuanians. As the nations diverged and Lithuanians sought to use native Lithuanian in the church as well, conflicts began and the question lingered over who would get the buildings in case the parishes "divorce". Anyways, at the end, there remained no common Polish-Lithuanian parishes.

After World War 1 USA had already curbed immigration and Lithuanian emigrants turned at South America. Lithuanian churches were constructed in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. However, there were much less of them: these countries were poorer and the number of Lithianians were smaller. Some of these churches were infact funded by Lithuanians from the USA.

After Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets ~100 000 Lithuanians fled, rejuvenating the communities. Larger churches replaced some older ones and refugee Lithuanians (mostly Lithuanian-Americans and Lithuanian-Canadians) wished for as many Lithuanian details as possible, creating a unique "Modern Lithuanian" church style, led by architect Jonas Mulokas and interior designer V. K. Jonynas.

In the USA, post-WW2 immigrants were only allowed in if they were invited by Americans, and so typically went under an invitation of Lithuanian-American relatives to where they lived and joined their parishes. In Canada and, especially, Australia though, Lithuanians immigrated where no Lithuanian communities existed and so had to establish new parishes (something that was hindered in Australia, where Lithuanians in many cities were able to build only Lithuanian Homes).

Transfiguration church of New York is a large post-WW2 modern-style Lithuanian church. Most of its contemporaries were less elaborate as economy started to prevail over architectural glory. Google Street View.

Over the time however the attendances of Lithuanian mass decreased. Over a few generations the immigrants used to assimilate and join English congregations. After 1990 independence and the abolition of Soviet emigration ban Lithuanians started to imigrate to the USA again. But after decades of life under Soviet atheist regime and discrimination of the churchgoers fewer of them were religious.

Main cities of the USA underwent a kind of "movement of the races" in 1950-1980. Whites (among them Lithuanians) used to move to the suburbs while their districts became Black (or Hispanic) majority. This way the only Lithuanians to still live around many Lithuanian churches are elderly. The Lithuanian mass was therefore cancelled in many of them. However if the churches are still Catholic the interior is typically saved, including the Lithuanian decor. Unfortunately it is not always so. Some Lithuanian churches have been sold to other Christian denominations (Pentecostal, protestant), one was even sold to Buddhists. Some more churches have been demolished and the land sold.

St. Anthony Lithuanian church in Detroit (opened 1920, closed 2013) had a then-typical design of mid-sized community churches: a massive hall on the 2nd floor and a school, a parish hall on the 1st (Ground) floor. Another Lithuanian church (post-WW2) still operates in Detroit suburbs. The building to the left in the image is Lithuanian Hall, closed earlier than the church and renovated into offices. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To Lithuanian communities their church is a kind of new Homeland and a part of their soul. Therefore such closures always attract large protests where the bishops (primarily Irish as this is the largest Catholic community in the USA) are blamed for safeguarding the churches of their own communities by closing down fuller and more viable Lithuanian parishes.

Although the number of Lithuanians living outside Lithuania nearly doubled after 1990 no new Lithuanian churches were constructed. In some centers of the "new emigration" (Dublin, Manchester) Lithuanian mass is held in non-Lithuanian churches. This way however there is no longer an important hub of Lithuanity that used to be built by Lithuanians of the past to their communities and which permitted these communities to survive longer.

Article by ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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