Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Lithuanian Schools abroad

Lithuanian schools abroad are considered among the top Lithuanian institutions because of their importance for children, and they were built large to educate many kids. In the start of the 20th century, those used to be general purpose schools where everything was taught in one place. Right now, most of these buildings serve other purposes, however, their Lithuanian décor and histories remain. The modern Lithuanian school abroad is different as it operates in Saturdays only and often in rented premises, and concentrate on Lithuanian culture only (as children attend local schools on Mondays-Fridaays). This is a full history of Lithuanian schools abroad.

Interestingly, over 100 years ago it was easier to build a Lithuanian school abroad than in Lithuania itself.

An abanoned Mount Carmel Lithuanian school in Pennsylvania

An abanoned Mount Carmel Lithuanian school in Pennsylvania. The facade includes Lithuanian coat of arms and a Lithuanian inscription.

That is because in the late 19th century, Russian Empire ruled Lithuania and the Lithuanian language was banned. All the schools that existed then taught mainly in the Russian language. There were Secret „underground Lithuanian schools“ but these had no buildings and involved Lithuanian kids being taught at farmer‘s premises.

It is ironic but Lithuanians had far more possibilities to speak their own language, to write and teach their kids in Lithuanian after they emigrated abroad.

St. George Lithuanian school at Bridgeport

St. George Lithuanian school at Bridgeport, Chicago, was among the largest of the Lithuanian parish schools in Americas.

The First Wave of Lithuanian emigration (1865-1914) created the first massive Lithuanian communities abroad, especially in the mining and industrial cities of the USA (Pennsylvania Coal Region, Chicagoland, East Coast). These communities were enough to establish Lithuanian schools. As, at the time, most of the Lithuanian public activities (including secular ones) were taking place within Lithuanian parishes, the schools were established as parish schools and were staffed mostly by Lithuanian nuns from Lithuanian convents (often, the Lithuanian female religious orders would have established a small convent next to a Lithuanian school). These were full-time schools that taught Lithuanians all the subjects. At the time, public education was not available and poor Lithuanian immigrant workers or minters thus used these schools (staffed by volunteer nuns) not only to safeguard the Lithuanian culture but also (or even mainly) to educate their kids so they would have a better life.

Cicero St. Anthony Lithuanian school and church

Cicero St. Anthony Lithuanian school and church

Still, these parish schools became hubs instrumental for the continuation of the Lithuanian culture abroad. In these schools, kids would have mostly Lithuanian friends and thus have opportunities to speak Lithuanian. They would start Lithuanian families with Lithuanian children. The degree to which the Lithuanian language was used in such schools varied but Lithuanian lessons were common and the nuns spoke Lithuanian too. Typically, Lithuanian culture continued for much longer in areas where the Lithuanian parish had a school

Waterbury Lithuanian school entrance adorned by Vytis

Waterbury Lithuanian school entrance adorned by Vytis

Lithuanian parish school buildings vary in size and style. Many of them are utilitarian, with only a Lithuanian inscription on the cornerstone at best indicating the purpose. Some of the Lithuanian schools, however, have extensive Lithuanian bas-reliefs on the facades.

It was a common way to establish the Lithuanian parish buildings this way: the school would be actually built before the church. While money was collected to build the church, the community would also pray in the school hall. Then, as the community increased further and there was enough money to build a separate church, this church would be built, while the religious activities would vacate the school for schooling alone. Some of the Lithuanian parishes abroad, however, never became large enough to undertake that second step. Their churches thus perpetually remained within the Lithuanian school buildings.

Our Lady of Vilnius church/school in the Heart of Italy district of Chicago (cornerstone)

Our Lady of Vilnius church/school in the Heart of Italy district of Chicago (cornerstone). This parish never actually overgrew this school and, as long as it existed, the Mass would be held in the school

As public education became common in the USA after World War 2, Lithuanian parish schools (and parish schools in general) lost much of their purpose beyond the ethnic-cultural one. It was cheaper to send a child to a public school and the conditions there were often better (as the parish schools, even if staffed by volunteer nuns, still had to be supported by the Lithuanian community). As such, parish schools started to get closed down one by one.

The original St. Anthony Lithuanian school with its modern expansion on the right (both now abandoned)

The original St. Anthony Lithuanian school of Omaha, NE, with its modern expansion on the right (both now abandoned)

After World War 2, the need to safeguard the Lithuanian language and culture abroad became dire once again, however, as Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 after its brief independence (1918-1940). Many new Lithuanians were forced to emigrate as refugees. Where they could, they sent their kids to the old parish schools but these were getting scarcer. Furthermore, at the time the Lithuanian parish schools often conducted most activities in English as well. As such, they established a new type of Lithuanian school network, so-called „Saturday schools“ (or „Sunday schools“) where Lithuanian kids would go in addition to the regular schools. There, only Lithuania-related subjects would be taught and only the Lithuanian language would be used.

Memorial for those who died for Lithuanian freedom

Memorial for those who died for Lithuanian freedom in front of Cleveland Lithunian school (Ohio). Originally serving as a parish school, this building is still used as the Lithuanian Saturday school. This is one of the Lithuanian parish schools to be constructed after World War 2. While the parish schools declined then, in some large cities, such as Cleveland, a large influx of post-WW2 refugees made it necessary to construct a new schools

Most of the Lithuanian Saturday schools are “temporary”, however. That is, they are located in rented premises that are only rented for Saturdays (or Sundays), as there is no logic in building an entire building to be used for one day a week. Often, the premises of regular schools are rented for Saturdays, as these schools do not use them on that day. As the size and seriousness of such Lithuanian schools vary greatly, in many cases where there are a few children Lithuanians of the area simply bring their kids to one place for an hour or so of Lithuanian language lessons by one of the parents. In other locations, where there are more children and a Lithuanian Saturday School tradition, they are taken far more seriously with multiple lessons and teachers with experience.

Boston Lithuanian Saturday School at the rented premises

Boston Lithuanian Saturday School at the rented premises

Nevertheless, most such Saturday Schools are beyond the scope of the “Global True Lithuania” project, as we document buildings and monuments rather than organizations.

However, this website includes many buildings of the Lithuanian parish schools. While nearly all of these parish schools have closed, most of the buildings still stand and the Lithuanian details remain. Many of the buildings are still used as schools (they were either sold to or rented to private schools). Some of the Lithuanian school buildings stand abandoned. Some of them are still owned by the Lithuanian parishes and used for the Lithuanian Saturday schools (either they are used just once a week, or they are rented out for a regular school for the five days and then used by Lithuanian kids on Saturdays).

Lithuanian school of Buenos Aires Lithuanian parish

Lithuanian school of Buenos Aires Lithuanian parish. It now serves as a general school

The largest Lithuanian school outside Lithuania that has its own building is the February 16th gymnasium in Germany which served as a Lithuanian immersion school for Lithuanians from all over the world. They would come to live there and had to speak in Lithuanian as there was no other common language (there were English-speaking Lithuanian-Americans, Portuguese-speaking Lithuanian-Brazilians, Spanish-speaking Lithuanian-Argentines, and Lithuanians from Germany all studying together). This helped to educate the 2nd or 3rd generation of Lithuanians as especially Lithuanian-minded and speaking Lithuanian well.

Article by ©Augustinas Žemaitis.