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Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha may look 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 were 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.

A fragment of the Lithuanian tale mural in Omaha

A fragment of the Lithuanian tale mural in Omaha

Omaha Lithuanian church area

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. The current St. Anthony Lithuanian church (5402 South 32nd Street) has been constructed in 1936 after the original one burned down.

Omaha St. Anthony Lithuanian church

Omaha St. Anthony Lithuanian church

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) was used for watching Lithuanian movies, theater, listening to Lithuanian lectures, doing picnics.

The St. Anthony’s school was built in 1924 and a nearby convent to house Lithuanian St. Casimir nuns in 1945.

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

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

A defining moment for the Omaha Lithuanian community was the Soviet re-occupation of Lithuania (1944). At the time, some 100 000 Lithuanians successfully fled Lithuania, thus avoiding Soviet occupation and genocide. They lived in refugee camps until ~1948, looking for countries that could accept them. The USA was the preferred country but it required invitation/sponsorship letters from Americans for the Lithuanian refugees to be allowed in (in these letters, the sponsors would guarantee that the invited person had a job and to take care of them). Typically, these letters were only accessible to those who had relatives in the USA. Here came Reverend Jusevičius, the priest of Omaha St. Anthony Lithuanian Church, who wrote many invitation letters himself or asked others to do it. Thus he invited over 1000 Lithuanians, making Omaha one of the largest Lithuanian communities at the time. Reverend Jusevičius did whatever he could to help them survive, as even the church basement was turned into a dormitory for these refugees.

The massive influx of patriotic Lithuanians required more premises for secular ethnic activities. A new school building has been constructed in 1953.

However, many of the American-born generations showed less attachment to their old homeland, they often created mixed families. Furthermore when Omaha packing houses closed, many migrated to other cities. At the same time, free public schools became common in the USA and there was no longer a dire need for volunteer Lithuanian nuns to staff Lithuanian parish schools; the numbers of girls wanting to join the nuns have thus also declined with laypeople staffing the school which was not desired to some Lithuanian parents. Due to all these reasons, the church and school attendance dropped, the school was closed in 1980.

An interesting moment in parish history has been the appointment of priest Peter Stravinskas in 2005. He attracted new parish members who lived in other areas of Omaha and were not satisfied with their own parishes. However, he was not that interested in the Lithuanian character of the parish. Old parish members were disappointed; especially so after Stravinskas spent the parish funds that were saved up in order to prove to the archbishop 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 2014.

Abandoned Omaha Lithuanian school with monastery attached on the left and modern addition on the right

Abandoned Omaha Lithuanian school with monastery attached on the left and modern addition on the right

Of all the Omaha St. Anthony Lithuanian parish buildings, only the St. Anthony church itself has a Lithuanian inscription on its cornerstone („Šv. Antano bažnyčia 1936“), as well as a Lithuanian-styled sun-cross, while the other buildings have English-only inscriptions.

Historically, the area around the Omaha Lithuanian church was also the Lithuanian district, as Lithuanians would choose homes within walking distance from the church and other Lithuanian activities and businesses would also have developed there. When the first Lithuanian wave settled, this part of Omaha was considered to be a separate city of South Omaha (annexed by Omaha in 1915). The businesses of the First Wave included grocery stores, bakeries, and a Lithuanian newspaper.

Historic building of St. Anthony Lithuanian church of Omaha

Historic building of St. Anthony Lithuanian church of Omaha

The Lithuanian activities in the area expanded even more with the post-WW2 refugees who formed the Lithuanian Scouts, Lithuanian Choir, Theatrical Group, Ethnic Dance Group, Omaha Lithuanian American Community, Omaha Lithuanian Women’s Club, Lithuanian Veterans Group, Hunter and Fisherman, and other groups. They published books, opened beauty shops, drug stores, bakeries, grocery stores, medical practices, construction companies, bars, and nursing homes in the area.

The cornerstone of St. Anthony Lithuanian church

The cornerstone of St. Anthony Lithuanian church

Even though our parish was closed, the Lithuanian Community remains active sponsoring picnics, Kūčios, having fund-raisers for charitable donations, and having Lithuanian displays at ethnic events around the city.

Lithuanian path of the sun at the Lauritzen Gardens

Omaha Lithuanian community is still active, even though aging (the new generation has generally not joined the activity and there were few recent immigrants). Under their initiative, Omaha twinned with the city of Šiauliai in Lithuania. In 2015-2017, a joint initiative of the two cities was to create a Lithuanian sculpture garden "Path of the sun" in Lauritzen Gardens of Omaha. The path has numerous Lithuanian wooden sculptures inspired by such locations in Lithuania itself as Raganų kalnas (Witches Hill) in Neringa and the Hill of Crosses.

Entrance of the Lithuanian Path of the Sun in Omaha

Entrance of the Lithuanian Path of the Sun in Omaha

The artworks have been created by Aurimas Šimkus from Kurtuvėnai (near Šiauliai) who was returning to Omaha to expand the Path annually while it was under construction.

Among the figures depicted are Jūratė and Kastytis, characters intertwined by forbidden love in a Lithuanian tale. Jūratė, a sea goddess, lived in an amber palace under the Baltic sea and fell in love with fisherman Kastytis; in revenge, the main god (of Thunder) Perkūnas destroyed Jūratės castle, thus making the Baltic amber.

Jūratė and Kastytis in Omaha

Jūratė and Kastytis in Omaha

Eglė, the Queen of Serpents – a rather similar although gender-reversed love story between a fisherman’s daughter and a serpent prince who lived in the sea – is also represented in another sculpture.

The Lithuanian tales are described on plaques near the sculptures.

Arguably the most impressive, though, is the wooden entrance to the path, itself carved in various ethnically-inspired patterns, with the sun represented on its top. Elements such as benches are also done in Lithuanian style.

Eglė the Queen of Serpents in Omaha

Eglė the Queen of Serpents in Omaha

There were plans to build an even bigger Lithuanian garden but they have been shelved so far.

Omaha Lithuanian bakery "chain" and mural

Omaha has two Lithuanian bakeries, this mini-chain was established by Vytautas and Stefanija Mackevičius in 1963 and is operated by their relatives. The original Lithuanian "Lithuanian Bakery and Deli" is at 5217 S 33rd Ave. It is operated by Mackevičius’s children. The bakery was originally started with making sourdough rye bread. "Napoleonas" tortas, a sweeter version of a typical Lithuanian dessert, is their most famous product but they also still offer bread and other baked goods Much of the sales are now through other shops and through the internet, allowing the bakery to expand (while the front building is originally built by Lithuanian hands in the 1960s, the back extension has been constructed in the 2000s).

Omaha Lithuanian Bakery and Deli

Omaha Lithuanian Bakery and Deli

Production at the Lithuanian Bakery and Deli

Production at the Lithuanian Bakery and Deli

The key defining feature is its 2015 Lithuanian mural depicting Lithuania, its culture and history, as well as Omaha Lithuanians. The topics represented in that “Lithuanian tale” have been suggested by Omaha Lithuanians – they include priest Reverend Jusevičius who invited the Lithuanian post-WW2 refugees to Omaha, former Omaha Lithuanian bars (with paths leading to them forming Columns of Gediminas), basketball, history of Omaha Lithuanians, the Gediminas castle of Vilnius, Vytis, Lithuanian chapel-post, ethnic dances, agricultural activities, Joninės bonfires, pagan gods, Lithuanian-American drinking-straw ornaments, famous Lithuanian buildings, Lithuanian food, Lithuanian anthem, Omaha packinghouses (where many Lithuanians worked), examples of “Vakarų varpas” Omaha Lithuanian newspaper, Omaha Lithuanian church, a chronology of Omaha Lithuanian history and more. The mural was funded by the city as a part of an initiative to spotlight immigrant and other communities and in part to combat illegal graffiti. It has been done by volunteers (it is described as “Created by Richard Harrison, Mike Giron, Rebecca Van Ornam, Hugo Zamorano and the Lithuanian Community” in a nearby plaque).

A fragment of the Lithuanian mural of Omaha

A fragment of the Lithuanian mural of Omaha

A fragment of the mural shows the paths to the historic (no longer existing) Lithuanian-owned bars forming the columns of Gediminas

A fragment of the mural shows the paths to the historic (no longer existing) Lithuanian-owned bars forming the columns of Gediminas

Another of Omaha’s Lithuanian bakeries, Lithuanian Bakery and Kafe, is a selling point for the products of the other bakery, also offering a possibility to eat locally at the tables. They serve lunch and do catering for different events around the community. Located in a modern strip mall, it nevertheless has Lithuanian symbols such as the flag and sells Lithuanian cookbooks published by the Omaha Lithuanian Women’s Club.

Inside the Omaha Lithuanian Bakery and Kafe

Inside the Omaha Lithuanian Bakery and Kafe

Omaha Lithuanian graves

Among the famous Omaha Lithuanians was a composer of Lithuanian marches Bronius Jonušas. He was buried in Evergreen Memorial Park cemetery under a unique gravestone designed by a famous Lithuanian-American architect Jonas Mulokas. The gravestone depicts musical notes piercing through the Lithuanian columns of Gediminas symbol. After Lithuania restored its independence in 1990, Bronius Jonušas’s remains were moved to Lithuania (like those of many patriotic Lithuanians who saw themselves as exiles in the USA) but the monument remains.

Jonušas grave in Omaha

Jonušas grave in Omaha

Most of the other Lithuanians of Omaha were buried in St. Mary's cemetery, which is the closest cemetery to the historic district of Omaha where Lithuanians settled. Since this cemetery filled up, Lithuanians are now being buried at St. John’s Cemetery.

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

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Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Im curious about my motherinlaw comming over from Lithuania from a labor camp the name is Motiejaitis

    • We may offer you heritage search services in the Lithuanian archives if you are interested. You could learn more about the lives of your forefathers in Lithuania.

  2. Please tell me how I might come in contact with your heritage search sevices in the Lithuanaian archives you refer to above. I have the name of a family I think might have come to Omaha post WWII.

  3. My husband id from Sauluai, Lithuania -I am all American and canot speak Lithuanian-he came over in 1947-still has a sister and relatives in Lithuanian-His Uncle Charles (we never met0 came to Omaha in 1906- we did meet John and Lil Druskis , they are in heaven now-. Also there are quite a few wonderful Lithuanians in fort Myers . Fl. where we live. Peter is ninety-five but cannot see that well-otherwise very happy and cheerful-.

  4. I’m interested in any information you have on Katherine Twaranovich. St. Anthony’s sponsored her and her brother from Lithuania in 1918. They then worked in a packing house. I’d like to know if she arrived via Ellis Island. Did the church pay her way? How much was that? And did the church house them or did parishioners. Thank you

  5. I’m interested in finding information on my great-uncle Juozas Bluvas (Bluwas).
    I believe he located there somewhere between 1899 and 1920.
    Any direction you could point me towards would be highly appreciated.
    Regards

  6. Taip pat turėjau aš atvykti ir tarnauti šioje Šv. Antano parapijoje iš Lietuvos dar 1996 metais, tačiau dokumentų sutvarkymas su Amerikos vyskupiją užtruko ir buvo paskirtas kitas kunigas, prie kurio ir buvo uždaryta parapija.
    Labai gaila, kad taip įvyko…kur ponia Gardikaite laibai rūpinosi šiuo reikalu.
    Maldoje
    Kun.prof.dr.Kęstutis Ralys

    • Gaila, kad nepavyko. Tiesa, kunigų užsienio lietuvių parapijose trūksta iki šiol, tad, jei dar kada norėtumėte, gal pavyktų – šiuo metu, kiek žinau, kunigo ieško Bostonas, yra ir daug kitų “Lithuanian” parapijų, kurios, pašnekėjus su vietos lietuviais, norėtų turėti lietuvį kunigą, bet nelabai turi vilties tai nelabai aktyviai ir ieško, nors iškilus tokiai galimybei labai tuo džiaugtųsi.

      Vyskupijų pozicijos labai įvairios, yra vyskupų, kurie “tautinių parapijų” nemėgsta ir stengiasi naikinti, esą, dabar yra viena visuotinė katalikų bažnyčia tai kartu visi ir melskimės (t.y. visi to rajono ar miesto tikintieji).

      Kita vertus, yra ir tautines parapijas remiančių vyskupų ar bent netrukdančių, ir teko skaityti ir tekstų, remiančių tai iš religinės pusės, juk Dievas sugriovė Babelio bokštą, suskaldė žmones į tautas, tai nėra ko čia vėl statyti Babelio bokštą ir mėginti priverstinai jungti įvairiataučius tikinčiuosius į vieną bažnyčios pastatą.


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