Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the home to the world's oldest Lithuanian overseas community, started in ~1865 by coal miners. 82 000-strong it is also the second largest in the USA. Back in 1930 three Pennsylvanian cities were among the US top ten by the total number (rather than percentage) of ethnic Lithuanians: Philadelphia (3rd), Pittsburg (8th) and Scranton (10th).

Lithuanian national musical instrument Kanklės detail at the Lithuanian Music Hall in Philadelphia.

Lithuanian heritage in Pennsylvanian Coal Region

The strongest presence of Lithuanian heritage is in the parts of eastern Pennsylvania known as the Coal Region. Coal, the oil of 19th century, was discovered there in the 1860s. People from poor European regions were recruited for hard and dangerous work (10 hours a day, 6 days a week, 25 ct wage per hour) living in the newly erected towns. Lithuania was at the time occupied and heavily persecuted by the Russian Empire, giving rise to emigrants known as "grynoriai" ("Free Air Men") for whom the conditions in Pennsylvanian mines were far better than persecution back in their agricultural homeland, where the Lithuanian language had been banned and serfdom abolished only recently (1861).

Memorial plaque for Little Lithuania in Shenandoah

Memorial plaque for Little Lithuania in the Southern Coal Regi

The Coal Region ran out of coal but the towns remained, in many of them Lithuanian populations still in their hundreds. There are lavish Lithuanian churches built of the hard-earned money by the early settlers and large Lithuanian cemeteries with their typical massive tombstones. More than 40 churches were built there. However, Lithuanian mass is no longer celebrated and Lithuanian dedications (Our Lady of Šiluva, Our Lady of Vilnius, St. Casimir, St. George) are largely removed where they existed, especially during the church closure spree of ~2008. After all, the Coal Region Lithuanian communities, unlike those in major cities, were not replenished by new immigrants and English language became dominant in the communities over some 4-5 generations. However, Lithuanian inscriptions, Lithuanian history-inspired church interiors and exteriors still remain where the churches are still used for religious purposes. It should be noted that Lithuanian church attendances were growing until at least 1980, contrary to regional trends.

'Shrine of Lithuanian history' in a Lithuanian-American church. From left to right: American, Lithuanian, and Vatican flags; the Soviet Genocide painting; the Mary painting in a folk-craft frame; the TV tower painting; the cross with images of those killed in January 13, 1991.

The Coal Region of Pennsylvania consists of two large areas.

The Southern Coal Region is centered around Shenandoah, a town that used to be known as "Vilnius of America" in the early 20th century. The area is important not only to the Lithuanian-American history but to Lithuanian history as a whole: in Shenandoah, the world's first Lithuanian novel was printed ("Algimantas" by V. Pietaris in 1904 when Lithuanian language was still banned back home), Lithuanian miner orchestra and other cultural institutions, newspapers, existed. Shenandoah had Lithuanian mayors for 42 years and it has 6 Lithuanian cemeteries. In general, Southern Coal Region consists of many small crumbling ex-mining towns, each of them having some 500-5000 people and a regular grid of streets. 15 of those towns had Lithuanian churches (despite them being just a few kilometers from each other) and many had Lithuanian cemeteries and massive schools. Some still exist, some are destroyed or abandoned. Lithuanian Days, the oldest annual ethnic festival in the USA, takes place in the area since 1914. The 20 miles wide area surrounding Shenandoah hosts many Lithuanian villages. In Seltzer (pop. 307) Lithuanians make 27,46%, in New Philadelphia (pop. 1616) - 16,97%, in Cumbola (pop. 382) - 15,06%. Lithuanian populations surpass 9% in the area's towns of Minersville (pop. 4686), Mahanoy City (pop. 5725), Barnesville (pop. 2076), Frackville (pop. 8631). All these locations are in top 20 US locations by the share of Lithuanians. Among these 20 as much as 16 locations are in Pennsylvania, 15 in the Coal Region. Much of the area is with Schuylkill county which, with 5% of its population Lithuanian, is the most Lithuanian county in the USA.

1950s postcard of Shenandoah churches (Lithuanian St. George church on the right).

The Northern Coal Region is much urbaner than the Southern Coal Region: essentially, it is one large conurbation of over half a million people, covering the cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and more. These cities each have 1%-4% of their population of Lithuanian ancestry (Pittston has the most with 4,15% Lithuanians, making it the largest share of Lithuanians in a US city of comparable size). There were 14 Lithuanian churches in the area, as well as numerous large cemeteries and impressive monuments. The Northern Coal Region Lithuanian buildings are generally bigger than the southern Coal Region ones, as they served larger urban communities rather than smaller rural ones. There are also 4 surviving-and-open Lithuanian clubs, each some 100 years old (however, these clubs, while celebrating their Lithuanian past, now tend to accept all patrons). The most unique Lithuanian site in the area is the Lithuanian national Catholic church that is independent of the Vatican. The area also has Lake Kasulaitis, which is a Lithuanian-named lake that is the furthest away from Lithuania.

Pittston Lithuanian club hydrant

A fire-hydrant colored in Lithuanian colors near the Pittston Lithuanian club

Kasulaitis is also among a minority of surnames among those of Lithuanian Pennsylvanians which are still written as they are written in Lithuania. By the time immigration to Pennsylvania took place, there was no standardized Lithuanian orthography yet and the immigration service transcribed the surnames using various orthographies, including English, Polish or created ad hoc; they either added or removed word endings at will. Therefore in the Shenandoah Lithuanian cemetery, you may see surnames such as Bakszis and Bakszys (the modern Lithuanian spelling is Bakšys), Kutchinskas and Kutchinsky (modern Lithuanian: Kučinskas), Abrachinsky and Abraczinsai (modern Lithuanian: Abračinskas).

The grave of Publisher Bočkauskas family in Mahanoy City

The grave of Publisher Bočkauskas family in Mahanoy City Lithuanian cemetery

All over the Coal Region, there are possibilities to descend into the mines Lithuanians worked at and visit museums that present authentic and quite sad life as it was.

A distant Lithuanian outpost away from everything else in Pennsylvania is another coal town of DuBois, that has Lithuanian church and cemetery.

DuBois Lithuanian church.

Lithuanian heritage in the major Pennsylvanian cities

Much larger and more lively Lithuanian community exists in the state capital of Philadelphia. There, three large Lithuanian churches operate, St. Andrew and St. Casimir churches having especially Lithuanian interiors and St. Andrew still hosting a Lithuanian school. Given that many Lithuanian churches elsewhere are closed, Philadelphia is arguably the best city in Pennsylvania or the entire USA to see the Lithuanian communities and heritage as it once was. There is also a historic Lithuanian Music Hall (older than the Republic of Lithuania itself) and other Lithuanian sites. Unlike the Coal Region where most Lithuanians are 3rd-5th generation descendants of immigrants, Philadelphia also has many post-WW2 refugees and numerous recent immigrants.

Lithuanian music hall in Philadelphia.

Yet another major Lithuanian area in Pennsylvania is located in Pittsburgh, where the Coal Region coal used to be turned into steel. Pittsburg has Lithuanian communities, cemeteries, and churches (most are closed now, though, as Pittsburg Lithuanian community also is among the old ones and the lack of Lithuanian domination in any town or region meant that it has assimilated into other communities). The most famous Lithuanian site in Pittsburgh is the Lithuanian National Classroom, an entire room of Pittsburgh university funded by Lithuania that doubles as a museum of the Lithuanian nation. It is a popular tourist site among Lithuanians and Americans alike.

Lithuanian classroom in the Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning

Lithuanian classroom in the Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning

There were also Lithuanian communities and churches in Easton and Reading, although both are now closed. There is a surviving Lithuanian club in Osceola Mills.

Pennsylvania map with the Lithuanian "colonies" marked. The Coal Region is marked in red, while the major concentrations of Lithuanians are written in green. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The map

All the Lithuanian locations, described in this article, are marked on this interactive map, made by the "Destination Lithuanian America 2017" expedition (click the link):

Interactive map of Pennsylvania Lithuanian sites
 


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  1. My fathers family worked in the coal mines, Joe Werbela was in the Pottsville area, and my fathers “Bieliunas” kin is a question mark. Is there any way for me to obtain information about where they lived?

  2. My fathers family worked in the coal mines, Joe Werbela was in the Pottsville area, and my fathers “Bieliunas” kin is a question mark. Is there any way for me to obtain information about where they lived?
    I live in Welland Ontario, Canada. I have visited Pottsville and intend to visit again.

  3. My “americanized” Bieliunas became Balonis. My family were coal miners in Mahanoy City. My Urlikas family were born in Tamaqua.

  4. Great stuff. Where did you get the numbers from?
    maybe some one has Kasulaitis lake pictures.

  5. I am looking to find out how this Mary Anna Cilcus fits into my family tree. Her father would be Walter Paul Cilcus (also spelled Cilcius). Her father would have been born in Lithuania but she was born in Pennsylvania. Could someone help me with information. The information below came from a librarian in Toronto.

    Name – Mary Anna Cilcus
    Birth place – 6 Nov 1916
    Birth place – Curwensville, Pennsylvania
    Father – Walter Paul
    Mother – Elizabeth Cilcus
    Death date – 21 Jul 2002

    Notes:
    Feb 1937 — name listed as Mary Anna Cilcus
    Dec 1943 — name listed as Mary Anna Paul
    Dec 1946 — name listed as Mary A. Mulford
    31 Jul 2002 — name listed as Mary Mulford

  6. I am looking for relatives of Ludwig Bingiel and Eva Roman
    I’m not sure who was born where. One was born in Vilnius, the other in Kona.
    Grandpap’s birth day was April 12 . He and my Bubba had 7 children. Helen, Jean Louis, Alma,Gustane, Michael Or John (He was known as both) and Martha. My Grandpap worked for Carnegie Coal Co. and lived in Atlasburg,Pa.

    • Hi Terri I think you need search under Kaunas city name not Kona becouse this is not even russian or polish translated name. Russian form would be Kovno Polish Kowno Jewish Kovne and German Kauen maybe this would help to find more information

  7. My grandfather was Jonas Queen who mined coal and lived in Fredericktown, PA. I am trying to connect with family to get more information regarding family line and names prior to my grandfather coming to America.

    • If you’d learn more about possible dates and locations and would like to continue the search in the Lithuanian archives – we may provide such services.

  8. looking for anyone related to Anna Karpavich (lithuanian Ona Karpaviciute or Karpaviciene). thanks!

    • We have an Ona Kurpaviciene (and some records spell the Karpaviciene), married to Juozas Levinskas. They were the parents of my husband’s mother, Brone (Bernice) Levinskaite Tamkus. Would love to compare notes. Please email me.

  9. I ama looking for family of Olga Samulevich . She was Olga Antonites and was sent to her uncle Stanley (or it could be Stanislau) from South Africa. Her father was Aleksander Josef Antonites (or it maybe Antanaitis) and her mother was Rozalie Sluzaitze. ( I am not sure about the spelling). Her family is South Africa were (she was the eldest of the siblings) Stanlislou (Stanley); Paul; Anna; Alex (Alexander)and Antonie (Anthony Mattheus) who was my late father. We would love to know if there are any of her family members left . The family tree is a riddle because they left Lithuania during the Russian era end of the 1800 and we couldnt trace any documentation eg the town where they come from birth dates etc . I would be much appreciated if you could contact me to see if we could exchange any information about our ancestors.
    Jurie Antonites Email< antonites.jurie@gmail.com or evan.antonites@gmail.com

  10. I am looking for my great-grandmother birth place in Philadelphia. All I know she born in 1915, Her name was Stefanija Dreiniute. Her parents Juozas (Juozapas) Dreinius and Stefanija Dreiniene (Bieliauskaite). Also, I know they owned a laundry there…
    Is it possible to find out more details?

  11. I am looking for the family of Antanas Vinikaitis (Anthony Viniks) who worked in the mines around 1900. I have been told that families from Suvalkija, Lithuania settled in your area. He left PA to NJ around 1907, but from what my Dad told me he kept close ties to people there. Antanas died sometime in 1930s Thank you for any help.

  12. Th family history of Matthew and Agatha Karalunas islets. Both were born in LT, he emigrating first and she (nee Janavicius ?Janavitz), later to be married in Luzerne County PA. This happened around 1907. He worked in the Wyoming Valley coal mines. It is rumored that they both came from a place in LT which translates to “Holy Lake”, or “Spirit Lake”, which was said have been destroyed by The Reds. I am wondering if anyone could add to this for me…thank you!

    • “Holy Lake” is likely Šventežeris, with “šventas” meaning “holy” and “ežeras” meaning “lake”. The largest Šventežeris is in Lazdijai district municipality, however, from what you say, it could have been some smaller similarly-named village that was destroyed by the Soviets (as the aforementioned Šventežeris still exists today).

  13. I am trying to find my Grandfather, Juozapas (Juozas) Petkus who came to work in the Coal Mines in PA from Lithuania. He was from MAZEIKIAI, LITHUANIA. He was married to Emilija (Emilia) in Lithuania, but never contacted his wife or children once he came to the US. He arrived in NY possibly around 1912-1923. Not certain on the dates. We are trying to find out if he Married and had another family in America? Did he work in the Coal Mines or did he die shortly after arrival? What agency keeps marriage licenses archives or death records? Does the Archdiocese keep the records? Do you have names of all the local Lithuanian Cemeteries in the area and phone numbers? I would like to try to contact them myself to see if they have a record too. Thank you so much for any help you can provide. We are planning to travel to the East Coast in a few weeks and PA is on the list of places we are visiting. We would love to see the church or cemetery and coal mine he worked at while he was alive.

    • Here is the map of the Pennsylvania Lithuanian sites, including all the churches, existing and former, as well as all the cemeteries: http://map.truelithuania.com/en/pennsylvania-map-of-lithuanian-sites/ . Please zoom on the Coal Region, which is a large cluster of sites on the northeast of the state.

      It should be noted there are/were some 50 churches and some 30 Lithuanian cemeteries in the region alone, making a search quite difficult if you don’t know anything more about where exactly he went to (although all the towns, cemeteries, churches are rather similar, so you may just go to Shenandoah area and likely feel what he felt, for instance).

      You may perhaps begin a search by searching his name and various corrupted variations at various online tools that offer such search e.g. in the US census records. Then you may at least learn the exact city/town he was in and from that it would be rather easy to know the church he went to / cemetery he was buried at (if he did not “move on” elsewhere).

  14. My grandmother (now 83) grew up in Wikes-Barre, all of her uncles and father were coal miners. She did not speak English until she was 7 or 8 and was the second generation of Lithuanians who emigrated. The last names are Barzdaitis, Miskel, Zupka. I have a pretty good tree on ancestry if anyone is looking to collaborate! I would love to learn more about how Lithuanian immigrants lived their lives during this time in this region.


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