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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.

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).

Map of Pennsylvania with Coal Region shaded in red and main Lithuanian locations marked. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Coal Region ran out of coal but the towns remained, in many of them Lithuanian population still ranging between 5% and 35%. There are lavish Lithuanian churches built of the hard-earned money by the early settlers and large Lithuanian cemeteries with their typical massive tombstones. Out of ~45 churches, only 20 to 10 survived the parish consolidations. 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.

Lithuanian mass is still held in state's largest city Philadelphia, St. Andrew church (19th and Wallace Sts). Another Lithuanian church dedicated to St. Casimir (324 Wharton Street) has been attached to St. Andrew parish in 2011 but remains in operation. The third Lithuanian church, St. George, stands at 3580 Salmon St. It is double floored with school at the first floor.

Philadelphia also hosts the Lithuanian Music Hall (2715 East Alegheny Avenue), a comprehensive Lithuanian institution which includes a restaurant, reading room, language courses, folk art exhibition, cultural center and annual Lithuanian fairs ("Mugė"). The building was constructed in 1908 when various Lithuanian clubs merged.

In addition to the usual Roman Catholic churches, there is a schismatic Lithuanian National Catholic Church in Scranton, working together with similar Polish and Slovak churches.

The most Lithuanian town in the USA is also in the Pennsylvanian Coal Region. This is Shenandoah where 14,65% inhabitants consider themselves Lithuanians today. In the turn of the 20th century, it used to be called "Vilnius of America". Here 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. The most imposing piece of Lithuanian heritage was the massive gothic revival St. George church (1891), the heart of oldest Lithuanian parish in the Americas (est. 1872). The church was recognized by the Pennsylvanian history museum commission to hold a historical value of state and national significance. Despite protests by local Lithuanians it was closed and demolished by the diocese in 2010. The town itself is also undergoing depopulation. According to Ripley's in the early 20th century it was the most densely populated place on earth. By 1910 it had 25774 people, only 11073 remained in 1960, while 2010 census counted merely 5071. This fate is shared by the entire area as it lost 30% of its population in 1930-2010 while the entire USA gained 130%. Abandoned mines where Lithuanians and others worked so hard are now off the beaten path tourist attractions.

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

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.

These areas also host the annual Lithuanian Days which is the longest running ethnic festival in the USA (every August since 1914). It outlived two parks it was previously held at (Lakewood and Rocky Glen) and was moved to Schuylkill Mall. Lithuanian arts, crafts, dances, cuisine, and customs are celebrated and proceeds go to Lithuanian causes. Before World War 2 the event used to attract some 25 000 participants and the mines were closed for that day.

Pittston (pop. 37883), the suburb of Scranton, hosts 4,15% Lithuanians, making it the largest share of Lithuanians in a US city of comparable size. Scranton is in the Northern Coal Region where the cities are larger.

Not far south of Scranton, there is Lake Kasulaitis, likely the location furthest from Lithuania to be named after a Lithuanian surname. The Lithuanian Book of Records mistakenly gives this title to Čiurlionis mountains in Franz Joseph Land, Russia (~3500 km away), but Pennsylvania is twice that far (~7000 km).

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 fourth 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 (both closed). 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).

Additional sources:
Popalis family website (Lithuanians from Shenandoah). Includes Shenandoah and local Lithuanian history.

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Comments (11) Trackbacks (0)
  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!


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