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Shenandoah and southern Coal Region, Pennsylvania

The Southern Coal region of Pennsylvania is also known as "Little Lithuania". It's not only that many Lithuanian Americans inhabit its towns - this region had been especially important for Lithuanian cultural history. Almost every town here has (or had) a Lithuanian church, cemetery, and club. The surrounding countryside is full of derelict closed coal (anthracite) mines which lured all those Lithuanians in during the 1860s-1910s era. Currently, the local Schuylkill county is the most Lithuanian one in the entire USA, with Lithuanians making 6% of local population.

Shenandoah - American Vilnius

The heart of the region is Shenandoah (pop. 5500) that used to be nicknamed "Vilnius of America". Even today it is ~12% Lithuanian. The heart of Lituanity here used to be a twin-towered St. George church, the oldest Lithuanian church in the entire continent (built in 1891), full of Lithuanian art paid for by meager coal miner salaries. It was even recognized as heritage yet after a controversial process and many protests the diocese decided to tear it down. Lithuanians who collected money to save the church decided to spend it on a commemorative plaque for the Shenandoah's "Little Lithuania" (Main and Centre streets corner).

The nickname is not an overstatement as the town had Lithuanian mayors for 42 years. More than that: the first Lithuanian-language novel in the world "Algimantas" has been published in Shenandoah in 1904. The reason for this (as well as Lithuanian migration to Coal Region in general) was that Lithuanians back home were discriminated under the Russian Imperial rule with their language banned between years 1865 and 1904.

Back then Shenandoah was a much larger town than it is today, with a population of 20 000 (some say 40 000), a quarter of them Lithuanians. "Ripley's Believe it or Not" claimed Shenandoah to be the world's most densely populated locality.

Shenandoah St. George Lithuanian church on a historic postcard (left) and the empty lot today (right).

Such decline has been common in all the regional towns: they lost at least half of population since 1930 while some even lost three-quarters. Perhaps this helped to save the Lithuanian culture - there are comparatively few new migrants (Blacks, Latin Americans), therefore the old communities continue to dominate culturally. When there are so many Lithuanians the probability of having a Lithuanian husband or wife is also not that small so there are 100% Lithuanians up to 3rd, 4th and further generations of immigrants.

Still what exists today is far under what existed in 1898 when Shenandoah Lithuanians owned 59 Taverns, 17 shops, 5 meat markets, 8 stonemasons, 3 barber shops, 4 tailors, 1 blacksmith, 5 mortuaries, 5 stables and 2 publishers!

The glory of the era may be glimpsed in six Lithuanian cemeteries of the town. St. George is the oldest one with burials 1892-1934. Later Lithuanians have been buried in Our Lady of Calvary, Lady of Lourdes, Lady of Fatima and Lady of Dawn cemeteries. A small and old Liberty Cemetery of the Supreme Lodge of Lithuanians in America served the similarly named local organization; it has ~50 of its members buried. Most of the Shenandoah cemeteries are in the Shenandoah Heights suburb.

Lithuanian towns that surround Shenandoah

Merely a few miles separate Shenandoah from some other "Lithuanian" neighboring villages and towns. However, Lithuanians moved in here at the time when the world could have only dreamt about automobiles and that distance was still too big to travel on foot. Therefore every town had its own Lithuanian church commissioned. All of them small, with a single tower or towerless. When there were so many Lithuanians the ethnic traditions were easier to safeguard and even ~1970s the attendances of Lithuanian churches were increasing (those of other ethnic parishes were already declining). Even at ~1985 some Lithuanian parishes constructed new church buildings (thus although all the parishes are ~100 years old some churches are new). However ~2008 the dioceses decided to abolish most of the ethnic parishes and close their churches down. After all, Lithuanian masses had been abolished quite long ago in all of them: 3 or more generations have passed since the coal miner immigrants, thus the bishop thought there is no reason to keep multiple open churches in small-and-diminishing towns/villages. However, the churches with their old Lithuanian inscriptions, paintings, decor are also important culturally and historically. Therefore their communities defend them at all costs. Even though the language had been largely forgotten, other Lithuanian traditions (crafts, dances, food) are cherished. The southern coal region hosts Lithuanian Days since 1914 - this is the oldest ethnic festival in the USA. It is also mentioned in the new commemorative plaque. Currently, the event takes place in Schuylkill Mall; before the Lakewood Park closed it used to take place there (1922-1984).

In the same way as Shenandoah is important to Lithuanian literature, Mahanoy City (pop. 4 000 today, 16 000 in 1910) should be known to every fan of Lithuanian music. The coal miners of years gone-by have established the world's first Lithuanian wind instrument orchestra ("Mainerių orkestra"). The town has a 1923 St. Joseph Lithuanian church. Unlike in the other towns, the Mahanoy City parishes have been amalgamated into this church in 2008 so it continues to be open, albeit renamed after Mother Theresa of Calcutta who visited it in 1995.

Maizeville village had the USA's sole Our Lady of Šiluva church (14 North Nice Street), named after the oldest church-recognized Marian vision in Europe that took place near the village of Šiluva in Lithuania. It has been constructed in 1967 after the old one burned down. The old church has been named St. Louis as is the local Lithuanian cemetery - however, the parish, even though already dominated by American-born Lithuanians, decided to adopt a more Lithuanian name. Maizeville and the nearby Gilberton lost extremely many people even by Coal Region standards: in 1910 they had a population of 5500 yet only 750 live there today. Maizeville still has an Our Lady of Siluva Boulevard (actually a small side-road).

Our Lady of Šiluva church in Maizeville. Google Street View.

Girardville's (pop. 1500 today, 5000 in 1930) St. Vincent de Paul church is one of the final 3 remaining Lithuanian churches in the southern Coal Region of Pennsylvania. First mass has been celebrated in an opera theater at 27 E. Main St. (as the town turned into a village it became a cinema, roller skating hall and finally has been demolished). Current brick English gothic revival church has been built in 1926, its lavish interior simplified in 1978. Although no Lithuanian mass has been held for long the parish celebrates its Lithuanian minority heritage. The official website declares that "our roots will always be in Lithuania", there are some Lithuanian phrases even if most of them seem to be Google-translated.

To churches, two fates: the Girardville one (right) is still Lithuanian, while the Mahanoy City one is multiethnic. Both of them are old, built while the original immigrants were still alive. Google Street View.

Another still open Lithuanian church is Annunciation BVM in Frackville (pop. 4000 today, 8000 in 1930). A Lithuanian inscription still greets at the door and while the building itself is modest parish has an entire complex of other buildings. Next door stands a Lithuanian Museum and Cultural Center (est. 1982) with artifacts of the 19th-century Lithuanian immigrants and Lithuanian crafts. It is unclear how long will this all survive as the three local ethnic parishes have been unified in 2013. West Pine Street has an Annunciation BVM Lithuanian cemetery.

Frackville Lithuanian church and parish buildings. Google Street View.

Further south: Lithuanian heritage at 209 road

209 road ~15 miles south of Shenandoah has much of Lithuanian heritage in the towns along it.

Tamaqa town has the third still open Lithuanian church (St. Peter and Paul, 307 Pine St.). Tamaqa is one of the larger towns in the area with 7000 inhabitants (13 000 back in the "golden days"). In its southern part at Owl Creek Road, there is Lithuanian cemetery.

Tamaqa Lithuanian church. Google Street View.

The same cemetery was also jointly used by a parish ~5 miles east in Coaldale based in a white Ascension church (227 Second street). This church has been closed while the town itself lost nearly three-quarters of its population decreasing from 7000 to 2000 people.

Shenandoah is the most Lithuanian US town among those above 5000 inhabitants but if you count all villages with population above 1000 the New Philadelphia has that title. ~25% people there are Lithuanians (more than of any other ancestry). In 1910 when the village was double in size there was a confrontation between two ethnicities: Lithuanians and Irish. Both established a church and both remained open nearly until today. Unfortunately, in 2008 the Lithuanian Sacred Heart church was closed (its building constructed in 1984). Massive Sacred Heart Lithuanian cemetery still exists.

Minersville (pop. 4000 today, 9000 in 1930) Lithuanian parish of St. Francis of Assisi has been also condemned but its people achieved an impressive victory in Vatican. After their complaint, Vatican recognized that bishop illegally closed down their church. Unfortunately, the bishop refuses to concede and decided to reopen the church merely symbolically (for a single holy mass celebration annually).

St. Clair town (pop. 3000 today, 7000 in 1930) also saw its Lithuanian church (St. Casimir, 441 South Nicholas St.) closed down recently. St. Casimir Lithuanian cemetery remains.

Among the closed-down churches, the fate of Branchdale Out Lady Star of the Seas Lithuanian church is somewhat merrier. The only church of a 400-strong village has been purchased in 2011 by a music teacher from Philadelphia. He permits sermons of all Christians here and also organizes concerts and other events. He said that he pitied for an important village building that got closed and plans to acquire more churches in the region.

Branchdale Lithuanian church should remain an important cultural center. Google Street View.

Brockton is too small a village to be incorporated but even here Lithuanians had their St. Bartholomew church (214 E Green Street). Now it is closed though the St. Bartholomew cemetery survives.

Lithuanian heritage west of Shenandoah

Mt. Carmel township (pop. 6 000 today, 18 000 back in 1930) still has a Lithuanian Social Club (309 S. Oak St.) with a door painted in Lithuanian tricolor. There is also a massive Holy Cross Lithuanian cemetery (south of town, Cemetery road). It was named after a Lithuanian church, closed in 1992. Marija Kaupas, a Lithuanian nun worked here (she is on the route of canonization and a street has been named in her honor in Chicago).

Lithuanian Social Club of Mt. Carmel, est. 1926 Google Street View.

In Marion Heights even further west the Lithuanian church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has been transformed into an Easter Rite Catholic (Ukrainian) church: stained glass windows have been removed and an iconostasis moved in, while the tower has been crowned by a dome. It is now hard to recognize the church's Lithuanian roots. The similarly-named Lithuanian cemetery has remained. In general, it is easier for Ukrainians to protect their religious heritage - even though they are also Catholic, they have a different rite thus the dioceses are unable to amalgamate their parishes into non-Ukrainian ones.

Shamokin town has been famous for the America's first Lithuanian publishing house (which published Lithuanian-English dictionary by Markas Tvarauskas). It also had a Lithuanian St. Michael Archangel church (Cherry St.) that was closed in 1995 and demolished in 2015. Its Lithuanian club still functions as a pub.

Lithuanian heritage east of Shenandoah

The area's largest town east of Shenandoah is Hazleton (pop. 17 000 today, 38 000 back in 1940). Its brownish Sts. Peter and Paul's Lithuanian church used to be an extensive multiple building complex. Unfortunately, it all has been sold in 2010 by the diocese. Hazleton Lithuanian cemetery is at the Cemetery road / E Broad corner.

McAdoo (pop. 2000 today, 5000 back in 1930) had a wooden St. Casimir Lithuanian church near the Cleveland and Adams street corner (a residential house now occupies the place). It is interesting that this church has been born out of anti-Catholic sentiment as its builders planned to stay independent of Vatican. However after the works had begun in 1928 they disagreed among themselves and were short on money, therefore went back to Catholicism. The completed church then served as Catholic as Catholic although the congregation was never big enough to support a separate parish.

Although Kelayres (pop. 500) is nearly joined to McAdoo it had a separate Immaculate Conception Lithuanian church, which has been sold by the diocese in 2010 to serve as a residential home.

The hard labor conditions in the mines led Lithuanians to protest but back then the worker's rights weren't that much protected. This had some tragic outcomes: a few Lithuanians have been killed by police in 1897 when they stroke and illegally marched in Lattimer town. 19 workers died that day and they are commemorated by a plaque in Harwood which declares that the victims were "Poles, Lithuanians, and Slovaks". A bigger memorial stands at the place of the massacre; a victim list there has a single obviously Lithuanian surname but more people may have been Lithuanians as in that era Lithuanian language was not standardized yet and surnames changed after migration. Lattimer massacre became well known in the USA and it caused the trade union ranks to swell. In spite of this many Lithuanians who disliked the local conditions left the Pennsylvanian coal region for surrounding states, e.g. Upstate New York.

The map of Lithuanian locations in Southern Coal Region Pennsylvania.

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I am fairly certain that St. Bartholomew’s Church in Brockton was a German ethnic parish. I was baptized there in 1949 by a Father Felix Fink, hardly a Lithuanian name.

  2. Nothing of importance. I am 82+ and couldn’t think of the name of the Lithuanian Church that was directly across from one of the homes lived in, Maizeville, PA. My Daughter Kathy said “Dad, do a search on the computer.” WOW! Modern technology at its best. Took about 5 minutes and “St. Louis” was there on the screen. Sad, how our heritage is disappearing. My Dad died from Black Lung, only 40 yrs. young. When my Great Grandfather came to America, Ellis Island, a Polish gentleman (ski) was in the line before him and when he spelled his last name (Navitskowstkas), the clerk dropped the “owstkas” and said, “Welcome to America Mr. Navitsky.” All the Navitsky men before me worked in the coal mines and died from Silicosis. In July, 1951, I joined the USAF and was fortunate enough to get in 20 years, retiring in Sept. , 1971. Still married to my Sweetheart, have a Son, 3 Daughters, a Grandson, 3 Granddaughters, and a Great Grandson. God’s been good to me. God Bless Our Troops and may God Bless America.
    P.S. Really enjoyed all the above history.

  3. I discovered this site through the Lithuanian Global Genealogy facebook page. It is a real treasure! I only started a scholarly search of my ancestry in the last two years. I was born in Coaldale Hospital while my parents lived in Tamaqua, and attneded St. Peter and Paul Church there. My paternal grandparents had a farm in Still Creek, between McAdoo and Tamaqua, off 309. I have many pleasant memories of the area and of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My grandparents arrived between 1900 and 1910. Although I have information on my paternal grandmother’s family, I still do not know much about the family of my grandfather, Alexander Išganaitis. I always wondered if he left his family back in Lithuania and came to the coal mines on his own. His death certificate says that his father was Juozas Išganaitis and his mother was Marija Žemaitis, but I hav enot located them in the US so far. Thank you for writing this article as it gives me additional information to continue my search.

  4. Laba diena,
    Rašau Jums savo mamytės prašymu. Mano mamytė yra kilusi iš Krikštonių kaimo, kuris yra netoliese Seirijų miestelio ir šiandien priklauso Lazdijų savivaldybei (Lietuva). Tvarkydami jos pasimirusio 2013 m. dėdės Vlado Brazicko, gimusio 1921 m. (pavardė pakitusi, manome, kad anksčiau ji buvo Brazinskas) asmeninius daiktus, radome gan įdomias labai senas fotografijas. Kažkada dėdė Vladas yra minėjęs apie artimus giminaičius, kurie, manome, dar prieš Pirmąjį pasaulinį karą emigravo į Jungtines Amerikos Valstijas. Tikėtina, kad dirbo kasyklose. Jo tėvas tai yra mano mamos senelis taip pat buvo trumpam emigravęs į JAV ir užsidirbęs pakankamai pinigų grįžo atgal į Lietuvą. Tikslesnių duomenų apie tai neturime, manome, kad tai galėtų būti mano prosenelio Broniaus brolis ar pusbrolis. Ant šeimos nuotraukos, kuri buvo atsiųsta šių giminaičių, radome užrašą fotoatelje, kurioje ši nuotrauka ir buvo pagaminta: Drizas, Cor. White&CentreSTS, SHENANDOAH. PA. Radau internete, kad ši fotroatelje tikrai egzistavo Shenandoah Pensilvanijos valstijoje 1910 metais.
    Labai prašytume pagelbėti ieškant nuotraukoje esančių artimųjų pėdsakų. Galėčiau atsiųsti elektroniniu paštu nuotraukų skenuotas kopijas. Gal kas iš senosios kartos dar ką nors prisimins ar gal pas ką nors dar yra išlikusios šios šeimos nuotraukos. Labai norėtume surasti savo šeimos nutrūkusias gijas. Tiesiog įdomu sužinoti šių artimų žmonių likimus ir jų istorijas.

    Su pagarba, Diana Lukminė

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