Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Upstate New York

Many associates "New York" with the city but unlike the small neighboring states the State of New York is truly expansive (larger than the entire New England save for Maine) and merely a half of its population live in the NYC. The state's remaining part is nicknamed Upstate New York. It consists of smaller cities where the population has halved since the 1960s (total regional population remained the same).

Many of these cities have old Lithuanian communities with old cemeteries and churches. Unfortunately, the recent years have been sad to them: local dioceses have been hastily closing the Lithuanian parishes that survived a century or more. Not only the Lithuanian mass would be canceled but the buildings themselves were sold to other religions in many cases, destroying the Lithuanian-inspired interiors. Some exterior Lithuanian details often remain though.

The cemeteries, where they exist, still survive, offering a glimpse to Lithuanian surnames and their anglicizations.

Amsterdam St. Casimir Lithuanian chruch.

Mohawk Valley Lithuanian heritage

Mohawk Valley, a conurbation around the New York state capital Albany, had 3 Lithuanian churches, a chapel and 2 cemeteries.

With some 2,5% of its population of Lithuanian heritage, Amsterdam is the most Lithuanian city in the New York state. It has a large Lithuanian cemetery (Cemetery Rd.), unique for having many of its gravestones inscribed with two surnames: one original Lithuanian and the other one Americanized (i.e. the one immigrants were made to take by the immigration authorities who misheard the surname).

Amsterdam cemetery in New York. This grave has both the Lithuanian (Balčys) and Anglicized (Baltch) surnames marked, and the Lithuanian sun-cross as an ethnic symbol that unites Christian and Pagan beliefs.

At the heart of the cemetery stands St. Anne chapel commissioned by a Lithuanian Kiškis for his beloved wife and built by a famous Lithuanian-American author V. K. Jonynas in 1971. It now serves as a location for the funerary rites with are banned at the graveside in the diocese (previously it also served for the storage of the dead bodies through the winter). The exterior has Lithuanian inscriptions and the Lithuanian sun-cross, a traditional Lithuanian ethnic symbol, as well as bas-reliefs of St. Anne and St. Casimir (with the Lithuanian names of these saints written, Ona and Kazimieras).

St. Anne chapel in the Amsterdam Lithuanian cemetery of New York. The facade incorporates the Lithuanian sun-cross.

The cemetery also has a memorial for local Lithuanians who died in America's wars (6 in WW1, 17 in WW2 and 3 in Vietnam, according to the inscribed surnames).

A memorial for the Lithuanians who died in America‘s wars at the Amsterdam Lithuanain cemetery.

Amsterdam St. Casimir church has been sold to Buddhists after its closure; they established the Five Buddhas Temple there. The community leader Lucas Wang (a.k.a. Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi) claimed that he received a revelation to purchase the church. United into the World Peace and Health Organization the local Buddhists plan a massive expansion that will even include theme park - but the fate of Lithuanian details of the St. Casimir church is likely sealed. Amsterdam Buddhists typically don't allow outsiders inside, although some sources claim the stained glass windows remain there. The most striking reminder of Lituanity is the St. Casimir statue with Lithuanian inscription on the tower.

St. Casimir statue still remaining on the Amsterdam Lithuanian church facade, with a Lithuanian inscription.

Previously the church area hosted other Lithuanian institutions such as Pakėnas laundry, Piliponis grocery. Today their owners are probably resting in the St. Casimir Lithuanian Cemetery.

The Lithuanian memorabilia from the church (once collected by the priests who visited Lithuania) had been relocated to Walter Elwood museum of Amsterdam history, where many artifacts are presented in a former factory (one in which many Lithuanians surely worked as well).

A Lithuanian exhibit in the Walter Elwood museum.

The Lithuanian church building with a dome survives in Schenectady, another Mohawk Valley city (Holy Cross church, 19 N. College Street). It doesn't look like a church as it was built to be a synagogue in 1891; in 1920, however, Jews sold it to Lithuanians as they built a bigger synagogue. Currently, nothing reminds of the buildings many-decades-long Lithuanian history after it was transformed into a stained glass workshop. A large Lithuanian wooden wayside cross that used to stand outside has been removed or destroyed.

The former Lithuanian church at Schenectady.

Schenectady also has a rather small Holy Cross Lithuanian cemetery (est. 1930). As the parish had, in later stages, many Italians as its members, the cemetery also has Italian graves.

Lithuanian cemetery at Schenectady.

Schenectady is a suburb of the state capital of Albany. Albany itself had a Lithuanian church of St. George once (corner of Thornton and Livingston streets). Built in 1917, it has been closed in 1986. Today the building is used as a community center/soup kitchen dedicated to Sister Maureen Joyce. Blessed Mary statue from the original church, as well as a plaque reminding of Lithuanian history, remains (immediately beyond the entrance) but the interior was destroyed. According to priest Valkavičius who documented Lithuanian churches, the interior used to be shown to architecture students in how to create a grandeur with little available as the church had a pretty tin ceiling. All that was destroyed when transforming into the soup kitchen, however, due to fire prevention requirements (sprinkler installation). Stations of the Cross have been moved to the Lithuanian camp Neringa chapel in Brattleboro. That said, the Albany church was never especially rich in decor, as it was basically just a basement with a wooden belfry: the community never did build a full church which was planned on top of the current church. Therefore, the church never even had stained glass windows.

Albany St. George Lithuanian church.

Western Upstate New York Lithuanian sites

In all of the Upstate New York, the number of parishes is lowered as the population falls. ~2010 a parish reform in Niagara Falls left 9 Catholic churches open out of the previous 21 (in 1960 the city had a population of 102 394, 2010 census counted merely 50 193). Niagara Falls St. George Lithuanian church (1910 Falls Street) has been among those closed. Built in 1928, its congregation peaked in 1971. The building has been sold to Anglo-Catholics who turned it into their pro-cathedral. Typically, this small Christian community left the St. George dedication untouched and even invited the Lithuanians to continue using the premises. No interior details have been destroyed; on the contrary, Anglo-Catholics felt sad that Roman Catholics removed some pieces upon closure. 14 pretty stained glass windows survived.

Vytis (Lithuanian coat of arms) detail on the fronton of the Niagara Falls St. George church. Google Street View.

Other Western Upstate New York Lithuanian churches have been less lucky.

Rochester attracted most of its ~400 Lithuanians ~1900 as they have been fleeing hard labor in Pennsylvania mines. In 1935 they constructed St. George church (545 Hudson Avenue) which has been closed in 2010 (up to the final days the Lithuanian mass has been celebrated). The parish was not destroyed however and it meets in another church at Brighton suburb (Our Lady of Lourdes, 165 Rhinecliff Drive); unfortunately, that building lacks Lithuanian details and history. In order to perpetuate Lituanity, ~100 Rochester Lithuanians have established a Lithuanian Heritage Society. In 2010 the city established sister ties with Alytus, Lithuania.

St. George church of Rochester may look modest but the parish owned multiple buildings (all the ones visible here) and the Lithuanian mass survived long. Google Street View.

Another Lithuanian church stood at Utica (St. George); closed as recently as 2007.

Source, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4

Binghamton Lithuanian heritage

Lithuanians (~500) also live in Binghamton. This community's history is similar to its many "siblings" in Upstate New York. It began before World War 1 and the highest point of Lituanity was in the 1930s. This golden era is still reminded by a dusty inscription "Lithuanian Natl. Assc. Inc." on a non-descript ~1917 building at 315 Clinton Street. City landmarks list also lists "Sokolvonia" building (~1939) as Lithuanian although a likely Slavic name may indicate a mistake. Subsequently, the membership of many Lithuanian organizations grew older, the usage of Lithuanian language grew limited to ethnic events. However, many still guarded cherished folk customs and amber jewelry as something that reminded them of their homeland. The arrival of refugees after the occupation of Lithuania (~1950) triggered a limited rebirth of Binghamton Lituanity. However, the DPs left the Upstate New York for work-laden major cities once they could.

Remaining Lithuanian inscription on the Lithuanian club.

Like elsewhere, the church life survived the longest in Binghamton. The modern facade of St. Joseph Lithuanian church (1 Judson Ave) still has a Lithuanian inscription over its doors. However, the building has been sold to Grace Tabernacle church in 2008. Multiple ethnic parishes have been consolidated into a single Holy trinity parish in the former St. Ann church. Some things of St. Joseph have been moved in there: electric organ, carillon, the Last Supper.

Binghamton Lithuanian church.

Binghamton Lithuanian church entrance with the Lithuanian text ‚Guard me, oh God, from bragging in anything but in cross of our Lord Jesus Christ‘.

In addition to the "New Church", there is also the Old Lithuanian church on the other side of the street, which later served as a parish hall. Its cornerstone still boasts a Lithuanian inscription reminding of its church origins.

The old Lithuanian ‚basement church‘ in Bingamton.

Literature: Bygone Binghamton – Remembering People and Places of the Past (Jack Edward Shay).


The map

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

Interactive map of New York Lithuanian sites
Interactive map of Mohawk Valley Lithuanian sites

Destination America expedition diary

The longest day of our journey has passed, as we have driven 500 km in a single day, visiting more than 10 Lithuanian locations en-route!

Our key part of the day was the Albany area, however, which has 3 Lithuanian churches (all closed), 2 cemeteries, one funerary chapel decorated by the famous V. K. Jonynas.

There, in Amsterdam (NY), we have also met a Lithuanian who was born in January 1918, making him older than the Republic of Lithuania itself, which he left fleeing the Soviet occupation. He hopes to celebrate both his and Lithuania's birthday and his home, where we were invited, is teeming with Lithuanian details.

Augustinas Žemaitis, 2017 09 25.

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    Please add all active organizations, under specific cities.

  2. Thank you for this. St. Josephs (St. Joes) was my home church that my family attended. The old church across Glenwood Ave, was where many wedding receptions were held. I learned to Polka there. We called it St. Joes hall. The Lithuanian Association building was a few doors down from my father’s shop (Grigor’s Electric) at 331 Clinton St. This brought back many memories of my youth.

  3. Saint Joseph’s in Binghamton was also my home church. I was an altar boy in the basement church and the new church across the street. The Lithuanian Association building also contained an excellent pool table which many teenagers enjoyed. Thank you for publishing these excellent memory items.

    • Thank you for sharing your memories! Do you know if the building with inscription “Sokolvonia” on top (on the same street as the Lithuanian National Association) had anything to do with Lithuanians and, if so, what? Also, at what time are you speaking about – when did the National Association close?

  4. St Casimir’s in Amsterdam still has its original stained glass windows; they were too expensive to remove and were sold with the church. The one in the facade shows the Mother of God Crowning St Casimir. The ceilings still have the murals, since they are too high to paint over. The murals have images of St. Casimir, Our Lady of Vilnius, Our Lady of Siluva, Our Lady of Czestochowa. The 7′ tall statue of St Casimir that once stood in the high altar is now in St Mary’s church. There were two murals in the sanctuary, of St Casimir leading the Lithuanians into battle, and on the other side, St Casimir raising a girl from the dead, but these have been painted over. You can still go inside, but only when the Buddhists are having services.

    • Thank you for clarification and description! During the “Destination America 2017” mission, we were unable to get inside – although there was a woman, presumably a Buddhist caretaker, nearby, she refused to let us in (which was, actually, the only such situation during the mission, as in all other cases we were either let inside the previously-Lithuanian buildings or there was simply nobody present to ask).

      However, we arrived not during a Buddhist service time, therefore it is indeed possible that the church is visitable during these times by non-Buddhists as well.

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