Global True Lithuania Encyclopedia of Lithuanian heritage worldwide

Lithuanian Convents abroad

Lithuanian convents abroad are some of the most extensive and artistically important Lithuanian complexes outside Lithuania.

They were built so large and opulent as their utility went well beyond religion. Up to the late 20th century, they provided the Lithuanian diaspora with schooling, nursing, hospital, and other needs. They published Lithuanian language media and they were hubs for the Lithuanian fight for freedom and keeping the Lithuanian culture alive. As such, the Lithuanian communities would „shower“ these convents with donations, turning them into Lithuanian islands amidst the American landscape.

Lithuania-themed stained glass windows at the Putnam convent

Lithuania-themed stained glass windows at the Putnam Lithuanian convent

While the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most Lithuanian convents in the Americas sprung up, were rather patriarchal times, arguably, Lithuanian nuns (and female convents) were always more important than monks (and male convents). They were also far more numerous and far larger. In the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, several large Lithuanian nun orders were established in America: Sisters of St. Casimir (motherhouse in Chicago, IL), Sisters of Immaculate Conception (motherhouse in Putnam, CO), Sisters of Jesus Crucified (motherhouse in Brockton, MA) and Sisters of St. Francis (motherhouse in Pittsburgh, PA). Each of them had tens to hundreds of Lithuanian nuns.

Sisters of St. Casimir Convent

Sisters of St. Casimir Convent motherhouse in Chicago

The activities of these orders went far beyond their motherhouses. While the motherhouses were the most opulent parts of the system (it can still be seen in Putnam, CO, and Marquette Park, Chicago), it was many smaller monasteries, housing several nuns each, that were arguably not any less important. Each of them was established near the Lithuanian parish. Working for free (donations) the nuns would give Lithuanian children an education. At the time, public education still did not exist in the USA and Lithuanian parents (mostly miners and factory workers) would have never afforded private education for their many kids. By their tireless unpaid work, Lithuanian nuns not only gave Lithuanian children an education that allowed them to reach up higher in life than their immigrant parents or grandparents could. They also helped nourish the Lithuanian culture: these were Lithuanian schools, the teachers (nuns) were Lithuanians who could speak Lithuanian, all the classmates were Lithuanian, thus they had Lithuanian friends which (often) let to Lithuanian spouses and kids, who once again went into Lithuanian schools. Likewise, the Lithuanian nuns provided care for sick Lithuanians of the parishes, and established homes for Lithuanian widows (mining was a very dangerous profession at the time, and in most cases, Lithuanian families still had a single man breadwinner). Through doing so many good works, Lithuanian nun convents attracted new members, often from among the girls studying in the schools they taught at.

School of the former Lithuanian monastery

School of the former Lithuanian convent in Pittsburgh

The motherhouses themselves, on the other hand, became places for Lithuanian picnics and festivals that fostered both the Catholic and ethnic spirit.

While all the Lithuanian nun orders were established in the USA, where mass Lithuanian emigration started the earliest (in the second half of the 19th century), after Lithuanian emigrants became flowing in other directions, Lithuanian nuns also went together with them, e.g. Sisters of St. Francis establishing missions among Lithuanians in Brazil (which was among the favorite Lithuanian emigrant destinations in the 1920s and 1930s).

Marija Kaupas sarcophagus at the St. Casimir Sisters convent

Blessed Marija Kaupas sarcophagus at the St. Casimir Sisters convent in Chicago. A founder of the Lithuanian Sisters of St. Casimir, she was officially beatified by the Roman Catholic church

Lithuanian nun orders were arguably given a fatal blow after World War 2, when the USA established public schooling and made medicine better accessible for the poor. As such, the need for the parish schools declined and one after another they were closed. No longer studying there and no longer being taught by role-model nuns, fewer and fewer Lithuanian girls joined the orders. The orders began aging quickly, with the last mass joinings having taken place ~1960s. The buildings built for hundreds of nuns housed just a few by the 2010s and the Pittsburgh motherhouse of Sisters of St. Francis was even demolished, while the Brazilian section of the order accepted non-Lithuanian nuns as well. The smaller convents near the Lithuanian schools were closed earlier and often sold as regular buildings (unlike the major motherhouses, they often lacked Lithuanian decor or other distinction).

Mindaugas Castle in Putnam

Mindaugas Castle in Putnam Lithuanian Convent grounds, one of examples of ethnic artworks in these areas

Lithuanian monk (male) convents, on the other hand, truly started to develop only at the time when Lithuanian nun convents were close to their apex. The main impetus for this was the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1940 and 1944. Atheist Soviets launched a genocide of Lithuanians while religious Catholics were among prime targets. Avoiding certain death or exile, many Lithuanian monks and priests fled Lithuania in 1944, eventually ending up in other countries that accepted Lithuanian refugees: the USA, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina.

Monument for those who died for Lithuanian freedom in Kennebunkport, Maine (built in the modern Lithuanian style)

Monument for those who died for Lithuanian freedom in Kennebunkport, Maine (built in the modern Lithuanian style)

There, they established Lithuanian convents. The largest ones were in Chicago (Lithuanian Marian Convent and Lithuanian Jesuit Convent) as well as in Kennebunkport (Lithuanian Franciscan Convent). Each of these was a massive Lithuanian-styled palace with many Lithuanian activities inside. Marians, for example, published the largest Lithuanian-American newspaper „Draugas“, Franciscans had an academy while Jesuits established the Lithuanian Youth Center near their monastery which served as the major hub of Chicago‘s Lithuanian activities. Most of the members of these orders were priests and they also often served the Lithuanian parishes and faithful of the area.

Lithuanian Youth center facade with Vytis and the memorial to those who died for Lithuanian freedom in front

Lithuanian Youth center facade with Vytis and the memorial to those who died for Lithuanian freedom in front. This was an extension of the Jesuit monastery of Chicago

All these orders were, however, not Lithuanian-American but Lithuanian-in-general. Once Lithuania became independent, their leadership was once again conducted from Lithuania rather than from Chicago or Kennebunkport. This became somewhat controversial as, in the opinion of some Lithuanian-Americans, the leaders of the orders in Lithuania had little understanding in the dual function these convents had in America, in both providing religious pastoration and a place for ethnic activities. For those in Lithuania, though, it sometimes seemed that, after Lithuania became independent, the American convents of the orders lost much of their need. In one controversial example, Franciscans closed their New York convent and used the proceeds to help rebuild the Soviet-destroyed churches in Lithuania. Many New York Lithuanians never came to terms with it, though: they claimed that they had originally donated money to build the convent in order to have a Lithuanian cultural hub for themselves in New York, something that was immediately lost after the convent was sold. Some of the convents that were not sold are little used by Lithuanian monks now.

Matulaitis Home entrance

Matulaitis Home for the elderly, operated by the Lithuanian nuns from Putnam

A similar fate awaited those convents that belonged to orders that had no Lithuanian provinces, e.g. the Salesians. There, as the Lithuanian priests died off, the buildings effectively came under the control of non-Lithuanian priests who no longer saw the need for Lithuanian activities. This way, for example, the Medellin (Colombia) Lithuanian home slipped out of Lithuanian control. It served as a general Salesian convent before being rented out for the warehouse. Still, where the buildings survive, Lithuanian details often remain.

A glimpse of Vytis stained-glass window inside the Medellin Lithuanian House

A glimpse of Vytis stained-glass window inside the Medellin Lithuanian House, now a warehouse

Article by ©Augustinas Žemaitis.