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Thursday, May 10, 2012 05:16 pm

Commemorating Springfield’s Lithuanians

Thousands in Springfield today are descended from the flood of Eastern European and Southern European immigrants who arrived during Sangamon County’s coal boom.

Among those turn-of-the-century immigrants was my Lithuanian great aunt Marija Jomantiene, aka Mary Yamont, an impoverished 18-year-old farm girl who was mobbed as she arrived at the Springfield depot by Lithuanian miners looking for a wife. The year was 1902. Despite its tiny size and distance from the U.S., Lithuania was contributing in a major way to central and southern Illinois’ massive immigrant influx.

Lithuanian immigration was so significant that Springfield today is represented by both a Lithuanian-American senator, Dick Durbin, and congressman, John Shimkus.

To honor this heritage, the Illinois State Historical Society and our local Lithuanian-American Club, in cooperation with the Springfield Park District and the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, will dedicate a historical marker to “Lithuanians in Springfield.” The public is invited to a brief outdoor ceremony 11 a.m. May 19 at the corner of Seventh and Enterprise – the southwest corner of the beautifully renovated Enos Park.

Why is Enos Park, historic for so many other reasons, also central to the story of local Lithuanian-Americans? In 1906, Lithuanian coal miners working at night after their long days in the mines began digging the basement of a church. Two years later the cornerstone was laid, and St. Vincent de Paul’s Lithuanian Catholic Church at Eighth St. and Enos Ave. became the focus of local Lithuanian language and identity for the next 63 years.

A Springfield newspaper in 1917 called St. Vincent’s “the most important melting pot” in the city, with 1,200 Sunday worshipers. But to truly understand what this modest church, its renowned choir and myriad social clubs meant to parishioners, you have to know what it meant to be a Lithuanian immigrant 100 years ago.

A Lithuanian revolt against the oppressive Czarist Russian Empire in 1860 had led to edicts banning the Lithuanian language and closing many Catholic village churches and church schools. This only intensified the extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that already existed in the Lithuanian countryside.

It also ensured that most of the rural Lithuanians who came to Springfield to find work had never learned to read and write in their own language, which made it next to impossible for them to learn English, or in any way join the American mainstream.

At the same time, the very oppression that had made it impossible to be Lithuanian – or even simply to live – in Lithuania profoundly raised national and religious consciousness among those who emigrated. Their first priority must have been simply to get away and find work abroad, however hazardous and back-breaking, that did not exist at home. However, I like to think that these young men and women also aspired to freely be who they were, to speak their own language and worship in their own religion.

Hence the importance of St. Vincent de Paul’s, where Lithuanian was not just spoken but celebrated, where lowly miners and factory workers donned the grand costumes of Lithuanian Catholic “Knights,” ladies’ societies and choirs every Sunday. Where those who started out dirt-poor and were further impoverished by the loss of everything they’d ever known got back the proper names butchered on Ellis Island. Where those who left their homeland frightened and alone, with nothing, came together in a community and built something all their own.

It is hard for us today to imagine a time and a place when digging a ton of coal a day, being cheated of wages and dying or being maimed in a mine or factory were normal. I like to think that St. Vincent de Paul’s gave people whose daily lives were full of exhaustion, privation and indignity back their human dignity and pride.

After 100 years, it’s time to honor people and events on the verge of passing from living memory. It’s time to recognize, honor and remember our own.

Sandy Baksys is a Springfield native and a media relations and PR consultant. For more of the Springfield Lithuanian story, please visit the blogsite www.lithspringfield.com.
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