Boston’s Lithuanian community thrives despite pressures

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BOSTON – The sound of prayer emanated from the red-brick St. Peter Lithuanian Parish church in South Boston Sunday as the unfamiliar language of Lithuania took hold.

The prayer song concluded as short line of newly minted almuni of the Lithuanian School, dressed in traditional garments, trooped out into the sunny afternoon. They had come from around Boston to spend Saturdays at the school over the past academic year, learning the language and studying the culture of their ethnic homeland.

“A lot of people don’t know the Lithuanian community and they don’t know where the communities are,” said Gintaras Cepas, an active community member for more than 60 years. “Even the new immigrants don’t really know that there is a church, school and club that they can come to.”

Steeped in tradition, the local Lithuanian community took root in South Boston in the 19th century and welcomed a fresh wave of immigrants before World War II. Its strength grew as the Soviet Union occupied their native land, threatening the loss of both cultural heritage and language as communists loyal to Moscow took control. For nearly 50 years, members of Boston’s community strived to protect their history and traditions through schools, the church and the social club.

“The communism instated a community around us,” said Gloria Adomkaitis, who was raised in the South Boston community and remembers protesting Soviet domination of her homeland while growing up.

“As teens and young adults, you made other friends but they came and went,” she said in an interview Sunday. “To this day my friends are mostly Lithuanian.”

Graduating students pose for a picture for their proud parents. (New Boston Post by Beth Treffeisen)

Graduating students pose for a picture for their proud parents. (New Boston Post by Beth Treffeisen)

But few Lithuanians remain in South Boston. In the late 1930s, Boston’s infamous Irish-American mayor and then-Gov. James Michael Curley declared a “war on poverty” and cleared away much of the community around St. Peter to build a housing project, commonly known as D Street or the West Broadway Development Project.

The second exodus occurred during the busing crisis that gripped South Boston in the late 1960s and early 1970s that drove many into the suburbs, according to the Rev. Stephen Zukas, the former pastor of St. Peter pastor who acts as the chaplain of the Lithuanian community.

Even so, many long-time community members continue to make the trek back to South Boston for Mass and to catch up and speak their common language.

“Friends you have for what, 60 years?” said Cepas. “You know each other really well. Some of us stayed in Boston, some moved to California and other cities for work, but a lot stayed and even if they moved, they will come back for the holidays.”

Inside St. Peter's Church after mass this past Sunday. (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Inside St. Peter’s Church after mass this past Sunday. (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Now, as the flow of immigrants ebbs following Lithuania’s independence from Moscow in 1990 and its entry into the European Union in 2004, the pace of change in the community has accelerated.

Gaila Narkeviciene, the principal of the Boston Lithuanian School in Milton who grew up in Lithuania, immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 as part of the third wave. She said that more recent arrivals have very different expectations from the school.

For instance, their children tend to be fluent in the language. But among those born in America, Lithuanian may not be spoken in their homes and they may not be fluent speakers.

“As the years progressed it went from everyone being fluent to fluency becoming smaller and smaller,” said Daiva Navickas, a former president of the Milton school. She added that it’s harder to teach children who are at different levels of fluency.

Now, fewer immigrants attend the school, Navickas said, where about 90 percent of the teachers are originally from Lithuania.

Inside the Lithuanian Social Club restaurant that is only open on the weekends. (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Inside the Lithuanian Social Club restaurant that is only open on the weekends. (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Another foundational element in the community centered on St. Peter may soon be shaken as immigrants who grew up under Soviet influence tend to be less concerned with religion.

“It’s difficult to convey to them the importance of the parish and church to the Lithuanian community because they didn’t have that,” said Rev. Zukas, who has seen a decline in participation at services both in St. Peter and at his current parish, St. Elizabeth in Milton.

As this century began, the Archdiocese of Boston aimed to consolidate some of it parishes, and word was out that St. Peter would be shut and merged with another church or churches in Southie.

“It was a big shock,” said Aldona Ligertat, who said the suggestion bore echoes of pressures on the church in the old country from the communist regime there. She said it just made no sense to her that something similar might happen in Boston.

“In the front of the church all these crosses appeared and some are still there,” Ligertat said, recalling a petition that circulated at the time, urging Catholic leaders to keep St. Peter open.

Crosses still remain in front of St. Peter's Church (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Crosses still remain in front of St. Peter’s Church (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)

“It was huge! It was almost a blockade,” she said. “It just looked like a barricade of crosses.”

The drive worked. To this day, the church remains open to the Lithuanian community as well as all comers, and many of the crosses still stand by the front doors.

“The church used to be the center of everything,” Navickas said. “Not just religious but culturally.”

As far as keeping it alive, Adomkaitis said, “I think the tradition will continue. Everyone is always interested in their roots and where they come from.”

Whether or not grandchildren who respond to their elders in English will speak Lithuanian as well once they become adults, she said, “Who knows?”

But others keep sending their children to the Lithuanian School. As Daiva said, the young ones need to be encouraged: “If you don’t push it, they will loose it.”