I recently met with Debbie, Richard and Nancy Kaylor of Riverton to hear stories and see photos of their deceased Lithuanian immigrant grandfather and proud veteran John Joseph Straukas. Several of the most striking photos of John Joseph, born in 1890 in Plunge, Lithuania, relate to his service in U.S. Army Company F, Fifth Battalion, 22nd Engineers, in World War I.
“Lithuanians in Springfield” was the title of an exhibit Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Illinois State Museum. Sponsored, designed and manned by members of our Lithuanian-American Club, the exhibit was part of the museum’s annual Multicultural Day. However, this was the first time the club mounted a display.
Stanley Balzekas, Lithuania’s Honorary Consul in Palm Beach, Florida and the President and Founder of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago, was awarded the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star for his work in promoting Lithuania’s name and preserving Lithuanian culture.
While chronicling coal-mining immigrants to Springfield in the early 1900s, I haven’t written much about the Lithuanian immigrant women they married, whose lives were equally, if not more difficult. I am told that newly-arrived, unmarried immigrant girls boarded at the downtown Leland Hotel, where they could be seen outside on their hands and knees scrubbing the sidewalks.
On November 21st , Ambassador Žygimantas Pavilionis of Lithuania to the United States conferred the award of honor of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Lithuanian Diplomacy Star – on Honorable Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago.
Mayor Emanuel received the award for his outstanding dedication to advancing bilateral relations between ‘Sister Cities’ Chicago and Vilnius.
More than 50,000 Lithuanian-Americans fought for the United States in World War I. This remarkable number was later leveraged to lobby U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to recognize the newly independent Lithuanian state that emerged from the War’s aftermath. Ironically, the vast majority of the young Lithuanian men who served America in World War I were fighting for a country they barely knew. Most were very recent, impoverished immigrants—not yet citizens–who barely spoke or read English and who, even more ironically, had fled Lithuania to escape 25-year conscription by the Russian Czar.
Today and yesterday’s posts are part of a quest to digitally re-create the lost memorial plaque honoring the war dead from Springfield’s former St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church. Although we have done our best research, finding the actual plaque would allow us to be sure of the names of the men who should never be forgotten. We could also then ask another Catholic Church in Springfield, perhaps the Cathedral, where the first Lithuanian Catholic immigrants organized more than 100 years ago, to re-mount the plaque in a sacred place of honor.
Senator Richard J. Durbin isn’t just one of the most powerful—and down-to-earth–political leaders in the United States. He is the #1 claim to fame of Lithuanian-Americans in Springfield, Illinois, and one of Lithuania’s best friends in Washington.
As Assistant Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, he is the second highest-ranking U.S. Senator and only the fifth Illinois Senator in history to serve as a Senate leader. In January 2013, he was appointed Chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
The following is compilation of stories posted on a beautiful family history-themed blog “Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois”, reproduced with permission of Sandy Baksys.
Baksys, a second-generation Lithuanian-American born and raised in Springfield and a member of the Lithuanian-American Club of Central Illinois, is the founder and editor of that blog.
This post remembers the unveiling of a historical marker “Lithuanians in Springfield,” held in Enos Park on May 19, 2012.
More than 120 friends, parishioners, and guests assembled that day in the park for the dedication ceremony, which included speeches by public officials, singing of the Lithuanian and American national anthems, and a memorial tribute to the elders of the community who had passed away.
The following is text for A Time to Remember, written and presented by Sandy Baksys at the May 19 historical marker dedication.
“It’s not every day we get a chance to stop, remember and celebrate events in history, and bring them close again in our hearts. Today we take time to remember a time worth remembering.
For, to forget Springfield’s Lithuanian immigrants would be the same as forgetting our own families. To forget their stories is to forget our own.
I always chose to be Lithuanian-American, even though I was born in the U.S. and could easily have been American alone. I held on to my Lithuanian roots to honor immigrant family who endured a peculiar kind of suffering and limitation, which even at a young age, I recognized as historical because it was mainly a result of where and when they were born.
And so, the history of my relatives and their Lithuanian homeland was always a part of my own growing up here in Springfield. And their moral imperative to save Lithuanian identity from extinction during a long and brutal Soviet dictatorship at times became my mission as well.
For 51 years, from 1940-1991, when Lithuania was wiped from the map, I often feared there wouldn’t be much left of the Lithuanian spirit, language and culture. But thankfully, that identity was protected and preserved in the hearts of the many who are here today, and at special places like Springfield’s St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church.
On the cover of your program is a picture of St. Vincent de Paul’s, which stood a few blocks from here at 8th and Enos. It was built in 1908 by immigrant coal miners and factory workers who arrived in the first years of the 20th Century, fleeing violence and persecution at the hands of an earlier Russian regime, that of the czars.
If these earliest immigrants, and all our dear Lithuanian Club members we have lost over the years, are looking down on us now, I hope they can feel the honor we mean to bring them by our remembrances today. We especially want to remember Father Stanley Yunker, the Lithuanian-born priest who was pastor of St. Vincent’s for 47 years. Let us also remember the several thousand parishioners of St. Vincent’s who, over more than 60 years, built their church into a rich center of family, spiritual and community life.
Because St. Vincent de Paul’s was a ‘national’ church where Lithuanian was spoken instead of English, it was literally the only place where Lithuanians, who had lost everything when they were displaced to Springfield, could be Lithuanian. Where they could speak a language that was outlawed in their old country, alien in the new.
For us here today, this demolished church is a missing historical monument. Let us honor it with a monument of our own, our new ‘Lithuanians in Springfield’ historical marker.”
Following is the text on the new Illinois State Historical Society marker at Seventh and Enterprise in Enos Park.
"Lithuanians arrived en masse during Sangamon County’s coal boom. Numbering several thousand with their families by 1920, they fled political and religious repression, conscription, poverty and a total ban on their language in the Czarist Russian Empire. In 1908, at Eighth and Enos streets, they built their “national” Catholic church, St. Vincent de Paul’s, which for 63 years was a focus of Lithuanian language and identity. In 1917, the church was called the most important “melting pot” in the city with 1,200 Sunday worshipers. Immigration restrictions, coal mine closures and assimilation all took their toll on local European ethnic groups after 1920. However, the significance of St. Vincent de Paul’s only grew when Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 following 22 years of independence. With freedom in the homeland again extinguished, Lithuanian identity abroad assumed a moral imperative. National feeling also was reinforced by a local influx of World War II refugees under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948. And it persisted decades after St. Vincent’s became Springfield’s last “national” church to close in 1971. In 1988, a daring “Singing Revolution” in Lithuania (1987-91) inspired 439 local Lithuanian-Americans to form a new club to celebrate their heritage. Lithuania was restored to independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991."