Map of The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The history of Lithuania is long and complicated, but it needs to be understood as its roots illustrate when and why Lithuanians came to the United States. In 1795, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell and was incorporated into Russia. The Commonwealth, which was made up of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had been in existence for over 200 years (est. 1569), but it had been a de facto personal union for over 400 years (since 1386), with the marriage of Poland’s Queen Jadwiga and Lithuania’s Grand Duke Jogaila. Early on the Commonwealth was known for its ethnic diversity as well as religious freedom, but as time went on, these freedoms began to erode along with the Commonwealth’s political standing. Once Lithuania was part of Tsarist Russia, men faced a twenty-year conscription into the Army, the Lithuanian language was banned, religion was suppressed and they struggled with extreme poverty.

Map of Lithuania today

Lithuanians had begun arriving in the United States around 1865, this first wave lasted into the early 1900s. It is interesting to note, that because Lithuania was not recognized as an actually having ever been a country, when Lithuanians first arrived in the United States they were recorded as Polish, German, or Russian, making it difficult to really know how many Lithuanians came to the US at that time. Most came from agricultural communities and were Catholic. When Lithuanians arrived they chose to settle in large northeastern cities to find employment in factories as basic laborers. One of the cities they settled in was Boston. A large population of Lithuanians sprung up in South Boston, and by 1900, some had begun to relocate to Norwood, where they found jobs and homes in South Norwood. In 1905, they formed a mutual benefit society called “Kestutis,” which was named after a Lithuanian hero. The organization was created to help fellow Lithuanians as they settled in Norwood. However, within ten years of forming Kestutis, a deep division began to form between the socialist “freethinkers” and those with strong religious beliefs.

Steeple of the Lithuanian Church, Norwood (photo by LLKearney)

As the notion to build a Lithuanian Catholic church was gathering steam, the Lithuanian freethinkers sought to build their own meeting place. Lithuanian Hall, the freethinkers meeting place was dedicated in November 1914. The new building had a large open space where they could hold meetings, which would support Lithuanian culture, education and social events. By the following year, a church had been constructed on St James Street. As the population of Lithuanians grew in South Norwood, they opened many businesses that catered to the Lithuanian population. By 1973, descendants of the Lithuanians who settled in South Norwood, comprised about ten percent of Norwood’s population.

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