SEATTLE – The week before Pope Francis’ September 22 visit to Lithuania, members of the local Lithuanian-American community gathered here for the rare occasion of attending Mass in their native language.
The group was small, but appreciative of the opportunity to have Father Tomas Karanauskas, pastor of St. Casimir Catholic Church Los Angeles, celebrate Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Seattle.
“It was a chance for the community to come together and celebrate being Lithuanian,” said Irena Blekys, a member of Seattle’s St. Joseph Parish.
Artwork from the program cover for the September 14 Lithuanian Mass at Immaculate Conception Church was designed by Nomeda Lukoseviciene. Photo: Courtesy Bruno Kelpsas
Also attending the September 14 Mass was Blekys’ daughter, Ona Spaniola, a parishioner and kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph’s. “I think it’s really neat as a Catholic person, you can kind of follow along, even though you don’t know the words,” said Spaniola, noting that she speaks some Lithuanian and understands some more.
Bruno Kelpsas, who organized the Mass, said some 400 to 500 people of Lithuanian heritage live in the Puget Sound area. (The Portland-Vancouver area is home to another group of Lithuanian-Americans, he said.)
In the Puget Sound region, about 200 people are active in a Lithuanian community group that offers activities such as a traditional choir, a folk dance group, an annual youth heritage camp and a weekend school for children learning Lithuanian. Every All Souls’ Day, community members travel to Roslyn in Kittitas County (once home to a population of Lithuanians) to take care of the graves of their relatives.
“If you go to any other Lithuanian community across the country, everything is [organized] around the parish, and we don’t have [a parish] here,” said Kelpsas, who grew up in the Chicago area, home to a large Lithuanian community.
Some local Lithuanian community members have expressed an interest in having more Catholic activities, and the Archdiocese of Seattle has been supportive of the group’s efforts, Kelpsas said. In April, the community was able to bring Lithuanian Bishop Eugenijus Bartulis of Šiauliai to Seattle during his already scheduled visit to the West Coast, Kelpsas said.
Arriving in the U.S.
In the early 1900s, Lithuania was under rule of the Russian czar; later it became part of the Soviet Union. Lithuanians left for the U.S. in several waves over the decades, seeking freedom, liberty, choice of religion and economic prosperity, said Kelpsas, whose grandfather came to the U.S. in 1907 as a 15-year-old.
Catholicism was one way to resist the occupation of Lithuania by the Soviets, said Blekys, who was born in England after her parents and other family members fled Lithuania during World War II. They eventually moved to Chicago, where the Lithuanian community continued their traditions, “even the church holidays that were so specific to Lithuania … holidays to bless the fields or the animals,” Blekys said. And the devotion to Mary remained important, with the rosary recited at church every evening, she said.
The identity of the older generations was more tied to the church; among the younger generations, “not a lot of them are practicing Catholics,” Blekys said.
“Maybe [one of] our tasks is to remind people of the history of the church in Lithuania and the difference it made … and the underground church,” she said of the efforts to continue practicing the faith when it was suppressed by the communist government.
Blekys noted that Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis is the first Soviet-era Lithuanian martyr recognized by the Catholic Church (he was beatified in June 2017). He spent 16 years in prisons and labor camps and was murdered in his apartment with a lethal injection.
Pope Francis’ September 22–23 visit to Lithuania was “very important,” Blekys said. “It’s recognition of Catholics in Lithuania,” she said, as well as “world recognition of countries that had been under the Iron Curtain that did not even exist on atlas maps from the 1940s to the 1990s.”
She is hopeful about the future of the Lithuanian Catholic community here.
“Father Tomas is very positive and enthusiastic,” Blekys said. “We’re hoping that, little by little, it may grow. That’s just the way other things in our community have grown,” she said.
Lithuanians love to sing, to dance and “just to have a wonderful time,” Blekys said. “We’re filled with joy.”