Every year, the Friendship Botanic Gardens in Michigan City, Indiana plays host to the Lithuanian Festival, an event that draws revelers who come to hear Lithuanian music, watch folk ensemble performances, and enjoy traditional Lithuanian food. The festival honors the values which led to the park’s establishment in 1936, when it comprised sections for 14 different ethnicities, so that members of each can promote their culture and learn about others. The annual Lithuanian Festival is just one of many ways in which the Lithuanian diaspora has graced the cultural landscape of Indiana since the beginning of the twentieth century.
While at one time almost a million Lithuanians lived in the United States, the community has receded in visibility. However, Lithuanian landmarks in the Hoosier State remind us of an era when European immigrants created many new centers of cultural and political life in North America, through the formation of neighborhood enclaves and the establishment of churches, monuments, and social clubs. These ethnic hubs began to appear in the late nineteenth century during an explosion of national consciousness in Europe, when subject ethnicities of various empires increasingly aspired for statehood. Immigrant neighborhoods and institutions in the United States served as bases for pro-independence movements in opposition to the European empires that denied self-determination to Lithuanians, Poles, Finns, Czechs, and many other ethnicities. When the First World War and subsequent revolutions swept the old monarchies off the map--to be replaced, in many cases, by new republican nation-states (including Lithuania)--the importance of the European diasporas declined. In just a few decades, though, their political significance reemerged when the US welcomed refugees from the post-World War II settlement that left much of Eastern Europe under communist control. The new arrivals gladly took advantage of the old immigrant networks, and Lithuanians were no exception. But Lithuanians and other immigrants participated in diaspora institutions like churches, mutual aid societies, business associations and parochial schools for more than explicitly nationalist reasons. Community fixtures provided companionship and a modest social safety net, benefits of especial importance before the New Deal programs and mass unionization.
Material traces of Indiana’s Lithuanian heritage embrace two facets of immigrant ethnic identity: the first celebrated Lithuanian statehood, the second the Roman Catholic faith, shared by most Lithuanians. A good representation of the first tendency can be found in the Friendship Botanic Gardens, in which a Lithuanian section was dedicated in October 1941. Its centerpiece is a memorial with three stelae in honor of the three presidents who served Lithuania between the proclamation of the republic.
In 1918 and the Soviet occupation in 1940. One of them commemorates Antanas Smetona, President of Lithuania in 1919-1920 and 1926-1940, who planted a pine tree at the dedication ceremony for the Lithuanian section. By then a political exile, Smetona had been living in the nearby Benton Harbor, Michigan. He kept himself busy by planning a lecture tour, learning to golf, and publicly admiring the American standard of living, particularly the household conveniences and the state of the roads. Benton Harbor once formed part of the “Lithuanian Riviera”—a stretch of Indiana and Michigan lakeshore towns popular with Lithuanian Americans as holiday and retirement destinations from the 1930s on. The Riviera, however, never formed the core of Indiana’s Lithuanian community. That honor belonged to the cities of East Chicago and Gary, which lured many workers away from Chicago (the original Lithuanian population hub in the Midwest) to the newly built steel plants in the 1910s and 1920s.
After World War II, two more stelae, dedicated to Presidents Aleksandras Stulginskis and Kazys Grinius, appeared in the Lithuanian garden. There was more than a touch of irony to this. In 1926, both Grinius and Stulginskis resigned the presidency one after another, deposed in a military coup led by none other than Antanas Smetona. He would remain in power until the Soviet troops removed him in 1940. Now, however, all three are commemorated equally. The monument’s meaning has changed since 1990. Before Lithuania regained its independence, the stelae served as a cenotaph to the statehood lost during Soviet domination. Now, it simply commemorates the first republican era and its political contingencies.
The Stulginskis and Grinius park stelae owed their existence in part to the post-World War II generation of Lithuanian migrants. They came to the United States from displaced persons’ camps spread across Europe, having refused to return to Soviet-ruled Lithuania. The Lithuanians from this group called themselves dipukai—a moniker derived from the acronym DP, a reflection of the years spent in the camps, where they had built tightly-knit communities singularly focused on the preservation of Lithuanian language and identity in exile. Those who found their way to Indiana helped to rejuvenate the state’s Lithuanian enclaves. Church congregations had already started to trend older, as more second-generation immigrants were moving out to the suburbs. Former teachers and intellectuals from the dipukai ranks founded Lithuanian Saturday schools to teach diaspora children the language of their parents. These institutions replaced the old parochial schools, originally founded in the 1910s by the Catholic orders ministering to Lithuanians and now facing closure with many of their parishes.
This dipukai activity presaged what historian Matthew Frye Jacobson called “white ethnic revival.” Following the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, more descendants of European immigrants began to take an active interest in their family histories. They claimed their ancestors’ migrant experience as evidence of their own “true” Americanism, and expressed unabashed pride in it—in contrast to the first generation, which often sought to downplay immigrant origins in a struggle to assimilate.
Bearing that in mind, it is hardly surprising that in 1968 the Indiana Lithuanians created another monument symbolically connecting the diaspora and the homeland. A park in the Lithuanian Riviera town of Beverly Shores was opened to commemorate the ill-fated transatlantic flight of the Lituanica. Piloted by Lithuanian-Americans Steponas Darius and Stasys Girenas, the Kaunus-bound Lituanica took off from New York on July 15, 1933. Darius and Girenas wanted both to make aviation history by flying the single-engine rotary plane across one of the most treacherous air routes of the time and to inspire young Lithuanians all over the world by their feat. They had raised money for the flight by staging air shows and collecting donations from the diaspora. Thirty-seven hours after takeoff, on July 17, 1933, the Lituanica crashed in Germany, only 404 miles short of its destination. The precise reason for the accident has yet to be determined--the pilots had a lot of experience and the plane was properly outfitted for the long-haul flight. Lithuania observed a month of national mourning, giving Girenas and Darius a state funeral with full military honors.
The park in Beverly Shores that commemorates the flight of the Lituanica came about through the collective efforts of the Indiana Lithuanian community, which likely included both recent immigrants and the descendants of the first-wave arrivals from the Russian Empire. However, its particular look and feel resulted from the work of two dipukai. The first of them, Erdvilas Masiulis, had left Lithuania in 1944 and studied architecture in Stuttgart before leaving for Australia. He came to the US in 1955, settling in Beverly Shores, where he designed homes for families moving out to the Lithuanian Riviera. Masiulis planned the layout of the seven-acre park and chaired its executive committee, while another displaced artist, sculptor Juozas Bakis, constructed the park’s centerpiece—a 25-foot-tall steel statue representing the wreck of the Lituanica, entitled “Broken Wing” and erected in 1971.
In 1970, the American-Lithuanian Citizens Club of Beverly Shores found money for ambitious alterations to Saint Ann of the Dunes, a local Catholic church originally built in the early 1950s. Erdvilas Masiulis designed the temple’s new wings and added a glass wall behind the altar, so that the parishioners could admire the trees just outside during worship. Lithuanian artists donated a Rūpintojėlis—a statue of pensive Christ often encountered in Lithuanian roadside shrines. They also installed stained-glass windows and procured a new altar cross made of amber, a material widely used in traditional Lithuanian arts and crafts. While Saint Ann of the Dunes was not founded as a parish specifically for Lithuanian Catholics, the alterations of 1970 essentially turned it into another diaspora space. It became a new dot on the ethnic map of Indiana during the period when the parishes of older Lithuanian churches in the region began to dwindle in number. Many of those churches would soon face closure and even demolition.
One example is Saint Francis Lithuanian Catholic Church in East Chicago. Since 1913 it had functioned as a hub of Lithuanian culture in the city, but in the late twentieth century it fell victim to the rapid deindustrialization of the area. Between 1970 and 1990, East Chicago lost over a quarter of its population as a result of steel plant layoffs, and the parish ceased to be viable. The church was closed in 1987 and torn down two years later despite the pleas of the congregation. A spokesman for the diocese at the time tartly referred to the building as a “fire trap” that was “held together by the Band-Aid approach” and “had to go.” A Chicago Tribune reporter witnessed bereaved parishioners as they scoured the condemned building for artifacts to salvage and donate to another church. For a city that in the 1920s boasted multiple Lithuanian restaurants, taverns, bakeries, a tailor shop, and even a printing house, the demolition of Saint Francis was but the final stage in the fraying of the once taut fabric of diaspora institutions.
Another major cultural center of the Calumet region Lithuanians, Saint Casimir’s Church in Gary, also saw its fortunes rise and fall with the steel industry. Founded in 1917, just eleven years after the city itself, it closed in 1998 when the diocese refused to relocate the parish to the suburbs. However, both the school and the church building survive to this day, even if the interior decorations that once clearly marked them as Lithuanian do not. These had included stained-glass windows by Adolfas Valeška, an artist who had helped refurbish Saint Ann of the Dunes. Now, the evangelical Power and Light Church of Gary owns both buildings and holds regular services there.
The cultural footprint of Lithuanian immigrants in Indiana is in many ways similar to that of other European immigrant groups around the country. It formed during the booming in American manufacturing and the waning of European empires with the concomitant mass exodus of those ready to take up the multitude of arduous and hazardous, but still comparatively well-paid jobs available overseas. Living in American urban enclaves gave Lithuanians an opportunity to maintain their culture and language while sustaining ethnically marked sacred spaces such as churches at a time when similar efforts in the homeland were met with the suspicion and hostility of imperial authorities. The post-World War II influx of committed pro-independence migrants from the European DP camps gave a boost to this work, but it could not entirely protect the old Lithuanian neighborhoods from the all-consuming processes of suburbanization and deindustrialization, which furthered the dispersion of the immigrant community. In a way, the dipukai’s successes in creating alternative diaspora spaces in the Indiana lakeshore towns have actually hastened the demise of the Lithuanian enclaves in cities such as Gary and East Chicago, which had already been losing population. The restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990 practically ensured the return of some former exiles to the home country. In turn, Lithuania’s accession to the European Union in 2004 opened to its citizens a large labor market right next door, further cutting potential migration to the United States. While these developments leave the Lithuanian landmarks in Indiana with an uncertain future, quite a few survive, as a reminder of an era that nurtured many immigrant nationalisms on the American soil.