Lithuanians putting Tamaqua on the map
Augustinas Zemaitis said the artist who designed the interior of SS. Peter and Paul, V.K. Jonynas, is well-known to Lithuanians. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Diane Derr, left, Elaine Millet and Elaine Luschas talk with Aiste Zemaitiene and Augustinas Zemaitis.
Aiste Zemaitiene’s T-shirt shows The route she and her husband, Augustinas Zemaitis, will follow visiting Lithuanian heritage sites.
Augustinas Zemaitis and Aiste Zemaitiene visited Tamaqua Thursday.
Persecuted at home in the late 1800s, Lithuanian Catholics found a new home in the United States, particularly in the Coal Region.
Now a young couple from the eastern European country are trying to make their fellow countrymen aware of the churches and institutions that their brethren created here.
Augustinas Zemaitis and Aiste Zemaitiene are attorneys, but they are also passionate about travel writing. They earned a grant from their national government to travel to America and document landmarks created by Lithuanian immigrants for their website, global.truelithuania.com.
“The website is about the Lithuanian heritage abroad,” he said.
On Thursday, they visited Tamaqua to see SS. Peter and Paul church, which was built for Lithuanian Catholics in Tamaqua, under the guidance of a Lithuanian architect.
Augustinas, 30, and Aiste, 31, are on a 15-day, 1,700-mile journey around the Northeast, documenting more than 100 sites that were created by Lithuanian Immigrants.
That includes Schuylkill County — which once had 14 Lithuanian Catholic churches. Some of the buildings are still standing.
They arrived in Tamaqua Thursday morning wearing T-shirts showing their route, website address and their names on the back.
They were greeted by three area residents who share an interest in Lithuanian Heritage: Diane Derr and Elaine Millet of Tamaqua, and Elaine Luschas of Mahanoy City.
Augustinas said that there were 150 Lithuanian churches built in the United States — compared with a total of 700 in Lithuania itself.
“They created a kind of Lithuania outside Lithuania around these churches and Lithuanian clubs,” he said.
Between the 1860s and 1904, Russian oppression was so severe that Lithuanians were prohibited from writing in their own language.
Hundreds of thousands fled to the United States, finding work in the coal mines.
“The first thing a community would do is erect a church, not just for religion,” he said. “It used to be like a club, a major focal point for the group.”
After World War II, they were persecuted for religious reasons by the Soviets.
His own baptism in the 1980s was planned by his grandmother, because his parents feared that they would be fired from their jobs for openly expressing their religion.
SS. Peter and Paul was built in 1976, expanding an earlier Lithuanian Church that sat on the same spot.
The church’s interior was designed by a Lithuanian native, Vytautas Kazimieras Jonynas. Jonynas, who lived from 1907-97 was exiled by the Soviets during World War II.
He designed more than 60 churches for Lithuanian congregations around the world. His most famous work is the Chapel of Lithuanian Martyrs, located inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Augustinas said that Jonynas is well-known to Lithuanians.
“Every time a Lithuanian church wanted to renovate, they wanted to rely on their own. They often hired him, so he’s quite famous in Lithuania, but most of his work is here in America,” he said.
Augustinas plans to add the photos and research from Thursday’s visit to an interactive map on his website.
There is already plenty of information about Schuylkill County Lithuanian churches available on the site, at global.truelithuania.com.