Welcome Home Lithuanians! While Chicago's Catholic community has a melting pot of many different types of ethnic groups – such as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Filipino-Americans sometimes we overlook lesser known ethnically Catholic groups. A fine example of this is people of Lithuanian ancestry. Lithuania is nearly 80% Catholic, but when's the last time you heard about Lithuanian Catholics in Chicago? Chances are you haven't, despite the fact that Chicago is home to the second largest population of Lithuanians in the world, and Illinois has more people of Lithuanian ancestry than any other state in America.
The good news for Lithuanian Catholics in the Chicago area is they will soon have a place of their own to gather for Mass. After ten years of asking, the new Our Lady of Siluva Mission will offer Lithuanian masses once a month in the chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo Parish in Mundelein, Illinois.
Are there really that many Lithuanians in the Chicago area to justify a Lithuanian mass? Well, the results certainly seem to demonstrate so. More than 120 people came to Our Lady of Siluva’s first Lithuanian Mass on Dec. 15, when it was held at Nativity BVM Parish, 6812 S. Washtenaw. The pastor of the mission, Father Jaunius Kelpsas, expects the congregation to grow to about 200 once word gets out about the Masses, which will be at 2:30 pm the third Sunday of every month. Unlike the previous arrangement, the new location will see Lithuanian Catholics relocated to Lake County for mass, instead of Chicago's south side. Some of the Lake County Lithuanians traveled to Nativity or one of the other South Side Eastern European parishes for Mass on special occasions, but usually its too far for them to make the trip, said Fr. Kelpsas. “It’s about 50 miles, for some of them,” he noted “And we want them to keep their ties to being Catholic.”
Will the Lithuanian-language masses just divide Lithuanians from other Catholics? For those who have been here many years, its not an issue. Many Lithuanian Americans go to English language masses. However, for newer immigrants from the Baltic nation, it is much easier for them to follow along when the mass in their native language, and they are still assimilating to American culture: “The newer ones, if they don’t have Mass in Lithuanian, they don’t go. For us, it was very important to help them keep their Catholic background”, Fr. Kelpsa said. Kelpsas said he expects that most of the Lithuanian immigrants will eventually embrace American life and attend English-language Masses, but in the meantime, he wants to help ease them into the transition of American life.
In addition to the masses, it will also help children of Lithuanian ancestry who were born or raised in American keep their cultural traditions. Santa Maria del Popolo Parish is also the site of a Lithuanian Saturday school that teaches Lithuanian culture, language and religion to about 100 children. “It’s good for them to know the language, the traditions,” added Fr. Kelpsas “But they will be Americans.”
Our Lady of Siluva, the patroness of the mission, is named in honor of an apparition of the Virgin Mary who appeared twice in Siluva, Lithuania, during the 1600s. Our Lady of Siluva is a very important figure to Lithuanian Catholics, in much the same way Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexican Catholics, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help is to Filipino Catholics.
So welcome home, Lithuanian Catholics! Chicago is not Vilnius, but our Catholic community here is just as strong.