A Minnesota Lithuanian-American family with deep roots in Springfield returned this weekend to honor their mother and bury her ashes in Calvary Cemetery. John (Steve), Jim, Dave and Terri White, and their sisters Mary (White) Doberstein and Kathy (White) DeGrote, all traveled to Springfield to attend a memorial mass for their mom, Christina Virginia (Cooper) White Friday, May 9 at the St. Clare of Assisi Adoration Chapel at the St. Francis Convent near Riverton.
Ginny (Cooper) White died in 2012 at age 92 in Anoka, Minnesota, where she had lived with her dentist husband for many years. Known to her Minnesota friends as “Chris,” she was born in 1919 in Springfield to Anthony and Catherine (Gillette) Cooper. Ginny’s mother Catherine had been born in Cantrall in 1898 to Lithuanian immigrants Joseph Gilletties and Anna Marie (Smylus) Stuches. As the story goes, Anna (Ona) Stuches was disinherited by her wealthy family near Kaunas when she fell in love with her future husband, Joseph Gilletties, the family’s carriage driver. Thus, she became one of the few Lithuanian women forced into immigration and the harsh coal-mining life not by the poverty of her birth, but by love.
Anna and Joseph were married in Liverpool, England in 1892, and their first child was born that same year. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, first to Kansas City, then the Springfield area. The couple’s union produced an amazing eight daughters and four sons who lived to adulthood, in addition to three boys who died in infancy.
According to Anna’s great-granddaughters Terri, Kathy and Mary, their great-grandmother preserved a little of her high birth and refinement even as a struggling immigrant by making sure her 12 children had impeccable table manners and all played a musical instrument. In fact, the Stuches-Gillette children, including Catherine Cooper, comprised something of a family band who brought music and dancing to the family’s home on special occasions.
Catherine Gillette married Anthony Cooper ( Lith. Antanas Pikcilingis), born in Sapiskis, Lithuania in 1886, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1905. Anthony worked as a liquor distributor, and Catherine as a skilled floral designer (an echo of her mother’s patrician past?) for Winch and Heimbracher Floral Designs of Springfield, often traveling to Chicago for special projects. Among her local honors were decoration for former President Herbert Hoover’s train when it stopped in Springfield and pinning an orchid on the visiting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. According to an undated newspaper clipping, while with the S.Y. Bloom Flower Shop in Chicago, Mrs. Cooper developed the bridal wrist bouquet and decorated the Ambassador East Hotel room of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Very active in leadership roles with St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church and the Knights of Lithuania, including singing in famed KOL choir and operettas, the Coopers had one daughter, Christina Virginia (“Ginny”), who grew up on East Phillips Street and reportedly always was dressed to the nines due to her status as a cherished only child—and the extra income from her mother’s employment. (The Cooper-White children remember visiting their grandmother Catherine’s house on East Phillips.)
Ginny attended St. Peter & Paul School, class of ’33, and was the first to receive a diploma in the first graduating class at Lanphier High School, class of ’37. She received a “full ride” college scholarship to St. Mary’s College (sister school to Notre Dame), but was unable to attend. Her mother was working in Chicago at the time, and asked Ginny to stay in Springfield to be near and take care of her father Anthony.
Later (1945), Ginny graduated from St. John’s College of Nursing in Springfield. She married John F. White D.D.S. in 1946 and raised seven children in Pipestone, St. Peter and Anoka, Minnesota. Since a four-year college degree was very important to her, after raising her children and ensuring their education, in 1981 Ginny finally realized her dream and earned a B.S. from the College of St. Francis.
She was past president of the Minnesota Southern District Women’s Dental Auxiliary, and her husband and son William preceded her in death.
I was touched by the Cooper-White children’s loving pilgrimage back to Springfield to bury their mother’s ashes, including the memories they shared with me during a luncheon at the Chesapeake Seafood House. What a special way to celebrate Mother’s Day, honoring their mother and their shared memories of her together as a family. How pleased she would have been to see her children all together in her old hometown.
As a special note, the Anthony and Catherine Cooper grave, where their daughter Ginnie’s ashes were buried, is within 25 yards of stones bearing many other local Lithuanian family names: Bernotas, Kazokaitis, Yakst, Pazemetsky, Grigas, Gedman, Butkus, Bumpus, Usas, Jurkonis, Stankavich, and Klutnick.