Was it ever fun to be a Lithuanian immigrant in Springfield? Yes, thanks to a variety of social, sports and political organizations and their “musical” schedules of activities.
Back in the 1920s, music was at the core of almost every Springfield Lithuanian gathering. There were elaborate musical programs at Sunday high mass on Easter and Christmas. Operas and operettas were performed by Lithuanian voices and musicians for the general public at the Springfield High School Auditorium and the Knights of Columbus Hall. And Lithuanian folk songs were sung by 60-100 voices at summer picnics that also featured extremely competitive men’s fast-pitch baseball and women’s softball.
The Lithuanian-language operetta, “L’Tevyne” (“The Homeland”), composed and staged here in August 1923 by St. Vincent de Paul’s famous organist Alexandras J. Aleksis, dramatized the “uplifting power” of music to regenerate a badly degraded Lithuanian nation—if not in the homeland, then on U.S. soil. No one knew the poverty, ignorance, alcoholism and crime endemic among Lithuanian immigrants better than more educated Lithuanian elites and those who were the conscience of their community.
Crucially, in the late 1910s and early 1920s, these individuals decided to seize the cultural, political and artistic freedoms available to every American– even while economic progress remained elusive–to elevate themselves and their Lithuanian countrymen above the daily degradations and deprivations of the struggle to survive. The banner under which they organized belonged to the Knights of Lithuania, with local branch 48 sometimes being called the K of L of St. Vincent de Paul Church.
To multiply the impact of their cultural enrichment campaign, the talented and dedicated souls who poured their hearts into the Knights also decided to model Lithuanian cultural elevation as broadly as possible, to both the Lithuanian-American masses and the American public at large. The success of the Knights’ famous choir and their frequent exhibitions of musical virtuosity in projecting a more refined image of Lithuanian immigrants, both to themselves and others, is obvious in an August 1923 State Journal-Register article proclaiming, “An intense love for music is a national characteristic of the Lithuanian people.”
It’s true that music had remained part of the Lithuanian character even when stripped for generations to its most primitive core. Even when denied the spelling of their own names, Lithuanians never lost the music and words of their folk songs or dainos for work, birth, weddings and funerals. Maybe that’s why Professor Aleksis, the most famous Lithuanian “music man” ever to grace Springfield, so perfectly embodied the campaign for progress through cultural and spiritual enrichment. Certainly no one I’ve read of in Springfield wielded the power of music for ethnic self-help with more missionary zeal.
Aleksis and the Knights of Lithuania
A graduate of the Warsaw Conservatory who was born in Lithuania in 1886, Aleksis appears to have arrived from Detroit on July 1, 1921 to work as organist and music director for St. Vincent de Paul Lithuanian Catholic Church. Within two weeks, he was elected president of the pre-existing (and expressly Roman Catholic) Knights of Lithuania, Branch 48 in Springfield, and became director of the Knights’ 60-voice choir that performed in national costume.
In one Illinois State Journal account, Aleksis was identified as the first president of the Knights of Lithuania national organization and composer of the Knights’ national anthem. The Knights’ current website identifies Aleksis as having been named a member of great honor (just three years after the organization’s founding) in 1916, when he was organist at Chicago’s Providence of God Parish.
No doubt he played a major role in securing a great honor for Springfield’s Lithuanian community when in August 1923, the 800,000-member K of L held its national convention here. That three-day event (Aug. 22-24) in the hall of the Illinois House of Representatives was attended by 200 delegates from 14 states. “Prominent men of the Lithuanian race in the U.S. were among the delegates participating in what is probably the most usual and unique convention ever held in Springfield,” the newspaper reported.
The ambassador to the U.S. from the newly recognized Republic of Lithuania made a point of giving a eulogy of Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln’s Tomb. Aleksis’s operetta “L’Tevyne” (book by Edward Silelio) was presented by the best local and Chicago Lithuanian-American voices at the Springfield High School Auditorium. The operetta dramatized how drinking, carousing Lithuanian men could be civilized and elevated by the uplifting influences of education, music and art. The rousing grand finale of the operetta, when singers triumphantly waving the American flag filled the stage, echoed the business side of the K of L convention, which was conducted completely in English, according to newspaper reports, and capped by a resolution that all prospective members henceforth should first attain U.S. citizenship. (The convention also again elected Aleksis its national president for the coming year.)
It Takes a Choir
So many local Lithuanian immigrants and their children lent their voices to the local Knights of Lithuania choir (renowned as one of the best in the city) to enrich and uplift their fellow immigrants—and so many great local Lithuanian-American singers and musicians served as leaders of the local chapter of the K of L.
Anthony and Catherine (Gillette) Cooper were K of L national delegates, and sang in the group’s choir and concerts, including Anthony’s turn as a memorable bad guy in “L’Tevyne” (he was also local K of C chapter president when Aleksis arrived from Detroit). Albinas Kuprevicius was elected the local Knights’ financial secretary in 1921, the same year that Aleksis was made president, Joe Miller vice-president, Helen Beveridge secretary, and Julia Gedman (Lukitis) treasurer. Catherine Cooper also was a leader of the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Women’s Alliance Chapter 56.
Julia Gedman, a talented dancer, singer and piano soloist for many of the group’s programs, was re-elected treasurer of the local Knights and a national K of L trustee in 1923. Also in 1923, Josephine Sugent, a soprano who soloed in many of the choir’s programs, was elected second vice president of the K of L’s national athletic division, which was headed by Joe Miller of Springfield. Anna Gudauskas (Gudausky), elected a local K of L trustee with Peter Stirbis in 1921, that same year became the only woman from Springfield elected a K of L national officer (second secretary).
Not only did the K of L appear to give women a chance to play very active leadership roles; in the group’s Springfield leadership, we again see an almost evangelical confluence of music with social activism. Almost all of the K of L male leaders were also members of its choir: Joe Miller, Peter and Alex Stirbis, Anthony Cooper, Charles Ruplankas, Anthony Zelvis and (later) John Adomaitis.
Other female voices were Anna, Mary, Helen and Petronella Marciulionis, Anna Mosteika (mother of Ann (Mosteika) Foster, who would serve as St. Vincent de Paul’s longest-term organist and choir director from 1933 until the church closed on Dec. 31, 1971), Helen Beveridge and Estella and Helen Brazaitis, described by the newspaper as a “well-known Springfield soprano.”
The 10-piece Grigas orchestra accompanied the Knights of Lithuania choir when it performed at St. Vincent’s and other venues. Stanley Grigas played the violin and Charles the clarinet and saxophone (they also operated the Grigas Bros. grocery on North Ninth St). “Banker to Lithuanians” Augustus (Vysniauskas) Wisnosky, Sr., his immigrant father George Wisnosky, and my father’s own first cousin Benedict Yamont, Jr., played in the violin section. Bertha and Gertrude Miller (Milleris) played piano at a 1924 benefit for the Lithuanians of Vilnius commemorating the Polish takeover of Lithuania’s historic capital in 1922. Also active in that musical observance were: John Grustas, P. Burcikas, and A. Kazlauskas, chairman of the event.
Eighty new K of L members were initiated at a meeting on April 18, 1922. Joseph Loda and Anthony Cooper were credited with bringing in the most new members. (The Knight’s local “junior” chapter was led by Adolphina Stanslovas).
Professor Aleksis, who staged/conducted many of his own compositions, like “Shed No Tears,” “Going There,” and “Love,” also put on the Russian opera “Nastute” (sung in English) only months after his arrival in Springfield. In 1922, through his connections with the Rev. Dr. F. M. Kemesis, a member of the Lithuanian Legation in Washington, D.C., Aleksis also organized a Springfield Chapter of the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Alliance of Labor, Branch 101. In January 1923, the local chapter, headed by A. Kazlauskas, organized a presentation by Rev. Kemesis in Springfield entitled, The Catholic Church and Labor.”
Baseball, Passion, and Politics
The Knights organized a formidable men’s baseball team, which played against a K of L women’s team without keeping score as the main event of the K of L’s annual picnic July 25, 1921 at the Nokes dairy farm east of Springfield. The picnic, like anything else Lithuanians did back then, also included 100 voices singing Lithuanian folk songs, according to newspaper reports.
Unless I have my dates wrong, picnics and baseball at Lincoln Park and Camp Lincoln were frequent summertime events. Another Knights’ picnic, held on July 31, 1921 as a benefit for the Lithuanian National Relief Fund Chapter 69, featured a “fast amateur baseball game” between the Knights and Chicago-Springfield Coal Co., with Joe Miller as pitcher and (probably Victor Alane) “V. Allenis” as catcher. An Aug. 21, 1921 K of L picnic was billed as featuring a “girls’ game.”
The Knights’ annual picnic must have been a standout affair to be described in a 1922 newspaper article as “one of the big events of the outdoor season in this city.”
Although men’s vs. women’s games might not have been about keeping score, competitive passions ran high during the K of L men’s regular weekly fast-pitch baseball games against teams mounted by other K of L chapters in Chicago and Waukegan, and against local business, church and municipal teams in Rochester, Chatham, Jacksonville, Loami, Pawnee, Dawson, Havana, Kincaid, and Waverly. Home games were often at Watches Field. The “Virden Slovaks” seem to have been particular challenges for the Knights, who carpooled to many “away” games.
On April 17, 1922, the Myers Brothers team claimed an official municipal league win for what K of L captain Joe Miller said was only a practice game granted by the Knights when Myers was looking for a field to play on. The dispute continued to be played out on the baseball diamond and in the newspaper when Myers’ coach subsequently moved to deny official status to his team’s defeat by the Knights in their regularly scheduled game July 22, 1922.
Newspaper accounts also describe a much anticipated Knights’ game against a “colored” men’s team called George Neal’s Union Giants. The Giants had their own east-side ballpark, which the Knights were said to be contemplating “taking over” in August 1922. Due to the success of adult amateur baseball, a “Kidsville” league was also established with Myers Brothers, the Knights and others sponsoring their own junior teams. In 1924, the Knights junior team, managed by saloon-keeper Simon (Sam) Lapinski, Sr., won the city-wide Kidsville title.
As for the Knights, an earlier team organized by Joe Miller and noted for its dominance on the diamond seemed to have had few Lithuanian players, leading to a brouhaha that included Knights members not attending that team’s only home game in May or June 1921–followed by a directive that henceforth, the team would include only Lithuanian players. Defending the promotional value to the organization of his winning Knights’ team in newspaper reports, Miller took his team outside the Knights for a short period while he barnstormed to become the K of L’s national athletic director. Once he achieved that position, he returned to the field with a new local K of L team that featured J., W, and T. Grigiskis, and other players by the names of Koski, Laskaudis, Oleseskis, Kutskill, Ballon, Laukitis and Chestnut. Still other Knights baseball players of the 1920s were surnamed Diksonas, Lukitis, Denkevicius, Keturaki, Marcinkus, Tamoliunas, Repaitis, and Bokainis.
Passing the Baton
Perhaps the Knights were negatively impacted in their recruiting by the requirement, after Aug. 1923, of U.S. citizenship for new members, at a time when an exodus of many immigrant coal mining families from Springfield was caused by mass mine mechanization and loss of jobs. It is clear that a choir/corps of Knights musical activists held concert after carnival after party after picnic in the early- to mid-1920s to raise the group’s profile among their countrymen and in the community. Joe Miller, who seems to have been quite a promoter, did the same through baseball. But by the 1930s, the group appeared much smaller on the public stage.
And by 1926, Professor Aleksis had already moved on—perhaps because of his restless artistic spirit and the inherently small pond that Springfield represented (with St. Vincent’s accompanying small organist salary that had to be in decline with the exodus of local mining families). I would also not discount politics and growing friction in the ranks of the Knights (who were divided between St. Aloysius and St. Vincent’s parishioners) between labor unionism/socialism and conservative Roman Catholicism during the lead-up to the Central Illinois “Mine Wars” (1932-36). It is likely that growing socialist-communist sentiment among disenfranchised labor was not favored at the church, long before the U.S.S.R conquest of the Lithuanian homeland in 1940.
By 1925, newspaper reports describe an operetta, “Sylvia,” directed by St. Vincent’s new organist Anthony Kvedaras (Kwedar?) in English at the Knights of Columbus Auditorium to benefit the church. (Anna Mosteika, Anna Gudausky and Vera Lanauskas were among the singers.)
The K of L Chapter 48 officers that year were: Spiritual Advisor the Rev. Stanley O. Yunker (Junkeris), who had become St. Vincent’s pastor in 1923; President John Adomaitis, Vice-President Victor Alaunis (Alane), Financial Secretary Catherine Cooper, Secretary Anna Gudauskas; Trustees Helen Shupenas and John Thomas; and Treasurer August Visnauskas (Augie Wisnosky, Sr.), Marshals Anthony Gridzuis and A. Kuperis. Josephine Sugent, Miss Gudauskas, Mrs. Cooper and Julia Svinkonif (Swinkunas?) did the “hostess” heavy-lifting for the officers’ installation meeting that also discussed the need for an “extensive membership drive,” according to the newspaper. I should mention that a core group of female friends (Gedman-Lukitis, Gudauskas, Sugent) appears to have kept the Knights and other Lithuanian Catholic organizations, including he Lithuanian Roman Catholic Women’s Alliance, going for at least 20 years.
One hundred K of L members reportedly attended the group’s 20th anniversary banquet and dance in the roof garden of the Elks Club in 1936. Fr. Yunker gave the invocation and keynoted a speech about the Knights’ history and principles, while Miss Bernice Brazaitis presided as president of the club and “toastmistress.”
Lithuanian Song Festival
Professor Aleksis, called one of the “outstanding Lithuanian musicians, composers, and teachers of music in the United States” by the Aug. 10. 1942 Illinois State Journal, went on to organize the Lithuanian League of Choirs in Chicago, and to conduct four choirs and give studio lessons in his then-home with wife Marcella in Watertown, Conn. (Marcella was named a Knights member of great honor in 1968.) The professor died at age 97 in 1983 in Connecticut.
But before that, he played another important role in the musical history of Lithuanian America. As a member of the American-Lithuanian Roman Catholic Organists Alliance, Professor Aleksis helped organize the repertoire of the first national Lithuanian Song Festival in 1955. The festival featured performances in the Chicago Coliseum by 34 choirs and about 1,200 singers and raised $22,000 for Lithuanian causes. For more about the song festival, please go to: https://www.dainusvente.org/en/more/history
According to the dainusvente website, Vladas Jakubėnas, a music critic, wrote about the first Lithuanian Song Festival in the journal “Aidas:”
“The repertoire was not just sung by the unified choir – some songs were sung only by women, some only by men, and some by select choirs. On the day of the Festival, a cool summer suddenly turned hot, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees. The Coliseum had no air conditioning, and the heat was almost unbearable in the sold-out arena. In the end, however, a moral victory had been achieved. With the success of the first Lithuanian Song Festival, American and Canadian Lithuanians achieved self-respect and encouragement for future cultural projects.”
Apparently, ethnic uplift and self-help through cultural enterprise (specifically, music) wasn’t just for Springfield in the 1920s, but rather, a major and ongoing tradition in Lithuanian-American life.
In memory of Prof. Aleksis and the other full-time St. Vincent de Paul organists/choir directors, including Ann (Mosteika) Foster, Anthony Kvedaras, Stanley Zylius, Joseph Karecka, part-time organists Roman Hodalski and the Rev. J. Cullen O’Brien–and every member of their dedicated choirs.