Mother Maria Kaupas and the story of Lithuanian Catholics in America

Lithuanian immigrants found in the Church a staunch protector and defender of their Catholic faith but found much less support for their efforts to maintain their language and culture.

Mother Maria Kaupas, founder of the U.S. order Sisters of St. Casimir, is pictured in an undated handout photo from the order. (CNS photo/courtesy of Sisters of St. Casimir); right: The crypt of Mother Maria at the motherhouse in Chicago. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

In my previous essay, I examined the fate of Irish wake practices in light of the Tridentine Church’s efforts to develop a more modern, properly catechized and morally disciplined Catholic laity. Despite the general success of these efforts, ethnic cultures and traditions persisted, even in the most modern of nations, the United States. Until the nativist upsurge of the 1920s, the United States, hungry for cheap labor, maintained a policy of generally open borders to all European immigrants able to make the journey across the Atlantic. By the late-nineteenth century, the dominant source of immigration had shifted from the Irish and Germans to the largely Catholic regions of southern and eastern Europe. Even as the Irish American clergy who dominated the Church in the United States seemed to be succeeding at disciplining the Irish, they felt besieged, even overwhelmed, by these new immigrant waves that brought with them languages and folk traditions perhaps even more strange than those of the peasant Irish.

The Italians and the Polish comprised the largest portion of this Catholic migration, but the early weeks of the Easter season give us cause to remember and honor a lower-profile immigrant group, the Lithuanians. April 17th was the anniversary of the death of a holy Lithuanian-American woman, Venerable Mother Maria Kaupas (1880-1940), “Chicago’s Second Cabrini,” foundress of the Sisters of St. Casimir in Chicago. Mother Kaupas was part of a great migration that would see roughly 300,000 Lithuanians come to the United States in the five decades prior to World War I. An ethnic minority living within the Russian empire, many Lithuanians fled their homeland in response to the Czar’s repression of Lithuanian nationalist aspirations; Old World poverty and New World opportunity provided an additionally pull factor drawing Lithuanians to the United States.

Like so many other immigrant groups, Lithuanians found in the United States relative economic opportunity yet new forms of cultural repression. The Czar’s efforts to integrate the various peoples of his empire through a program of “Russification” had a rough equivalent in the nativist, Anglo-American insistence that new immigrants renounce their Old World cultures for assimilation to American culture: an ideal captured by the phrase “100% Americanism.” For Anglo nativists, cultural assimilation also assumed the adoption of some form of Protestantism, the form of Christianity appropriate to American ideals of freedom and democracy.

Lithuanian immigrants found in the Church a staunch protector and defender of their Catholic faith but found much less support for their efforts to maintain their language and culture. The Irish-American clergy who dominated the Church in America were particularly insistent that Catholic immigrants become as thoroughly Americanized as possible, short of renouncing their faith. Staffing challenges and the stubborn fact of language barriers limited implementation of this Irish-American ideal. Diocesan clergy were often forced to turn the ministry of new immigrant groups over to religious orders based in the various countries of origin. Thus, the ethnic or “national” parish arose as a parallel set of institutions alongside the official diocesan or geographic parish—sometimes literally right across the street.

This context of ethnic diversity and conflict shaped Mother Maria Kaupas’s path to holiness. Casimira Kaupas was born on January 6, 1880, in the Lithuanian village of Gudeliai. Her brother, Anthony, emigrated to America in 1892 for the expressed purpose of becoming a priest in order to serve the growing Lithuanian immigrant population in the United States. Ordained in 1896, Anthony was immediately assigned to St. Joseph parish in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a Lithuanian national parish.

He wrote home to his parents asking if his sister Casimira would be willing to emigrate to America to serve as his housekeeper at the rectory. With her parents’ consent, Casimira left home and joined her brother to begin a new life in Scranton. Missing her parents and village, she returned home after four years but her time in America was not without effect. First-hand experience of the struggles of Lithuanian immigrants inspired her to dedicate her life to the service of her countrymen in the role of a teaching sister.

Women’s religious orders were central to Catholic life in the century preceding the Second Vatican Council. By the mid-twentieth century, religious sisters outnumbered Catholic priests by a ratio of almost three to one. Some critics argue that the dramatic exodus of women religious in the years following the Council reflected an erroneous prioritizing of “social justice” concerns at the expense of prayer and piety. Those who make such an argument need to reckon seriously with the centrality of social service needs to the exponential increase in women religious orders in the industrial era.

Though male religious orders had moved out from the seclusion of monastic life since at least the 13th century, the cloister remained the norm for female religious. Later, Trent reaffirmed the cloister, but the social disruptions of the Reformation and the new missionary frontiers established through New World colonization brought increased need for women religious in the “worldly” fields of health, education and welfare. Generous interpretations of canon law eventually gave way to a more open and honest affirmation of the role of women religious in the world. I examine these issues more broadly in my new book, American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World (Ignatius Press, 2022), but for the rest of this article I would like to focus on the story of Maria Kaupas as a representative figure of this larger phenomenon.

Again, Maria’s call to the religious life was a call to service as a teaching sister, more specifically as a teacher of Lithuanian immigrant children. The movement for mass Catholic education was in many ways a reaction or response to the rise of public education promoted by the emerging nation states of the Western world. The Church saw the field of education as nothing less than a battle for the soul of Catholic children. State schools indoctrinated students with an ideal of citizenship that prioritized loyalty to the state above submission to the Church; it also threatened to corrupt the minds of children by exposing them to ideas rooted in various Protestant traditions and/or secular ideologies.

Catholic immigrant children in America faced the additional threat of attacks on their language and cultural traditions in parochial schools staffed by English-speaking, Irish American nuns. All of these issues inspired Maria to pursue her vocation, yet there was no Lithuanian women’s teaching order for her to join. Maria would have to found such an order herself. Her priest-brother assisted her in receiving the religious formation she would need to establish her own order.

Maria’s path to founding the Sisters of St. Casimir reflects the truly international nature of American Catholic life in the nineteenth century. Maria began her formation with the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross in Ingenbohl, Switzerland. This order was itself founded only in 1856 and in response to the type of social concerns that led Maria to pursue her vocation. The industrial revolution uprooted the peasants of Europe from their traditional agricultural way of life. Thrown off the land, many wandered the back country roads seeking work and food; many ended up in filthy, overcrowd industrial cities. A Capuchin priest, Fr. Theodosious Florentini and Blessed Mother Maria Theresia Scherer founded the order in Switzerland to deal with the health, education and social welfare needs of poor peasants cast adrift by the whirlwind of industrialization and urbanization. This foundational experience spoke directly to Maria’s motives for entering the religious life.

Still, to work with Lithuanian immigrants in the United States, Maria needed a formation more directly informed by the specifics of the American milieu. In this, she found support from the Bishop of Harrisburg, PA, John W. Shanahan. Bishop Shanahan defies the stereotype of the intolerant, Americanizing Irish-American prelate. He fully acknowledged the need of the Lithuanian Catholic community for a Lithuanian religious community of teaching sisters. To complete Maria’s formation, Bishop Shanahan arranged for Maria to complete her formation with a local religious order, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in Scranton, PA.

This order was yet another nineteenth-century creation, born of concern for the plight of poor immigrants. It was founded by Fr. Louis Floret Gillet, a Redemptorist missionary serving the Michigan frontier in the 1840s. Unable to find a religious community willing to serve the immigrants of the remote Michigan frontier, Fr. Gillet resolved to found a new community to serve the educational needs of his people; with the assistance of Sister Theresa Maxis, he realized his dream in 1845. The new order proved so successful that bishops from more populated areas back East—including Bishop William O’Hara of Scranton—began requesting assistance from the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart to serve the educational needs of their dioceses.

With assistance from this second order, Maria completed her formation. On August 29, 1907, in Scranton, she became the foundress of the Sisters of St. Casimir. Within a few months, Maria and her small band of sisters founded their first school in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. Reversing the geographic path of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, ever-changing population shifts led the Sisters of St. Casimir to Midwest, to the city of Chicago, home to the largest Lithuanian population in the United States.

Establishing a motherhouse in Chicago, Maria and her sisters expanded their service throughout different regions of Illinois and Pennsylvania; by 1937, the Sisters ventured as far west as New Mexico to expand their teaching mission. Along with this continued commitment to education, Maria and her sisters expanded their service into health care: when the Lithuanian Catholic Charities could no longer mange the operation of Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago, Maria honored Bishop Mundelein’s request that she and her order take over the responsibility.

Soon after assuming responsibility for the medical care of others, Maria would find her own health compromised by the cross of breast cancer. Diagnosed in 1933, she struggled for seven years before succumbing in 1940, at the age of 60. In the decades following Maria’s death, the social mission of the Sisters of St. Casimir and other orders of women religious would find increasing rivalry from secular institutions, both public and private. Still, Maria understood this mission in a spiritual context lacking in these secular rivals. She counseled her sisters: “let our concern be this noble desire and aim: to love as the Savior taught.”

If some Catholics in more recent times have privileged the social over the spiritual, the response is certainly not to abandon the social for the spiritual, but rather to recover and renew the synthesis expressed in the lives of holy women such as Mother Maria Kaupas.


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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 19 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World will be published in 2022 by Ignatius Press.

3 Comments

  1. As the one-time secretary to the Bishop for the Lithuanian Diaspora (Bishop Paul Baltakis, RIP), I must applaud the fine job done by Professor Shannon; he caught every element of the Lithuanian-American Catholic saga.
    Further, since the Lithuanian parish of my grandparents did not have a school, my family joined the territorial parish (aka, the “Irish” parish) and I attended that school. The education was superb at every level, however, we non-Irish were made to feel like strangers in our own Church by the Irish clergy and Sisters. The worst part of it all was that they were rather oblivious to their attitude (e.g., we were told on March 16 each year that on the following day, we would be allowed to be “honorary Irishmen”!).

    • Fr., don’t take it too personally. We Irish are a fun-loving, prideful lot! My Dad’s side was Polish, they never quite understood my mom’s clan!

  2. Nice article. Thought I would provide a little history of Lithuanians in Grand Rapids (GR), Mich. To start, my ethnic background is Lithuanian both on my mother and father side. One thing interesting is that my grandfather on my mother’s side changed his last name to Bailey from Balusis to be more American. When I grew in 50s & 60s very little Lithuanian was spoken. The goal was to be American.

    The history of Lithuanians in GR is nicely summarized in a book titled, Growing Up in Old Lithuanian Town, by Edward Gillis, 1999. In GR, St Peter and Pauls was and still is to some extent the Lithuanian parish. The parish was promoted by the Bishop in GR at the time to serve the Lithuanian immigrants. The parish still has an annual festival that features Lithuanian cuisine. At one time time it had a grade school, which appears to have supported by the Dominican sisters. The history seems to indicate that education was a priority of Lithuanian parents, at least through completing high school. (As a side note is seems that education is a high priority today in Lithuania.)

    A feature of St. Peter and Paul parish is that Father Lipcus was the pastor for 36 years, starting in October, 1925. While he was somewhat dictorial, he made sure that the church debt was paid off, parishioners attended Church and that Church served the Lithuanian community through the depression and WW 2. When the church debt was paid off, during novena services he took up the paid up mortgage to the alter of the Blessed Virgin in thanks for Her watching over the parish. More recently Father Morrow, who unfortunately died in 2020, brought back some of the Lithuanian heritage back to the parish. He was a beloved pastor who passed too soon.

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