Lithuanians create cultural hub in Canada

  • 2004-02-05
Although statistics show residents of Lithuanian origin in 37 of Canada's municipalities, the largest concentrations are in Montreal, Hamilton and particularly in Toronto. To this day, Toronto-Mississauga with a total population equaling that of present-day Lithuania remains a center of Lithuanian cultural, educational and religious activities outside the Baltic country.

There are two Roman Catholic parishes and one Evangelical Lutheran congregation. Next to the Church of the Lithuanian Martyrs in Mississauga stands St. John's Lithuanian Cemetery, established in l960 by the late Rev. P. Azubalis, who lies buried along with just over 3,500 others in the only Lithuanian cemetery in Canada.
In the west end of metropolitan Toronto where the majority of Lithuanian-Canadians have chosen to settle, there is also a non-denominational Lithuanian House that welcomes activities during the week and on weekends: choir and folk dance practices, committee meetings and social gatherings large and small. There is even a Lithuanian-style pub called Lokys in the building. In this part of the city, there are also two Lithuanian credit unions - very popular institutions for local Lithuanians to invest their savings, to arrange their mortgages, or to borrow money.
The community founded a museum in the Lithuanian complex Anapilis in Mississauga. Since its establishment, it has been run by Dr. Rasa Mazeikaite. Incidentally, her parents chose to return to Lithuania permanently in their retirement years. Anapilis also houses the relocated headquarters of the only remaining Lithuanian-language weekly newspaper in Canada Teviskes Ziburiai - The Lights of Homeland - begun in December 1949, by a team of like-minded publishers who invited the late well-known historian Dr. Adolfas Sapoka to be its first editor. After his untimely death, Monsignor Pranas Gaida became the next editor and continues in his post as senior editor even now as a nonagenarian.
The current publisher and managing editor of Teviskes Ziburiai is Ramune Sakalaite-Jonaitis, born in Canada of second-wave postwar refugees. She is fluent in both of Canada's official languages - English and French - and as well in Lithuanian. She discusses both the joys and the dilemmas of being a Lithuanian-Canadian: "Having a Lithuanian background in Canada can be immeasurably enriching, yet restrictive; for example, those of us who delve into it may rarely venture further than our own community. It also imposes a certain responsibility, which many of my generation do not undertake for a variety of reasons. I feel that our heritage marks us with a duality that some of us struggle with, others balance or simply ignore. Yet it gives us a whole other dimension that is truly unique and fulfilling."
The weekly is facing the challenge of remaining relevant for a changing readership since many of the original second-wave immigrant readers have died out and their descendants' command of Lithuanian is considerably weaker than that of their forebears. Meanwhile, the third-wave immigrants' differing interests and concerns are not necessarily those reflected in a newspaper begun in a totally different era to which they are unable to relate.
However, the parishes founded by Canada's Lithuanians continue to thrive especially because of the fresh input by young priests - part of the third wave from Lithuania arriving to help out the surviving second-wave priests. These parishes, built as spiritual buttresses for postwar immigrants, continue to meet both their and their descendants' needs half a century later. Each parish consists of a place of worship and a spacious church hall. These halls remain social centers used for concerts, theatre performances, poetry readings, dances, parties, bridal showers, weddings, wakes and annual commemorations of nationally and historically important events such as Feb. 16 - the date of the signing of the Act of Independence in l918.
Heritage language schools, known as Saturday schools, started in l948 and continue to provide a Lithuanian-language environment for youngsters from ages 4 to 16. They spend Saturday mornings learning the formalities of the Lithuanian language and related subjects. This ethnic identity inculcation and Lithuanian language reinforcement continues in the summer at youth camps far away from the city environment. However, with the passage of time, the fluency in Lithuanian is decreasing with each new generation. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of second-wave immigrants are far more comfortable in English (and French in Quebec) than in the language of their Lithuanian grandparents or great-grandparents.
With the increasing number of new immigrants arriving from Lithuania as part of the third wave, there are more and more young people with a native speaker's command of the Lithuanian language. It remains to be seen whether they will have the impetus to maintain the institutions founded predominantly by the second wave of immigrants or whether they will eventually become assimilated, as did the first Lithuanian immigrants nearly two centuries ago.