Saint Joseph’s Lithuanian Church 1908-2003
Lithuanian immigration to New England can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when the demand for unskilled laborers in the local textile mills attracted numerous families to the bustling city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Like so many immigrants before them, one of the first orders of social membership and extended familial responsibility was the founding of their church, a Lithuanian Catholic Church.
In 1902, delegates George Jurivicius and Matthew Dirsa, members of the Lithuanian Algirda fraternal society of Lowell, along with Farther Joseph Gricius of the Lithuanian parish in South Boston, met with Archbishop John J William of Boston, who gave the men the archdiocesan approval to begin the groundwork for building a parish in Lowell. With the support of Father Joseph Jusaitis of the Lithuanian parish in Lawrence, the efforts of the Algirda fraternal society and the Saint Joseph Society led to the acquisition of land on Rogers Street in the Belvidere neighborhood. The parish formed by the Lithuanian families was canonically recognized by the archdiocese in 1908.
For over two years, the nearly 800 Lithuanian immigrants in Lowell were served by Father Michael Peza at the Immaculate Conception Church. Following Father Peza's reassignment from Lowell, Lithuanian religious needs were provided at Saint Joseph's Church on Lee Street, under the direction of Father Kazimieras Urbonavicius. Although grateful for their host's generosity, Lithuanians desired a church building they could call their own. In 1911, the parish committee purchased the Independent Polish Catholic Church, renovated it, and renamed it Saint Joseph's Lithuanian Church with Bishop Joseph G. Anderson, Auxiliary Bishop of Boston, blessing the church on May 30, 1911.
Father Urbonavicius, who later edited the Catholic Boston newspaper Darbininkas (The Worker) and was later raised to the rank of Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII, served the parish community until the end of 1912, when the church was destroyed by fire. Rebuilt in only two months, St Joseph's was rededicated on January 1, 1913, under the new spiritual guidance of Father J. Aleknavicius, who served the parish for five years.
After Father Aleknavicius' departure, Father Kuczas became the spiritual leader of the parish. During his tenure (1918-1927) the priest, aided by his parishioners, created a massive celebration in honor of the formal United States recognition of the Lithuanian Republic on July 17, 1922. The celebration included a significant and lengthy parade, followed by a mass Lithuanian gathering on the South Common.
While serving for only a short time (1927-1929), Father Francis Juras, who replaced Father Aleknavicius, was responsible for developing the attractive west side grounds of the parish, which had been filled with debris. During the tenure of Father Francis Strakauskas (1929-1948), the societies of the Apostleship of Prayer, Third Order of St Francis and Our Lady Gate of Heave were formed. In addition, the Blessed Virgin Sodality, led by Helen Mikzsa, was created to address the spiritual needs of the women of the parish.
While the spiritual societies emerged, the simple beauty of the parish was not forgotten. The exquisite stain glass windows commemorating the societies and the impressive church organ were installed. At the dedication of this instrument, Metropolitan Opera diva Polyna Stoska, a noted Lithuanian, provided a recital in exceptional fashion. Not long after, Father Strakauskas was reassigned to St Casimir's Church in Brockton.
From 1949 to 1963, Father John Skalandis served the parishioners at Saint Joseph's. These were troubled times for the parish as the original immigrant parishioners began to die out and their offspring left for the suburbs. Moreover, the Soviet Union had taken control of the Lithuanian Republic and stopped the emigration of Lithuanians. Instead of shrinking the parish, however, this time of upheaval and loss allowed for the slow and steady growth of Saint Joseph's. Neighbors, not of Lithuanian ancestry, began attending the intimate church in growing numbers. Father Skalandis requested and received a curate to help him serve this growing community. Reverends Junkus, Svirkas, Shakalys and Jansonis succeeded each other and assisted as curates as the parish added Masses to its schedule and celebrated an increased number of marriages and births.
Following the departure of Father Skalandis, Father John Zuromskis was appointed pastor of the growing church. Father Zuromskis oversaw the remodeling of the aging church building and the replacement of the church organ. It was under the tutelage of Father Zuromskis that additional social activities, which brought a wide range of Christians together, expanded. The remodeled church basement served as home of the very successful Boy Scout Troop 6, which has developed several Eagle Scouts. Senior citizen socials and visiting nurse checkups take place there too.
Replacing Father Zuromskis, upon his retirement, was Father Paul Garrity from the Newman Center at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, who remained at the parish from January 1990 to July 1990. The significant intervention and correspondence by concerned parishioners resolved the question of whether or not the archdiocese would keep the parish open without a pastor. The archdiocese in August 1990, appointed Reverend Leonard T. McGrath, pastor of the church.
Under Father McGrath's aegis, several new programs were initiated. Among them were participation in the local Food Pantry, the establishment of the Women's Guild, the creation of the Parish Council, and the collection for the Christmas Giving Tree. Along those accomplishments, Father McGrath hired a Director of Religious Education, appointed a Director for the training of an adult choir, and initiated participation in the citywide Hunger/Homeless Week activities. During Father McGrath's term, he was responsible for the renovation of the church and the replacement of the roof. And for the perpetuation of Lithuanian heritage, Father McGrath had also strongly supported the observance of Independence Day and preserved the celebration of the patron saint, Saint Joseph, in March.
With financial problems in the Archdiocese, the stable Saint Joseph’s was merged with the Immaculate Conception Church in January of 2000. The last Mass at the church was said on October 26, 2003 and the building was closed and recently put up for sale. A member of the church stated on that final day, “We won’t keep Saint Joseph’s but we will find another home.”