Monday, February 6, 2012

Sisters of St. Casimir

I love doing this research! I spent about five hours in two wonderful Lithuanian collections in Chicago on January 30. I had driven past the building complex of the Sisters of St. Casimir on a previous trip to Chicago, and took the outside pictures. I learned that the library was overseen by Sister Theresa Papsis, and had a phone conversation with her about the library. I hadn’t set up a meeting, but lucked out that she could leave me to wander in the museum until she was able to talk to me. She is a musician, their organist, with many responsibilities, among which is taking care of the oldest Lithuanian library in the States.

The museum was in three rooms with numerous display cases of the prerequisite amber, wood carvings, straw ornaments, elaborate Easter eggs, and dolls in Lithuanian costumes. There were also plenty of variations on the intricate roadside crosses, some paintings, a couple of manikins with Lithuanian costumes, a hope chest, a large" kankles," a string instrument very similar to the Latvian “kokle.” I especially liked a long display case of stylized dolls depicting a wedding scene. The bride was all in white linen. (That sounds normal in American wedding terms, but Latvians married in their best clothes, which meant a folk costume of the region, and the region determines the colors & designs allowed.) The bridesmaids were crying, because they were losing their “sister” to another village. Behind the wedding party, musicians were playing. 

It was the third museum room I found most intriguing, as that contained the history of the Sisters of St. Casimir (SSC). St. Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania. There was a cross made by high school students with a collage of historical photos for the 100 year celebration of the order. One case contained the artifacts of Sister Maria Kaupas, one of the founders of SSC. There was the desk of Rev. Anthony Staniukynas, who had gotten his doctorate in Jerusalem in 1900. There were other religious artifacts, sculptures of Christ, portraits, dolls in nun habits. Then there were two  large „books” of photos – one being the history of SSC, the other of all the sisters – with a little mass card for each sister that was printed when she died. I wanted to find the one for Sister Mary Perpetua Gudas, who maintained the library until she died at age 104. For the last seven years of her life she had trained Sister Theresa. When Sister Theresa joined me, I asked lots of questions trying to understand how the SSC came to be and the work to which they have committed themselves.

Rev. Anthony Kaupas grew up in Lithuania, but did not want to study in Russia or Poland, his only options at the time, so he came to America and was ordained in Detroit and given a parish in Scranton, PA. He asked his sisters to come to America to help, they did and became sisters there. They founded the SSC in 1907 in Scranton, but Rev. Anthony Staniukynas encouraged them to move to Chicago, as there were more Lithuanians there. The first half of the convent was built in 1911, with the second half completed in 1918. (The library and museum are housed in this old portion of the complex.) They started a school, later built a high school, and took over responsibility for Holy Cross Hospital in 1929. The chapel with its wondrous Italian marble and stained glass windows, was built in 1925. At one time they were also to become an orphanage, but ended up focusing on education and health, serving the local community, which has become quite needy. They hold a monthly (or weekly) food pantry pick-up for their community.

The library was begun in 1911 when the building was first built, making it the oldest Lithuanian library in the U.S. The library itself is light and cozy. It has a collection of over 4000 books, mostly in Lithuanian. They have some recent publications, but do not purchase books or actively add to the collection. There is a card catalog. One of their treasures is a collection of bound periodicals. Some go back to the late 19th century, like Apszieta that they have back from 1892. This was published in Tilze, a town in Germany, as the Russian czar did not allow Lithuanians to publish in their own language, so books and periodicals were printed in Tilze (this is now Sovetsk in the Kalingrad district of Russia, what was once East Prussia) and then smuggled across the border into Lithuania. I have been told this is such a popular historical event, that kids plays have been written about it. I have to look up details of this, as this is definitely an interesting tid-bit for my history of printing chapter. Latvians did not have this restriction, but the Latgalians did, in eastern Latvia. In my brief scan of the periodicals, it looked like most of them were from the first half of the 20th century. It may be worth my while to go back some day and make a list from their catalog.

I asked about archives and the sisters have kept a careful history of their order. These are in a separate room and are the responsibility of sister Therese Ann Banach, who has a library degree. She has started to scan some of the archives. The library itself is not automated in any way.

The future of this collection is not clear, as the order of 77 sisters have to oversee way more than they can possibly do. The school is becoming a charter school and will eventually move into the hands of the Chicago public school system. They are looking for a partner for their hospital.

I was gifted a history of the SSC and some Lithuanian chocolate, so I may have to come back and correct some of my facts here. The graciousness, knowledge and interest in the world of Sister Theresa was amazing. My utmost admiration and respect for these sisters. If I was more religious and could give up a few vices, this would be a great way to serve humanity.