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14 December 2017
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Saluting the Lithuanians of Brockton, Massachusetts


Lithuania Hall, Brockton, Massachusetts, 1913

This article was written by JOHN BERNOTAVICZ, BS, MS, PhD (1913-2009) for Lituanus (Lithuanian quarterly journal of arts and sciences) in 1990

 

MY SALUTE TO THE LITHUANIANS OF BROCKTON, MASSACHUSETTS


JOHN BERNOTAVICZ, BS, MS, PhD

 

On Sunday, April 24, 1988, l drove from Hyannis to Plymouth to pick up Mrs. Florence Melevsky, my sister-in-law, so we could attend the 90th anniversary for St. Rocco-St. Casimir Parish in Brockton. Originally, all we had was a basement church, as l remember it. Now, over the basement towers a huge bell-towered edifice.

The following credentials will establish my family and my roots in this parish.

My father, Mykolas Juozas Bernotavicius from Marcinkonys, Lithuania, was married on June 1, 1905, to Ona Geceviciute from Varėna, Lithuania, by Father M. Peza in the old wooden church on Webster Street. Later, this building became our church hall. Although my parents had four children, l was the only one to survive beyond infancy. Because my birth occurred on St. John's Day, June 24,1913, l was baptized John. On June 11, 1939, l married Amelia Veronica Jermolaviciute (the youngest of seven sisters) in this basement church by Father John Svagzdys. Our two children, John (a graduate of Notre Dame University and Georgetown Law School) and Mary (a graduate of the Georgetown School of Nursing) were christened here in 1943 and 1946, respectively. In addition to the above data, my parents and my wife were buried from this church.

As we descended the steps to the hall, a flood of memories of long ago surged through my mind. Nowhere in sight did l see the confessionals, nor the organ or choir loft, nor any pews or stations of the cross, nor any main altar with two side altars—only a huge expansive area filled with long tables and chairs prepared for a family-style feast for the parishioners and friends of the parish. At one end we saw an hors d'hoeuvres table. Other tables along the sides of the building were lined with pictures, photos, newspaper clippings of past functions, mementoes of other activities and paraphenalia illustrating past history of its parish and people.

During the 1920-1935 era, Brockton, a bustling city of 55,000-65,000 inhabitants, was known as the world's largest shoe manufacturing center. Most of the parishioners of St. Rocco worked in such factories as W.L. Douglas, E.E. Taylor, Geo. E. Keith, Diamond Shoe, Field and Flint, etc. Their buildings covered blocks and blocks of acreage and thousands and thousands of people were employed therein.

The Montello section of the city is located in the northeastern end of town. This "village" as we called it was the principal home of most of the parishioners. It was about two miles from the only high school we had and from the center of the downtown section.

All of my youthful activities centered around the church, the hall and the ward six playground next to the hall. l remember the beautiful religious processions, the festivals, the plays put on by the children of Mary, the choir participation, the musicals and the Saturday movies in the hall. The area around the hall seemed to be the starting point for parades, church festivals, for rides to the church owned Romuva Park, etc.

l recall the Franklin Grade School not far from the church where a tow-headed, blue-eyed youngster being led to Miss Clark's first grade room by his mother and being told "Būk geras vaikelis" (be a good child) in Lithuanian. Almost all of my classmates spoke Lithuanian only, except for what English we picked up at the playground from older kids.

My small world was filled with private homes and three-decker apartments, small businesses and stores of all types. Brockton was bisected by the South Shore Railroad to Boston (as was our village). The trolley line from downtown ran down Ames St., Intervale St, Bellevue Avenue and ended on Sawtelle Avenue to carry workers to the various shoe factories. Of course, the trolley was also our way of getting to high school. I recall how adept some of us got at opening the back door of the car to let non-paying students hop in.

One other point about our village was its proximity to the ward six playground with its swings, baseball diamond, etc. This was my entry to the sport of baseball. Years later, I became the playground supervisor during my college years.

The village seemed to be full of Lithuanian merchants catering to the tastes and needs of their compatriots. Those I remember with much affection are:

1. Bakers: Suppliers of rye and raisin breads, prepared food for weddings, Thanksgiving, Christmas and even for post-funeral affairs.

Radauskas, Kilkus, Duoba and Wallen Bakers.

2. Grocery stores-meat markets: Sold home made kilbasa and kopusta, pickled herring and horseradish, etc.

Abracinskas, Balchunas, Axtin, Belkis. Bellevue Ave. Bucys, Gaigal, Kaslauskas, Kodis, Moncevich, Sviokla, Uozis, Vismantas, Yukna and Zinkevicz Markets.

3. Pharmacies and drug stores: Kvaraceus, Miskinis, Visman and Walangevich.

4. Dry goods, furniture, shoes, post office: Kaseta, Paulauskiene, Pranaitiene and Stasys Grigus, Karzis, Mickevich, Mickevich.

5. Miscellaneous Businesses: Cafés and restaurants, candy stores, cobblers and plumbers, Godfrey coal and grain, Germanavicius Barber Shop, funeral home, Kasper's pool hall-bowling alleys, Matulis printing shop, several social clubs, Yakavonis bath house.

Certainly this is an impressive listing suggesting a rather self-contained and self-sufficient community.

Lithuanian was spoken and understood in any of these establishments. It occurs to me that Ed Cassidy, the patrolman on the beat, knew many basic Lithuanian phrases and terms. Many years later, Lithuanian names showed up on the rolls of the police dept., fire dept., as teachers in schools, in politics and also as small manufacturers.

As the banquet droned on with its splendid speeches and musical interludes and presentation by his honor the mayor of Brockton, Carl Pitaro, more memories flashed through my mind's eye.

In 1917, World War l was still raging in Europe and l recall a visit from my uncle Peter Chestnut to bid us farewell before being shipped to France. He arrived with a huge rifle and in uniform. For our edification, he fixed a bayonet to the rifle and proceeded to show us "present arms." Noting a child's interest in the rifle, he asked me whether l would like to perform the same maneuver. Naturally, my trial was a colossal and stupendous failure. The heavy rifle knocked me on my butt and fell across my little body. The result was a screaming, crying, frightened four-year-old child!

l was 10 years of age in 1923, and received my first communion from Father John Svagzdys in our basement church. Immediately after the service, we hurried across the street to the professional photographer to have my picture taken with my new knickers—and new Converse sneakers!

It was in this parish that l had my first exposure with death. My childhood buddy, Ralph Willen, had been shipped to Colorado to recover from tuberculosis. One year later, they returned him in a pine box. His grandmother asked me to be one of the pall bearers. She lived in a three-decker apartment and Ralph was waked there. This handsome giant, over six feet tall, had to be toted down three floors of rather narrow, winding stairs to the hearse on the ground floor. We arrived safely and were relieved that no accident had occurred!
How can I forget the cold Easter morning services when my family trudged through, down the Ames Street Hill, to the church. Occasionally we would have drifts of snow as high as the roof of our one-level church building.

Of course, I remember the church pageants in which parishioners dressed as Roman soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus Christ. Nor can I fail to recall how frightening it was for a child to sit through the Lithuanian missions and listen to sermons filled with hell-fire and damnations being bellowed at me by Father Chaplickas from Chicago, III. No place to run and hide oneself except under the wing of one's parents.

Then I recall what a pleasant treat it was to go to the Saturday afternoon movies in the church hall. Here we saw all the silent stars like Tom Mix, Wm. S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Charley Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Tarzan, Pearl White, Mary Pickford, etc. During these shows, piano music was provided by Adolph Krush or Frances Kaseta. l considered it to be quite an honor to sit up front and turn their pages. Meanwhile, up in the balcony, the young generation was holding hands and smooching with their girl friends. 0, yes, we had proctors upstairs.

Each Saturday morning, we would go to Lithuanian classes to be able to read and write the language. I still have the certificate indicating that I had acquired these prerequisites.

The parish owned a lovely acreage a couple miles away which was called Romuva Park. Events here were quite varied from sports, to dancing, to huge picnics at which hundreds of Lithuanians from surrounding parishes would spend the day celebrating holidays and feast days. One of the outstanding features here was the clay tennis courts. Many a game did Brony Bartkevicz, Bennie Yezukevich, Ernie Yukna and I have here. Of course we played baseball here also. Not the least interesting was the fact that we learned Lithuanian and American dances here, under the tutelage of Frances Galinsky, Vincenta Treinavich, Florence and Amelia Jermolavich and others. I must mention that Paul Sakas and his brother John were two of the better New England tennis players in this era. Paul, of course, became our choir director.

Another treasured experience took place while Father Kneizys was our curate. He had a wonderful facility for translating and transposing American songs, operas, musicals, etc., into Lithuanian. After adequate practice and training, his cast would take these shows on the road to other parishes like Norwood, Stoughton, Cambridge, South Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, Hudson, etc.

Being asked to join the senior choir at the age of 16 was certainly a wonderful memory and honor. Our choir directors were all interesting people. Messrs. Banys, Burke and Sakas did yeoman service for this parish. They kept us a closely knit as a group at picnics to such places as Mayflower Grove in Bryantville and Nantasket Beach. Mr. Burke would hire a symphony orchestra and soloist to assist us when we performed "The Seven Last Words of Christ."

Paul Sakas, our local boy, entered our chorus in a New England songfest held at the symphony hall in Boston. Competition was against some of the best professional chorus groups around, something rather incredible occurred when the "kids" from the village came in first! l remember the phonetic melody "Dzimdzi Drimzi" did the trick as our final song. Wonder what ever became of the trophy?

Because our church hall was adjacent to ward six playground, we spent lots of time here. l played for the under-16-years-old team and we won our league many times. Years later, after passing an exam, l became a playground supervisor (as did Virginia Pekarski).

One day, Peter Couble asked me to play for St. Rocco's Baseball Team. Long before l joined, St. Rocco's had their own "Charley Hustle" or Ty Cobb in the person of Frank Couble. He fought for everything and anything whether it was a stolen base, close pitch or a fielding call. When he slid into a base, he came at you with spikes flying. He backed down to no one despite his small stature. This team had a great group of athletes. I recall pitchers like Dom Bartkus, Peter Pieski, Peter Chestnut and even me, catchers like J. Chestnut, J. Kvaraceus, W. Melesky, F. Svirsky, M. Yakavonis, J. Petkunas, A. Couple, J. Tamuleviches and A. Snyder. We would play anyone including, K. of C. teams and town teams from Hanson, Hanover, Whitman, Stoughton, Plymouth, Sandwich, and even Providence R.l. My highlight was pitching against the House of David from Benton Harbor, Michigan. Their team was composed of old timers from the major leagues. In spite of pitching an eight-hit game, we were beaten 2 to 0.

Education was a very important cog in my life and the life of my family. My dad got his sixth-grade certificate from Franklin School before he obtained his citizenship papers. Because he could read and write in Lithuanian, English, Polish and Russian, my mother would always tell me there was no need for her to acquire these talents. Much later, when her Mykolas died, with lots of sweat and tears and persistence, she learned to write her name at the age of 55.

My own Brockton High School Class of 1931 enrolled a total of 866 students in the freshman class and after four years, we graduated 433. In this graduating class, l found a total of 36 Lithuanian names on the final roll.

Realizing that these were the depression years, this was an outstanding honor for the parents of this parish.

To illustrate the esteem our folks had for knowledge and education, l will attempt to recall the people l knew who went to college, graduate schools, etc.

l beg the indulgence of those whom l may have missed, for any errors and omissions l have made, since memory often plays nasty tricks on one:

Amherst College: Julius Kastantin

Alabama, University Of: Joseph Mastovick, Joseph Miskinis

Bentley School of Finance: Walter Melevsky, Vincent Smalukas

Boston College: John Sakas, Paul Sakas, Charles Vaichulis

Boston University: Ed Abrachinskas, Dr., Elizabeth Belkis, Ann Duoba, Nellie Jermolavich, A. Mathews, Vincent Mazgelis, Emily Oksas, Julia Sviokla, Leonard Tamulevich, lawyer, John Williams

Bridgewater State College: Elaine Kamandulis, Florence Kamandulis, Julia Matulis, Lena Matulis, Virginia Pekarski, M.S. Mass State

Brown University: Adolph Sharkey, Harry Sharkey, Francisc Yukna

Burdett College: Ralph Stitilis

Canisius College: Peter Miskinis

Catholic University: Julius Stangis

Fordham University: Julius Miskinis, Michael Miskinis, Walter Uzdavinis

Harvard University: William Kvaraceus, PhD Holy Cross College: John Biaorunas, Hippolit Monkevich, Casimer Yakavonis

Georgetown University: Charles Vaichulis Northeastern University: Sylvester Sviokla

Mass. Inst. Technology: John Greze, Ed. Mickevich, Melvin Mickevich

Pierce Secretorial: Amelia Jermolavich, Alice Yakavonis

Providence College: john Bernotavicz, MS, PhD, Mass State

Rhode Island State College: Michael Grigas, John Roanowicz

School of Pharmacy: Al Miskinis, Len Vismantas, Al Walengevich

Simmons College: Ėlaine Pekarski, Bertha Bartkus

Suffolk Law: Julia Yakavonis

Tufts University: Al Budreski, doctor, Joseph Kvaraceus, doctor

Washington State College: Al Balchunas

Wentworth Institute: Joseph Ykasala

William and Mary College: Matthew Yakavonis

Yale University: Ramanauskas

U.S. Coast Guard Academy: Captain Walter Bakutis, Captain Peter Smenton (Smetonis)

U.S. Military Academy: Colonel Ralph Chesnauskas

U.S. Naval Academy: Admiral Alex Couble, Admiral Fred Bakutis, Admiral Peter Moncy (Moncevich)

In addition to the above, we had the following professional people whose affiliation I did not recall (at college or university); Dr. A. Mason, dentist; Dr. Al Waitkus, osteopathic surgeon; Dr. Al Glenn Gecevich), optometrist;

Peter Kvaraceus, lawyer,

A grand total of 30 schools from all over the United States— and all in my youthful years.

This parish was also blessed with the following children of parishioners who dedicated their lives to the religious vocations: Reverend A. Abracinskas, Reverend A. Baltrashunas, Reverend J. Kasmandulis, Reverend J. Long, Reverend J. Prusaitis, Reverend S. Saulenas, Reverend A. Sheputa, Reverend E. Sviokla, Sister M. Audyaitis, Sister A. Balberis, Sister M. Dambrauskas, Sister M. Grazevich, Sister A. Valentukevich, Sister M. Treinavich, Sister M. Tamulevich, Sister M. Zemeikis, Sister M. Jushkaitis, Sister C. Mazgelis, Sister E. Sakas.

I am certain that there were others who started college but for one reason or another did not have the opportunity to matriculate. To each and everyone, a grand huzzah! If, as one of the speakers stated in his remarks, the religious were the stars of this parish, it is my contention that the graduates were the nova of the parish and the parents should be classed as the super nova!!

It was these parents who were the backbone of the parish and were who scrimped, saved and suffered toward the education goals for their progeny and were the ones who contributed to the parish needs.

God was good then and continues to be forever.

At last I can set aside my emotional thoughts and memories and return to the enjoyment of the food and entertainment of this banquet.

I will always wonder how many other Lithuanian parishes can match what the people of St. Rocco's-St. Casimir's has accomplished.

St. Casimir Church in Brockton closed in 2008
Over the past years, six Catholic parishes in Brockton have closed or merged, making the city one of the hardest hit by the Boston Archdiocese's reconfiguration process. In 2008 St. Casimir Church, a 110-year-old Lithuanian parish held its final service…
Read more…

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lithuanian Brockton disappears
Nearly a century after she was born in Brockton’s Lithuanian Village, Helen Savilonis Giovanello still remembers the aroma of Lithuanian bread baking at Kilkus Bakery. She remembers the lush flower gardens grown by Lithuanian immigrants. She remembers her family’s well-tended home at 18 Albert St. and her days at the neighborhood’s Franklin Elementary School.
But most of all, she remembers the solidarity of the people who lived in that northeast section of Brockton. “It was a cluster of Lithuanian people that were all friendly with the church,” says Giovanello, now 98.Those days are over. The Lithuanian Village is but a shadow of the once-vibrant enclave, and the expected closing later this month of the venerable St. Casimir Church may mark the end of the Lithuanian community in Brockton.
Read more…

Category : Lithuania in the world
  • Dennis O'Brien

    I fondly remember going to the Lithuanian picnics in the early 1960's at Romuva Park. My mother, Dorothy Gricius, was a judge at the beauty contests that were held there. In fact, she was the winner in 1941 out of 34 Lithuanian-American girls from across the six New England states. Dorothy Gricius O'Brien died June 27, 2016. Her parents were born in Lithuania but met here in Boston.

    July 29 2016
    CommentsLike
    • Tony Kasper

      My Dad was from there. I would be interested in learning more from anyone that knew him or my Grandparents. His name was Bob Kasper, my grandparents were Anthony J Kasper and Roberta Kasper.

      May 14 2012
      CommentsLike

      • […] Read more… Category : Front page […]

        April 25 2012
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