Lithuanians and the Beginning of the Jerusalem Lutheran Church
Immigrants from Lithuania, a country bordering the Baltic Sea, came to the United States of America, some settling in southern Illinois. Lithuanians have a strong heritage and personal faith, and they have preserved their language. Lithuanians were predominantly Roman Catholic, but a number of them were also Lutheran. Like many other nationalities they have had many difficult times and prosperous times.
Many Lithuanian immigrants traveled on ships to the United States, landing on Ellis Island in New York. These trips cost about two hundred dollars. It is almost impossible to know the true number of Lithuanian immigrants, because they were not distinguished as a separate immigration group in 1931. Before then, Lithuanians were usually marked as Russians or Poles. The Lithuanians settled mostly in Chicago, Illinois, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Naugutuck, Connecticut.
Later, Lithuanian immigrants traveled to Collinsville, Illinois, where some found employment at the coal mines and factories, while others bought fertile farm land for low prices. Most Lithuanians went to other places in southern Illinois. Only a small number of Lutheran Lithuanians went to Collinsville.
Their first surinkamas (prayer meetings) were held in homes and rented halls. Beginning on June 2, 1901, sixty Lithuanians attended St. John's Evangelical and Reformed Church, now called St. John's United Church of Christ, on Sunday afternoons. Rev. Christ Bendigkeit, who was also of Lithuanian descent, performed services in Lithuanian. The last such service was held on January 10, 1904.
In 1898 a young pastor named Rev. Martin Keturakat, who was from Germany, visited the Lithuanians in Collinsville. Earlier in his life, he was arrested by the Russian Czarist police for spreading the Christian faith by distributing religious books in the Lithuanian language. When he escaped from prison he came to the United States.
Rev. Keturakat performed a service in the Lithuanian language on January 25, 1903, for Lithuanians from the southern Illinois cities of Collinsville, Glen Carbon, Donkville (now Maryville), and East St. Louis. He talked to the congregation about building a church, and many of those in attendance responded positively. William Kennedy was selected as architect and W. Vutcheck was selected as carpenter. The church was built on the corner of Huffendick and Collinsville Avenues in Collinsville, Illinois.
Many of the congregants were very poor and were willing to build their own church structure. This also demonstrated their strong faith. The church was finally dedicated on Sunday, October 25, 1903, and named Jerusalem Lutheran Church. The church has remained in continuous use since that day.
On Sunday October 25, 1998, Jerusalem Lutheran Church celebrated its ninety-fifth anniversary. Since its beginning, the Jerusalem Lutheran Church has experienced both difficult times and good times.—[From Thomas E. Petraitis, Growing Up Lithuanian in East St. Louis, Illinois; Genevieve Shasteen, Jerusalem Lutheran Church 95th Anniversary; student historian's interview with Genevieve Shasteen, Sept. 16, 1999.]
6 ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1999