2016-04-28 / Front Page

Maine Lithuanians open local chapter

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Co-founders of the new “Atlantas” Maine chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, from left, Vaida Lavzintyte of Kennebunk, Vaida Lowell of Biddeford, and Nora Balaima of Kennebunkport, are hoping a May 1 grand opening for their group, to be held at the Franciscan Monastery Guest House in Kennebunk, will create a home-away-from-home for all Maine residents of Lithuanian descent. (Duke Harrington photo) Co-founders of the new “Atlantas” Maine chapter of the Lithuanian American Community, from left, Vaida Lavzintyte of Kennebunk, Vaida Lowell of Biddeford, and Nora Balaima of Kennebunkport, are hoping a May 1 grand opening for their group, to be held at the Franciscan Monastery Guest House in Kennebunk, will create a home-away-from-home for all Maine residents of Lithuanian descent. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — When reflecting on the many immigrant communities in Maine, it’s not often that Lithuania is the country of origin that leaps to many minds.

But Lithuanians began arriving in Maine in the 19th century, coming alongside a wave of Finns, Russians and Poles, largely to Knox County, to join the Canadian French in the lumber industry. And they soon spread out into other centers, creating cultural strongholds in Lewiston, with the founding of the St. Bartholomew Society and construction of the S.B.S. Lithuanian Hall in 1914, and the founding of St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, in 1947.

And Lithuanians have made their marks in other areas as well. The famous Osher Map Library and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Portland was created with funding from philanthropists Harold, Bernard and Marion Oshers, the children of Leah Lazarovich Osher and Samuel Osher (formerly Osherowitz), Lithuanian and Russian immigrants who settled in Biddeford.

But for all that, Maine Lithuanians have not been part of the Lithuanian American Community (LAC), a nonprofit group with 60 chapters in 27 states and the District of Columbia. At least not until now.

On May 1, a trio of first-generation Lithuanian immigrants will hold a grand opening of the first Maine chapter in the LAC, dubbed “Atlantas.”

“We’re looking to include Lithuanians from all over the state, not just in southern Maine,” said Atlantas co-founder and chapter head Vaida Lowell of Biddeford. “We’d also like to include folks from New Hampshire.”

According to an LAC survey conducted in 2014, there are about 5,900 Lithuanians living in Maine, primarily in Portland, Rumford, Bangor, Auburn, Waterville, Brunswick and Lewiston.

“Our goal is, if we can gather maybe 50 to 100, that would be a great success for our group to start with,” Lowell said.

Atlantas co-founder and deputy chair Vaida Lavzintyte of Kennebunk says the 5,900 number may well include Maine residents many generations removed from their Lithuanian roots. There may be as few as 100 first-generation Lithuanians, like Lowell and herself, living in Southern Maine, she said.

“Whether they where born there or born here, we are hoping to bring everyone together to celebrate our shared heritage,” said the third co-founder of the group, Nora Balaima of Kennebunkport.

Balaima came to the U.S. on a summer vacation 17 years ago, staying at the Franciscan Monastery guest house hotel. She ended up meeting a fellow Boston-born Lithuanian while here and ended up getting married. Today, she’s a chef at the local inn and a U.S. citizen. But that’s a rarity among Lithuanans.

Lowell and Lavzintyte both came to Maine as part of summer work study programs that landed them, more or less at random among all places in the U.S. where they might have gone, smack in vacationland’s seaside hospitality industry at the height of tourist season.

That was not a possibility in the communist country of closed borders they were born into, but after the fall of the USSR they were able to take advantage a new era of d├ętente. Lowell spent her first Maine summer in Ogunquit, Lavzintyte in South Portland. Both returned to Lithuania after their first summer here – Lowell with a future husband in tow – and both eventually chose to return to Maine, having grown to love the area, in part because of its similarities to their homeland.

“It is much the same, in terms of potatoes and pine trees and blueberries, although lobsters not so much,” Lavzintyte said, with a laugh. “But the weather here is much nicer. Much sunnier, with not so much rain, although people here won’t believe it.”

Unlike Balaima, Lowell and Lavzintyte and not U.S. citizens. That’s because a 2001 change in the Lithuanian constitution forbids duel citizenship. If they become Americans, they lose citizenship in their birth country. That’s something that they are not yet willing to do. And, insomuch as any of the LAC chapters have a political arm, lobbying for legislation that will allow for duel citizenship for Lithuanians is one thing members rally around.

“That is a very hot topic for all of us right now,” Lowell said.

Still, the largest part of the reason for founding Atlantas is simply to make cultural connections.

However, the generations the passed between the first waves of Lithuanian immigration and today can make it hard for the newcomers to make cultural connections.

One of three Baltic states located in northern Europe between Poland and Russia, the Republic of Lithuania first gained independence on Feb. 16, 1918. However, after falling behind the iron curtain that was the USSR after World War II, Lithuanian did not become a truly independent country again until March 11, 1990. Thus, Lithuanians today actually celebrate two Independence Days, on Feb. 16 and March 11.

“It’s a month-long party,” Lavzintyte said.

Still, with travel closed off for so long, it can be hard for new immigrants to find fellow Lithuanians living in the U.S.

“Even with so many having come to Maine to join in the hospitality industry, many times, it comes down to coincidence, to hearing a similar accent in the checkout line,” Lowell said.

Lavzintyte and Balaima actually worked at the same restaurant for a time. Lavzintyte and Lowell met when Lowell’s husband did info-tech work at a place where she was employed, and commented on the fact that she shared an unusual name (for Maine anyway) with his wife.

The goal of Atantas, they say, is to help broaden those connections, whether it’s to help those long separated from Lithuania learn something of their heritage from more recent immigrants, or to help the newcomers learn more about the history of their homeland from people who traveled here long ago.

“I think it’s important for folks with the same background to come together, to share traditions, to share the language, and to share memories and stories – the entire cultural background,” Lowell said.

The grand opening program, to be held at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, will feature a host of dignitaries, including the General Consul of Lithuania in New York, Julius Pranevicius; LAC National Chairman Sigita Simkuviene; LAC Boston District Chairman Dr. Regina Balcaitiene; and Boston Lithuanian Saturday School Principal Gaila Narkeviciene.

A short concert will follow keynote remarks, with a performance by a Lithuanian born singer and Maine resident Gintare Jautakaite.

According to Lowell, the mission of the Atlantas LAC Chapter will be to foster preserving the Lithuanian cultural identity and to unify Lithuanians in Maine; to organize educational, cultural, religious, community, social and sports activities; to cooperate with Lithuanian institutions; to promote Lithuanian culture in the U.S. and provide information to Americans about Lithuania.

Since its founding in 1951, LAC has sought to preserve the Lithuanian cultural identity for future generations. The LAC is part of the Lithuanian World Community, an organizational network embracing Lithuanians in over 41 countries. LAC activities run on volunteer power and voluntary contributions.

For more information about Maine Lithuanians and it’s grand opening please visit https://www.facebook.com/ groups/883022788403512/ or inquire via email lbatlantas@gmail.com.

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