Westville’s Lithuanian Catholic history focus of new book

Photo Caption: The book cover features three images showing the evolution of the former Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Westville and one of the former breakaway church named Holy Cross.

By: By Tom Dermody

WESTVILLE — The story seems fit for someplace else on the world stage:

— Disputes and fights divide a church and lead to a breakaway congregation

— A priest is found dead (some say murdered) in his rectory

— Late-night secret burials, and

— Thirty-three saloons in one town influence the actions of a cast of colorful characters, many of them immigrants.

But this story is our story, for it all happened here in Westville, a community just south of Danville near the Indiana border on the eastern edge of the Diocese of Peoria.

The tale is told in a new booklet, “A Short History of a Big Lithuanian Row in Westville, Illinois,” researched and written by Father John Flattery, a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria.

Released in late summer, the 43-page booklet quickly sold out of its first printing of 250, and a second printing of 200 is now being made available.

Father Flattery told The Catholic Post he hopes those who read the account come to “appreciate the history of how difficult it has been to keep the people together and stay Catholic, and not take easy ways out.”

There wasn’t much easy in the Westville of the early 1900s, a coal mining and railroad town of 2,500 then comprised mainly of Lithuanian immigrants.

Father Flattery begins his six chapter book with a prologue describing the journey from Lithuania to Westville of Father Casimir Skrypko, who fled a Russian crackdown in his native country to eventually succeed his cousin as pastor of a newly formed Lithuanian parish here, Sts. Peter and Paul.

But problems would soon develop over finances, rules for burial in the parish cemetery, and Father Skrypko’s campaign to close the many taverns of Westville. Parish leaders who had disputes with the pastor purchased land for their own cemetery. Eventually the disagreements became so heated that the dissident group planned how to create their own church.

In 1914, they purchased a former Presbyterian Church just down Main Street, and brought in the first in a series of priests from the “Old Catholic Church,” a group that rejected Vatican Council I teaching on papal infallibility. Father Flattery explained that the priests’ holy orders may have been valid, because they were ordained by bishops, but they were illicit because they were not authorized by Rome.

The new church was called Holy Cross, and it grew quickly. For the next nearly six decades the town would have competing Lithuanian parishes in addition to St. Mary Parish, which was founded in 1903 and continues today.

Among the key characters profiled are Father John Paukstis, who served as pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish from 1932 to 1973, and Bishop Zigmantis Vipartas, leader of Holy Cross Church for 28 years. Holy Cross Church would close shortly after Bishop Vipartas’ death in 1961, and Sts. Peter and Paul Parish was closed in 1990.

Father Flattery, who has long been interested in history and a few years ago published an account of the roots of Catholicism in Danville, has done
admirable research in telling the story of Catholic Lithuanians in Westville.
The title for his book came from a story in the Sept. 11, 1913, edition of the Danville-Press Democrat. The story noted that the Lithuanians were “in a big row” over the dismissal of the parish organist by the pastor.

“It’s not a big book, but a lot of people have helped me,” said Father Flattery. Among the 23 mentioned on a credit page at the booklet’s beginning is Sister Lea Stefancova, FSJB, diocesan archivist. The text is accompanied by dozens of historic photos of first Communion classes, former church buildings and schools, and even a 1920s era parish baseball team.

A native of Danville, Father Flattery spent 28 years in the United States Air Force, attaining the rank of colonel. He is a former pastor of Holy Family Parish in Danville.

“A Short History of a Big Lithuanian Row” is available for $10 from St. Mary Parish in Westville, (217) 267-3334. The second printing is also being sold at the Vermillion County Museum, Holy Family Church in Danville, and possibly at St. Paul Church in Danville. All proceeds benefit St. Mary Parish, Westville.

And about that priest found deceased in the rectory? That was Father Frank Mikalauskas, who led the dissident Holy Cross Church on three different occasions. A coroner’s inquest ruled his death in early September of 1933 a suicide, but others would later disagree. Who and why? You’ll have to read the story.

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