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Lithuanian club tends the roots of a culture

Celebrations are planned for the club, which has grown from a small singing group to the largest in Florida.

By MELIA BOWIE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 7, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Inside the kitchen of the the Lithuanian American Club of St. Petersburg a small group of smiling women set down their bags. The retirees greet each other in their native language -- their friendly chatter drifting out into the empty reception hall as they decide who will tackle the different baking tasks.

Today there is much to be done as they set to work beating eggs, sifting flour and folding the dough that will make thousands of traditional cookies called gruzdais (actually love knots) for members to dine on during the club's 40th anniversary celebration this month.

The festivities commemorating the Lithuanian club's evolution from a small singing group that once gathered in a Gulfport garage to a 500-member cultural society -- the largest Lithuanian organization in Florida -- will begin Friday. The event is set to begin at 3 p.m. in the club's reception hall at 4880 46th Ave. N with a free concert and exhibit. It will last for three days.

"Lithuanians are notorious about celebrations," said Angela Karnius, a founding member of the club, which is flying in champion European ballroom dancers and a Chicago band for the event. "Our weddings last three days, our christenings last three days. So will this."

With a dedication normally devoted to child rearing, members have nurtured their club from its infancy. They proudly watched the organization acquire a building -- in 1964 -- which it continues to maintain with membership donations. The group also established a local mission, weekend culture and language classes for Lithuanian youths and a newsletter.

As it matured, the society has attracted internationally know performers and speakers, including Lithuania's current president, and became a founding member of the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society. It now serves as the umbrella group for 13 Lithuanian recreational, civic and professional groups in the area.

"We want to keep the roots," said club president Loretta Kynas, the organization's first female leader, along with vice-president Dalia Adomaitis. Bylaws list the group's goals to organize area Lithuanians and promote their solidarity, culture and spiritual welfare, but it is more than that, said members.

The organization provides a place for long-lost relatives and friends to reunite after fleeing their homeland decades ago. It offers a network for Lithuanian neighbors to care for each other when they are ill or alone. And after Sept. 11, the club lent support to those who had flashbacks of their own wartime experiences.

"We had a moment of silence that Sunday in the club," said Kynas. "Most of our people went through the second World War so it did remind them . . . of those days in the 1940s when they fled Lithuania -- the bombardment, the buildings falling."

With familial Sunday dinners for more than 200 people each week, the club has become a home away from home to members -- mainly retirees attracted to St. Petersburg because of the large Lithuanian community fostered by the organization.

"This club has done so many good things for people who would otherwise be sitting inside, twiddling their thumbs and getting old," Karnius said.

In the back of the building, beyond the office and choir room, lies one of the group's chief accomplishments: a meticulously kept library overseen by a petite, white-haired wonder named Sofija Salys.

With intricately carved wooden masks, figurines and tiny buildings displayed nearby, the library is home to hundreds of books and encyclopedias -- both in English and Lithuanian -- that document the country's history after 50 years of Soviet occupation left Lithuania with "bookshelves full of lies," Karnius said.

Today the club collects the accurate tomes -- gifts from members, some whose personal libraries are donated after they pass away. With the help of assistant librarian Amilija Kiaune, Salys regularly packs dozens of heavy boxes and calculates the postage to have them shipped across the sea to Lithuanian libraries and schools.

And thanks to the Internet, club members here are treated to weekly reports on the current news and happenings in their homeland.

The years have ushered in many changes, said Karnius and her husband Al, who served as president on and off for 19 years. Of the 40 members who founded the society, only they remain.

"I never thought it would be around this long," said Angela Karnius with a chuckle, her eyes sweeping the hall where costumed folk dancers will soon perform and old friends will dine. "Thank God we started young."

And as more Lithuanians come into the area and work to establish lives and families here, Karnius hopes they will make time to preserve their culture.

"My desire is for the new immigrants, the younger people coming into St. Petersburg, to join the club and in their own way uphold the traditions."

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