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Lithuanian group finds its roots, ‘local Mother Teresa’

Created date

November 23rd, 2010

Marilyn Pula clearly remembers her frequent visits to see her Lithuanian grandmother in Shrewsbury, Mass. The pair would watch American soap operas, communicating in their respective languages, and filling one another in on missed episodes. We understood each other perfectly, says Pula, who is half Lithuanian but grew up in the U.S. and never learned to speak Lithuanian. Those memories are still vivid for Pula, who lives at Linden Ponds. They were with her when she met a Lithuanian couple and another woman of the same heritage in her community, prompting her to ask how many others of Lithuanian descent lived at the Hingham community. Linden Ponds residents bring with them an amalgam of memories and heritages, many of which are celebrated through organized groups include Irish, Italian, and African-American and Friends clubs.

Starting with a bang

Late last summer, Pula combed the community directory, posted a notice to the community s bulletin board, and asked the right questions around her neighborhood. Her investigations resulted in a list of 13 people she suspected to be of Lithuanian descent. She sent each one a letter explaining that she was interested in connecting with others over dinner to discuss their heritage. Pula received responses from everyone she contacted and arranged a dinner for them in one of Linden Ponds private dining rooms. The Lithuanian Heritage Group was born. They just came in that first night with a bang, Pula says of the group s enthusiasm. Though she asked them only to bring themselves, people arrived with maps and historical information, sharing what they knew of their ancestors country and memories of Lithuanian family members.

Family history

Lithuania is a country about the size of West Virginia, between Latvia and Russia. Its land was occupied by the USSR during World War II, a time Algimantas (Al) Gustaitis remembers firsthand. Gustaitis, who also lives at Linden Ponds, was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania, and experienced the country s occupation by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany at different times. His father, director of a radio station, and his mother, a stage actress, were considered intellectuals and therefore targets of the Soviets, so the family fled in 1944. The three spent five years in southern Germany along the Swiss border before they were permitted to move to the U.S. Gustaitis and his parents landed in South Boston, where they remained. Today Gustaitis still speaks, reads, and writes Lithuanian. He is treasurer of the Cape Cod and Boston chapters of the Lithuanian American Community, Inc. and is a board member of the organization s national executive committee. He also publishes an annual bilingual newsletter for the Cape Cod chapter. Despite Gustaitis involvement with the larger Lithuanian groups, he says he was pleased to join the Lithuanian Heritage Group at Linden Ponds when approached by Pula and others. They were so proud of their having Lithuanian heritage and backgrounds, and even though I m a full-blooded Lithuanian it was fun to be in a group with all of them and share more of the information about Lithuania, he says.

Energetic events

The energy of that first Linden Ponds dinner meeting prompted the group to plan an outing to a Lithuanian restaurant in South Boston, for which they rented a bus and brought family and friends for a joyous meal of traditional favorites, including an abundance of potato pancakes. That brought back lots of memories for us, Pula says. While at the restaurant, Pula ventured upstairs to a Lithuanian Credit Union where she picked up a local newsletter. One item stood out to Pula: a call to help the Lithuanian Children s Relief Fund by saving postage stamps. Pula investigated further by calling the woman listed in charge, Sister Helen Ivanauskas, who Pula calls a local Mother Teresa. The Brockton, Mass.-based chapter of the relief organization collects canceled postage stamps that are then sold to collectors. The proceeds, as with numerous donated items, go to poor Lithuanian villages. Inspired by Sister Helen s work, Pula and other members of the Linden Ponds Lithuanian group organized a stamp drive, placing boxes for donations throughout their community. At the end, the group brought a 2.4 lb. bag of stamps to Sister Helen. This fall, the Lithuanian Heritage Group welcomed Sister Helen to Linden Ponds, where she spoke to a group of about 40 people, explaining her efforts to help the Lithuanian people. Last year, Sister Helen was able to make the cold winter a bit more bearable for people in Lithuania by sending 12,000 coats donated by Anton Cleaners and Jordan s Furniture. She told many stories about how she manages to satisfy the needs of the Lithuanian poor, both here and abroad, Pula says. Some were funny, some were tender, and some were awe-inspiring. Pula adds, The residents of Linden Ponds had so embraced the stamp collection last Christmas that the activity lasted all year long! This year, they hope to double their results, thanks to the inspiration of Sister Helen, our local Mother Teresa. To donate to the Lithuanian Children s Relief Fund, contact Sister Helen Ivanauskas at (508) 588-5070, extension 36.