Saints for Our Times: Lithuanian sister opened convent in Chicago

By Mary Lou Gibson

Casimira Kaupas was 17 when she left Lithuania to begin the harrowing journey to America. The year was 1897 and the Czarist government that governed Lithuania forbade any youth to leave the country. So Casimira traveled by train at night and under a canvas on a wagon filled with grain bags during the day, according to Sister Margaret Petcavage, SSC, in “Journeys,” a magazine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters.
Young Casimira, called “Kaze” by her family, was making the trip to serve as housekeeper to her brother, Anthony, a priest ministering to the Lithuanian immigrants in Scranton, Pa. Thousands of Lithuanians had immigrated to America in the late 1800s and priests were needed to minister to them in their native language. 
The family’s farm home in Ramygala, Lithuania was a secure stopover for “book smugglers,” men who secretly carried manuscripts to and from Germany to be printed in the forbidden Lithuanian language. This was dangerous work and could result in imprisonment by the Russian Cossacks. “Kaze” loved her father and admired his leadership in keeping the Lithuanian language and customs alive. She learned the importance of national identity and of nurturing her Christianity, so she heeded her parents’ wishes and went to help her brother.
It was in Scranton that Casimira saw sisters for the first time. She asked her brother who they were. He told her they were women who lived for God alone. Casimira’s prayer life was growing strong at this time, but her heart remained lonely. Overcome by homesickness, Casimira returned to Lithuania in 1901.
She was attracted to the work of the sisters she saw in Scranton, but was still unsure of what her call in life was. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian priests in Pennsylvania wanted to build schools for their youth but only if they had Lithuanian Sisters. Casimira’s brother wrote and told her of plans to establish a new congregation to be teaching sisters and asked if she would be interested. Casimira accepted an invitation to go to Ingenbohl, Switzerland to study with the Holy Cross Sisters with the plan to establish a congregation of Lithuanian sisters.
Casimira entered the novitiate of the Holy Cross Sisters in 1903. In 1905, she and two companions traveled to New York and then to Scranton where the small group was accepted into the novitiate of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She was now Sister Maria and the new Congregation of the Sisters of St. Casimir was established.
Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan of Harrisburg, Pa., sponsored the new congregation and suggested the name be that of St. Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania. The sisters began to work in the parochial schools of the region. In 1911, they established their mother house in Chicago which had a large Lithuanian population. Mother Maria was elected Superior General in 1913, an office she held for 27 years.
Over time, the sisters went to teach in many parishes across the U.S. Their service also came to include home missions in New Mexico and a health care ministry with the opening of Holy Cross Hospital in 1928 in Chicago.
Sister M. Helen, Mother Maria’s secretary, wrote that the number of sisters increased through the years and more schools were established. Mother Maria returned to Lithuania in 1920 and established a Sisterhood there at Pazaislis, near Kaunas. The relationship with the Chicago contingent lasted for about 12 years when the Pazaislis Sisters of St. Casimir chose to become independent. Mother Maria felt the loss deeply and left the Lithuanian Motherhouse never to return.
According to her sisters, Mother Maria loved celebrations, including folk dancing and comical skits. She enjoyed jokes, told humorous stories and played card games. She took a personal interest in her students and her community and visited the Sisters’ family members whenever possible. She affirmed the joy of family gatherings and often attended weddings going out of her way to greet the newlyweds.
In 1933 Mother Maria was diagnosed with a malignant condition, but made a recovery for a few years. She continued her work in new directions opening schools in New Mexico in non-Lithuanian parishes. The sisters often worked with the poorest of the poor. She encouraged the sisters to respect the children’s heritage and not try to impose a new culture upon them.
As her cancer returned, she prepared well for death and longed to see her “best friend, Jesus.” She died April 17, 1940, in the Motherhouse in Chicago.
In 2010, Mother Maria Kaupas was found to have lived a life of heroic virtue by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome and was declared “Venerable” by Pope Benedict XVI. This is the first of three major steps in the process of making a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. The next step is the beatification process and involves gathering, reviewing and authenticating miracles attributed to Mother Maria. 

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