[lg policy] Latvian church mixes old and near Philadelphia
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Aug 12 14:54:12 UTC 2011
Latvian church mixes old and near Philadelphia
August 11, 2011|By Alia Conley, Inquirer Staff Writer
Before church, the congregation chatters in Latvian. Sveiks, a word
for hello, echoes around the entry room, decorated with Latvian vases,
paintings, and candles. At the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of
St. John in Newtown Square, about 20 members head into the hexagonal
sanctuary with seven rows of pews on either side. Sunlight pours in
from the small stained-glass windows - two on each side of one long
pane that extends to the ceiling. The colorful panes on the right side
represent the Old Testament, and on the left, the New. A
maroon-and-white Latvian flag sits on the right side of the altar, an
American flag on the left. Old and new. Past and present.
The oldest Latvian Lutheran church in the United States - celebrating
118 years - still conducts its Sunday service in Latvian, the native
language of the first immigrant members from the Baltic state. Like
many churches, St. John's must grapple with low attendance and an
aging membership, but the connection of Latvian roots and Lutheran
religion keeps the congregation strong.
"Even if I know how to speak English, I still enjoy it more if it's in
Latvian," said Ilga Veisbergs, a member for 60 years who lives 30
minutes from the church. "I could go in my neighborhood to English
church, but somehow it doesn't get to your heart as close as when you
hear it in Latvian."
Most of the 166 members are middle-aged or older. Ninety percent can
speak Latvian, said member Silvija Mezgailis. She heads the Latvian
Saturday school during the academic school year. Held in the parsonage
next door, the school teaches 20 youths about culture, language,
history, and geography. Some congregation members drive for up to an
hour to attend the church in Delaware County. Veisbergs, 83, came on
Sunday with her daughter Linda Palmisano to the English service, held
every two months.
Palmisano doesn't speak Latvian, so the English service allows the two
to worship in a language both understand. About 30 people attend the
Latvian service, 70 on special Sunday events, and 100 during Christmas
and Easter holidays.Founded in 1893, St. John's added English services
in 1930. Worship at that time was held in a rowhouse on 47th Street in
West Philadelphia, but a steady stream of post-World War II immigrants
caused the membership to swell to nearly 800. In 1967, members moved
to a larger church down the street, at 47th and Cedar.
"In the beginning, when immigrants came here, it was unbelievably
important - a source of information," said Mezgailis, 55. "There's a
spiritual piece, but also, where are there jobs, apartments, who's
doing what. It was the hub of information where people met."
As U.S.-born children grew up, married non-Latvians, and moved to
other cities, the church saw a decrease in attendance. No longer was
the church a core in a neighborhood of Latvians. Latvian people lived
all over Philadelphia and the suburbs. According to the latest census
estimates, 2,500 Latvians live in the five-county area.
Now, members gather to see friends, go to monthly Bible study, and
brush up on the language at a piece of Latvia in the United States.
"It's your chance to get together and speak Latvian. How many chances
do you have to do that?" Mezgailis said. "Even though we're scattered
physically, when people come together, there's a strong sense of
community, a feeling of being tight."
The congregation moved to a small building on five acres in Newtown
Square in 1992 and built a sanctuary in 2000. Today, the church still
has a piece of art from the old rowhouse - a T-shape painting of Jesus
created by Latvian artist Augustus Annus, said Mezgailis. St. John's
is one of 59 congregations of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America, with churches in the United States, Canada, and South
America. Membership has decreased since its peak of 17,000 in 1996 to
10,950 in 2007, according to the Association of Religion Data
Pastor Ieva Dzelzgalvis isn't concerned about the church's funding or
future. She said the church has a balanced budget, and attendance has
been stable during her five years at St. John's. "I don't worry at
all. We do what we know how to do to the best of our abilities and we
trust the Lord," said Dzelzgalvis, 66. "It's still alive, and people
are still interested in Latvian things. That says a lot."
On Sunday, the Lagzdins sisters, Kristina, 26, and Erika, 23, were the
only ones under 40 attending church. They sometimes join their father,
who is a member. Kristina Lagzdins said she doesn't mind seeing her
father's friends, to catch up and practice the language. But she noted
the disconnect with religion and young people. "My generation's not
into church," she said. "We see each other at other Latvian events and
At the English service Sunday, the organ nearly drowned out the faint
voices singing the English hymns. After church, there's brunch in the
adjoining room - ham and cream cheese on bagels. Not exactly the
typical sauerkraut-and-sausage Latvian cuisine, Mezgailis joked. A
circle of 10 members clasped hands and said a blessing in Latvian.
"Good appetite to everybody," translated Dzelzgalvis.
Holding a bouquet of flowers as a present, Ruta Ore led the group in
the Latvian version of "The Birthday Song" to celebrate Inta Vilks'
Everyone chimed in, singing louder than in church, their voices
booming, smiles on their faces.
"Latvians are a singing nation," said Austra Mezaraups, 82, who got
married in the church in 1951.
Veisbergs added, "We sing and sing wherever we go. We love to sing."
The small group stayed about an hour. They ate, laughed, and, most
important, spoke Latvian.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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