Geographic Origins

The Republic of Lithuania is on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Latvia, Belarus and Poland. Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are known as the Baltic States.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Jonas Vanagas, a Lithuanian Displaced Person who arrived here in 1949, has traced South Australia’s early Lithuanian settlers. In 1841 the Lithuanian-born Varno family, consisting of parents, a son and two daughters, arrived in South Australia on the ship Skjold in a group of 275 settlers from Prussia. Most of these people, including the Varno family, settled in Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills.

The Lithuanian Encyclopedia notes that, between 1888 and 1898, 20 to 30 Lithuanians worked in a glass factory in Adelaide. They were said to have had a small church and a hall and to have maintained some community life.

A number of Lithuanians arrived in Adelaide in 1930. They came from England, where they had resided since the beginning of the First World War. These people were unable to find work in South Australia’s severely depressed economic climate, so they moved on, probably to Sydney or Broken Hill.

At the beginning of the Second World War Lithuania was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Army. Lithuanians suffered oppression and mass deportations to Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled the country. Approximately 65,000 Lithuanians reached Western Europe. In 1945 they were among several million refugees sheltering in Displaced Persons camps. The International Refugee Organisation arranged for approximately 10,000 Lithuanian Displaced Persons to come to Australia. They arrived in ships that berthed at Fremantle, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. The Lithuanian Displaced Persons were transported to Commonwealth Immigration Centres including those at Bonegilla, Victoria, and Bathurst, in New South Wales. They waited for postings to places of work. Like other DPs, Lithuanians were engaged by the Australian government in two-year unskilled employment contracts.

The first Lithuanian DPs reached Adelaide on 12 January 1948. The 43 arrivals were all single men. They were employed by the Engineering and Water Supply Department and were housed in tents at Bedford Park. By the end of 1948 there were 100 Lithuanian DPs in South Australia. In all, 1,500 arrived. The men were employed as coal miners at Leigh Creek; in a salt processing plant at Price; in the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill at Lobethal; in the forestry industry at Nangwarry in the state’s far South-East; on South Australia’s railways; at the Woomera Rocket Range; and at the General Motors Holden, Chrysler and Philips factories in the metropolitan area. Women were employed as domestics in hospitals and at a fruit canning factory on Port Road. Initially Lithuanian South Australians settled mainly in the suburbs of Royal Park, Seaton, Woodville and Edwardstown.

Today Lithuanian South Australians are employed in a range of occupations. They are scattered throughout Adelaide and South Australia.

Community Activities

The Lithuanians who arrived in South Australia as DPs after the Second World War quickly became involved in maintaining and promoting their cultural identity. In 1948, the year that the first Lithuanian DPs arrived in South Australia, Jurgis Glusauskas began publishing a Lithuanian language newspaper, the first in Australia. At the time Glusauskas was working under his two-year contract with the Australian Government as a coal miner at Leigh Creek.

The first organised gathering of Lithuanian South Australians was held in the second half of 1948. The Catholic Immigration Office held an afternoon tea for Lithuanian DPs at Saint Francis Xavier’s Hall in Wakefield Street, Adelaide. The hall was to become the first centre for Lithuanian community life in South Australia.

Shortly after this, Holy Mass in the Lithuanian language was celebrated by Father P Jatulis at Saint Joseph’s Church in Pirie Street. A Lithuanian language school began in Saint Joseph’s Hall in November 1948.

On 16 February, 1949, a group of Lithuanian South Australians met to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the declaration of Lithuanian independence in 1918. Following this meeting a committee was formed to supervise the community’s affairs. The community founded a choir, folk dancing group, sports club, theatre group, and a committee for cultural activities, boy scouts, girl guides and a number of smaller clubs.

A Lithuanian male choir was formed by Vaclovas Simkus in 1949. It gradually came to include female choristers. By 1957, 50 men and women were singing in the Lituania mixed voice choir. Lituania performed for the wider community at events such as the Adelaide Festival.

Various people were responsible for founding the first Lithuanian folk dance group in Adelaide. Initially its instructors were temporary, because many people were uncertain where they would settle permanently. In 1953 Brone Lapsys, a gymnastics teacher and veteran dancer took over as the group’s instructor. She filled this position for 13 years.

Vytis, a Lithuanian basketball team, was founded in Adelaide in the late 1940s. It began playing in the South Australian Basketball League in 1950. One of its members played in the Australian basketball team in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

Lithuanian amateur theatre in South Australia began under the direction of E Dainius and P Rutenis in 1949. In 1950, the group was reorganised by J. Gucius, a professional director, and named Theatre Studies. Under Gucius’s direction, Theatre Studies performed the works of Chekhov, Moljear and Lithuanian playwrights. Between 1951 and 1958 Theatre Studies performed 23 plays.

Lithuanian cultural life in South Australia was not restricted to the metropolitan area. Lithuanian committees were also established in regional centres. During the late 1940s a committee was formed in Woomera. It had a choir and library of 300 Lithuanian books. This organisation sent 82 pounds to Lithuanians who were still in DP camps in Germany for Christmas in 1950.

The Adelaide Lithuanian Society was incorporated as an official body on 24 October 1955.

In 1956 Father Jatulis officially registered the Lithuanian Catholic congregation of Adelaide as Lithuanian Caritas Inc. Caritas is a Latin word meaning charity. In the same year Lithuanian Caritas bought four blocks of land at Christies Beach, and built holiday shacks there.

On 24 August 1957, the Adelaide Lithuanian Society purchased a small dilapidated church in Eastry Street, Norwood. Members of the Lithuanian community donated money and labour to restore the building. Lithuania House became the centre of Lithuanian cultural life in South Australia. It includes a Saturday school for children and Year 12 students, library, bar, dining and recreation facilities, a stage for cultural performances, conference room and a branch of the Lithuanian Co-op Credit Society, Talka.

In 1967, the Lithuanian Museum at Lithuanian House was opened by Jouzas Baciunas, President of the Lithuanian World Community. The museum was the work of Mr Jonas Vanagas, who arrived in Adelaide in 1949 and settled in Lobethal. Mr Vanagas was also the impetus behind the Lobethal Archives and Historical Museum, which opened in the grounds of Saint John’s Church, Lobethal, in 1961.

The Lithuanian Museum is devoted to material about traditional Lithuanian culture and Lithuanian South Australians. Its displays include wood carvings, folk art, textiles, ceramics, amber, Lithuanian stamps, coins and medals, coats-of-arms, national costumes, and works by Lithuanian Australian artists. It also houses an extensive archive of Lithuanian South Australian community life.

Lithuanian South Australian cultural groups have undergone a number of changes since the 1950s.

The Australian Lithuanian Executive Committee was established in Sydney in 1950 to liaise between all Lithuanian Australian communities. The committee co-ordinates the biennial Australian Lithuanian Festival held between Christmas and New Year which rotates between Australian capital cities.  

The Australian Lithuanian Cultural Society was incorporated in 1988. It participates in cultural exchanges between Lithuanian Australians and people of other backgrounds, organises exhibitions and generally promotes Lithuanian Australian arts.

In 1969, Genovaite Vasiliauskas took over as director of the Lituania mixed voice choir. She served the community in this capacity until 1989. In that year Nemyra Masiulyte Stapleton and Vytas Straukas became joint conductors. At one stage Lituania had a repertoire of over 100 Lithuanian compositions and folksongs and between 40 and 50 choristers. Lutuania has now dispersed but a mixed choir, Sypsena, with around 12 choristers is now performing.

In 1969 the Lithuanian folk dance group took the name Zilvinas. Vytas Straukas, Bruno Sabeckis and Vytas Vencius were prominent in the group at this time. In 1986 Zilvinas was re-formed as a women’s folkloric ensemble. Zilvinas is still going strong.

The Lithuanian folk dance group, Branda, was established in 1988. Branda means mature. It consisted of senior dancers who performed at Lithuanian cultural events and for the general public. Branda no longer exists; a folk-dance group called Tulpés, featuring older women, has now been formed.

In the early 1970s, Vytis basketball team amalgamated with other Baltic teams. Vytis and Estonia joined Adelaide Basketball Club, a Latvian organisation. The expanded Adelaide Basketball Club enjoyed great success throughout the 1970s and had several teams in the South Australian Basketball League until the 1990s. Vytis lives on as a sports club under the auspices of the Adelaide Lithuanian Society. Popular sports include volleyball, golf, skiing, chess and basketball.

Theatre Studies changed its name to Vaidila in 1968, the name of the pre-Christian high priests of Lithuania. Vaidila has now dispersed but in its day presented many plays for the Lithuanian communities of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

Another organisation under the Adelaide Lithuanian Society is the Moteru Sekcija women’s association.

Lithuanian South Australians have held several exhibitions in the Forum, the Migration Museum’s community access gallery.

 ‘Contemporary Lithuanian Bookplates’ was held from 2 December 1989, until 12 February 1990. This exhibition drew on the private collection of Lidija Simkus-Pocius. The miniature illustrations were the work of famed Lithuanian graphic designers from Lithuania, Poland, Canada, France, the United States and Australia. Many of them were inspired by Lithuania’s rich tradition of folklore and folk art.

‘Lithuanians Alive’ was held from 5 August until 29 October 1990, only five months after Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union on 11 March 1990. The exhibition, which explained Lithuanian history throughout the ages and described Lithuanian settlement in South Australia, was staged by the Australian Lithuanian Cultural Society in South Australia. It featured items of significance in Lithuanian culture such as amber, hand-carved wayside crosses and hand-woven national costumes. One of the exhibition’s pamphlets was prepared by students of the Adelaide Lithuanian School especially for other children.

‘Lithuanian Festivals 1950 - 2002’ was staged at the Migration Museum from December 2001 to February 2003. This was held to coincide with the 22nd Lithuanian Festival in Adelaide. The exhibition showcased a variety of activities that the Lithuanian community has continued for many years. These included scout camps, folk dancing, sport, music, art and theatre. Presented at the same time was an exhibition on Lithuanian Folk Art.  

A further exhibition entitled ‘Contemporary Lithuanian Bookplates’ was held in the Old Chapel adjacent to the Migration Museum for a week during 2012.

‘Lithuania’s Fight for Independence’ was staged by Janina Vabolis of the Australian Lithuanian Cultural Society at Old Parliament House’s ‘Speakers Corner’ during November and December 1992. The exhibition drew attention to Lithuania’s history of foreign oppression and the presence of Soviet troops long after Lithuania declared its independence on 11 March 1990.

The anniversary of the declaration of independence on 16 February 1918, is a major annual event for Lithuanian South Australians. They hold a banquet at Lithuanian House, and invite Members of Parliament who have assisted the community and leaders from other cultural groups. On the nearest Sunday Lithuanian South Australians hold a concert. Distinguished members of the community present speeches and folkloric groups perform.

Thirteen to Fourteen of June is a solemn anniversary for Lithuanians and all Baltic peoples. At this time in 1940, 60,000 Baltic men, women and children were deported from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by the Soviet authorities. They were taken to gulags, forced-labour camps, in Siberia and other Arctic regions of the Soviet Union. At the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union deported a further half a million Lithuanians.

In remembrance of these horrific events Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian South Australians annually gather for a commemorative church service at the Adelaide Town Hall, Saint Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Wakefield Street, or Saint Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, King William Road.

To acknowledge the impact of the deportations, 13 June 1992, the Baltic Council of South Australia unveiled the foundation memorial plaque on the Migration Museum’s ‘Reasons to Remember’ memorial wall.

Lithuanian South Australians actively promoted Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990. The Australian Lithuanian Federal Executive Committee petitioned the Australian parliament to acknowledge Lithuanian independence. It also staged public demonstrations.

For many years Lithuanian South Australian Catholics have been based at the same location. In September 1959, Lithuanian Catholic South Australians bought the former Hardwicke College in Third Avenue, Saint Peters. The large bluestone building had opened on 19 December 1883. It was used as a school for ‘young ladies’ until 1910. After this date it was used to store furniture and was not maintained. By 1959 it was in disrepair.

The Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide at the time, His Grace Archbishop Matthew Beovich, gave his permission for a national chapel to be established in the building. Lithuanian South Australians devoted themselves vigorously to restoring and refurbishing the premises. Work was completed in the second half of 1960. On 20 November 1960, Archbishop Beovich consecrated the chapel of Saint Casimir and Lietuviu Kataliku Centras, the Lithuanian Catholic Centre.

Since that time the centre has been enhanced by a number of improvements. Mr B Diciunas was prominent in these undertakings as the coordinator of voluntary work. In the 1960s additions were made to the existing structure, including a large hall at the back of the building.

In 1962 a national shrine was built in the centre’s gardens. A stone monument houses an urn of Lithuanian soil in a glass case. Rupintojelis, a sorrowing Christ, is on top of the memorial. Around the edifice runs the inscription Lietuva, Brangi Mano Tevyne!. It means: Lithuania, My Dear Fatherland!

The chapel of Sv Kazimieras, Saint Casimir, has been adorned by devotional paintings and sculptures created by talented members of the community since its consecration. A series of stained glass windows runs down one side of the chapel. They commemorate important events in Lithuania’s Christian history. One is in memory of King Mindaugas, Lithuania’s first king, who was baptised on 6 July 1251. Another window commemorates the 500th anniversary, in 1930, of the death of Vytautas Didysis, Vytautas the Great. In 1387 Vytautas and his cousin Jogaila, the King of Poland, converted the eastern part of Lithuania to Christianity. Another window commemorates Vytautas’s conversion of the western part of Lithuania to Christianity between 1413 and 1417. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity.

The chapel’s main window, behind the altar, celebrates Saint Casimir himself. Saint Casimir is the patron of Lithuania. His saint’s day is on 4 March. He was a Lithuanian prince who lived in the fifteenth century, a highly educated and very pious man. Saint Casimir is usually represented kneeling in prayer at a church door at night, his crown forgotten on the ground in front of him. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 26.

In 1984, Lithuania Caritas commemorated the 400th anniversary of Saint Casimir’s death. Ieva Pocius, a renowned Lithuanian South Australian sculptor, created a plaque with a representation of Saint Casimir sculpted in relief. Oak leaves, traditionally the symbol of heroes, frame the plaque’s text.

Important events throughout the year for South Australian Lithuanians include the anniversary of Lithuanian independence on 16 February; the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy on 16 November; the annual procession in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, held each May at the Pilgrim Peace Park, next to Veale Gardens in the South Parklands of Adelaide; the anniversary of King Mindaugas’s baptism on 6 July; and Lithuanian Thanksgiving Day on 8 September.

Organisations and Media

  • Australian Lithuanian Federal Executive Committee
  • Adelaide Lithuanian Executive Committee. This body represents all Lithuanian South Australians on the Australian Lithuanian Federal Executive Committee.
  • Adelaide Lithuanian Society Inc.
  • Lithuanian Caritas Inc.
  • Australian Lithuanian Cultural Society Inc.
  • Adelaide Lithuanian School
  • Lithuanian Women’s Association of S.A. Moteru Sekcija Inc.
  • Lithuanian Scouts
  • Catholic Organisation Ateitininkai
  • Folkdance group Tulpés
  • Folkdance group Zilvinas
  • Mixed Choir Sypsena
  • Muso Pastoge, Lithuanian Australian newspaper published in Sydney
  • Teviskes Aidai, Lithuanian Australian newspaper published in Melbourne
  • Lietuviu Bulietinas published fortnightly in Adelaide
  • 5EBI-FM Radio program
  • Baltic Council of South Australia
  • Baltic Women’s Association of S.A. Inc.


The 1981 census recorded 1,055 Lithuanian-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 939. 1,578 people said that they were of Lithuanian descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 779 Lithuanian-born South Australians. 1,287 people said that their mothers were born in Lithuania, and 1,619 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census there were 682 Lithuanian-born South Australians, the second generation numbered 842.

The 2001 census recorded 566 Lithuanian-born South Australians, while 1,572 people said that they were of Lithuanian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 463 Lithuanian-born South Australians, while 1,724 people said that they were of Lithuanian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 357 Lithuanian-born South Australians, while 1,608 people said that they were of Lithuanian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 272 Lithuanian-born South Australians, while 1,657 people said that they were of Lithuanian descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

Migration Museum

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