Lithuanian immigrant Jonas Pupininkas was a breaker boy

Breaker Boy – The Separation of John Papnick

Surname Removed & Replaced

Upon his entry at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, immigration officials officially recorded Jonas Papininkas as John Papnick. John stuck by his new name. However, on occasion, John spoke or wrote of his birth name as Papanek or Pupnickas. Others recorded his name as Popikinikos or Pupinkas.

How or when John Papnick arrived in Pennsylvania from Ellis Island is not known. Perhaps Pennsylvania was the intended destination of his accompanying sponsors if he had any. Perhaps the coal mining company of his destination also arranged his overland transport. Upon his arrival in Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, John was immediately put to work in the coal mines in or around Kingston.

Simulating Lithuania

The arrival of Lithuanian immigrants in Pennsylvania that led to the founding of St. George Church in Pennsylvania 1872 and twenty years later of another St. George Church in Chicago, Illinois.

But for his work in the coal mine, John Papnick found himself among a community not too different from what he knew at home. The Lithuanian community in Pennsylvania lived in isolation from its host American community. Living exclusively among Lithuanians, John’s new community supported him by cultivating a social, political, economic, and religious structure, totally independent of Pennsylvania’s traditional history and culture.

The center of John’s new community was the neighborhood saloon where the Lithuanian language was spoken predominately and where old Lithuanian surnames were not changed or forsaken. John knew these places well.

A variety of organizations and social clubs were available to John to advance the socio-political interests of Lithuanian immigrants. Dominating John’s community was the Roman Catholic Church. A variety of Catholic congregations built churches, schools, and hospitals. Religious orders were organized to run them.

St. Mary’s Annunciation Catholic Church, 258 Zerby Ave., Kingston, Pennsylvania, torn down 2016.

John centered his new life in and around the parish of St. Mary’s Annunciation. When an immigrant like John was ready, these same institutions assisted the immigrant in moving out of Pennsylvania and forward into Lithuanian-American communities in the heart of America.

Assimilating America

If freedom in America had any meaning for John Papnick, foremost in his thoughts was his freedom to have a family again. Next would be his freedom to liberate himself from working in a coal mine. John was an excellent carver and woodworker. Perhaps he could make furniture to sell. Above those hopes, John eagerly desired to abandon his status in Pennsylvania as a temporary arrival. John was ready to make his permanent home in his new homeland of America.

Marriage photo of John Papnick and Agnes Levulis, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, about 1918.

Around 1917-18, John married Agnes Luvel. She was another Lithuanian immigrant, presumed to have been born in Vilnius. It is reasonable to assume that Agnes Luvel’s surname was altered by immigration officials, as was John’s. A likely Lithuanian root of her name was Levulis.

Agnes arrived in Boston harbor in the company of a sister and her Russian husband. Her sister didn’t like America. They returned to Europe shortly after their arrival. As the years passed, Agnes and her sister wrote letters to one another. As more years passed, the sister had less and less to say about their different lives. In time, the letters stopped. Agnes never heard from her sister again.

Also accompanying Agnes to America was a cousin named Rose Zack (probably Zachery). Rose settled nearby in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Other Luvel and Levulis family members ultimately settled in the state of Michigan.

To commemorate their new life together, John built a new chest of drawers for Agnes. Drawing upon his woodworking craftsman skills learned in his boyhood, John hand carved each drawer meticulously. The extra drawers of this hope chest would be needed for the family John and Agnes expected soon would come.

New Family

The first child born to John and Agnes Levulis Papnick was a girl named Nellie, born in 1918. Nellie Papnick arrived in late November in Kingston. She was baptized in St. Mary’s church. How much longer John and Agnes stayed in Kingston beyond Nellie’s baptism is unknown. New family life was beckoning. Before their next child Juliana arrived in January of 1920, John and Agnes moved to the Bridgeport neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago, Illinois. There, a larger community of Lithuanians awaited them.

New Church

Bridgeport is an old working-class community in Chicago. Its original name was Hardscrabble. When a tributary of the Chicago River established a port and built a bridge connecting Hardscrabble to Chicago, Hardscrabble became Bridgeport. Unto today, the neighborhood remains working-class, occupied by the latest immigrant wave arriving to embrace the American heartland.

 “According to 1910 data, Chicago had about 500 Lithuanian business establishments, including: 180 bars and saloons, 90 grocery stores, 33 barbershops, 17 clothing stores, 14 trucking and taxi companies, 10 print shops, 11 miscellaneous stores, 10 photographer studios, etc. As they prospered, the number of educated and professional Lithuanians increased. By 1916 there were 40 Lithuanian physicians, 10 lawyers, 25 each newspaper editors and publishers, 120 priests and 30 bankers, as well as about 3,000 shopkeepers, 2,500 owners of beer halls, and 10,000 tradesmen and skilled workers.”

Vilnews, “Lithuanian Immigration to the United States”

In Bridgeport, A. Olszewskis operated a Lithuanian immigration agency at 3252 S. Halsted Street. A couple of blocks away at 3249 S. Morgan Street, another agency was operated by J.M. Tananevice. These agencies provided services to assist immigrants of Lithuanian descent like John and Agnes seeking to settle in Chicago, and in Bridgeport specifically.

St. George Catholic Church at 33rd & Lituanica Streets in Bridgeport, constructed in 1893 by Lithuanian immigrants. Lituanica Street formerly was Auburn Street. The renaming of the street reflected the recognition of Bridgeport’s Lithuanian community. St. George Church was torn down in 1990. Its altar, stained glass windows, and other artifacts were sent to a new Catholic church under construction in Lithuania.

St. George Catholic Church attracted a large Lithuanian population to Bridgeport. In 1893, immigrants built the impressive cathedral in the Gothic tradition well remembered from Vilnius. The nuns of St. Casimir, whose order was founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania by Maria Kaupas, established and taught the school at St. George parish. The school was constructed in the image and tradition of the school Lithuanians built previously in Scranton at St. Joseph church. St. George’s grammar school accommodated 600 students with a meeting auditorium that could seat 1500. Young Nellie, Juliana, and Johnny Papnick received their elementary education here, as did Nellie’s children in later decades.

Wishing to establish themselves as American-born, Nellie, Juliana, and Johnny adopted new American names for themselves. Nellie became Elaine Magdalen Papnick. Juliana became Leona Papnick, called Lee. Johnny, originally named for his father, adopted the name of Patrick Papnick, called Pat.

The new Lithuanian school constructed at St. George Parish in Chicago (R) is a direct reflection of an earlier school built by Lithuanians in Scranton at St. Joseph Parish (L).

John Papnick was likely lured first to Chicago by Illinois coal mining companies who advertised in Pennsylvania for experienced miners to work in Illinois mines. When John arrived with Agnes and daughter Nellie to St. George Parish in Bridgeport, a better employment opportunity presented itself. Already suffering chronically from the coal dust ingested in his lungs, John never would have to work in the coal mines again.

The Wrigley factory located at 3535 S Ashland in Chicago, 1933. Constructed In 1911, the plant closed in 2005. The first job of Elaine Papnick was as an assembly line worker making gum at Wrigley. Nellie despised the job for its boredom and tediousness. Not to mention the fact, someone always was looking over her shoulder. The bright girl, who was motivated to self-learn to skip grades in school, didn’t like that.

John found himself a job in the Wrigley Chewing Gum factory. In the Depression-era, John was a conscientious and excellent employee. As his family grew, John rented a spacious three-bedroom apartment in a new brick building at 3139 S. Emerald Avenue. John never missed more than one month’s work during his decades of employment with Wrigley.

Displaced Persons

Agnes Levulis Papnick afer her separation from John Papnick
Agnes Levulis Papnick, cooking a Sunday meal following Mass. To treat grandchildren, Agnes always provided sparkling strawberry pop.

The Wrigley company provided John’s family a steady and comfortable living. John bought Agnes a wood-burning stove manufactured by iron-works. Agnes mastered the behemoth, producing their favorite Lithuanian meals of kugele or potato pancakes. Nellie developed a taste and fondness for herring. Agnes also mastered her new Singer sewing machine. A wardrobe of handmade dresses and clothing attired Agnes, Nellie, and Juliana. With a payment plan, John also bought Agnes a new mink coat.

At this time, more immigrants displaced from Lithuania arrived in Bridgeport. Unlike John, some possessed a measure of means to buy homes and grow businesses. The parish of St. George was more richly supported than most Lithuanian churches in America. The family of John Papnick became part of Bridgeport’s middle class.

With the advent of World War II, Bridgeport’s Lithuanian community swelled with overflow from the refugee internment camps of Europe and the United States. Refugees of the war were known as DPs – displaced persons. The DP influx put a strain on Bridgeport, but no one was unwelcome or turned away.

In this time, what went wrong for John that broke apart his family can only be surmised.

Marriage Separation

John’s children began to leave home to start lives of their own.

Bud and Elaine James suffered their own separation
Wedding photo of Elaine Magdalen Papnick and Harry Francis “Bud” James Sr. Elaine later donated the white silk wedding dress she made by hand to a new Catholic Church in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri in need of priestly vestments.

Before World War II began, Nellie married Bud James of Westmont, Illinois. After their first child nicknamed Buddy was born, Bud went to war. When he returned they had a second child, Mary Lee. When their third child Peggy was born, who soon died of leukemia, Bud and Elaine legally separated. They never divorced. Bud faithfully supported his children and Elaine throughout her lifetime. Neither ever married again.

Next, John’s son Johnny joined the Army. When he returned from the war, he became a welder, married, and started a family of his own. As a welder, Johnny constructed skyscrapers of the Chicago skyline and Chicago’s famed skyway bridge connecting the City of the Broad Shoulders to Indiana.

Leona Papnick's separation from family lead to a career in travel
Bridesmaid and sister Leona “Lee” Papnick in the handmade gown she made for Elaine’s wedding.

Juliana, who now went by the name of Leona or Lee, set her eyes on a glamorous career in travel. She became a stewardess for the Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad and later the City of San Francisco of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In one derailment, Leona saved the live’s of passengers. On another occasion, she attended former President Herbert Hoover when he suffered a seizure. Hoover publicly acknowledged Leona and thanked her in the national press.

Leona advanced to operating gift shops on the passenger liners S.S. President Cleveland and S.S. President Wilson of the American President Lines, traveling between San Francisco, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and the Orient. She sent back discovered treasures to family in Bridgeport that became family heirlooms. Later, she operated gift shops onboard the S.S. America and the S.S. United States of the United States Lines, where she met her future husband from Great Britain, the extremely handsome James Jeffrey Giles. Jim was a steward in the First Class lounge and a favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The former King of England always called upon Jim to attend him and his wife when sailing. Lee and Jim started their own family and had two sons, James and Jeffrey.

Meanwhile, as the children of John Papnick left home, life between John and Agnes unraveled. Agnes was left to become a cleaning woman in high rise business offices in downtown Chicago.

“Watch Out for the Machines”

John had just delivered a toy chest he had constructed proudly for his grandson Buddy James. His daughter Elaine, though, was upset. It was morning. John had been drinking. The stench permeated all of John’s clothing.

As Elaine argued with her father, John picked up the three-year-old. He rubbed his unshaven face into the boy’s smooth cheeks. He and Buddy giggled and laughed. With Buddy in John’s arms, John walked out the door.

“Watch out for the machines!” By the mid-20th century, trolleys from the Victorian era still serviced many streets of Chicago.

Stepping onto the bricks of Wallace Street, John saw a trolley approaching almost a block away. Haunted by his boyhood as a trapper in the Pennsylvania coal mines, John pulled Buddy back. “Watch out for the machines!” he said. They waited for the trolley to pass on the rails before them. They crossed the empty street and entered a tavern. John ordered a beer and a shot of whiskey. The bartender poured Buddy a Coke.

Buddy never saw his grandfather for years after, not until John’s funeral. On the morning John died, Buddy learned for the first time where his grandfather lived. John died in a room he occupied above one of Bridgeport’s neighborhood saloons. In John’s lifetime, the breaker boy became a broken man in neighborhood saloons.

Trapper boys were stationed to open and close trap doors through which coal-laden carts traveled. The coal mine experience of John Papnick, and those like him, led to the passing of child labor laws in America.
“Watch out for the machines!” A greaser boy, always under the vigilant eye of the overseer, directed the coal-laden carts driven by the weight of the load, inertia, and the force of the greaser boy alone.

Dominus Vobiscum

John Papnick lay in his casket, his father’s watch-chain threaded through a suit this workman never wore when he lived. On his last birthday, John was 61. The funeral director Mr. Anthony wheeled John’s casket out of the funeral parlor into the middle of Lituanica Avenue. Atop the casket lay two flower bouquets compassionately contributed by Mr. Anthony. Left behind was a small visitor register. Few names or signatures were entered. Many of the entries were unknown to John’s family. Walking behind John’s casket were his daughter Elaine and her two small children, Buddy and Mary Lee.

The frieze of St. George slaying the dragon, above the main entrance to St. George Catholic Church in Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois

Automobile traffic was stopped in all directions for John. The small procession turned north and proceeded 25 feet to 33rd Place, where it turned west. At the iron gates to St. George Catholic Church, John’s casket was turned to face the church. Beneath the stone frieze of St. George slaying the dragon, this knight of Lithuania entered church one last time. All of John’s dragons now were left behind him or felled.

The main altar of St. George Catholic Church, Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois, under a statue of its patron protector in America, St. George.

In the house of the Lord, John Papnick was most welcome, although John was not a frequent visitor. John’s casket rolled up the long aisle to the main altar, passing a scattering of old Lithuanian immigrant women wrapped in their babushkas, praying as they always did every morning. Mass for John’s repose was celebrated at the main altar alone. Four other altars stood silent. Except for Elaine, her children, and the prayerful women, the numerous pews were entirely empty.

The huge organ of St. George church resounded triumphantly throughout the cathedral – as if John was God’s only son.

Within two hours, John arrived at his final resting place in St. Casimir Cemetery. He lays beside his bride Agnes and aside Elaine’s daughter Peggy, John’s granddaughter who was isolated in a hospital for three years as she painfully died of leukemia. Years later, Elaine’s ashes would rest beside them all.

The separation of Jonas Pupininkas
Jonas Pupininkas, aka John Papnick 1886-1951

Jonas Pupininkas – knight of St. George, breaker boy, broken man, separated in life from all he had known – was united in the company of the Lord for eternity.

The roles of anthracite women of Pennsylvania coal country is discussed by the Luzerne County Historical Society. The presentation starts at 11:38 mins.

Leona Papnick Giles – My Summer Mother

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Monday May 9th, 2022
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