Lithuanian Hall

17 St. George Avenue, Norwood

In the late 1800s, a significant Lithuanian population resided in South Boston. By 1900, some of them had moved to Norwood—particularly South Norwood, a part of town with a lot of multifamily, working-class, and tenement-like housing. According to historian Patricia Fanning, heavily immigrant, polyglot South Norwood was “like a foreign country” to Norwood’s more established residents, its inhabitants “increasingly viewed as the source of social problems and political unrest.” One institution that was highly associated with these negative views was Lithuanian Hall.

17 St. George Avenue, the former Lithuanian Hall, March 2023. Photo by Joseph Nevins.

The venue was established due to political differences among Lithuanians in Norwood. In 1905, members of the community formed a mutual aid society, but divisions soon emerged—between individuals who had strong religious (Catholic) beliefs and socialist “freethinkers.” In response, and at a time when Lithuanians on the other side of the ideological divide were discussing the building of a Lithuanian Catholic church in Norwood, freethinkers decided to build a meeting place of their own. Lithuanian Hall, that meeting place, opened in November 1914.

Groups ranging from the Lithuanian Literary Society to the Norwood Lithuanian Men’s Glee Club took advantage of the new site. In March 1915, Lithuanian Hall hosted its first wedding: a Jewish ceremony as Norwood’s small Jewish community did not have a temple. Soon thereafter, socialist and radical political figures began to visit Norwood as part of their lecture tours, with Lithuanian Hall often their location of choice.

In the context of World War I, matters in Norwood took an ugly nativist turn. In February 1917, two months before the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, the Town of Norwood established a General Committee for Public Safety, a subcommittee of which was known as the Night Riders. Made up of armed young men, the “Riders” patrolled the town to guard against sabotage of public property and the area’s industrial infrastructure. Norwood residents of German descent became targets of harassment. Anti-German sentiment overlapped with efforts to repress leftist and other radical movements, with the immigrant community often the focus of condemnation. Lithuanian Hall, as both “foreign” and leftist, was thus doubly suspect.

The aftermath of the war saw continuing tensions between socialists and non-socialists in Norwood. These tensions dovetailed with the outbreak of a “Red Scare” nationally, one that resulted in raids by federal authorities in immigrant areas across the United States, with South Norwood being one of the targets. Authorities arrested 12 Norwood residents, all of them men of Lithuanian descent. One of the arrests took place in Lithuanian Hall.*

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lithuanian Hall continued to be an occasional site for radical politics. In 1927, for example, a very large meeting took place in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. At the same time, the venue expanded the types of activities—from athletic events and weddings to movies—that it hosted; it even became the home for a Sons of Italy lodge. In the 1930s and 1940s, the second floor became a music and dance venue known as the Butterfly Ballroom.

Over the decades, many of the most dedicated members of Lithuanian Hall passed on. Relatedly, the radical politics associated with the venue declined. In 1980, Lithuanian Hall was sold and turned into a community residence for adults with Down’s syndrome. Sometime in the 2000s, the building was sold again and redeveloped. It is now home to condominiums.

Getting there:

An MBTA bus that runs between Forest Hills Station (Orange Line) and Walpole passes within one block of the site.

To learn more:

Patricia J. Fanning, “From ‘Bolshevik Hall’ to Butterfly Ballroom: The Assimilation of South Norwood’s Lithuanian Hall,” in Peter Benes (ed.), Life in the Streets and Commons, 1600 to the Present (The Dublin Series for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings 2005), Boston: Boston University, 2005: 109-123.

Patricia J. Fanning, Influenza and Inequality: One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918, Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.

Norwood Historical Society website.

To learn more about South Norwood, see the entry on Morrill Memorial Library, South Norwood Branch.

*For more on the Palmer Raids, see the entry on “Socialist Hall” in the Lowell section of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

Morrill Memorial Library, South Norwood Branch

1159 Washington Street, Norwood

On November 9, 1951, FBI agents visited the South Norwood branch of the Morrill Memorial Library to speak with Mary Knowles, a librarian. They asked about individuals she knew and their involvement in the Communist Party. Knowles declined to answer their questions.

Mary Knowles was of interest because she had worked for a time as a secretary at the Samuel Adams School for Social Studies, a Communist Party-affiliated institution in Downtown Boston. Some months after the school was forced to close in the spring of 1948, the City of Norwood’s public library hired Knowles for its South Norwood branch.

Immediately following the FBI’s visit, Knowles informed her supervisor, Edna Phillips, of what had transpired and offered to step down from her position. Phillips, however, saw no reason for Knowles to resign and encouraged her to stay on.

Mary Knowles (center) at the South Norwood Branch of the Morrill Memorial Library with a young patron (date unknown). Edna Phillips is in the left corner of the room. Photo courtesy of the Morrill Memorial Library.

The issue would have likely died there had not an undercover FBI agent identified Ms. Knowles as a member of the Communist Party in testimony before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (also known as the Jenner Committee) on May 6, 1953. This would lead to the Committee issuing a subpoena for Knowles.

When Mary Knowles went before the Jenner Committee, she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer its questions, including one regarding whether she was or had been a member of the Communist Party. She only supplied her name and address and information about her employment at the library. In a brief statement, Knowles asserted that “attempts to impose uniformity of thought or religion by using the weapons of economic pressure or unwanted publicity … is a deep threat to our liberties and the strength of the United States.” Her appearance before the committee lasted less than five minutes.

In a context of “Red Scare” politics, Knowles became a target of anti-Communist individuals and organizations in and around Norwood. On May 9, 1953, Norwood library trustees suspended Knowles from her position pending the results of her own appearance before the Jenner Committee. On June 1, less than two weeks after her testimony, the trustees, bowing to pressure from Daughters of the American Revolution and an entity called the Community Chest, which threatened to withhold funding for the library, fired Mary Knowles from her position by a 4-0 vote. (The junior high school classmates of Ms. Knowles’s son, Jonathan, responded by electing him president of their class.)

“South Norwood was perhaps a fitting venue” for what befell Mary Knowles, according to historian Allison Hepler. “On January 2, 1920, South Norwood got swept up in the first American ‘Red Scare,’” she writes in reference to what became known as the Palmer Raids.* “Raids, generally aimed at the nation’s urban immigrant groups and led by police and Justice Department officials in twenty-three states, netted twelve men from South Norwood, who were arrested ‘on suspicion of being Reds or members of the Communist Party.’”

South Norwood Branch of the Morrill Memorial Library (date unknown). Photo courtesy of the Morrill Memorial Library.

The South Norwood branch library, which occupied a storefront, opened in 1941, in response to the desires of area residents and the South Norwood Merchant’s Association. At the time, according to Hepler, South Norwood was “the industrial and immigrant heart of the town.” Much of the population of the area, also known as “the Flats,” was comprised of “first- and second-generation Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Syrians who provided the labor for the town’s paper, roofing, and building factories.”

The site on 1159 Washington Street remained the home of the South Norwood branch until 1971 when a new facility, located a few blocks south on Washington Street, took its place. Only five years later, however, the South Norwood branch closed for good for reasons of cost and the duplication of services, explains Norwood historian Patricia Fanning. Today, the building in which Mary Knowles worked as a librarian still stands. The former home of the South Norwood branch library now houses a dog grooming salon.

As for Mary Knowles, she moved to Pennsylvania where she found a job at the William Jeanes Memorial Library in what is today Whitemarsh Township. Ms. Knowles remained employed there as a librarian until her retirement in 1979.

1159 Washington Street, March 2023. The storefront on the right side of the building housed the South Norwood Branch. Photo by Joseph Nevins.

Getting there:

An MBTA bus that runs between Forest Hills Station (Orange Line) and Walpole passes by the site.

To learn more:

Allison Hepler, McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018.

Patricia J. Fanning, Keeping the Past: Norwood at 150, Staunton, Virginia: American History Press, 2021.

Patricia J. Fanning, Norwood: A History, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

E. V. McLean, “Suspended Librarian May Face Jenner Committee,” Norwood Messenger, May 12, 1953: 1-2.

Nancy Sullivan, “The Plymouth Meeting Controversy,” blog of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, March 9, 2017.

“Norwood Woman Remains Silent on Red Charges,” Norwood Messenger, May 26, 1953: 1+.

“Trustees Fire So. Norwood Librarian on 4 to 0 Vote,” Norwood Messenger, June 2, 1953: 1+.

*Regarding the Palmer Raids, see the entry for Socialist Hall (in Lowell) in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

Related site:

Residence of Mary Knowles during her time in Norwood, 159 Cottage Street.


Thanks to the staff at the Morrill Memorial Library for rendering myriad forms of assistance and for allowing us to peruse its archives related to Mary Knowles and the South Norwood Branch.