On the wall of the Lithuanian Bakery, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church burns.
In 1920, fire ravaged the church, which served as the place of worship for Omaha’s Lithuanian immigrant community. In 1932, the Rev. Joe Jusevich (born Juozas Jusevicius) became pastor, restored the church and pulled the parish out of financial ruin.
In the years following World War II, “Father Joe,” as he was known, shepherded countless Lithuanian families from their home country to Omaha.
Today, Father Joe smiles at onlookers from a corner on the bakery wall. He shares the wall with the Iron Curtain, a map of the Baltic countries, a stork and other images that tell the story of Omaha’s Lithuanian community.
The mural at 5217 S. 33rd Ave. is one of two completed works done as part of the South Omaha Mural Project. The effort, a collaboration of the Nebraska Arts Council, the South Omaha Business Association and others, aims to produce 10 murals, each representing the cultural traditions of a different ethnic group that settled in South Omaha.
This month, project organizers held meetings with the area’s Mexican community for a mural planned for the El Mercado building, 4913 S. 25th St. At the meetings, community members share their individual and family stories, giving artists material to consider for the upcoming painting. The last meeting will be at 3 p.m. Saturday in the South Omaha Library, 2808 Q St.
“I want to get as many people as possible in that room,” said Hugo Zamorano, one of the lead artists for the Mexican mural.
Once the artists decide on a final design, the community will be invited to paint the mural during Cinco de Mayo celebrations later this spring. Zamorano and others will help perfect the image, which will be unveiled on June 11.
Richard Harrison, lead organizer and self-styled “chief daydreamer” on the mural project, said the effort is about celebrating the diverse set of cultures that populate South Omaha. So far, in addition to the Lithuanian “Sieninis Paveikslas” mural, the project completed a “Magic City” mural at 24th and N Streets in 2014.
The painting illustrates South Omaha’s history as a cultural melting pot when it was an independent city, said Gary Kastrick, research consultant with the project and former South High history teacher. Before it was annexed in 1915, the area was known as the “Magic City” for its rapid growth. Immigrants from around the world flocked to South Omaha to take up jobs in the Stockyards.
In the mural, spray painted on the red brick wall, two women’s faces — young and old — bookend the scene. Images of streetcars, music and dancing fill the shaded spaces in between. But the painting doesn’t shy away from the neighborhood’s darker stories — in the top right corner, the figure of an ice cream vendor pays homage to Gilberto Hernandez-Vazquez, who was shot and killed in 2012 while pushing his cart through the neighborhood.
The upcoming Mexican mural will be part of a series of four paintings in South Omaha’s Plaza de la Raza area. Three more murals will focus on the Omaha’s Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran communities, Harrison said.
Harrison, who paints murals for a living, also is working with the area’s Polish community to begin a mural, which he hopes will be completed next year. Another, celebrating the Irish community, is also on the list.
The project also was funded by an Omaha mayor’s grant, the City of Omaha historical grant and private donors. The series does not include the Metropolitan Community College South Omaha Mural Project, which was painted in 2014.
Each mural beautifies the area, Harrison said, but murals also serve a practical purpose, limiting graffiti on South Omaha buildings.
Dan Mackevicius, whose family owns the Lithuanian Bakery, said the mural has reduced graffiti — on the mural side of the building. The family still sees occasional graffiti on the other walls. Reaction to the mural from customers has been positive.
Mackevicius’ own grandmother, Stefanija, who started the bakery in 1963, makes an appearance on the mural with her bread and pastries.
The murals, Harrison said, are meant not only to beautify, but also to help individuals and families recognize that they’re part of a long, rich history. They’re meant to be personal and true, Zamorano said, cobbled together from individual experiences, not simply the prevailing narrative of each group’s history.
“With murals,” he said, “people that usually don’t have a say in what goes on, they have a say.”